This Type Of Narcissism Is More Common In Women — And Is Linked To Abusive Behavior
There's a popular unspoken assumption that if we're talking about narcissists, we're necessarily talking about men. But people of all genders can be narcissists, though narcissism can present in different ways across genders. This is important to acknowledge, especially as it relates to intimate partner violence, which is linked to narcissism.
A recent study published in the Personality and Individual Differences journal suggests that among women, narcissism doesn't look like the stereotypical narcissist traits of inflated self-esteem, grandiosity, and entitlement. Instead, female narcissists tend to exhibit what's known as vulnerable narcissism—and even though it looks different from the more overtly aggressive narcissism seen in men, it's just as linked to abusive behavior in relationships.
The link between gender, narcissism, and abuse.
A lot of the scientific research on narcissism tends to focus on one specific type of narcissism known as grandiose narcissism, according to lead researcher Ava Green, Ph.D., a forensic psychology lecturer at the City University of London. Grandiose narcissism involves an overly exaggerated, unrealistic view of oneself, which fuels a sense of entitlement and superiority over others.
But women tend to present a different type of narcissism known as vulnerable narcissism, also sometimes referred to as covert narcissism. Vulnerable narcissists tend to be highly sensitive to other people's views of them or to perceived criticism, and they see their feelings and problems as more important than everyone else's. They're self-absorbed like any other narcissist, but they're more preoccupied with feeling victimized than ruling over others.
"Vulnerable traits resemble more feminine expressions, including overt shyness, neuroticism, shame, hypersensitivity, and low self-esteem," Green explained.
Green and her colleagues surveyed 152 men and 176 women on their personality traits and relationship behaviors. Vulnerable narcissism was assessed based on agreement with statements such as "When others don't notice me, I start to feel worthless." Their findings showed women tended to have much more vulnerable narcissistic traits than men did, whereas grandiose narcissism was less linked to gender.
Importantly, among women, that vulnerable narcissism alone was linked to perpetrating both physical and psychological abuse, including things like verbally attacking their partner, shoving or hitting them, or destroying their belongings.
Narcissism was also linked to abusive behavior in men, of course, though there was more variation: Their grandiose narcissism was linked to psychological abuse while their vulnerable narcissism was linked to physical abuse.
"Our findings suggest narcissism in females is expressed in more hidden and subtle ways (e.g., devaluing, hiding behind the self), which may not be recognized as stereotypically 'narcissistic' when exploiting intimate partners," Green explained. "Narcissism in females moves beyond the masculine stereotype commonly conceptualized in theory, research, and vernacular language. Assessing narcissism through the lens of grandiosity may not accurately capture narcissism in females and the harmful impact they have in intimate relationships."
Recognizing abusers of all genders.
We know narcissistic personality disorder is linked with abusive behavior in relationships, but it's important to recognize that narcissism can present differently in different people—and it can certainly be influenced by social norms around gender.
"It is important to recognize this personality trait as more complex and multilayered, a construct that is deeply ingrained in cultural norms associated with masculinity and femininity," Green said.
But that doesn't make any kind of narcissism any less dangerous. Female narcissists can be just as abusive and harmful as male narcissists, even if they tend to display their narcissism in different ways.
For anonymous and confidential help, you can call the National Domestic Violence Hotline (1-800-799-7233 or TTY 1-800-787-3224) and speak with a trained advocate for free as many times as you need. They're available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. You can also speak to them through a live private chat on their website.
Kelly Gonsalves is a multi-certified sex educator and relationship coach helping people figure out how to create dating and sex lives that actually feel good — more open, more optimistic, and more pleasurable. In addition to working with individuals in her private practice, Kelly serves as the Sex & Relationships Editor at mindbodygreen. She has a degree in journalism from Northwestern University, and she’s been trained and certified by leading sex and relationship institutions such as The Gottman Institute and Everyone Deserves Sex Ed, among others. Her work has been featured at The Cut, Vice, Teen Vogue, Cosmopolitan, and elsewhere.
With her warm, playful approach to coaching and facilitation, Kelly creates refreshingly candid spaces for processing and healing challenges around dating, sexuality, identity, body image, and relationships. She’s particularly enthusiastic about helping softhearted women get re-energized around the dating experience and find joy in the process of connecting with others. She believes relationships should be easy—and that, with room for self-reflection and the right toolkit, they can be.
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