Peeking Inside The Mind Of The Vulnerable Narcissist

Not all narcissists are created equal. Here is how to understand the 'vulnerable narcissist.'

By Mark Travers, Ph.D. | April 3, 2022

Selfishness, a sense of entitlement, a lack of empathy, and a strong need for admiration are all characteristics of narcissism.

New research appearing in Personality and Individual Differences examines the relationship between a specific type of narcissism, called vulnerable narcissism, and a variety of noxious interpersonal behaviors.

"Vulnerable narcissism is broadly defined in terms of hyper-sensitivity to rejection, negative emotion, social isolation, a distrust of others, and increased levels of anger and hostility," says co-author of the study Ana Blasco-Belled of the University of Girona in Spain. "We came up with the idea of testing the connection between vulnerable narcissism and dispositions towards ridicule and laughter."

To gain a better understanding of this phenomenon, the researchers asked over 400 undergraduate students to complete questionnaires measuring their levels of vulnerable narcissism as well as their attitudes toward situations involving ridicule and laughter. The questionnaire was designed to assess three types of behavior:

  1. People's fear of being laughed at or being the topic of mockery
  2. A possible feeling of joy and/or reward in being laughed at
  3. And, feeling pleasure in exploiting and putting others down through mockery

Researchers discovered that people who scored higher on the vulnerable narcissism scale were less likely to fear being laughed at and more likely to enjoy laughing at others. Vulnerable narcissists were also more likely to report using isolation and social withdrawal to avoid interactions in which they might feel vulnerable, shamed, or inferior.

"Vulnerable narcissism is considered an internalizing trait, meaning that it is characterized by high levels of neuroticism and low levels of agreeableness and extraversion," says Blasco-Belled. "The inner experience of inferiority or the paranoid fear of being criticized and rejected is something 'built in' vulnerable narcissists."

The study also identified two other key dimensions of vulnerable narcissism, neurotic introversion and antagonism, which are discussed below.

  1. Neurotic introversion — Avoidance and social withdrawal used by vulnerable narcissists to avoid exposing their fragile self by hiding their feelings and evaluations of inferiority, shame, and envy against others
  2. Neurotic antagonism — Projecting aggressive feelings onto other people and attempting to express their own feelings in secret

The authors highlight how vulnerable narcissists' behaviors can have a variety of negative consequences, including depression, anxiety, withdrawal, feelings of hostility, and social ostracism — and they provide a compelling example of how vulnerable narcissism can manifest in the workplace.

"To characterize this, let's introduce a vulnerable narcissistic co-worker and call him Vladi," says Blasco-Belled. "Vladi would think: 'I'm really afraid that someone could hurt me, but I also want people to admire me. (This represents the high psychological fragility and entitled expectations of vulnerable narcissism.) However, people don't demonstrate signs of admiration towards me (because vulnerable narcissists expect others' reactions but do nothing so that reactions appear), and therefore I feel ashamed.' As a result of the negative self-evaluation, Vladi would engage in hostile behaviors against himself and the others."

"At the end, Vladi's colleagues had no idea what had happened because all the story was inwardly developed by Vladi," says Blasco-Belled. "But, in exchange, they just watched the 'end' of the film, which is Vladi manifesting (even secretly) his antagonistic attitudes."

A full interview with Ana Blasco-Belled can be found here: A psychology professor explains what it means to be a vulnerable narcissist