What Exactly Is Vulnerable Narcissism?

Narcissism goes far deeper than just loving your own reflection in the mirror a little too much.

Scientists have recently discovered differences in the brain structure of those suffering from Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD).

Magnetic imaging resonance reveals that NPD sufferers have abnormalities in an area region of the brain that has been linked to empathy.

This affects their ability to feel and express compassion. That explains a lot of the behavioral traits associated with NPD, but it doesn’t end there.

Just when we thought we had it all figured out, the advent of social media has brought another category of narcissists out of the woodwork – the vulnerable, or covert, narcissist.

Read below to find out more about vulnerable narcissism and how it differs from overt narcissism.

What is the difference between overt and covert narcissism?

Overt, or grandiose, narcissists are easy to spot. They are extroverts, showing a range of unstable emotions and negative behaviors.

They may seem charming and appealing at first, only to become abusive and aggressive as you get to know them.

Vulnerable narcissists come across as unobtrusive, quiet, or even shy. It is this part of their behavior that has kept the disorder under wraps for so long.

Grandiose (or overt) narcissists are very much a one-man talk show.

Vulnerable narcissists will keep you at a distance. This doesn’t mean they are any less into themselves though, or any less abusive.

Narcissism is first mentioned in Greek mythology and the American Psychiatric Association first identified Narcissistic Personality Disorder as early as 1968.

Yet, it has taken the culture of oversharing, which is inherent in Social Media, to flush these covert narcissists out.

Social media is the perfect platform for vulnerable narcissists to put their perfect lives on show. This way, they get attention from a wide audience, without having to interact with anyone.

The symptoms of vulnerable narcissism

In an issue of Psychology Today, Preston Ni, points out the typical traits of covert narcissists.

  • An intense interest in social media platforms like Instagram and Facebook. Despite claims to the contrary, this is not restricted to the generation of millennials, neither are all millennials inherently narcissistic.
  • A smug or superior demeanor. This is usually shown by non-verbal cues like eye-rolling, sighing or fidgeting while listening to others.
  • A high level of self-absorption. They often interrupt conversations with trivia that turns the focus back on to them.
  • Inability to comprehend the thoughts, feelings or well-being of others. They aren’t aware of how their actions affect others.
  • Passive aggressiveness. They may accept an invitation to a party and then never show up. When asked why they behaved in this fashion, no reasonable response is forthcoming.
  • Hypersensitivity to criticism. When faced with criticism, narcissists will fight you to the death. For covert narcissists, ‘flight’ or sulky withdrawal is the only option. This is more due to their disbelief that you could find anything to criticize about them, than actual sensitivity.
  • An air of being misunderstood, under-appreciated and underrated despite their many talents and achievements.
  • Difficult relationships and difficulty in connecting with other people since they believe they are superior to others. They prefer antisocial hobbies and avoid interacting with others as much as possible.

Wavering between feelings of superiority and inadequacy, vulnerable narcissists share several qualities with those suffering from Bipolar Disorder or addiction.

As a result, they are prone to depression and inexplicable outbursts.

What is it like to be a vulnerable narcissist, and are you one?

Everyone has bad days. We all have times when we suffer from low self-esteem and self-centeredness. Yet, these are usually short-lived.

Do any of the below describe some of your own ongoing feelings?

If so, you should consider talking to someone about it. There is help available to assist you in controlling these narcissistic traits.

Switching between feelings of superiority and not being good enough.

Craving recognition

You can never get enough praise and admiration from others. The slightest criticism or unacknowledged achievement deals you a crushing blow.

Your online identity defines you

You are willing to spend hours crafting the perfect life for the outside world to see and maintain it at any cost.  Losing a friend on Facebook is like a death in the family to you.

Feeling underappreciated

You feel affronted if you aren’t held aloft for even the slightest achievement.

If your every move isn’t met with a standing ovation, it’s the end of the world. When recognized for something you did, you feel smugly superior.

You prefer impersonal interactions above face-to-face conversations

Distancing yourself from interpersonal relationships gives you a sense of safety. 

