Narcissism has become such a frequently-used word in mainstream culture that it has taken on a life of its own. It’s used for everything ranging from a way to informally insult someone to a way of discussing the behavior of reality TV stars. The word has even been applied indiscriminately to describe entire cultural generations.
Though it may have a colloquial definition that isn’t going away anytime soon, the term “narcissist” still has a very specific diagnostic definition in the mental health field. The term is applied to someone who meets the criteria for the diagnosis of Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD), which are laid out in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition.
Individuals who meet the criteria for having NPD can be generally described as having a belief of superiority over others that gives them entitlement to special treatment and an obsession with grandiose fantasies of success and power. Deep down, however, they are very vulnerable to criticism and feelings of shame and go to great lengths to protect their fragile egos. They are also self-absorbed and have lower levels of empathy for others. This may lead them to take advantage of people in their quest for excessive attention and admiration.
Narcissism exists along a spectrum, however, and all those who are diagnosed with NPD do not adhere neatly to this characterization. Researchers have identified three major types of narcissists, each with its own combination of traits. Each of the three categories has different methods of protecting the fragile inner core sense of self, and one of them may even have a different motivation. Within each of the three types, there are also sub-types that characterize how the traits may appear to others.
These different types and sub-types are discussed by many different researchers and mental health professionals. However, they often use different labels to describe the same “type.” In addition, sometimes the researchers use the same label for two different categories even when it is clear that they are describing the same type or sub-type. This makes an understanding of the types of narcissists very difficult to grasp.
This article will consolidate in one place the three major types of narcissists, as well as five subtypes, that have been identified separately using differing terminology by many different researchers and describe how they are related to one another.
The Three Major Types of Narcissists
- Classic Narcissists
Also known as High-Functioning, Exhibitionist, or Grandiose Narcissists, these are the typical narcissists that most people think of when they hear the term “narcissist.” These are the attention-seeking narcissists who brag about their accomplishments, expect others to flatter them, and feel entitled to special treatment. They get bored when the focus of the conversation turns to anyone but themselves, and rarely like to share the spotlight with others. The irony is that they are desperate to feel important, and at the same time they often already perceive themselves to be superior to most people with whom they come into contact.
- Vulnerable Narcissists
Also known as Fragile, Compensatory or Closet Narcissists, they still feel as if they are superior to most people they meet, however, they actually despise the spotlight. They often seek to attach themselves to special people instead of seeking special treatment themselves. They may seek pity or ingratiate others through excessive generosity to receive the attention and admiration they need to boost their sense of self-worth.
- Malignant Narcissists
Also known as Toxic Narcissists, they are highly manipulative and exploitative. These narcissists have many antisocial traits that are not present in the other two major types and are often compared with sociopaths and psychopaths. They often have a sadistic streak that makes them different from the other two major types. Their primary goal is to dominate and control, and they will use deceit and aggression to accomplish it and lack remorse for their actions. They may even enjoy the suffering of others.
- Overt vs. Covert
This sub-type describes whether the narcissist uses methods to get his or her needs met that are more out in the open or whether those methods are more stealthy and secretive. For example, both overt and covert narcissists may put people down, boast, and look for opportunities to take advantage of people, but overt narcissists do so in unmistakable and noticeable ways. Covert narcissists work behind the scenes or are more passive-aggressive. Others may come away not knowing they were manipulated or the narcissist’s tactics may allow him or her to deny what happened. Classic narcissists will always be overt narcissists, and vulnerable narcissists will always be covert narcissists, however, malignant narcissists could be either.
- Somatic vs. Cerebral
This sub-type defines what the narcissist primarily values in himself or herself and in others. Neither sub-type wants to be outshined by their partner, but they do want someone around who enhances their status because, to them, their partners are objects they can show off as if to say, “look what I just obtained for my collection.” Somatic narcissists are obsessed with their bodies, youth and external appearance, spending a lot of time at the gym and in front of mirrors. Cerebral narcissists are the know-it-alls and think of themselves as the most intelligent ones in the room, trying to impress people with their accomplishments and positions of power. Any of the three types of narcissists—classic, vulnerable, or malignant—can be either of these two sub-types.
Some researchers have identified a special type of covert, vulnerable narcissist called an inverted narcissist. These narcissists are thought to be codependent. They seek to attach themselves to other narcissists to feel special, and are only satisfied or happy when they are in relationships with other narcissists. They are victim-narcissists who suffer from childhood abandonment issues.
Because the term narcissist is used so frequently and in such an arbitrary way, it has become difficult to tell when it should be taken seriously, or even to what group of people the term is being applied. Although all narcissists can potentially be exploitative, not all narcissists are alike and one of them is very dangerous. Malignant narcissists can be destructive and abusive, and because they seek to dominate others, lack a conscience, and enjoy the damage they cause, interactions with them are likely to be harmful. Learning how to distinguish these types and how to understand which type is being discussed in reading material about narcissism is crucial.
If you are being mistreated, exploited, or abused by anyone, however, it doesn’t matter what type of narcissist they are or even if they’re a narcissist at all. Run!
Unmasking Narcissism: A Guide to Understanding the Narcissist in Your Life. Berkeley, CA: Althea Press. Greenberg, Elinor. (2017)
How the Three Types of Narcissists Act on a First Date. Psychology Today. Retrieved on March 9, 2017: https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/understanding-narcissism/201712/how-the-3-types-narcissists-act-first-date Vaknin, Sam. (2015). Malignant Self-Love: Narcissism Revisited. Maring-Igor, Skopje, Macedonia.