People seem to be fascinated with the concept of narcissism. Perhaps it's because we're all a little bit narcissistic or know someone else who is. But before you jump to label someone a narcissist, consider that there are actually different types of narcissism. While they all maintain the core characteristics of narcissism (entitlement, lack of empathy, and a need for control), they're displayed through different behaviors and vary in degree of severity and danger.
How many types of narcissism are there?
While a person can be diagnosed with narcissistic personality disorder (NPD), there is no clinical diagnosis for any subtypes of narcissism. Some types of narcissism have been identified and validated by peer-reviewed research, whereas other types have been informally named and popularized by various mental health professionals. Thus, there is no concrete number of narcissistic subtypes.
Clinical psychologist and Harvard lecturer Craig Malkin, Ph.D., thinks of narcissism as a trait, or pervasive human tendency, which exists on a spectrum.
Though the subtypes can't be clinically diagnosed, psychologist Perpetua Neo, DClinPsy, says mental health clinicians "can generally see patterns.” Below are eight types of narcissism recognized by experts:
Yes, healthy narcissism exists. First, just because someone has narcissistic traits doesn't mean they have narcissistic personality disorder. According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM-5), to be clinically diagnosed with NPD, a person has to exhibit at least 55% of the most common signs of narcissism. Many people may have traits of narcissism without meeting the criteria for the disorder. Healthy narcissism is a category of its own and is actually positive.
"Each person has a bit of healthy narcissism within them," cognitive therapist Alyssa Mancao, LCSW, writes at mbg. "A person with healthy narcissism will feel proud of their accomplishments and will want to share those accomplishments with others because it makes them feel good. Healthy narcissism is also the ability to feel a sense of entitlement and knowing that you belong in certain spaces and deserve good things. These feelings, though, are usually in line with reality."
Grandiose narcissism closely resembles the broader understanding of what makes a narcissist. In psychology, grandiosity refers to having an unrealistic sense of superiority. Grandiose narcissism thus involves overestimating one's abilities, asserting one's dominance over others, and having a generally inflated sense of self-esteem.
This type of narcissism has been tested and validated through peer-reviewed research, often in opposition to vulnerable narcissism (also known as covert narcissism).
"Grandiose narcissism is when someone's narcissistic qualities—entitlement, braggadocio, and self-obsession—are openly displayed, often at the expense of others," Neo says. Grandiose narcissists can be charming but often lack empathy. In conversations, they don't relate to people, Neo explains, but rather one-up them. This might be because they crave attention, enjoy seeing others hurt and confused, or both.
When dealing with a grandiose narcissist, or any type of narcissist for that matter, it's important to set boundaries. "Know you can be graceful and assertive at the same time," Neo says. "They will push your boundaries, eroding them so a lower level of treatment becomes the new normal. Be prepared to enforce your boundaries—even better, walk away."
Vulnerable narcissism, also known as covert narcissism
Covert narcissism is also called vulnerable narcissism. In opposition to the grandiose narcissists, these people tend to be shy and self-effacing. According to the American Journal of Psychiatry (AJP), the "covert subtype is inhibited, manifestly distressed, hypersensitive to the evaluations of others while chronically envious." They crave people's recognition and get very defensive in the face of criticism.
According to Malkin, covert narcissists are often abjectly miserable and believe their suffering is worse than anyone else's. "Yes, they may have been hurt before," Neo says, "but it's not your duty to rescue them or save them. That's boundaries, too."
Malignant narcissists, just like the name implies, are manipulative and malicious. They show signs of sadism and aggression, and according to AJP, are the most severe subtype of narcissistic personality disorder.
"They get pleasure seeing people writhe in pain and discomfort," licensed psychologist Daniel Fox, Ph.D., says. If you know a malignant narcissist, Neo recommends avoiding them completely and cutting off all ties. Any attempts to outsmart them will be unsuccessful and exhausting, she explains: "They've spent their lives perfecting the craft of becoming better narcissists."
Sexual narcissists "have an overly positive, egotistical admiration of their own sexual prowess," couples' therapist Brandon Santan, Ph.D., tells mindbodygreen. "They can become consumed by their obsession with sexual performance and the need for the sexual admiration of others."
Sexual narcissists are often serial cheaters, use sex to manipulate people, and may behave violently during sex. To protect yourself from this type of narcissist, your safest option is to get out of the relationship and seek therapy to help you get through the breakup with a narcissist.
Sexual narcissism is part of a three-part narcissism typing system that includes sexual narcissism, somatic narcissism, and cerebral narcissism. None of them are validated by research, but the system has been gaining some popularity as some mental health practitioners use them to further categorize different types of narcissism.
Somatic narcissists derive their self-worth from their bodies. Psychotherapist Christine Scott-Hudson, LMFT, writes, "This may manifest as someone feeling more beautiful, stronger, or fitter than others."
Somatic narcissists often obsess over their weight and physical appearance and criticize others based on their appearance. They usually ignore the needs of others and prioritize their own. If you're dealing with one, Scott-Hudson says, "avoid displaying emotional responses to their behavior because narcissists feed off drama."
Cerebral or intellectual narcissists derive their self-importance from their minds, compared to the somatic narcissist who derives worth from their bodies. "Cerebral narcissists get their supply from feeling smarter, more clever, and more intelligent than others," Scott-Hudson tells mindbodygreen.
Cerebral narcissists believe they're smarter than others. In an attempt to feed their ego, they will try to make others feel unintelligent. If you're dealing with a cerebral narcissist, insulate yourself from their words. "You're never going to win an argument or get to a point where they admit you're right," Fox says, "so learn to let it go."
Spiritual narcissists often use their spirituality to justify harmful behaviors and use spiritual jargon to intimidate others, Neo explains. "You see, the narcissist needs to project an idealized version of himself to escape his broken, insecure self," she says, and spiritual narcissists use seemingly sensitive and spiritual actions as a way to elevate themselves above others.
Neo says young people or people who have experienced significant upheaval, like a move or a divorce, are more vulnerable to the spiritual narcissists' "captivating, dynamic influence." If someone you know uses their spirituality as a tool to manipulate or belittle you, separate from them.
The bottom line.
Narcissism exists on a spectrum, and there are many different types of narcissism, some that are more worrying than others. If you're dealing with someone you suspect might have narcissistic personality disorder, the best thing to do to protect yourself is to set strong boundaries and ideally walk away from the relationship altogether.
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Abby Moore is an editorial operations manager at mindbodygreen. She earned a B.A. in Journalism from The University of Texas at Austin and has previously written for Tribeza magazine. She has covered topics ranging from regenerative agriculture to celebrity entrepreneurship. Moore worked on the copywriting and marketing team at Siete Family Foods before moving to New York.