I learnt something new last week. I was reading a pop psych article about narcissists, scoffing at how superficial and obvious it was and basking in my intellectual superiority, until it mentioned something I’d never heard about: “vulnerable narcissists”. I’d never heard that such a beast existed, though the concept is not new – a very good article explaining it dates back to 2011:
Evidence has accrued to suggest that there are 2 distinct dimensions of narcissism, which are often labeled grandiose and vulnerable narcissism. Although individuals high on either of these dimensions interact with others in an antagonistic manner, they differ on other central constructs (e.g., Neuroticism, Extraversion).
In simpler (hence more inaccurate) terms, narcissists are people who are excessively self-preoccupied, have restricted empathy, and are often oblivious of their negative impact on people’s lives. I think of them as “mememe!” people. A proportion of them are the Grandiose Narcissists, self-confident and superior, constantly demanding adulation and respect from those around them and sometimes acting out if they don’t get it – “lookatme!” people. Ironically, those are the narcissists who have been getting most of the attention – the ones we commonly get warned against in popular books and magazines.
There is another facet of the disorder, though. Vulnerable Narcissists are still self-preoccupied and oblivious of others, but these traits are combined with a neurotic fear of rejection and abandonment, as well as feelings of low self-esteem, guilt, or shame. If people don’t treat them as they “deserve”, they may feel helpless, anxious, or victimized – I call them the “ohpoorme!” people.
Vulnerable Narcissists are are a plague upon the planet. If one of them manages to infiltrate your life (something you might not be able to prevent – we don’t all get to pick our co-workers, children, parents,…), you will have the opportunity to realise how keeping them on an even keel is a full-time job. Their need for reassurance cannot be quenched. Anything anyone says or does is about them, or aimed at them. Any choice you might want to make that clashes with their perceived needs or wants is clearly a manifestation of your cruelty. How could you treat them like that? How could you be so cruel?
To make matters worse, Vulnerable Narcissists are often able to attract a lot of popular support. Grandiose Narcissists, although flamboyant, tend to wear thin on most people in a relatively short period of time; once people spot their combination of selfishness and arrogance, they tend to not want to know. Vulnerable Narcissists, on the other hand, are life’s kicked puppies.
The people at the sharp end of their neediness may realise how oppressive, controlling, and life-sucking their behaviour is, but those looking on from the outside may only see a sad, unfortunate person. If you decide to address their behaviour or, god forbid, to finally jettison them from your life, it will be made out to be a sign of your cruelty. How could you treat them so badly, when all they needed was your compassion?