If you do end up in a relationship, you need your partner’s undivided attention and constant reassurance of your worth.

Perhaps you’re okay, but you know of someone else who seems have these issues.

The easiest way to deal with someone suffering from vulnerable narcissism is to avoid the person altogether.

However, they may be a close relative, a colleague, or someone else you can’t just ignore.

Dealing with vulnerable narcissism

Your first line of defense is getting to know the enemy.  In this case, the enemy is the vulnerable narcissism disorder and not the person with the symptoms. Reading articles like this one is a good start.

Understand that this behavior is not directed at you personally. 

Rather, it stems from an inability to empathize with your thoughts and feelings. This will make your dealings with them a lot easier.

Don’t put up with it.  If you are offended or hurt by this type of behavior – explain that you understand where they stem from.

Make it clear that you will not tolerate passive-aggressive abuse.

If the person wants to interact with you, they will be forced to consider their actions when doing so.

In this way, you may help them to realize that their feelings of inadequacy or superiority are unfounded.

Ultimately, this could lead them to seek the psychological help that they need to lead a normal happy life.

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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?

20 thoughts on “What Exactly Is Vulnerable Narcissism?”

    • Good luck telling your EX they are a narcissist. I assure you regardless of how or what you say they will not believe it and give you alternative reasoning for their actions.

    • This am afraid will be a difficult task, if indeed your partner is or has narcissistic tendency’s, they will not accept this as plausible. They will challenge you at every word, what you have to be aware of is he/she may well leave you feeling bad for raising this issue. read this first.
      That did not happen
      if it did it wasn’t that bad
      if it was its no big deal
      if it is its not my fault
      and if it was I didn’t mean it
      if I did
      you deserved it.

  1. Narcissists of any type wouldn’t consider therapy, because they “don’t need it”!

    The best way to deal with a narcissist is to heal yourself. Once you know enough to be able to set boundaries and know your deal-breakers in relationships, you will be able to remove yourself from the narcissist, before the relationship starts.

    • They do exist … like to label the predator….article way off though….VNs do not want help, they blame everyone and everything, but themselves….and when they cannot get their way – the abuse starts, usually mental at first

      • Funny because I AM a vulnerable narcissist, am in a mental hospital getting treatment and am not “in a rage” over admitting I suffer terribly with this problem.

        • Can I asked u a serious question about this please? I believe I’m married to one ? But trying to understand the abusive cycle I’ve been in for 7 years did u up and leave and constantly change places to live like after a year things always changed after a year

        • Hi Brigid, my name is Mary and I am 65 years old. Three years ago I married a man who I loved very much. However, the 8 years we have spent together has been difficult and hurtful for me. Now after he moved out of our beautiful home which he loved and I paid for, I have come to strongly believe that he has NPD the vulnerable type. He is a Vietnam vet and Desert Storm; they have their own issues (PTSD). Now I realize this and my struggles with him make sense. He says he still loves me but blames me for the move, but he’s been married eight times. Shame on me! I still love him, the nice guy side, but there is an impulsive, arrogant, all knowing, all blaming side. I guess I’m writing this because I’m having a hard time letting go, but I know I have to get him out of my life. I just want to say good, good, good for you getting the help you need and so deserve, and stepping up, as I’m sure he would never do.

