Narcissists are gregarious and outgoing, right?
Life of the party extroverts love-bombing, gaslighting and manipulating their way to fame and fortune (or at the very least a modicum of dating success and narcissistic supplies).
But what about those shy narcissists?
Covert narcissists are the ones who never get their pictures in the paper, don’t want seats at the tables of power and don’t enjoy flashing light bulbs in their faces. Grandiose narcissists often appear arrogant and exhibitionistic and can be exploitative, whilst vulnerable narcissists are shy and self-critical, overtly expressing feelings of inadequacy and low self-esteem. Shy narcissists can also be emotionally volatile and sensitive (Pincus & Lukowitsky, 2010).
According to researchers Kasey Stanton and Mark Zimmerman, the DSM has never really captured the true picture of narcissism as it presents in clinical settings. The clinical picture is generally far more subtle and varied than we might imagine. The problem for researchers is that people with high levels of narcissism are unlikely to admit to vulnerability, so most standard tests will tend to capture the more grandiose features of narcissism.
To help us understand what is going on in narcissism it can be useful to see the gregarious or grandiose narcissist and the deflated or shy narcissist as two sides of the same coin.
According to researchers Zoe Given-Wilson, Doris McIllwain and Wayne Warburton, people with high levels of narcissism “toggle” between vulnerability and grandiosity resulting in internal conflict. Because they are unable to manage the implications of self-awareness, this conflict can never be recognized or resolved.
At the dark heart of narcissism is a void.
This central void is fueled by a lack of identity and sense of self which makes a person suffering from narcissism painfully dependent on others for self-definition, although (as we all know) they would run a million miles from admitting dependence.
A narcissist’s sometimes perplexing behavior can be explained as an attempt to fill this central void with reflected glory. Although grandiose narcissists appear socially successful and at least initially confident and friendly, they are still vulnerable to and dependent on external validation for their self-esteem.
Both forms of narcissism are thought to “share common meta-cognitive deficits which result in conflicting feelings of grandiosity and vulnerability; however they cope by suppressing one and projecting the other, resulting in different presentations (McWilliams, 1994).” [My emphases] So, although they are part of the same overall problem, one aspect will dominate over the other at any one time.
Because they are often unable to access the vulnerable side of their personality, overt or “grandiose” narcissists will normally display their confident or outgoing side. This inflated self is in reality fragile and susceptible to negative social feedback (criticism, rejection or failure). Failure and criticism will bring them in touch with vulnerable feelings they would prefer to disown. They will often feel intense shame on being “called out” or given a reality check, and will attempt to bypass this shame by projecting it onto others in the form of blame, hostility or narcissistic rage. This can make them challenging workmates, bed mates and friends.
Shy or vulnerable narcissists, on the other hand, often appear self-effacing, fragile and introverted. Their vulnerable side is more prominent, but they will also tend to inflate their self-image through grandiosity and fantasy when it is available. They can appear shy but will seek social support and “narcissistic supplies” to bolster their fragile sense of self. They may respond to challenges in the same way as grandiose narcissists, depending on the situation. At other times, they may respond with passive aggression or the repressed anger of sarcasm and complaints.
Shy narcissists are normally hypersensitive to even mild criticism or challenges and have trouble accessing empathy for others, making them appear self-absorbed, just like their more gregarious cousins. They may seem generous and understanding, but underneath the facade of sensitivity their feelings for others are likely to be shallow and self-serving.
Although they appear self-effacing, shy narcissists will usually be envious of others and may be vindictive if they believe they have been slighted. They are constantly besieged by a sense that the acknowledgement they secretly desire will always elude them. This can lead to a sense of bitterness, excessive complaining and depression, a difficult combination of qualities which can make them hard to be around.
Because their self-image is inherently fragile, they will often seek powerful partners and friends in the hope of bolstering their social standing with vicarious success. Without a cause or a coat tail to attach themselves to, they will often seem lost or erratic because they lack the core stability that comes with a healthy sense of self.
Overt narcissists are easier to identify, but shy or deflated narcissists can be just as challenging and harder to pin down.
The reality of narcissism is a pendulum swinging between grandiosity and deflation, entitlement and vulnerability. Both types are painfully dependent on social feedback for self-definition.
Stanton, K. & Zimmerman, M. (2017). Clinician Ratings of Vulnerable and Grandiose Narcissistic Features: Implications for an Expanded Narcissistic Personality Disorder Diagnosis. Personality Disorders: Theory, Research, and Treatment, 9(3), 263–272
Given-Wilson, Z., McIlwaine, D., & Warburton, W. (2011). Meta-cognitive and interpersonal difficulties in overt and covert narcissism. Personality and Individual Differences, 50(7), 1000-1005.
Ronningstam, E.F. (2000). Disorders of Narcissism: Diagnostic, Clinical and Empirical Implications, Aronson: New Jersey.