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How to Spot a Vulnerable Narcissist: 9 Signs and Symptoms

  • Vulnerable narcissists have similar levels of self-absorption as overt narcissists.
  • But unlike overt narcissists, vulnerable narcissists tend to be shy and sensitive to criticism.
  • Vulnerable narcissists may also blame others for their mistakes and get anxious in social situations.

When people think of narcissists, they typically picture people who love to be the center of attention and openly think super highly of themselves. These people are known as grandiose or overt narcissists.

However, there are multiple types of narcissists, and some of them don’t act in this way. On the flip side are the vulnerable or covert narcissists, who may be harder to spot since their narcissism is less obvious to an outsider.

Here’s what you need to know about the signs of being a vulnerable narcissist and treatment for narcissistic personality disorder.

What is a vulnerable narcissist?

When it comes to narcissistic personality disorder, there are some overarching traits, even among the different types of narcissists.

One of the main traits is that narcissists — even the vulnerable ones — have a heightened sense of self-worth or status, says Michael Wusicka clinical psychologist at Dynamic State Behavioral Health.

Some other general signs of NPD are:

  • Feeling entitled
  • needing admiration
  • Looking down on other people as “inferior”
  • taking advantage of people
  • Disregarding others’ feelings and needs

Grandiose narcissists tend to display these traits openly, while it’s more subtle with vulnerable narcissists. Unlike grandiose narcissists, vulnerable narcissists:

  • May appear shy: Upon first meeting a vulnerable narcissist, they might seem shy, introverted, or self-conscious, even though they are self-absorbed and still think they’re better than others. On the flip-side, grandiose narcissists are usually extroverted and openly confident or cocky.
  • Are much more sensitive to criticism: Wusik says vulnerable narcissists are extremely averse to any real or ridiculous potential due to their insecurity, so they cope with this by socially withdrawing, getting aggressive, or acting defensive if they think their abilities are being questioned. Grandiose narcissists are less insecure than vulnerable narcissists and tend to believe they’re better than others.
  • Have higher levels of anxiety: Like grandiose narcissists, vulnerable narcissists possess a very strong belief of their own abilities and superiority. But the difference is that they have higher levels of neuroticism and anxiety, which make them try very hard to avoid scrutiny, says Wusik.

Signs of a vulnerable narcissist

Since a vulnerable narcissist’s behavior isn’t always so obvious, it’s important to be aware of the signs to look out for.

Some typical signs of vulnerable narcissism are:

1. They avoid certain social situations: Vulnerable narcissists may avoid social situations that involve a task or game where they won’t perform as well as others. Wusik says they worry about looking worse than others or risk seeming incompetent — so they may avoid situations to avoid this.

2. They’re prone to anger when they don’t succeed: When they aren’t the best at something, they are not okay with it. “Failure, or anything less than total success, feels punishing to these individuals. Not succeeding is a threat to their identity and this, in turn, triggers anger and at times, rage,” Wusik says.

3. They play the blame game: If they don’t succeed at something, they put the blame on anything but themself, such as if someone else fell short in doing their part or they didn’t have the right tools. “These individuals are quick to protect their identity as a successful person by distributing blame for failure,” Wusik says.

4. They’re envious: Even though they have an inflated sense of self, they still get jealous of other people. Wusik says they may feel envious of people who are experiencing success, and they even might feel like it’s unfair that others are successful.

5. They’re self-absorbed: Like grandiose narcissists, vulnerable narcissists are self-absorbed, too. It just isn’t as obvious. For example, they can worry about themselves so much to the point that they are unable to care about others’ emotions, says Katherine Glaser, a licensed clinical social worker at Thriveworks.

6. They’re hypersensitive to criticism: They can’t cope with feedback or criticism. Wusik says they tend to find any feedback as harsh, unfair, or unjustified. Ironically, they are often extremely critical of other people, says Glaser.

7. They’re worried about how they’re perceived by others: Vulnerable narcissists care a lot about what people think of them. They worry about how others see them, and they may look out for opportunities where they can show off their skills in a natural way, Wusik says.

8. They’re prone to negative emotions: It’s common for vulnerable narcissists to feel depressed, empty, or useless. “These feelings are more pronounced when they feel socially rejected or that they are being unfairly criticized. This is all based on their perception of the situation, rather than the objective facts of the situation,” Wusik says.

9. They use people: Glaser says it’s common for vulnerable narcissists to use other people. They will end relationships after they can no longer get what they need out of the person, she says.

Treatment for narcissistic personality disorder

Treatment of NPD is tricky because usually, someone with the disorder doesn’t seek help. “Most narcissists do not think that anything is wrong with them or any of their behaviors are an issue — it’s everyone else around them,” Glaser says.

However, if they end up seeking help for symptoms of anxiety or depression, Glaser says a mental health professional might be able to spot the NPD during their assessment and help have some self-awareness creep in.

Still, someone with NPD might not think they need treatment for it, even after a mental health professional offers a diagnosis. Change can be possible for someone with NPD — but only if the individual can recognize the problem and see the benefit they’d experience, says Glaser.

Other times, loved ones may have taken notice of behavior patterns over months or years and suggest or urge a narcissist to get help, which can be really difficult for a narcissist to hear, and they may get defensive.

There is no universal treatment for NPD when it comes to therapy or medication. However, long-term psychotherapy (talk therapy) is common.

“These are individuals who are very likely to present problems in therapy and quickly report how well they solved them or to downplay the difficulty of them,” Wusik says.

It’s also important to address co-occurring disorders, such as depression and anxiety. In these cases, medications such as antidepressants or anti-anxiety meds may help.

Insider’s takeaway

A vulnerable narcissist is someone who has a heightened sense of self and in a way, believes they’re superior — but at the same time, they feel a vulnerability and insecurity surrounding it all.

They are harder to spot than the “typical” grandiose narcissist who is loud and outgoing, but ultimately, many of the challenges they face in their day-to-day life are similar.

It’s possible to get NPD under control so it doesn’t interfere with quality of life. Long-term therapy can help, along with treating any other mental health conditions that are present.

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