  2. I happened to look up the phrase “what’s it called when you feel empathy but you use it in your favor?” And after many articles I came upon this one. I have always known I’m clever and good at faking being aloof and oblivious. I didn’t even care when someone would die but I knew the correct emotional response, so I learned to fake it. However I didn’t realize as a kid that it was odd because my parents went from being junkie potheads to conservative penticostal christains and I think k they messed me up a bit with their extreme personality change and it all happened when I was about 7. So I had to create a personality of my own that was extremely good and normal when deep down I knew I wasnt okay. And I think m this made me have depression which turned into bipolar and I just found out we have schitzophrenia in the family too and I feel like the borderline personality disorder fit me and that was what I wA treated me when I was at the hospital. But I only had to go to the hospital because I messed up my persona act and was caught Nx lost all my friends and basically tried to kill myself (or not like it could have been an act to get attention?) But I can see alot of the narrcesstic vulnerable traits in .e after reading this article. What triggered this thought was because I have been working my way up the corporate latter at .t job because I am really good at it but today my boss told me the other person on our team has been put on job in jepordy because she hasn’t been working hard enough. However I knew she was and long story short she cried in front of me and I felt it like I felt empathy but I knew I wasn’t really feeling sorry for her. If anything I faked it subconsciously and that is the problem. I have gotten so used to lyjng that it’s my normal and it helps me but I don’t know how to stop it… I don’t even know if I want to because I have made it so far in my job that if the other person gets fired I’ll be safe for good. And I know my boss is next… It’s not even me doing it, but it is. Like I don’t care but I do. I cry out for help but then I take it back k. I want to change but I am also happy this way. The only thing that hurts. E is knowing it’s impossible to love me and love someone else. And that is all I care about. I am afraid of hell too if being Gay is a sin. I can’t imagine how anyone could love a narcissist if that is what I am. It just makes everything worse for others while I’m happy living this way until I’m alone in my bed and reality hits me and says yeah you are hopeless but at least you are good at pretending to be hopeful. Like I’ll change if I want to but not when I need to. I’m feeling better knowing this is what I have potentially.

  3. I am a VN. All traits suit me well. Fucking shit. I am going through depression right now and I am continuously seeking help through psychotherapy but the best thing that can help me is by realizing what really am I.

    I know this will end. I will heal someday.

    I am planning to leave my work now but I am considering to change my decision but how can I perform well if my boss is GN?

    Everything will be okay. I will continue my medication and my counselling.

  4. The stigma’s surrounding the topic of Narcissism by others pot shots above speaks to so much of what is wrong with us all. Everyone has Narcissitic traits inside us all. I’ve learned this in therapy and read it elsewhere. Some of us have had bad God awful pasts (CPTSD from childhood trauma bonds from spiritual religious emotional and sexual molestation from older sibling with an extreme “you will go to Hell if you are not saved” narc Mother and Father who sucked me for everything they could until the both passed in 2018 and i can assure others I feel empathy and if I have this VN with PTSD from my ex-wife leaving me 9 months ago this is starting to make more sense why I am in such bad shape and why seeing 2 therapists already and being on medication and massive diet and nutrition changes a few months ago leading up to reading this article is huge for me. We need a massive shift in how all people are blaming, shaming and guilting other humans over conditions like VN types that are putting in the F****** work to get better and healthier in our lives and out relationships.

  5. As someone with Narcasistic tendencies or possibly NPD. I was told that I had co dependency by an ex and whist it was very upsetting to be told this it did get me thinking and after lots of reading I came to the decision that it was far worse and more likely to be NPD. How horrid. I had been selfish and needy and frankly wasnt the partner I wish I coud have been. I tried hard to change and of course contiued to make mistakes but him telling me did make me rethink my behaviour. It did help me being told that. However, I would not recommend it, as it is likely to me met with aggression because frankly no one wants to be told their a naracist especially not someone for whom others opinion of them means so much. Also frankly, if you are hoping they will get better and suddenly be the love you deserve. It’s unlikely. I can tell you I didn’t make any progress until he left me and even now I still struggle with being normal, not selfish etc.

  6. I’m married to one. I didnt put a name to it tll about 5 yrs ago. REFUSING to put up with it does NOT work (“Oh, I’ll LEAVE if you feel like that!” being the only response I’ve ever got. ) The silence and huffy, snidey “oh, VERY nice!” comments to any banal remark I make to break silence is VERY wearing & stressful.

  7. A narcissist by nature is incapable of self reflection, due to their constant projection of their own faults onto others. My VN partner told me he does not need a therapist because 1) he’s better than all of them 2) he’s more intelligent than all of them and 3) there’s nothing wrong with him to begin with (this way he will always be superior and always playing the victim, and he never has to look at his own behavior).


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