What is Fragile Narcissism?

People with classic Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) often seem conceited, boastful and arrogant.

They monopolize conversations and have a strong sense of entitlement.

If they don’t receive the ‘special treatment’ to which they feel entitled, they become visibly impatient or angry.

Narcissists insist on having “the best” of everything — the best car, country club, neighborhood and social circles. People with NPD disparage and bully people that they consider inferior.

But underneath all the arrogant, overly confident behavior lies fragile self-esteem.

Narcissists do not have the coping skills necessary to deal with anything they perceive as criticism, whether it was meant that way.

It is not unusual for them to erupt in a rage or show stony contempt over a mild slight.

Some authors believe this is due to a profound sense of shame and humiliation that they try to hide, deny or keep secret.

They tend to make themselves feel superior by demeaning and insulting others.

A study in 2008 by Shedler and Westen et al suggested the official diagnostic criteria for Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) was too constricted.

—> Read Our Guide To Narcissists In Relationships

Their research revealed that in addition to the “classic” arrogant narcissist with an over-inflated self-concept, there is also a “fragile” narcissist whose grandiose behavior is actually a defense for underlying feelings of inferiority and inadequacy.

Analysis of their research indicated three distinct subtypes of NPD: “grandiose/malignant,” “fragile” and the “high-functioning/exhibitionist.”

The grandiose (or malignant) subtype is characterized by marked arrogance, contempt for others and a strong belief that they should only associate with other people as special as they are (or more powerful).

A fragile narcissist displays the typical characteristics associated with NPD but also tends to be gloomy and depressed.

The high-functioning/exhibitionistic narcissist also exhibits the typical characteristics of NPD (especially the over-inflated self-view) but appears more socially at ease and highly articulate.


Grandiose/malignant narcissists

“Exploit others with little regard for their welfare.” They have an exaggerated sense of self-importance,

feel privileged and entitled, have little empathy, put their own needs first and tend to be critical and controlling of others.

Reading Suggestions:

Grandiose/malignant narcissism is characterized by seething anger, interpersonal manipulativeness,

pursuit of interpersonal power and control, lack of remorse, exaggerated self-importance, and feelings of privilege.

Grandiose/malignant narcissists do not appear to suffer from underlying feelings of inadequacy or to be prone to negative affect states other than anger.

They have little insight into their own behavior and tend to blame others for their problems.

Fragile narcissists

Experience alternating feelings of grandiosity and inadequacy. They tend to be unhappy, critical of others, anxious, envious, competitive, and have extreme reactions to perceived slights or criticism.

Fragile narcissism is characterized by grandiosity that serves a defensive function, warding off painful feelings of inadequacy, smallness, anxiety, and loneliness.

The fragile narcissist wants to feel important and privileged, and when defenses are operating effectively, he does. However, when the defenses fail, there is a powerful undercurrent of negative affect and feelings of inadequacy, often accompanied by rage.

High-functioning/exhibitionistic narcissists

Are “grandiose, competitive, attention-seeking and sexually seductive or provocative.” They tend to be highly articulate, energetic and goal-oriented.

High-functioning narcissists also have significant psychological strengths (e.g., being articulate, energetic, interpersonally comfortable, achievement-oriented).

*as reported by Canada.com news story


  • Frequently feels unhappy, depressed, or hopeless
  • Overly critical of others
  • Has exaggerated sense of self-importance
  • Often feels anxious
  • Feels envious
  • Feelings of emptiness
  • Sense of entitlement
  • Feelings of inadequacy, inferiority, or feeling like a failure

Interestingly, fragile narcissists share many characteristics in common with Borderline Personality Disorder and malignant narcissists share characteristics more in line with Antisocial Personality Disorder.

Indeed, the combinations are often diagnosed together. However, there is a significant difference in how they respond to emotions and even which emotions they respond to.

Fragile narcissists are better at accessing emotions like insecurity and weakness;

malignant narcissists are better at shielding themselves from these emotions using their feelings of over- confidence and high self-worth. 

Fragile narcissists overcompensate for low self-esteem with a mask of over-confidence whereas malignant narcissists genuinely believe in their superiority.

Fragile narcissists often view themselves as victims and, unlike malignant narcissists, they do care about what others think of them.

