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The word “Narcissist” has been getting lots of attention in recent years, with familiar descriptors: self-absorbed, arrogant, conceited, etc. When we picture a stereotypical narcissist, we usually envision someone who loves the spotlight, and actively seeks it out. From outward appearances, these people seem confident and solid in their sense of self and “have it all together”.
Not What it Seems
From a clinical perspective, that’s not necessarily the case. In people with these characteristics, there’s a range. Some just have a few of these traits here and there, but at the other end of the spectrum are those whose “confidence” becomes pathological. When it causes problems in relationships, jobs, or other major life areas, it can be a “Narcissistic Personality Disorder“(NPD).
Do these people sound emotionally vulnerable? While it’s not usually obvious, the theory is there is an underlying hypersensitivity at the core. Despite what we see, people with NPD are highly tuned in to what they believe others think of them. Preoccupied with projecting a certain image to the world, they can present themselves in one of two ways. The first is the Grandiose Narcissist, which is the haughty, entitled, arrogant and insensitive image we often think of. The other is less recognizable, the “Vulnerable” Narcissist (VN). The quickest way to tell them apart is that the Grandiose type tends to be more outgoing, and the Vulnerable type is more reserved. Even though their way of engaging with the world looks different, deep down, they are similar.
Let Me Show You My Victimization
While the grandiose type generally implies “My greatness is my greatest quality”, the vulnerable type implies “My greatness makes me a target, and is underappreciated”. Generally reserved, VNs feel victimized in multiple contexts, and one distinctive trait is that they want you see their sensitivity. Given any perceived slight, the defensive reaction will be surprisingly sharp and seem out of proportion to the circumstance.
The message they send is “you are unfairly attacking me”, whether the situation was personal or not. It is about them, and they truly can’t see it any other way most of the time. In their view, people are “out to get them” because of some personal quality they believe puts them above others. As far as they can see, attacking others due to feelings of inferiority is just how most people operate. This is why we also see the vulnerable narcissist go into “stealth attack” mode.
A Grandiose Narcissist may thrive on the game of making others feel inferior by being “top dog”, but the VN sees things more as a matter of survival. By using their quiet demeanor, they “hide” attacks on others. Their arsenal of weapons includes:
- Silence – To punish an offender/enemy, the VN will use the “silent treatment”. The objective is to cause emotional discomfort, leading the other to cave in and behave the way the VN wants.
- Abruptly “checking out” – The VN can have instability in careers, projects, or relationships. Since the environment doesn’t meet their expectations, they will often impulsively leave the situation. In going from one job or relationship to another, they hope in the “next” situation their qualities will be recognized and appreciated, and they will be vindicated when proven right.
- Withholding – Giving someone else accolades or compliments when they are warranted are almost unheard of. Similarly, in a team context they may “set up” others to fail by withholding information needed to succeed. The VN feels threatened by someone who may get credit, and looks for ways to steer the credit toward himself.
Often these “weapons” backfire by harming relationships or careers. The VN can sometimes recognize the ineffective tactic isn’t working and needs to resort to another approach.
Two Masks, One Person
While research has identified the two subtypes of NPD, clinical research is demonstrating that the two types aren’t mutually exclusive. A study by researchers at the University of Kentucky revealed that individuals with NPD will often go back and forth between the two demeanors.
In fact, Narcissists have been said to be volatile in a way similar to someone with Borderline Personality Disorder. Their mood and behavior can change on a dime, and when distressed they even may go to lengths including threatening self-harm, but don’t usually follow through.
Regardless of the presentation, Narcissists’ attempts to preserve their egos often do more harm than good to relationships. Working or living with one is challenging but deep down they aren’t bad people at the core. Pointing their behavior out to them usually doesn’t get very far, will just fan the flames. When someone we love or work with struggles with this, keeping your cool and not getting caught up in emotional traps is key.
Remembering a few things about why they do what they do can go a long way to see past the troublesome behavior:
- They want to know they are valued – We all want to feel like we matter and others value us. For one reason or another, someone with NPD is missing that knowledge at the core. Attempts to show others their value are the best way they know how to fill that need.
- They are doing the best they know how, given the life path they’ve taken – Whether they’ve had poor role models or they’ve tried other ways that haven’t worked, what they’re doing seems the best route for them. They just can’t see that what they do is adding to the problems they’re encountering.
- They have a hard time seeing relationships differently – They are used to conflict or constant comparison. Relationships that work cooperatively are strange territory for them. This is because what they do usually triggers people into responding the way vulnerable narcissists expect, reinforcing their view that it’s normal.
Remembering the reasons for what they do can help you remain detached and cool when things get tense or unpleasant. Also remember their “attacks” and attempts to prove their worthiness are merely self-protective of a true vulnerability. No matter how hard the VN tries, you don’t need take their attempts personally and don’t have to travel down the road of conflict with them.