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

Narcissism is a personality trait characterized by self-importance, self-entitlement, and hostility. There are two types of narcissism: Grandiose narcissism and Vulnerable narcissism.

Vulnerable narcissists, popularly known as covert narcissists, are narcissists with fragile egos.

Much research has pointed out that these two types are empirically unrelated and have only slight overlaps (Miller et al., 2016). We believe the two types of narcissism are clearly distinct.

However, experts in personality disorders remain still divided on whether vulnerable narcissism is a condition distinct from grandiose narcissism. They criticize the concept, claiming that all narcissism is grandiose and that narcissists can’t empathize with others.

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.


The Vulnerable Narcissist

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

Psychoanalyst Christopher Lasch coined the term “vulnerable narcissism” in his book “The Culture of Narcissism.”

He used it to explain how Western culture had caused people to become obsessed with their 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.

The most common personality trait associated with vulnerable narcissism is neuroticism, which is followed by low agreeableness and low extraversion (Miller, et al., 2018).

Vulnerable narcissists have low, fragile, and highly dependent self-esteem (Rogoza et al., 2018).

They also exhibit a range of hostile attitudes (Czarna et al., 2019), which are frequently accompanied by rumination of anger (Krizan & Johar, 2015).

In a 2021 metastudy, researchers Zajenkowski, Rogoza, and others found vulnerable narcissism more strongly predicted antagonism.

They say the study seems to suggest,

“Antagonism is more characteristic of vulnerable narcissists, especially low empathy and concern for others, as indicated by their lower levels of the compassion facet.” — Zajenkowski & Rogoza

How To Spot A Vulnerable Narcissist

Some typical characteristics of vulnerable narcissists are:

• The vulnerable narcissist lacks the brashness and egocentrism of the grandiose narcissist. Their egos are fragile, which means their self-esteem is low — it crumbles in the face of humiliation and criticism. Even mild criticism or scolding may cause them to withdraw into their shells or disappear entirely from their social circles.

• They ruminate or overthink more, have a more negative view of past events, and recall more adverse childhood memories.

• They are more introverted than grandiose narcissists, and are touchy and easily hurt (thus the term “vulnerable”).

• Vulnerable narcissists struggle to cope with setbacks, rejection, and emotional pain. They keep hugging tightly the negative side of their past.

• They are highly anxious people who keep having intrusive thoughts. They worry too much about the impressions they make on others.

• Vulnerable narcissists are overly sensitive to perceived criticism while harboring a narcissist’s deep need to be admired.

• They are prone to depression and self-harming acts. They withdraw into themselves to escape feelings of shame, pain, envy, or being labeled as “fragile” (Kealy & Rasmussen, 2011) which exposes them to depression and anxiety, and may increase the number of attempted suicides (Dawood et al., 2018, Ronningstam and Maltsbreger, 2010).

Vulnerable narcissism is not the same as positive narcissism. A positive narcissist has healthy levels of self-confidence, self-love, and self-interest, whereas a vulnerable narcissist harbors insecurity, dependence on others for validation, and fear of abandonment.

Behaviors of Vulnerable Narcissists
Behaviors of Vulnerable Narcissists

The basic goal of a narcissist is to maintain their self-esteem.

— Morf & Rhodewalt, 2001

Vulnerable Narcissist vs Grandiose Narcissist

Both types of narcissists share some common traits.

  • both types have an exaggerated sense of self-worth,
  • both lack empathy and compassion for others,
  • both need constant admiration from others, and
  • both harbor a sense of entitlement.

The major difference between these two types:

  • Vulnerable narcissists have a greater fear of being alone (autophobia), while
  • Grandiose narcissists have a greater need for admiration from others.
  • Vulnerable narcissists, on the other hand, defend their self-esteem by withdrawing to avoid feelings of shame, pain, or envy (Caligor, Levy, & Yeomans, 2015), while allowing themselves to fantasize about being superior to others.
  • Grandiose narcissists try to preserve their self-esteem by vigorously promoting themselves, seeking praise, and insulting others.
  • Vulnerable or sensitive narcissists retreat into their shells to protect against further damage to their self-esteem. They are insecure and always looking for dangers to their self-esteem.
  • Grandiose narcissists tend to repair their self-esteem by asking others to validate them. They are confident in maintaining their self-esteem.
  • 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).
  • Vulnerable narcissism has high Neuroticism and low Agreeableness (Campbell & Miller, 2013), as described from a basic personality-trait standpoint, and
  • Grandiose narcissism is best described as having low Agreeableness and high Extraversion (O’Boyle, Forsyth, Banks, Story, & White, 2015;)

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).

Causes of Vulnerable Narcissism

The root cause of this disorder is most likely a deep sense of insecurity about being unworthy and ‘not-good-enough.’

Although some psychologists believe that this disorder is caused by overindulgence by parents or other parental figures, others believe that it is caused by a lack of self-esteem or confidence during childhood.

Vulnerable Narcissism
Vulnerable Narcissist

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.

• • •

• • •

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.

• Our story: Happiness Project

If you enjoyed this, please share it on Facebook or Twitter or LinkedIn.

Disclosure: This post may include affiliate links.