Narcissism is a term used to describe people who are self-involved to the degree that it makes them ignore the needs of those around them. Typical signs of a narcissist include selfishness, a sense of entitlement, a lack of empathy, and an excessive need for attention and admiration. There are also different types of narcissists, one of which is known as the vulnerable narcissist.
Ahead, psychology experts explain what this kind of narcissism looks like and how to deal with vulnerable narcissists in your life and relationships.
What is a vulnerable narcissist?
A vulnerable narcissist is a type of narcissist that tends to be highly self-conscious, insecure, and hypersensitive to rejection. They oscillate between feeling inferior and superior to others, and they become easily offended, anxious, or even hostile when they're not put on a pedestal.
"People with vulnerable narcissism often have a deep need for approval and validation from others and experience feelings of inadequacy, anxiety, and depression," explains Harold Hong M.D., a board-certified psychiatrist at New Waters Recovery in North Carolina.
Vulnerable narcissism is also known as closet or covert narcissism because their narcissistic tendencies are not always as obvious or overt. As Hong points out, vulnerable narcissists often deal with high levels of negative emotion, and clinical psychologist and Harvard lecturer Craig Malkin, Ph.D., notes that their perceived level of suffering can even be the very thing they narcissistically exaggerate.
"Covert narcissists feel special because they believe their pain is more important than others'," Malkin previously told mbg. "They may feel like the most misunderstood genius, the person who's suffering the most, or even the ugliest person in the room."
Signs of vulnerable narcissism.
Although only a qualified mental health professional can diagnose a mental health condition, there are some common causes and signs of a vulnerable narcissist you can look out for:
Introversion masking insecurities
Vulnerable narcissism is highly associated with introversion. These narcissists show a quiet sense of superiority and appear more reserved. However, that's often because they are secretly terrified of showing their flaws and failures. Exposing their true feelings would destroy the illusion of superiority. Thus, they avoid social interactions to lower the chance of their more vulnerable façade being exposed. Vulnerable narcissists may also avoid social situations or relationships that do not clearly benefit them.
Highly sensitive to criticism
Vulnerable narcissists tend to be highly sensitive to criticism and may be more likely to internalize it due to their fragile sense of self. Their remarks might be dismissive or sarcastic, but they are crushed by criticism. They are easily humiliated or angered by feedback. Also, they constantly seek reassurance about their talents, skills, and accomplishments, relying on others to feed their need for self-importance.
Defensiveness and anger
Vulnerable narcissists have been said to show "narcissistic rage"—including behaviors of anger and hostility. They also may hold grudges for long periods, leading to bitterness, resentment, and a desire for revenge. In the workplace, vulnerable narcissists can hold grudges against people who earn praise or recognition they think they're entitled to, such as a co-worker who receives a well-deserved promotion. When they believe someone has mistreated them, they might be furious but say nothing in the moment, waiting for an ideal opportunity to strike back. This revenge might be subtle or passive aggressive.
Controlling behavior in relationships
"Vulnerable narcissists often seek out relationships in which they can be the center of attention and where they feel they can control their partner," says Hong. "To keep their partner from leaving them, they may be possessive and jealous and may go to great lengths to control their partner's behavior."
Blaming and shaming
Narcissists tend to project the blame on other people. They also use shaming to secure their elevated position against others. While overt narcissists are outspoken, vulnerable narcissists may have a seemingly gentler approach to explaining why something is your fault. They may pretend to be a victim or engage in emotional abuse to put themselves in a position to receive reassurance.
Often, vulnerable narcissists have incredibly low confidence and are racked by insecurities, and their narcissistic behaviors are often used to mask or cope with feelings of anxiety, depression, or shame. They are known for going into "victim mode," often surrounded by negativity, their own criticism, harsh words, and shame.
Contrary to popular belief, narcissists can show some empathy. However, they may do it to build their own self-esteem and self-importance. Vulnerable narcissists might seem willing to help others or be compassionate, but they generally do this to win approval from others. A telltale sign is that they may become resentful if they don't receive praise or admiration for their deeds. They may also make remarks about how people take advantage of their generosity.
What causes vulnerable narcissism?
"There is no single cause of vulnerable narcissism, but it is thought to develop due to early childhood trauma, a dysfunctional family environment, or faulty parenting styles. In some cases, it may be the result of sexual abuse," says Hong.
One study found that people with narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) are more likely to have grown up with parents who were highly focused on status and achievements. Because they were often made to feel superior to other children, that belief later persists in adulthood. Other studies1 have found vulnerable narcissists, in particular, have more adverse childhood experiences, including emotional abuse and neglect.
