What is a Vulnerable Narcissist? (6 Signs to Look Out For)

Vulnerable Narcissist confronting toxic behavior

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In clinical practice, narcissism is a personality disorder. However, most people who exhibit narcissistic traits do not meet the clinical mental health criteria for narcissistic personality disorder (NPD).

That means that narcissism can range from a few narcissistic traits to full-scale narcissistic personality disorder, which occurs along the spectrum.

What is a Vulnerable Narcissist?

Vulnerable narcissism, also known as covert narcissism, is a subtype characterized by insecurity, hypersensitivity to criticism, and a fluctuating sense of self-esteem (a vulnerable narcissist’s self-worth oscillates between superiority and inferiority to others). Vulnerable narcissists are prone to anxiety and depressive disorders.

They are actually quite the opposite of what you would expect when you hear the term “narcissist.” Because their characteristics are not obvious, this sort of narcissism is known as covert narcissism.

A vulnerable narcissist is self-conscious and easily hurt. They worry about how others see them and feel shame when rejected. So, they often try to please others to avoid being turned down. They may have a large social circle but cannot maintain close relationships with others.

A vulnerable narcissist’s style is passive-aggressive. They are typically unaware when they are hurting other people’s feelings, so they usually put the blame on others. They demand a lot of attention, taking and not giving anything in return in relationships. They use devious methods to get what they want.

There is a veneer of normalcy with covert narcissists because they carefully select who they uncover around them. On the surface, living with a covert narcissist appears to be totally normal. However, you might be with a vulnerable narcissist for years without realizing their true nature.

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What Causes Vulnerable Narcissism?

Most people with vulnerable narcissistic traits grew up in families with insecure (anxious, avoidant, or disorganized) attachments to their caregivers.

A child feels safe and protected when they have a warm, supportive relationship with primary caregivers. Such a relationship paves the way for a secure attachment. In adulthood, secure attachment means being able to respond to closeness, deal with conflicts, and be independent.

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On the other hand, a person is more likely to develop insecure attachment if they grew up in a family with confusing, inconsistent, or frightening dynamics where they didn’t know what to expect or what to do and with a caregiver who didn’t respond to their needs.

The person then takes on that attachment style, which shows how they will treat other people as adults.

6 Signs to Help You Spot a Vulnerable Narcissist

To set boundaries and manage your relationship with a narcissist, you must first understand their covert narcissistic traits. So, here are six warning signs of a vulnerable narcissist.

1. Hiding Insecurity with Introversion

A vulnerable narcissist may appear shy, quiet, and introverted. However, unlike typical introverts who enjoy spending time with just one or two people and have a small, close circle of friends, vulnerable narcissists have a lot of friends but no meaningful romantic, personal, or professional connections. They are self-absorbed and unable to identify their hurtful behaviors, which causes issues in their relationships.

Also, because they don’t want others to see their imperfections, vulnerable narcissists avoid social interactions, masking their insecurity with introversion.

2. Passive-Aggressive Behaviors

Vulnerable narcissists are never honest in their communication, acting out their anger and resentment in covered ways. Instead, they will make carefully veiled hostile comments, sabotage your work, give you the silent treatment, or guilt-trip you, making you feel bad for something you said or did without actually saying it.

3. They Can’t Take Criticism

A vulnerable narcissist’s self-esteem depends on needing others to admire them. They need a constant ego boost from others. So, even the most constructive criticism will be perceived so harshly that it will trigger intense shame and anger.

4. Controlling Behavior

Vulnerable narcissists may be possessive and jealous in relationships. As a result, they seek relationships that will boost their self-esteem and may use various manipulative strategies to control their partner.

5. They Are Always Defensive

Nothing is ever the fault of a narcissist. They will never take responsibility for their actions or words, instead blaming others when things go wrong. For example, if they break a promise to you, it’s because their boss made them work extra hours. They will always make excuses and feel offended if you call them out on their responsibility.

6. Constant Need for Attention

A vulnerable narcissist wants to be the center of attention all the time, even to the point where their attention-seeking behaviors irritate others and make it impossible for them to connect. This makes it hard for them to stay close to people and wrecks their relationships.

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Vulnerable Narcissist vs. Grandiose Narcissist: What’s the Difference?

The main difference between vulnerable and grandiose narcissists is that the latter’s behavior is typically obvious to others.

Overt narcissists display conventional narcissistic characteristics. Their lack of empathy, inflated self-image, excessive belief in superiority, manipulative and self-centered behavior, and need for recognition are all on display. In addition, mood swings, impulsivity, and outbursts of anger and hostility typically characterize a grandiose narcissist’s behavior.

The grandiose or obvious narcissist is typically not intelligent enough to manipulate people subtly, which makes them more noticeable.

On the other hand, vulnerable or covert narcissistic behaviors are typically more subtle and frequently undetectable. Only someone intimately familiar with the behaviors of a covert narcissist can genuinely understand how destructive such behavior is.

When they are hurt and angry, they tend to blame others and may have angry outbursts followed by feelings of shame.

Covert narcissists are more dangerous than overt ones because they can go unnoticed for a long time, hurting those around them. Too often, people stuck in a vulnerable narcissist’s cycle of abuse don’t even realize how badly they have been treated for years or even decades.

Getting Help Dealing with a Vulnerable Narcissist

If your relationship with a narcissist makes you feel like you can’t handle it, you should talk to a coach who can help you:

Dealing with a vulnerable narcissist can be extremely challenging. But you don’t have to do it alone.

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Kamini Wood

Kamini Wood

Kamini Wood is a Certified Life Coach, and best-selling author. Her mission is to empower high-performing adults and teens to become resilient self-leaders by reducing stress and anxiety, overcoming imposter syndrome, working through trauma, and re-discovering their AuthenticMe®.

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