Probably the most significant difference between malignant and fragile narcissists is which emotions they feel (wherein the malignant narcissists don’t feel):

  • With their low self-esteem, fragile narcissists experience helplessness, anxiety, and depression-especially when people don’t treat them as they expect to be treated.
  • They feel shamed and humiliated by criticism or when others challenge their superior self-image.
  • They experience anxiousness, bitterness, dissatisfaction, and disempowerment.
  • They suffer from many of the same emotions as people with Borderline Personality Disorder such as feelings of emptiness and inadequacy. Other people tend to describe them as sensitive and emotional. They are often preoccupied with fears of rejection or abandonment. They are touchy, quick to be offended, and easily provoked.

They also have different behaviors from the classic or high functioning narcissist. A fragile narcissist:

  • Swings back and forth between acting superior and feeling hurt
  • Tendency toward self-destructive behavior if a partner points out their weaknesses
  • Accuses their partner of having affairs and may be obsessive about preventing that from happening
  • Has a typical pattern of seeking the “perfect” mate and then demanding that mate tell him he’s important and loved


  1. http://www.canada.com/topics/news/national/story.html?id=9682bc44-89a9-4653-804d-ebda6817a4a6
  2. http://ajp.psychiatryonline.org/article.aspx?articleid=100331
  3. http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/narcissistic-personality-disorder/basics/symptoms/CON-20025568
  4. http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/stop-walking-eggshells/201204/why-they-cant-feel-joy-narcissistic-shallow-emotions
Photo of author

Alexander Burgemeester

Alexander Burgemeester has a Master in Neuropsychology. He studied at the University of Amsterdam and has a bachelor's in Clinical Psychology. Want to know more?

15 thoughts on “What is Fragile Narcissism?”

  1. After reading about the fragile narcissist, this the first time I actually feel remorse for the one I had to walk away from. I wished him harm for so long, but now I think I can release this. I became him for a long time, taking on his traits, it’s finally over.

    • This was the missing piece of info that I needed to finally distinguish what type of narc I’ve been dealing with all these years! Reading about the “fragile” narc painted a perfect picture of my FN brother. It was the drastic contrast between the MN and FN that made me question if my brother was a bonafide Narc or the more pitiable BPD. He does exhibit traits of both but I can now see the predominant FN trait of an overtly sensitive, defense mechanism, prone to rage when he perceives criticism (real or imagined). My mother is a typical MN that lives in the past and feeds off of negative emotional pain that she then dishes out to my father (which suffers from OCD and paranoid schizophrenia) and other siblings. Her step children from my father’s first wife were treated extremely bad both emotionally and physically but she also visited hell upon her own flesh and blood whenever she pleased- and usually during a time when we were happiest and just trying to enjoy ourselves! She couldn’t stand how somebody could be happy without her being present and despite her obvious attempts to snuff out all joyous occasions. Fast forward to the present time, after all the damage that she has done, there remains the denial of any evil doing by either of them.

      A near death experience between the four of us, which I won’t get into here, and how that horrible experience is being used by both Narcs to add even more insult to both mental and physical injuries is beyond insane. How I have survived this with even a shred of my soul intact is a miracle indeed. However, the threat of uncertainty about what may happen next is seriously straining my ability to cope. I walk around my own house armed with a knife and a gun under my belt. It’s the only piece of mind I can get knowing that I can defend my right to live under the same roof with all these volatile and dangerous narcs that I am caged up with (by choice at first but out of necessity now). If I had the means to leave I would do it in a heartbeat, but I would have to do it without so much as a warning or else things could get ugly real quick!

      I’ve been a willing, but mostly unwilling, victim of these narcs my whole life. Not really ever knowing just what I was dealing with until recently. I’ve taken all sorts of drugs to cope with the misery they’ve caused me, some of which dull my emotions to the point of not caring what happens to myself or others because of this abuse. Other siblings not living with me are some form of narc or another personality disorder and it doesn’t do any good confronting them with the truth of the matter. I’ve been made to feel that their failures in life are my doing or somebody else’s and they never except responsibility for their actions or behavior, but when they do they always justify their actions as just and righteous.

      I swear to you, sometimes they will even justify the thought of killing other family members and think they would be exonerated from these actions as a means of self defense or necessity! I’ve given my all to these bloodsuckers but they will never have enough self esteem to go out into this world and get their own life! They’ve drained me time and time again and they are the most vindictive and conniving leaches I’ve ever known! I know there are good people out there, as I have met some of them, but sometimes I feel cursed to die here amongst these souls suckers.

