Although narcissists act superior, entitled and boastful, underneath their larger-than-life facade lies their greatest fear: That they are ordinary.

For narcissists, attention is like oxygen. Narcissists believe only special people get attention. To narcissists, ordinary people (i.e., nearly everybody around them) aren’t worthy of attention, so being ordinary would leave them unworthy of the spotlight and left to suffocate.

Narcissists also need to feel special and superior to others. To a narcissist, being ordinary is the opposite of special.

Deep down, people with narcissism are frightened, fragile people. Aging, defeat, illness or rejection can shake them to their foundation.

Sam Vaknin, a self-admitted narcissist who writes about the topic, said that when he feels insulted or deprived of attention it is like watching oneself die or disintegrating into molecules.

This is why narcissists are so intent on building and protecting their image. Without their shiny image they worry that others will see who they really are, warts and all, not who they wish to be or pretend to be.

For most narcissists, any glimpses of their flaws and facade are fleeting. The walls of narcissism are so thick, and the defense mechanisms that keep their charade in place function so rapidly, that few narcissists spend more than a fraction of a second face to face with the truth.

Like clockwork in the face of any perceived threat, narcissistic defenses take over, swooping in to attack and belittle others while inflating and reassuring a narcissist’s ego that he or she is “fairest of them all.”

Narcissists are loath to admit, let alone embrace, that being human means making mistakes, having doubts, possessing imperfections and at times feeling lonely, heartbroken, and bad about ourselves. To a narcissist, making mistakes or feeling self-doubt would mean that he or she is illegitimate, inferior or weak.

Narcissists also tend to feel personally affronted by universal truths that few of us like but most of us come to accept: We all have limitations. We all suffer losses. There will always someone better, richer or prettier. We cant always get everything we want.

Operating on emotions and instinct, narcissists live in a state of constant readiness, feeling they must spot every potential attack, take advantage of every opportunity, and win every contest.

If such an existence sounds exhausting, it is. But narcissists are experts at off-loading their exhaustion along with other difficult and unsavory aspects of their inner worlds onto those around them. They use projection, manipulation, put-downs, intimidation and bullying. That is why the people around narcissists often end up more exhausted than the narcissist.

Of course, the irony is that a truly superior person doesnt need to put others down to shore up self-esteem. Insults and ceaseless self-promotion are trademarks of people who fear that they are inferior, not superior.

Knowing all this about the narcissistic people in your life can be freeing.

Understanding the exhausting, never-ending treadmill they are on may help you have compassion for them.

Knowing their deep sense of deprivation and dread of looking bad can help you understand why they seem incapable of compassion, empathy and cooperation.

Recognizing their terror of being found out can help you understand why their narcissistic rage is triggered by seemingly the most benign of events.

Understanding narcissists’ fear of being seen as ordinary can help you try to steer clear of triggering land mines in their psyche, although there are so many triggers for narcissists it is impossible to avoid them all.

What is possible, however, is honestly asking yourself whether it is worth it and at what cost to spend a minute more than necessary around an unhealthy narcissistic person.