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 that they perceive as criticism, whether it was meant that way or not. 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. 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. 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 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