Mirror, mirror on the digital wall! Narcissism and personal branding (Part II): Who is the fairest freelancer of them all?

Carin-Isabel Knoop
13 min readMar 8
AI-generated picture of a woman in a blazer on her phone with a wolf in suit in the background and a man in suit on other side (prompt: Female Narcissistic personality on social media, two wolves in the background, drawn in the style of the wolf among us game by David Bogan, cinematic shot)
Who should I be (photo credit Antonio Sadaric and midjourney). Prompt: Female Narcissistic personality on social media, two wolves in the background, drawn in the style of the wolf among us game by David Bogan, cinematic shot

Part I of this series — Mirror, mirror on the digital wall! Narcissism, personal branding, and delusions of grandeur — describes core traits associated with narcissism. These can be part of a person’s winning formula — but can also damage the individual and others.

Persons with narcissistic tendencies can be very good at charming and manipulating others, especially in the early stages of any relationship. Many of us think that we would see through such behavior immediately and take consequent actions. But we often don’t and get exploited. Normal rules of behavior don’t apply to people with narcissistic behavior.

Social media and personal branding have provided an unprecedented opportunity for persons with narcissistic tendencies to flourish. This post explores the forces encouraging us to engage in these tendencies and how this affects the open talent/freelance market players in particular.

Selling ourselves: being authentic gets in the way

A solopreneur working with companies, organizations, and non-governmental organizations explains the tensions:

I had to literally force myself online to be credible to potential clients. I am still uncomfortable with it to a degree. I would rather focus on my work than spend considerable time managing my online presence but there is no way around it.

Online branding is tricky, you must be “on” all the time, and it is so easy to make rookie mistakes and come across the wrong way. It is a schizophrenic feeling; you are promoting a curated image of yourself that does not include challenges or emotional and financial struggles.

Confident online personalities appeal to businesses but many of us are under constant pressures that we cannot show. It is often a lonely world. It is discouraging at times to compete in an environment where the shallow exterior is more important than substance.

Authenticity and self-awareness can actually get in your way.

Several forces are against us. Toddlers start posing when a phone comes out. Nine-year-olds are already learning to sell themselves and their image online. By the time they are young teens, they have it down to a science. They have few boundaries, engage in self-promotion that temporarily inflates their ego, often lack genuine empathy but display fake concern, suffer from repressed insecurities, and become highly dependent on their impact on and ability to manipulate others. Then comes the time to get partners — and the manipulation games reach Olympic levels.

Perhaps as a result or as a cause, anxiety, loneliness, substance use, and depression are now words we often associate with children and young adults — a heart-breaking and horrifying reality. They learn who they need to be for others before learning who they are.

Being the product on platforms, online, and real life

An adult version of this is the freelance marketplace. In professional circles, the freelance and open talent “revolution” has focused on the benefits to individuals. Yet they too have to live with the daily tension of the disconnect between who they are and need to be to sell themselves.

They must often sell themselves on platforms and in the marketplace of ideas and reputations (like LinkedIn and the speaker circuit) and their personal lives. Personal contacts become business leads. An off-color comment at a social event could hurt business. The bragging seems most intense in the very community of open talent. Freelancers are constantly marketing themselves.

This is occurring against a backdrop of increasing stress. The financial and personal challenges of being a freelancer are exacerbated by inflationary pressures and tech layoffs which are squeezing margins. The tech layoffs flooded platforms, some might still have financial resources, but many independent workers and entrepreneurs are more vulnerable. Very few have backups or safety nets. With an estimated 1.2 billion freelancers worldwide, so 1/3 of the total global workforce, major platforms such as UpWork, Fiverr, Indeed, guru.com, etc. have huge power and leverage in the labor market.

In addition, independent workers may feel isolated with fewer brainstorming opportunities with colleagues. They also do not benefit from resources such as Employee Assistance Programs, paid time off, mental health leaves, mindfulness apps, and stress management seminars that companies increasingly provide.

As the “product,” they must present a brave, happy, in-control face and project an air of competence. Overselling skills or even cognitive capacity makes it harder to meet deadlines for the work we take on. Explains a leader and workplace futurist in our Open Assembly movement:

People do not want to tell the remote world that they are struggling because it can be risky for one’s reputation. Second, it may be met with derision. “The perception from others is that the freelancer is lucky. ‘They make more money, they get to work from home, they work less, they are their own boss.’

The freelancer doesn’t want the world to know that they do not feel as skilled, or are of a demographic that is not accepted, or cannot live up to others’ expectations. Sometimes how long a project should take rather than how long it does take creates stress and conflict.”

The mental health issues and burnout in the so-called “passion economy” are significant. The WHO believes that about half of entrepreneurs will have “one or more mental health diagnoses.”[a] Access to mental health and medical support is even harder. A U.S. survey showed that a quarter of entrepreneurs did not have health insurance, and 17% said they “struggled to afford healthcare/medicine.”[b]

Standing out — who must I be to get the attention and work I want to get?

