A Psychology Professor Explains What It Means To Be A Vulnerable Narcissist

Researcher Ana Blasco-Belled discusses the intricacies of vulnerable narcissism.

By Mark Travers, Ph.D. | March 29, 2022

A new study published in the Journal of Personality and Individual Differences investigates the relationship between individuals with vulnerable narcissism and how this might impact the behaviors of having a fear of being laughed at (gelotophobia) and experiencing joy when laughing at others (katagelasticism).

I recently spoke to researcher Ana Blasco-Belled from the University of Girona, Spain to gain a better understanding of the nature of these behaviors. Here is a summary of our conversation.

What inspired you to investigate the topic of vulnerable narcissism, how did you study it, and what did you find?

Despite my main field of research being the study of well-being and positive mental health, interest in the research of narcissism is mushrooming in psychological science. During my Ph.D, I carried out an international stay at the Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński University in Warsaw. During that time, I met one of the most promising young researchers in the topic, Dr. Radosław Rogoza, who introduced me to the field of the Dark Triad.

He has developed, along with Dr. Jan Cieciuch, a theoretical model to cover the vulnerable half of the narcissism spectrum model; the Vulnerable Isolation and Enmity Concept (VIEC).

After (one of the longest) chats with Radosław, we decided along with Dr. Carles Alsinet that it would be interesting to extend the validity of the model. We came up with the idea of testing the connection of vulnerable narcissism with the dispositions towards ridicule and laughter, a blooming line of inquiry that we started to investigate during my research stay in Warsaw.‬‬‬‬

Your research talks about neurotic introversion and neurotic antagonism to describe vulnerable narcissism. Please could you briefly describe these concepts?

Neurotic introversion (isolation) and antagonism (enmity) are proposed as two different dimensions of vulnerable narcissism, and they help describe the diversity of interpersonal and intrapersonal characteristics that define this subclinical trait.

Neurotic introversion explains the role of avoidance and social withdrawal and prevents vulnerable narcissists from exposing their fragile self. In other words, because they want to hide their feelings and evaluations of inferiority, shame, and envy against others, they avoid social interaction situations.

On the other hand, neurotic antagonism explains the strategies displayed by vulnerable narcissists to diminish or restore their experience of shame. Put differently, when vulnerable narcissists feel that their self-esteem can be exposed to harm, they engage in strategies that help them cope with the negative affectivity, like ruminating aggressive feelings on other people and attempting to secretly express them.

In a nutshell, isolation and enmity are the strategies used with the aim to protect the fragile self of vulnerable narcissists from being damaged.

In your opinion, is one of these behaviors more important/prominent than the other in relation to its effect on vulnerable narcissism?

Rather than a matter of importance, we should talk about differences regarding when or under which conditions each dimension or strategy is manifested. Although both isolation and enmity explain specific facets of vulnerable narcissism, isolation can be considered as the "default" strategy given the hypersensitivity to rejection and negative affectivity that characterizes vulnerable narcissism.

That is, the efforts to constantly prevent the inner unfavorable evaluations from being discovered by others are the protective center of vulnerable narcissism.

However, when the negative affectivity rises because isolation has not been possible, enmity comes at a stage and is used as a reactive strategy to cope with these feelings.

How can one identify vulnerable narcissism in themselves or in people close to them?

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

To characterize this, let's introduce a virtually possible situation representative of a vulnerable narcissistic individual, call him Vladi.

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.

But let's step forward and make this situation more explicit. Let's observe how Vladi gets into the office on a sunny Tuesday. Vladi tells himself "I want to be a special man here", so "I believe my colleagues should welcome me by making me coffee each morning".

However, Vladi doesn't ask his colleagues for that coffee, therefore Vladi has no coffee, and feels "I'm hurt because I didn't receive the expected warming morning welcome and the delicious coffee I deserve, so maybe they don't think I'm the good, special man I am in fact".

This makes Vladi feel bad towards himself but also towards their colleagues, and ultimately behave aggressively and malevolently.

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

In what situations (if any) can vulnerable narcissism be beneficial to an individual's life?

It is hard to come up with any situations in which vulnerable narcissism can be beneficial. This trait carries interpersonal social downsides, such as being disliked by others (remember Vladi's reaction in our example), but also intrapersonal consequences, like depression, anxiety, and withdrawal.

Although vulnerable narcissism is about fantasizing being admired and liked by others, it seems that the social circles might catch the enmity component and, as a result, dislike these individuals. Therefore, the expectations of grandiosity are never fulfilled, and this evokes feelings of hostility and leads to passively aggressive reactions. Let's just consider these are ingredients of a recipe — how could a chef develop a tasting recipe with this raw material, even after making all necessary adjustments in terms of ratios, temperature, or cooking time?

Did something unexpected emerge from your research? Something beyond the hypothesis?

Based on previous literature, we more or less expected that vulnerable narcissism would be associated with two specific dispositions towards ridicule and laughter: gelotophobia (the fear of being ridiculed and laughed at) and katagelasticism (the joy of ridiculing and laughing at others).

However, when we first planned the study, we did not expect that our hypothesis could be explained by the VIEC model to such an extent. The fact that isolation related to the fear of feeling ridiculed by others, and that enmity was associated with the joy of laughing at others provided additional empirical support to the model and opened new avenues of research in this regard.

Do you have plans for follow-up research? Where would you like to see research on vulnerable narcissism and ridicule go in the future?

This is an option we are currently considering. The findings of our study brought to our mind the possibility to extend this research question. In this effort, we would like to overcome one of the most (sometimes) prevalent limitations in research, which is the use of self-reports, and a viable line seems to conduct an experimental study in order to analyze in more detail the associations between isolation and gelotophobia (fearing being ridiculed and laughed at by others) and between enmity and katagelasticism (enjoying ridiculing and laughing at others).

In the near future, it would also be interesting to gather longitudinal or intensive (momentary assessment) data to disentangle the dynamics of vulnerable narcissism and how isolation and enmity tap into each other.