      I can’t believe the depths of depravity that I’ve had to endure in order to survive the constant attacks on my individuality and my humanity. That I have to live thinking I might have to defend my right to live with deadly force is driving me mad. I’ve become a product of their insecurity, a threat to their way of life and a beaten dog that is struggling not to bite back…

    • my husband is a FN and, like you, I was enraged for so long! Having learned what drives his behavior and equating this with mental illness has helped me a great deal. Doesn’t excuse his behavior, it just makes it easier for me to deal with emotionally – and manage him to get what I need done.

      Glad you were able to release this. It’s a great start to healing.

      • Hi there,
        same for me. Knowing myself and my partner always makes me way better at handling difficulties. Hope all went well with you and your husband til now!

  2. Another thing I’d like to add is the fact that my FN brother would quickly join the ranks of a MN if he ever does make something of himself out in this world. When he imagines what he will accomplish when he acheives a position of power, you can see his inner evil turn up a notch as he describes how he would lay waste to all the haters and his perceived “oppressors” i.e. “enablers”… It just makes me sick to my stomach and ashamed to be related to such sick people!

    • What gettingbackmylife says is so true: my husband is a FN who is occasionally very financially successful and quickly morphs into a MN. He lives and dies by business deals! From the time my kids were very young they realized he was unliveable when things were not going well and on an ego high when they were.
      The hard part is trying to separate from this FN. He pulls out all the stops-threatening suicide (in front of kids), extreme verbal abuse, sexual aggression, etc. Then manipulates them to believe I am the evil one. My patience and empathy are worn out–he won’t leave and has them siding with him. So what now? I leave my kids?

      • Pack up your car and, with them, leave in the middle of the night.. Take only necessary personal/unduplitacable items, and leave the rest behind, for it is all material and can all be replaced – your sanity and your kids’ emotional and psychological welfare and stability can not!
        It know it sounds a lot easier to say than to actually put into motion, but once you have summoned up the courage and actually done it, you will feel so much better.. You’ll be free- maybe not completely from contact from him for a while, that depends on him- but physically at least, and your kids will be safe from his torture..
        If you wish, change your number as soon as you’ve left and go somewhere where he won’t think to look for you, and so can’t find you.
        Then communicate with him ONLY through legal avenues.
        File for divorce immediately, and try to get some sort of custody orders in place for your kids.. If he is the charming manipulator that they so often are, he will try every tactic he possibly can to get the authorities on his side- he will victimise himself, making you look abusive. Tell about the times you showed anger and broke something, hit something/someone, screamed at him and the kids heard you- failing to mention that he was the cause of your said rage- he will tell complete and utter lies, purely out of his own rage, and merely because he will be afraid you will “out” him. He may even file for sole custody himself, and bring up any dirt on you he can find, but only as a way to get back at you and make you react, not because he actually cares about the kids, much less wants to raise them!
        To prepare yourself for these tirades, and to protect you and the kids from these future possibilities, try and gather as much info on/about him that you possibly can before you decide to leave.. Keep a diary and write down every thing you can- what he said to yourself or the kids, or anyone else, what yours or their reactions were, how you and they felt, ect- try to remember any untrue stories he may have told you, or flat out lies, either about himself or anyone else, and try to get friends/family/support people who may be aware of these lies to back you up on these, and, this is critical- make sure you find yourself a lawyer who has dealt with narcissists before! Even if it means you have to speak to 3,4 or 5 before you find the right one!! They will need to understand exactly what they’re dealing with- there’s only so much you can explain to someone who is naive to this behaviour, and if someone has no clue or personal insight, they will not see through the facade and will be played, which may have bad results and repercussions for you.. They need to truly comprehend the situation at hand to be able to play opponent to the narcs games, and win- which may even mean sometimes giving him what he wants, or asks for, or telling him what he wants to hear, but without compromising yourself- only someone with experience in this field will know how to achieve this result.. You may even want to suggest to your lawyer that, if possible, you want your N to undergo a psychological assessment, and if he is in fact diagnosed with any form of NPD, you can then request that he only have limited “visitational access” with the children for the sake of their safety. Remember, NO CONTACT!! Just because you have dependant children, does not mean YOU need to have contact with him at all.. There are ways around this, and is necessary for your healing.. I wish you all the best, and hope for yours and your kids’ sake you can find the courage and means to leave this monster behind for good.. Good luck!!
        Survivor of a MN/FN..