A major source of stress is selling yourself and presenting yourself on platforms but also on LinkedIn and other platforms. A successful personal brand requires effort. This means regularly updating and engaging with social media profiles, websites, etc., and consistently promoting yourself in a positive light. Building relationships with others in your industry will help increase exposure. However, come across as too self-promoting or insincere and people will lose interest quickly.

meme of Ron Burgundy, very arrogant anchor played by Will Ferrell citing one of his quotes: I dont know how to put this, but I’m kind of a big deal.

Healthy self-esteem and positive self-promotion should not be confused with narcissistic behaviors. Self-esteem and narcissism are both related to agency, assertiveness, positive emotions, and a drive for rewards. But that is where the similarities end.

The challenge is learning to self-advocate in an environment in which everyone cares for themselves. In other words, stoic capabilities can be a weakness in many workplace settings, online, and in today’s world — waiting to be recognized for hard work can take a while. This isn’t going to happen because perception is reality, and narcissists vocally self-advocating and self-promoting their work to gain exposure will simply appear better at their work. As we know “the squeaky wheel gets the oil.”

With everyone turning to best practices of personal branding, there’s a lot of posting on expertise. More self-aware individuals remain true to themselves but can get lost in the competition when others present as more confident and more vocal and grandiose about their skillset.

If we replicate some of this for our personal brand while avoiding abusive behaviors, we could level the playing field. In fact, skillful impression management could unlock additional resources to enhance our prosocial approach to management. More specifically, the art of self-advocating and self-enhancing as part of their impression management efforts.

· Impression management: controlling and improving the public perception of an individual. It involves creating a positive impression to others while also deflecting any negative impressions in daily occurrences. It’s about increasing visibility and exposure to our work while remaining focused on creating a positive image of ourselves.

· Self-advocating: speaking up for yourself and promoting your interests. It involves communicating effectively with others, making your voice heard, and standing up for your beliefs. By doing this, you can navigate the professional world better and get what you want out of life. It’s about participating in extracurricular activities, speaking up, and standing your ground when challenged.

· Self-enhancing behavior: seeing oneself in a positive light and exaggerating one’s abilities and positive traits. Depending on the circumstances, it is a type of cognitive distortion that can be helpful or harmful. It gives us the confidence and motivation we need to pursue our dreams and succeed in life. However, when used in unhealthy ways, self-enhancing behavior can lead to adverse outcomes such as narcissism and excessive bragging. Balance is key.

It is always easier to spot pathologies in others than in ourselves. We come to social media for different reasons, but connections and reassurance are the top reasons. The better our personal brand and the more skilled we are at curating it, the better the results. At best we improve our branding and refine it to meet the needs of the attention market. At worse, we start to display an ongoing need for admiration and can rapidly tend to self-aggrandizement often hidden in “humble brag”: “I am so humbled to be at Davos.” “ I am so humbled to be interviewed for…”

Social media can play a significant role in exacerbating narcissistic tendencies in people. It provides an outlet for exhibitionism; it fosters a culture of comparison which can lead to feelings of inadequacy and low self-esteem; and it encourages attention-seeking behavior.

The lure of being rewarded with likes, shares, and comments leads many people to post outrageous or provocative content online purely for attention — or platitudes that everyone expects, even if they disagree with the comments. This can damage relationships and lead to increased isolation levels, so a responsible approach to social media is of the essence.

Be wary of the superficial perfection and grandiosity that narcissistic personal brands display. Many people may not realize that a person they follow on social media is a narcissist who might post fake or misleading information to make themselves look better than they really are. Followers may be manipulated or hurt, increasing insecurity and low self-esteem.

In summary, when we curate a Potemkin Village Life, we risk:

  • increased levels of depression and anxiety (we are constantly seeking approval from others, which is difficult to achieve);
  • social isolation (we isolate to make sure others don’t see our flaws, which can increase loneliness);
  • lower levels of empathy;
  • reduced relationship quality (it is hard to maintain healthy relationships in real life when we are constantly focused on portraying a perfect persona online); and,
  • decreased self-esteem (it can be very harmful to compare your behind-the-scenes with everyone else’s highlight reel).

Showcasing markers of personal identity

A dilemma for many freelancers is to what extent to reveal markers of identity related to gender, age, race, ethnicity, and sexual orientation. Doing so might bring business but could also turn off potential contacts.

Personal branding is tricky for everyone, but especially for women. They need to communicate their success without seeming vain and use their voices to frame their stories in ways that resonate.

Platforms are doing their best to engage a more diverse workforce by attracting younger users, people of color, and LGBTQ+, for example; however, while targeting younger users and people of color, platforms, and companies may be leaving other groups behind. If they attract younger talent, for example, what happens to the older individuals who might be getting left behind with the advent of new technologies? The perception is that older users do not need help and are already successful when, in reality, machines target younger users, and older ones are not being identified by algorithms.

Another dimension of uniqueness is race and ethnicity — and the extent to which to highlight it in personal branding. Amaru Founder and DEI recruiter Arturo Natella recounts the options of BIPOC job seekers:

I tell them you have to be [insert profession/expert/etc] that happens to be [a factor of diversity]. I say they need to do this because if they don’t, they run the risk of being a professional [factor of identity].