The exact cause of vulnerable narcissism may not be entirely understood, but childhood trauma and ingrained low self-esteem are common threads. As adults, these individuals normalize pretending. Vulnerable narcissists wear a mask and do not show their true selves because they fear criticism of being flawed and unworthy of love.
Vulnerable narcissist vs. grandiose narcissist.
Grandiose and vulnerable narcissism are the two main subtypes of narcissism. While both share the same core narcissistic personality traits, they present those traits differently.
Grandiose narcissism is easier to identify because these narcissists tend to be loud, arrogant, and overtly insensitive to other people's needs. This kind of overt narcissism manifests in extroverted behaviors that affect others.
On the other hand, vulnerable narcissists are more challenging to identify. They tend to be introverted, and their symptoms can often lead others to believe they have other mental health concerns, like bipolar disorder or severe anxiety.
How to deal with a vulnerable narcissist:
Recognize the signs.
Although vulnerable narcissists can be harder to identify, they share the same qualities as any other narcissist, including an exaggerated sense of self and thinking very highly of themselves, according to Janika Veasley, LMFT, therapist and owner of Amavi Therapy Center in Pennsylvania. "If you feel like you're constantly trying to get a partner to be considerate of your feelings, and they have an excessive need for validation and admiration, then you may be dealing with a narcissist," she says.
Don't take anything personally.
When dealing with a narcissist, whether vulnerable or grandiose, you must realize that their manipulative behavior is not about you. Their sense of entitlement, manipulation, and deceptive behaviors can feel very personal when on the receiving end. However, no matter how painful, it's important to remember that their actions have little to nothing to do with you and everything to do with their own self-esteem issues.
Set firm boundaries.
Vulnerable narcissists will take an inch and never give back. Hong advises that you communicate that you will "walk away if they treat you in a way that's unhealthy or uncomfortable."
Allow them to sit in the discomfort.
Avoid trying to soothe hurt egos or feelings, especially if it's at the expense of your own emotions. It won't help them with their struggle with accountability.
Don't fall for their charade.
If they feel they are going to lose you, vulnerable narcissists will try to win you back. Know that they are likely to fall right back into the same old habits. As well, don't beat yourself up if you've gone through cycles of closeness and fallout in these kinds of relationships.
(Here's our full guide on what to do if you're dating a narcissist.)
Veasley says that a key step is to under-respond and emotionally disengage from the narcissist. "I often suggest this method because, with an actual narcissist, they feed off your attention and drama. This is often referred to as narcissistic supply. The more drama and chaos they create for you to respond to or feed into, the more attention they get, which fuels their grandiose view of themselves."
To employ this tactic—sometimes referred to as the grey rock method—she says to minimize your responses. Make them brief and emotionally flat. When a narcissist picks a fight, instead of trying to criticize or correct them, "simply respond with 'OK' or 'mhmm.'"
"As a result of the relationship with a narcissist, people begin to question their own sanity, self-worth, and relationships with family and friends," says Veasley. "They are frequently reminded by their narcissistic partner about their flaws, failures, and shortcomings—which many times are pointed out and contrived by their narcissistic partner."
Talking to a psychologist or therapist will help you clearly understand the situation and set the appropriate boundaries.
A vulnerable narcissist may try to cover up their vulnerability with bluster and bravado, but Hong reminds us that "underneath, they're extremely sensitive. This combination of sensitivity and insecurity can make them very difficult to deal with, as they're constantly seeking reassurance and validation but are also quick to become defensive and react angrily when they feel threatened."
In this way, vulnerable narcissists still exhibit behaviors that can harm others. Even when they don't intend to, these personalities are likely to manipulate the ones they love. So, if you have a closet narcissist in your life, protect yourself by setting boundaries and taking breaks from the relationship whenever lines—inevitably—get crossed.
Nafeesah Allen, Ph.D., is an American writer and independent researcher with a particular interest in migration, literature, gender identity, and diaspora studies within the global South. She completed her Ph.D. in Forced Migration from the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa. She completed a postgraduate diploma in Folklore & Cultural Studies at Indira Gandhi National Open University in New Delhi, India. She completed a Masters of International Affairs at Columbia University in 2009 and graduated cum laude from Barnard College at Columbia University in 2006.
Originally from New Jersey, she has lived in Spain, India, Mozambique, Angola, and South Africa. She speaks four languages (reads in three), but primarily publishes in English. Her writing placements range from popular trade magazines like Better Home & Gardens, Real Simple, and Whetstone to academic journals like Harvard’s Transition Magazine, the Centre for Feminist Foreign Policy, and the Oxford Monitor.