Narcissists come in two main varieties, each posing very different challenges for relationships. The two types also pose very different prospects for change. Telling the diffference between these egotistical characters can be difficult at times, so it’s important to know the signs that can help you distinguish the two (For more on the topic of narcissism see the current series of articles beginning with Personality and Character Disorders – The Narcissism Dimension, Narcissism Revisited in Light of New Research, and Malignant Narcissism).
When I was gathering clinical information for my first book In Sheep’s Clothing, I became painfully aware that there were two very different kinds of narcissists. I described one one as the more “neurotic” type and the other as a more purely character-disturbed type. Researchers have recently also concluded that narcissists are indeed of two main varieties but have given the types different labels: “grandiose” vs. “vulnerable.” But however you choose to label them, each kind of narcissist poses unique challenges for those having to deal with them.
We’ve all had experiences with each of type of narcissist. There are those folks who act like they’re great and those truly believe (or possibly even know) they’re superior. There are those who seem to both crave and thrive on attention and adulation, and those who demand homage. There are those with a need to be loved and admired and those who are already so enamored of themselves that they truly don’t care what others think (in fact some narcissists think it merely a poor reflection on you if you don’t appreciate how great they know they are). Each narcissistic type is very different in overall character, which makes all the difference in how they’re likely to relate to you.
Traditional theories (of neurosis) and perspectives conceptualized only one type of narcissist and advanced some interesting explanations for why such folks behave as they do. These theories viewed all narcissists essentially esteem damaged individuals who do their best appear perfect and therefore worthy of adulation but who underneath it all fear they’re both inept and unlovable. Their outward haughtiness was seen as an unconscious attempt to compensate for underlying feelings of insecurity and inadequacy. But experience taught me that while there were indeed some folks like these traditional perpectives described, there were many more who didn’t fit the model very well and some who didn’t fit the model at all. These were folks who truly thought of themselves as special, superior, and therefore, entitled, and lacked the “narcsissitic vulnerability” of their more “neurotic” counterparts (I discuss such types at length in Character Disturbance). And now research is bearing out this view quite solidly.
Whether you’re a man or a woman or whether you’re dealing with a male or female narcissist, it’s can be difficult to differentiate between the two types from just outward appearances and behaviors. Both types can project an air of self-confidence. Both can appear to have a need to be praised, and valued. And both can act in ways that reflect an indiffernce to rights, needs, and feelings of others. But upon closer inspection there are some fairly reliable ways that can help you tell the difference. When it comes to the “vulnerable” or more “neurotic” narcissist, the signs can sometimes be subtle, but they’re nontheless fairly reliable.
Signs of a more “vulnerable” (neurotic) narcissist:
- Emotional sensitivity. These folks actually care what others think of them. Their egos are fairly fragile and they’re both anxious and hypersensitive about their social image. They can’t seem to help comparing themselves to others and come across as having “something to prove.” They can’t easily delight in someone else’s success because of how it might make them look by comparison. Vulneable narcissists frequently “bait” others into affording them the attention, recognition, and praise they need to feel good about themselves. They “fish” for compliments. This is a one of the more overt signs of their vulnerability.
- A sense of shame. Vulnerable narcissists hate looking bad and have obvious emotional reactions in situations that invite embarrassment. They’re hypersensitive to criticism and when disapproved of take steps to prove themselves worthy. They take notice of others’ reaction to them, as it matters to them how they are perceived. Sometimes, they even “re-invent” themselves based on the feedback they get from those they have offended in some way. They both need and want to be thought well of, so they do what they need to do to fashion an image of which they can be proud.
- Empathy. While this aspect of personality is sometimes difficult to observe directly it shows up in a number of ways. Because vulnerable narcissists want to be seen in a positive light, not only does it upset them when their image is tarnished, but when they’ve done something that truly injures or incurs the disfavor of others, while they might be “in denial” about it for a time, they feel bad about the damage they’ve done and are motivated to make things better. Of course, they often do this in a way quite unique to narcissists, putting more energy into tactics that help them re-fashion a more favorable self-image as opposed to working hard to make amends to those they’ve injured.
The more purely character-disturbed or “gandiose” narcissists have some very different features, which I’ll be discussing in the next article. And while there’s some evidence that male narcissists more often tend to be of the grandiose vs. vulnerable variety, no matter whether they’re male or female and no matter how their narcissism is manifested, these narcissists pose bigger problems in relationships and much steeper challenges when it comes to prospects for change. So you’ll want to pay particular attention to the telltale signs you’re dealing with such a narcissist that I’ll be outlining in the upcoming post.
Sunday’s Character Matters program (7 pm EST, 4pm PST) will again be live so I can take your calls.
Wishing all of you a truly happy and prosperous New Year. My resolution for the coming year: To do my best while I still have the health and faculties to do so at training professionals as possible across the country to better recognize and deal with character-related problems. That effort begins in earnes Jan 20.