When we speak of narcissistic personality disorder, we refer to a personality disorder where the individual has a high degree of self-importance. Now, not everyone with an inflated sense of their own importance can be labeled with a tag of narcissistic personality disorder, but if this is combined with other traits, such as craving attention constantly, needing the admiration of others, and an inability to empathize with the feelings of those around them, there are high chances that you’re dealing with a narcissist.
However, underneath this mask of arrogance, they suffer from feelings of low self-esteem and cannot handle criticism. This is especially true of those who suffer from a vulnerable narcissistic personality disorder.
We asked Dr. Shefali Batra (MD in Psychiatry), a California-based psychiatrist and cognitive behavior therapist, who specializes in counseling for separation and divorce, breakup and dating, and premarital compatibility issues, about vulnerable narcissism and how to deal with it. She said, “Vulnerable narcissism is a synonym for covert narcissism wherein, the classic grandiosity, aggressive, and bold behavior seen in NPD is conspicuous by its absence.
“The personality traits of those with narcissistic personality disorder cause them problems in many areas of their lives, including relationships, school, work and finances. They tend to get unhappy when not given the constant attention and admiration they believe they deserve. This causes them to have troubled relationships with virtually everyone around them, and their relationships tend to be short-lived.”
Who Is A Vulnerable Narcissist?
There are two types of narcissistic personality disorder: the grandiose and the vulnerable types. Grandiose and vulnerable narcissism differ in their outward manifestations, but certain core traits remain the same. Dr. Batra explains that people expect narcissists to be boisterous and aggressive in their interactions with people around them. In grandiose narcissism, the affected individual or overt narcissist behaves in an aggressive and bold manner and seemingly has a lot of self-confidence. The grandiose narcissist (also known as an overt narcissist) tends to be a charismatic, extroverted, and attention-seeking show-off, often with a lavish lifestyle.
On the other hand, vulnerable narcissists tend to exhibit introverted behavior and can be quite hypersensitive. A low self-esteem narcissist can come across as extremely shy, often trying to hide aspects of their personality that they are uncomfortable with. The thoughts of a vulnerable narcissist will oscillate between feeling inferior and superior to others, and they can get extremely offended and hostile if unappreciated. This makes diagnosis by a mental health professional much more difficult. However, underneath that shy exterior lie the same personality traits that characterize a narcissist, i.e., the entitled expectations and self-seeking nature remain at the core.
The exact cause of fragile narcissism is still poorly understood, but research points toward factors such as adverse childhood experiences, sexual abuse, dysfunctional families, and even brain trauma. These childhood experiences can have an adverse effect on vulnerable narcissists in relationships well into adulthood. The treatment for vulnerable narcissism involves psychotherapy on an ongoing basis. This is the biggest challenge since they are introverted by nature. Getting them to admit they need help can prove to be an uphill task.
Mental health professionals refer to vulnerable narcissism by other names. These include:
- Fragile narcissism
- Covert narcissism
- Hypersensitive narcissism
- Low self-esteem narcissism
- Implicit narcissism
Some of the core vulnerable narcissist traits include:
- Antagonism or low agreeableness, characterized by anger, hostility, entitlement, and manipulative behavior
- Introversion or introverted behavior, making them appear shy and even withdrawn
- Neuroticism or emotional instability, characterized by anxiety, mood swings, and low tolerance levels
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These vulnerable narcissist signs express themselves in the form of shy, insecure, introverted behavior and other negative emotions. But underneath this exterior is a different story. A low self-esteem narcissist will still believe in their superiority and fantasize about becoming powerful and famous. However, their narcissistic vulnerability causes their self-esteem to fluctuate wildly, and they depend on the opinions of others. Any real or imagined criticism can cause their self-esteem to crash, leaving them moody and withdrawn. This narcissistic vulnerability makes them distrustful of people and can lead to social isolation and poor mental health.
Dr. Batra summarizes the differences between vulnerable and overt narcissists as follows:
|GRANDIOSE OR OVERT NARCISSIST CHARACTERISTICS||VULNERABLE OR COVERT NARCISSIST CHARACTERISTICS|
|Showing active aggression||Passive aggressive|
13 Signs Of A Vulnerable Narcissist In Relationships
Those with vulnerable narcissistic personality disorder tend to have short-lived, troubled relationships. Because of the nature of the disorder, it can be difficult to identify or expose vulnerable narcissists in relationships from the beginning. Dr. Batra says that vulnerable narcissists will be extremely reserved in social situations. In fact, they might avoid socializing completely.
