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 personalities of vulnerable narcissists and how this impacts their relationships with those close to them.

I recently spoke to researcher Ana Blasco-Belled from the University of Girona, Spain to gain a better understanding of the nature of vulnerable narcissists—who they are and what makes them tick. Here's a summary of our conversation.

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 paranoid fear of being criticized and rejected is something "built into" the constitution of vulnerable narcissists.

To characterize this, let's introduce a vulnerably narcissistic individual and call him Vladi. Vladi might 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 narcissists.

He might also think, "People don't demonstrate signs of admiration towards me, and therefore I feel ashamed."

As a result of the negative self-evaluation, Vladi would engage in hostile behaviors against himself and 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 hurt: "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."

This makes Vladi feel bad about himself but also towards his colleagues and causes him to behave aggressively and malevolently.

In the end, Vladi's colleagues had no idea what happened because the story was inwardly developed by Vladi. They just watched the "end" of the film, which is Vladi manifesting his antagonistic attitudes.

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

Neurotic introversion (isolation) and antagonism (enmity) are proposed as two different dimensions of vulnerable narcissism. 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 situations.

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

In a nutshell, isolation and enmity are strategies used by vulnerable narcissists with the aim of protecting their fragile sense of self.

In your opinion, is one of these behaviors more important/prominent than others in vulnerable narcissists?

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

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

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

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 say 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 our operating model to such an extent. The fact that isolation was 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 opens new avenues of research.

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

We would like to overcome one of the most prevalent limitations in research, which is the use of self-reports. A viable future line of inquiry is to conduct an experimental study to analyze in more detail the associations between isolation and gelotophobia (fearing being ridiculed and laughed at by others), and enmity and katagelasticism (enjoying ridiculing and laughing at others).

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 relate to one another.