While there are pros and cons to being professional something, you can run the risk of limiting your opportunities if people only see you as your factor of identity (Black, Latin(o)(a)(x), neurodivergent, etc) first and skill set second. Also, if you overly rely on the factor of identity, your success will be overly reliant on your community. This can be great, but then you have to play by the rules set by the community elders (the gatekeepers).

I see two options for personal branding. Option 1 consists of playing the…lets use the shorthand “I happen to be strategy,” and Option 2 is the “I am strategy”

Option 1) Brand yourself using branding best practices based on your trade/industry/etc.

Option 2) Brand yourself in every venue in your respective community and make yourself known in your respective community. Then, work your way outside your community once you’ve built up your reputation in your respective community. This approach is important because if done well and you build support in your respective community, your community will amplify you, which acts as a risk mitigator because others are saying you’re reliable, good, etc.

Finding the right balance

Your personal brand doesn’t have to be narcissistic to work. And it is important to remember that social media should not be blamed for everything; after all, people have always been interested in their appearances. Here are best practices:

  • Start with authenticity: This means being true to yourself and your values and not pretending to be someone you’re not or focusing on an exaggerated positive image.
  • Stay focused on others: This means thinking about how you can help others achieve their goals instead of just promoting your agenda.
  • Show compassion and kindness: People want to associate themselves with brands that have compassion and kindness at their core. So if you want your personal brand to come across as non-narcissistic, make sure these qualities shine through in everything you do! It’s the one thing narcissistic personality brands are incapable of doing.
  • Focus on your community and helping others. Options here include setting up “mental health buddies,” providing opportunities to engage in volunteer activities while still being paid (like pro bono consulting arrangements), encouraging platform workers to connect, such as organizing virtual/in-person happy hours, creating shared interest groups, and identifying co-working spaces to build community among individuals working from the same location.
  • Don’t compare yourself too much to others: Having role models and inspiration is important, but don’t compare yourself harshly against them. Everyone has different strengths and weaknesses, so you can’t be good at everything! Some simple and obvious posts do super well; others that may have more depth don’t.
  • Stay grounded: As tempting as it may be, try not to let your self-image get wrapped up in your social media persona. Remember that what you post on social media is just a tiny snapshot of your life, and there is more than one side to you.
  • Don’t over-promote yourself: It’s important to promote yourself, but don’t go overboard. People will lose interest quickly if everything you post about yourself is self-promotional. Instead, try mixing your content with interesting or valuable things for others.
  • Use humor. This will underline your humanity.
  • Set boundaries. One can be kind and collaborative, which is the core nature of psychologically healthy humans, but one should not be naive.
  • Do not become part of the problem and exacerbate stressors. Ask yourself: “do I demand too much of others or have unachievable, unrelenting standards for ourselves?” “Am I respectful and mindful of others’ time, schedules, and needs? Do we ask before we demand? Do we let clients demand too much of us?” “Do I glorify my ability to take on more work with less sleep and when do we just show off?”

Wanting to be genuine and playing the game

When I created my website, I tried to imagine what my clients would want in a coach. I wanted to look professional and accessible at the same time. I hired a photographer to help me convey this image on the website. I hired a developer to construct my website in a specific way: easy to use, professional and interesting /fun ( not boring). We used colors, words, movement, images. I thought about the image I wanted to create for months before I launched my website. It was carefully thought out and planned. I had researched what other coaches were doing and saw what I liked and didn’t. It took a long time to really know who I was and what kind of coach I wanted to be. I wanted to look genuine.

Looking genuine to grandma is also what the wolf wanted in Little Red Riding Hood. Wolves and sheep exist in the world: wolves are predators, and the sheep are game. In the workplace, narcissistic personalities can be likened to wolves, preying on their unsuspecting colleagues or sheep. With their charm and charisma, these wolves can manipulate and control the sheep, using their power and influence to get what they want. They often lack empathy and are willing to sacrifice the well-being of others for their gain in pursuit of idealized grandiosity built on fragile insecurities.

Just like sheep can learn to recognize the wolves and protect themselves, people exposed to narcissistic behavior can also learn to recognize and protect themselves from the manipulative tactics of their abusive colleagues or supervisors. They can learn to be more assertive, set boundaries and not be afraid to group other sheep before speaking up when they feel mistreated. They can also learn to be more self-aware and develop their sense of self-worth, not depending on the validation of others and pursuing the effort of building an authentic personal brand. By doing so, they can be less vulnerable to manipulation and abuse and become more resilient in the face of it.

So while we are being self-aware, narcissistic personal brands get hired. Sit out and miss the game, or step up and play it wisely. If you play it, remember who you are. If we all wear wolf skins over our sheep bodies, we will behave as if we are surrounded by wolves and might be one But at night, when we take off our wolfskins, will we recognize ourselves in the mirror, and will our loved ones? And will we sleep in peace?


Please send us feedback and advice, and take care of yourselves!

Antonio Sadaric, Carin-Isabel Knoop, and Susanna Harkonen.

Carin-Isabel Knoop

Harvard Business School Executive Director, passionate about human sustainability@work. Pragmatic optimist devoted to helping all who care for others.