Here are certain aspects of your partner’s personality that could be signs of narcissistic behavior:
1. Vulnerable narcissism and low self-esteem go hand in glove
A covert vulnerable narcissist, according to Dr. Batra, will exhibit low self-esteem and low self-worth. A vulnerable narcissist’s signs of low self-esteem behavior manifest in many ways, including self-deprecation (or low self-importance), dependency on external validation, self-criticism, anxiety, and second-guessing themselves. Vulnerable narcissists tend to revert to self-deprecation in an attempt to preempt others from criticizing them. This happens because they cannot handle criticism from others.
2. They need constant praise
They crave excessive attention and praise from others. This counters the low self-esteem and helps them feel good about themselves. This need for external validation can lead to feelings of anxiety and insecurity if it is not forthcoming.
3. They are introverts
Grandiose and vulnerable narcissism manifest differently in a public environment. While a grandiose narcissist is prone to grand public gestures to compensate for their own insecurities, a vulnerable narcissist will attempt to cover up these insecurities and avoid social situations altogether. This may manifest as introversion and social anxiety, known as narcissistic anxiety. However, when faced with a social situation, they tend to pepper their statements with comments of superiority or self-importance. This will happen even at home and in their interactions with you.
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4. They are emotionally volatile
They are extremely intense people, having little control over their own emotions, and are prone to intense emotional outbursts. Feelings of anger, resentment, envy, and shame can be all too apparent. They are extremely sensitive to negative feedback and often fly off the handle for the merest perceived criticism. What causes narcissistic rage in such instances is the shattering of their self-image.
5. They are manipulative and controlling
One of the reasons narcissists have difficulty in forming healthy relationships is their controlling and manipulative nature. To protect themselves from the intense emotions (which they find uncomfortable), vulnerable narcissists try to control their relationships. This is a defense mechanism and helps them control the narrative. The thoughts of a vulnerable narcissist will veer toward achieving this control through the use of various techniques. Vulnerable narcissistic behaviors will include gaslighting, narcissistic triangulation, and smear campaigns to achieve this control. They remain unaware of the emotional pain that they cause their friends and partners.
6. They fear abandonment
Vulnerable narcissists fear abandonment almost as much as they fear exposure. These deep-rooted insecurities cause their manipulative behavior. They cling to people and are overly possessive of those close to them. But they think nothing of using narcissistic abandonment by suddenly withdrawing their love, to keep their partners in line.
7. Vulnerable narcissist love is difficult to sustain
Relationships with people suffering from covert narcissism are usually short-term affairs, mainly because of their self-absorbed nature. Dr. Batra adds that it is extremely difficult for a vulnerable NPD to be in a relationship because there is absolute insecurity owing to the avoidant attachment style, and it’s easy to develop possessiveness and jealousy. The fear of abandonment becomes so pathological that the partner cannot fulfill the endless pit of neediness. The person may look distressed and even cry. This tests the partner’s patience because he or she would have endlessly tried but failed to convince the NPD. This gives rise to passive-aggressive behavior and manipulation, which nobody likes. That is why these relationships become extremely difficult.
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8. They are passive aggressive
Passive aggressive behavior and other indirect methods are used frequently as a means to avoid being confronted or criticized. Dr. Batra has this to say about their passive-aggressive behavior — “Throughout the time that they are playing victim, they are also rejecting the logical statements coming in from people around them. They are extremely dependent and do not want to work on independence even if others want to help them be so. They are afraid of rejection and will cling on. So, they will seem clingy. And when they don’t get the attention, they will get aggressive. This is quite unlike the insecure person who actually becomes sad. The insecure person wants to fit in. The vulnerable narcissist wants to be treated special and wants to be the center of attention.”
9. They avoid social gatherings
Apparently, vulnerable narcissists usually stay away from social gatherings. So, they may make excuses to avoid accompanying you to a team dinner or a house party.
Dr. Batra adds, “Owing to their low self-esteem and low self-confidence, they may also have high anxiety levels expressed more in the form of social anxiety. Since they rely so heavily on people around them to enhance their self-esteem, they become hyper-sensitive. This makes them react with a lot of dramatization of being victimized.
“They also tend to avoid social situations. This happens because while they do crave the limelight, they are extremely afraid of criticism and will go to any lengths to avoid it altogether. This tendency makes them avoid large group gatherings, friends who like a good debate, and people who create firm boundaries in their interactions.”
10. They are experts at the blame game
Meaningful relationships with a vulnerable narcissist can be difficult to sustain when you are blamed for everything that goes wrong in the relationship. Because of their low self-esteem, vulnerable narcissists cannot reflect on their deeds or take responsibility for any emotional pain they cause. This causes them to deflect the blame to absolve themselves of any responsibility.