        • Also, something else that is of super high importance to the long road of recovery, is to tell your kids the truth!!
          This doesn’t mean to appoint blame upon one partner or the other, or ‘bag’ your husband to your kids- it simply means letting them know that the break down of the marriage is NOT their fault, it has nothing to do with them, and that it is over for good, never to be reconciled. Children often blame themselves when their parents break up, and it can eat them up inside, as create varying anxiety issues for some. Esp those who are victims of parental N abuse. They also often believe as hope that their parents will get back together, so if this is not going to be the case, it’s important they know that.. They need to be told that the reason for the break down is due to abuse, and that abuse is unacceptable in any true form of the word. Teach them that they are important individuals, and that, if they feel “wrong” or “ostracised” by the way a person is speaking to/treating them (in this instance, their N father) then they have the right so stand up and say “no” to them, and him they don’t deserve the treatment being dished out, and regardless of what he may say in response, they should never feel guilty for trying to protect themselves. Let them know that his abuse and responses/retaliation to their self defence is a reflection of his own lack of self control, and absolutely nothing to do with the children or their being.. Kids are very resilient, but also very absorbent.. They take in information and learn from it, and are easily emotionally manipulated and black mailed.. It is important they know exactly what and who their father is, so they are better equipped to deal with it. They may not fully understand right now, — depending on their ages and how much he has already ‘got to them, – nor may they want to, but they will eventually work him out, and thus be able to further protect themselves from him.. But you need to make those first steps in teaching them how to- what to expect and how to defend.
          Take care and all the best.

        • Great advice… really. I wish I had read this before I left my ex husband. I don’t know what was more traumatic… the marriage, which took time to gather the courage to leave as I knew he wouldn’t let me go quietly, or the events that took place after I left. It left me broken and a shadow of my former self… angry at the world and how it and the law failed me by allowing his control over me to continue for far longer than it should have… there was just no escaping and I still fear further repercussions for having had the audacity to leave him.

  3. My partner’s just been diagnosed “anxious- avoidant”, which I would have agreed to, in the beginning.But due to several behaviours, things he does and says, I’ve started finding out more, I suppose. as a partner one just knows way more than what patience thell their therapists or write in the forms. I’ve expected him to be a Narc, but he’s just not as obviously a Narc as public paints it. Two years ago I found out my mother’s a Narc, so my father and my brother are, but for my mother- I’d never ever expected this. I’m just wondering- my partner’s getting CBT now, but what can it really do for him? Knowing his childhood, I’ve always known he needed a “proper” therapy as he’s kept on suppressing things til the age of 48…..

  4. High functioning N. Awful to deal with and generally finds it has a follower that is infatuated with him. He’ll stop at nothing t get his way or he just drops and waits to manipulate someone to bail him out. Completely emotionless with outburst of anger. Wish there was a support group locally.

  5. My ex is a fragile narc and an alcoholic. I had no idea he was either until it was far too late. It’s been 2 years and the sad thing is, I really miss him. I know he has an illness/personality disorder, but I truly miss him when I thought he loved me. Pathetic?

    • Not pathetic. Narcissists can be extremely charming and have the ability to make you feel on incredibly special… until their cracks appear and eventually all that charm and charisma and ‘confidence’ crumble away to expose an arrogant, abusive and unapologetic manipulator.

  6. mine was female. Three years with her and every day a total LIE – sadistic in not the word. Ritual humiliation, countless sexual exploits often when I was in the vicinity – made it her life goal to absolutely destroy me in every way. involved in sexual debauchery, incest with younger brother. Absolute nightmare. finding it very difficult.

  7. I disagree with this article. Spend enough time around narcissist, even malignant ones, and they all have that fragile core. its part of having narcissistic personality disorder. Pathological narcissist oscilate between grandiosity and vulnerability, they are described at overt or covert depending on which state they mainly present or their present state at diagnosis. You may be conflating “fragile” narcissism with covert narcissism, which would be somebody who displays selfish narcissism with alot of BPD traits. The kind who says “woe is me” and traps others with victimhood.

    Furthermore, there are both malignant covert, and malignant overt narcissist. There can be a “fragile” narcissist with anti social traits. The narcissist you’re describing seems to be the kind people describe as “overt” or somebody who is outwardly arrogant, domineering and grandiose. Again malignant narcissism is on a different spectrum, they aren’t opposite neccessarily. Not to mention, NPD in general is a self esteem disorder, so even if they present as grandiose, or covert, they all have the same, wounded core. Maybe youre describing somebody with narcissistic traits, or just an egotistical person. NPD at its core, regardless of which traits they display, is due to a fractured sense of self and a need for the outside world to mirror it back to them. I think you should research NPD more before making public articles, because this article contradicts scientific literature and is more anecdotal then anything. Peace


Leave a Comment