Vulnerable Narcissism: The Not-So-Dark Side of Narcissism

There are two types of narcissism: Grandiose narcissism and Vulnerable narcissism.

Psychologists and experts in the field of personality disorders have not yet reached a consensus on whether vulnerable narcissism exists as a separate disorder. Its concept has been criticized by those who believe people with narcissistic personality disorder are not capable of feeling empathy for others.

Much study has revealed that these two dimensions have only slight overlaps and are largely unrelated empirically. We can say, at the risk of being held to stick, that the two types of narcissism are vastly different.

Narcissism is clinically referred to as Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD). It forms a crucial part of The Dark Triad of personality disorders — Narcissism, Machiavellianism, and Psychopathy.

In common parlance, vulnerable narcissists are also called covert narcissists.

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The Vulnerable Narcissist

Vulnerable narcissism is characterized by excessive sensitivity to perceived criticism and a deep-rooted need to be admired.

Vulnerable narcissists are more introverted than grandiose narcissists, and they are touchy and easily hurt (thus the term “vulnerable”). They struggle to cope with setbacks, rejection, and emotional pain. They are anxious people who worry about the impressions they make.

The vulnerable narcissist is not as brash or egocentric as the grandiose narcissist. They have a fragile ego that is susceptible to even mild criticism and shame. They are also prone to depression and self-harm, which can be caused by their need for validation.

An important thing to understand about vulnerable narcissism is that it is not the same as positive narcissism. Whereas positive narcissism consists of healthy levels of self-confidence, self-love, and self-interest, vulnerable narcissism consists of insecurity, dependence on others for validation, and fear of abandonment.

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The root cause of this disorder, most probably, is a sense of deep insecurity of being unworthy and ‘not-good-enough.’ Although some psychologists believe that this disorder is a result of overindulgence by parents or other parental figures, while some people believe it’s due to low self-esteem or low confidence during childhood.

Behaviors of Vulnerable Narcissists

The term “Vulnerable Narcissism” is defined as “the narcissistic personality style in which one feels hopelessly inadequate, yet paradoxically grandiose and entitled at the same time.”

The term Vulnerable Narcissism was first coined by psychoanalyst Christopher Lasch in his book “The Culture of Narcissism.” He used the term to describe the way that western culture had become obsessed with one’s own image.

Lasch argued that modern capitalism has created a society where everyone is constantly measured by their own image. This leads to narcissism because if everyone is preoccupied with themselves, they will never focus on other people and their needs.

Lasch also argues that this self-obsession has led to a society where people feel privileged and entitled even though they have not accomplished anything noteworthy.

Vulnerable Narcissist vs Grandiose Narcissist

The difference between vulnerable and grandiose narcissists, if put simplistically, is this: one is confident while the other is insecure.

However, they both share some common traits such as having an exaggerated sense of self-worth, a lack of empathy for others, a need for constant admiration from others, and a sense of entitlement. The major difference between these two types is that vulnerable narcissists have a greater fear of being alone, while grandiose narcissists have an increased need for admiration from others.

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Psychologically, vulnerable narcissism is marked by more internalizing symptoms and emotional distress, whereas grandiose narcissism is marked by more externalizing actions, particularly anger and aggression in response to perceived slights or ego threats (Bushman & Baumeister, 1998).


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From a basic personality-trait standpoint, grandiose narcissism is best described as having low Agreeableness and high Extraversion (O’Boyle, Forsyth, Banks, Story, & White, 2015;), whereas vulnerable narcissism has high Neuroticism and low Agreeableness (Campbell & Miller, 2013).

Surprisingly, in previous editions of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, vulnerable narcissism was seemingly downplayed in NPD (DSM; APA, 1980, 1994, 2013).

Vulnerable Narcissism

Final Words

The word “narcissism” comes from the Greek myth of Narcissus, who was so infatuated with his own reflection in the water that he did not notice the people around him until he eventually died of starvation.

This term was first used by Freud to describe a personality disorder involving excessive self-love. Freud had an early understanding of how narcissism could manifest itself in people.

If we look around, we’d find many vulnerable narcissists around us. In fact, we, ourselves, might be one.

It’s time we accepted them as a functional part of our society, and not separate from the classic narcissists.

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Author Bio: Written and reviewed by Sandip Roy—a medical doctor, psychology writer, and happiness researcher. Founder and Chief Editor of The Happiness Blog. Writes popular science articles on happiness, positive psychology, and related topics.


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