11. They are envious by nature
Their marked inferiority complex makes them prone to envy. Typically, they will compare themselves with others, focusing on things that they lack. This perspective provides an unending supply of things to envy, as there will always be someone with a better car, a bigger house, or a better-looking partner.
Related Reading: Breaking Up With A Narcissist: 7 Tips And What To Expect
12. They are easily angered
Their deepest fears revolve around being found out. They fear that others will see the imperfections beneath their masks. This makes them highly sensitive to criticism. Failure that exposes their limitations, even perceived failure, is often met with narcissistic rage, an explosive temper outburst that may even turn physical.
13. They exploit others
They think nothing of exploiting others, including friends, family, partners, and co-workers. They will tend to move on if they feel nothing is left to gain from a relationship. So self-absorbed are they that the hurt they cause others does not affect them. Their self-absorbed nature and other negative personality traits make it extremely difficult to have a meaningful, serious relationship with them.
Each of these signs, by itself, is not indicative of a mental health condition. Taken together, however, they could point toward vulnerable narcissistic personality disorder. For this reason, the question of whether someone can have narcissistic traits but not be a narcissist is best answered by a mental health professional.
How To Deal With A Vulnerable Narcissist Partner
Dealing with a narcissistic partner, whether grandiose or vulnerable, can be an extremely challenging task. Some steps you can take to manage the relationship with a vulnerable narcissist include setting appropriate boundaries, getting a third person’s perspective, and not falling for their narratives.
Here are some detailed tips for dealing with a covert narcissist:
1. Setting appropriate boundaries
Setting firm boundaries with a vulnerable narcissist is absolutely essential if you don’t want to get swamped. It is also a seemingly difficult task because they can be extremely manipulative and will constantly try and test these boundaries. This task can be made doubly difficult if you are overly empathetic to their needs. Remember, they feed off your narcissistic supply and don’t give anything in return.
2. An unbiased perspective is vital
It is easy to get caught up in a relationship with a narcissist, making it difficult for you to realize when you are being manipulated, gaslit, or being taken advantage of. It may even be difficult for you to understand that your partner may have a vulnerable narcissistic personality disorder. After all, you may second-guess yourself with questions such as “Is he a narcissist or just insecure?” or “Does she have narcissistic traits or lack emotional maturity?” It becomes easy to ignore your feelings when faced with this manipulativeness and question your judgment. For this reason, it is important to get a third person’s opinion. Seek the opinion of someone you trust to ascertain if your partner’s behavior is, in fact, problematic.
3. Their feelings are not your responsibility
They will get upset when you set boundaries and stand by them. Don’t let their reactions fool you when they express hurt, especially at the cost of your own emotions. Giving in to their feelings and backing off will only perpetuate the cycle of constantly giving.
4. Keep your emotions separate from theirs
Increased self-consciousness can help you practice detachment from your emotions. Unless you learn detachment, you can get caught up in their emotional roller coaster to your detriment. Rational detachment can come from understanding that their reactions are rooted in their own insecurities and beliefs. Being detached from their reactions will help you maintain your boundaries and not succumb to their manipulations.
5. Don’t buy into their manipulations
Vulnerable narcissists will try every tactic to keep you in line, especially if they feel the relationship is ending. They will even promise to change their behavior and to get back to being the kind narcissist again, if given another chance. Eventually, however, the cycle of narcissistic abuse will resume.
Related Reading: 9 Common Narcissist Gaslighting Examples We Hope You Never Hear
6. Seek help
Being in a relationship with a narcissist can be emotionally exhausting and might affect your self-confidence. A therapist or a mental health professional can help you regain that self-confidence and find the best way forward. The best treatment for vulnerable narcissism is to get your partner to also seek help from a therapist.
- Vulnerable narcissists are shy and introverted characters who are extremely emotionally volatile, anxious, and sensitive
- Vulnerable narcissistic traits include reacting aggressively when faced with any form of criticism and constantly craving validation
- They are extremely manipulative and will try and get their way irrespective of the damage it may cause others
- Their relationships tend to be all about taking, without giving
- The best treatment for vulnerable narcissism involves psychotherapy from a qualified mental health professional
Unlike overt narcissism, vulnerable narcissism is difficult to diagnose. This is because the individual usually presents as shy and withdrawn, and it is difficult to gain their trust. If you suspect your partner may have a vulnerable narcissistic personality disorder, you should seek help. A therapist or a mental health professional can give you a neutral perspective on your relationship and help you set boundaries. Therapy is also the only way to help a narcissist.