A vulnerable narcissist is a lesser-known type of narcissist. Telltale signs, like self-victimization, can help you recognize when you’re dealing with one and learn how to navigate the relationship.

When you think of a narcissist, you may envision someone with high self-esteem who appears confident and feels entitled. This is the most well-known type of narcissist, called a grandiose narcissist or “textbook” narcissist.

Growing evidence suggests there’s another type of narcissism. In stark contrast to the grandiose narcissist, a vulnerable narcissist, sometimes called a covert narcissist, has low self-esteem and is extremely self-conscious.

“Individuals with vulnerable narcissism tend to be insecure and sensitive to rejection, and require constant validation from others,” says Joni Ogle, a licensed clinical social worker in Houston. “They may experience feelings of inadequacy, anxiety, and depression due to their hunger for approval.”

Dealing with a vulnerable narcissist can be challenging. But there are ways to effectively navigate the relationship with empathy and assertiveness.

Vulnerable and grandiose narcissists share several characteristics, including:

  • self-centeredness
  • an exaggerated sense of self-importance and entitlement
  • disagreeableness
  • tendency to interact with others in an antagonistic manner

But while a grandiose narcissist is characterized by self-assuredness and extraversion, a vulnerable narcissist tends to be introverted and insecure in interpersonal relations. They may be:

  • defensive
  • avoidant
  • hypersensitive to others’ opinions
  • vigilant for criticism
  • neurotic
  • negative about the past
  • fatalistic

At the same time, a vulnerable narcissist craves recognition and admiration in order to boost their self-worth. If they feel underestimated, they may withdraw or become passive in relationships.

When a vulnerable narcissist doesn’t get the external validation they crave, it can cause increased feelings of anxiety and depression. This can lead to more defensiveness, avoidance, and social withdrawal.

Signs of a vulnerable narcissist can manifest in various ways, especially in relationships. Angela Ficken, a psychotherapist in Boston, shares some common traits and behaviors to look out for:

1. Constant need for validation

Vulnerable narcissists seek excessive praise, affirmation, and attention from others to boost their fragile self-esteem. They may constantly fish for compliments, excessively talk about their achievements, or exhibit attention-seeking behaviors.

2. Hypersensitivity to criticism

They may have a heightened sensitivity to criticism or rejection, which can trigger intense feelings of shame, humiliation, or insecurity.

As a result, they may react defensively, become emotionally distant, or engage in manipulative tactics to avoid facing their perceived flaws.

3. Self-victimization

Vulnerable narcissists often portray themselves as victims in various situations, exaggerating their hardships or playing up their vulnerabilities to gain sympathy and support from others. They may use their emotional struggles to manipulate and control others.

4. Lack of empathy

While vulnerable narcissists may appear sensitive on the surface, their empathy tends to be self-centered.

They may have difficulty genuinely understanding or validating the experiences and emotions of others, as they’re primarily focused on their own needs and insecurities.

5. Intense relationship dynamics

In relationships, vulnerable narcissists may oscillate between idealizing and devaluing their partners. They may seek out relationships that provide constant validation, but their insecurities can lead to emotional manipulation, control, and withdrawal cycles.

According to Ficken, vulnerable narcissism can be attributed to genetic, environmental, and psychological factors.

Potential causes include:

  • traumatic or neglectful childhood experiences, such as inconsistent or excessive praise or criticism
  • insecure attachment in early relationships, characterized by inconsistent caregiving or a disregard for emotional needs
  • unrealistic expectations or grandiose fantasies of success, admiration, or idealized relationships

“People with vulnerable narcissism may struggle with accepting and coping with reality when it falls short of their inflated expectations,” notes Ficken.

Narcissism may also run in families, according to Katelyn Moon, a licensed marriage and family therapy associate in Chappaqua, New York.

“Being raised by a parent who was controlling or diagnosed with narcissistic personality disorder could increase the likelihood of developing vulnerable narcissism,” she says.

Dealing with a vulnerable narcissist can be challenging, but it’s essential to approach the situation with empathy and assertiveness, says Ficken. She offers the following tips:

  • Set clear boundaries: Establish and communicate your boundaries firmly and consistently. Clearly define what behaviors are acceptable to you and what is not. Be prepared for resistance or pushback, as vulnerable narcissists may struggle to respect boundaries. Stay firm and assertive in upholding your limits.
  • Practice self-care: It’s crucial to prioritize your well-being when dealing with a vulnerable narcissist. Engage in self-care activities, seek support from trusted friends or professionals, and establish a strong support network. Taking care of your emotional and mental health will help you maintain resilience and navigate challenging interactions more effectively.
  • Encourage professional help: If the relationship dynamics become increasingly tricky or harmful, it may be beneficial to suggest professional help to the vulnerable narcissist. Therapy can provide them with a safe space to explore and address their insecurities, improve self-awareness, and develop healthier coping mechanisms. But it’s essential to remember that seeking therapy is a personal decision, and the individual must be willing to engage in the process for it to be effective.
  • Maintain realistic expectations: Recognize that you cannot change or fix a vulnerable narcissist’s behavior.

Ogle adds:

  • Validate: Even though it is easier said than done, try to validate the narcissist’s feelings without getting dragged into a confrontation. Let them know you understand where they’re coming from and acknowledge their emotions even if you don’t agree with them.
  • Don’t take it personally: Remember that narcissists’ behavior is often driven by their own insecurities and not a reflection of you. They tend to be very sensitive, and their need for approval often clouds their judgment.

If you feel overwhelmed or need advice about dealing with a vulnerable narcissist, speaking to a qualified therapist can help. Here are some resources to help you get started: