The Less-Known Narcissism

The Less-Known Narcissism

by Brady Malone, MA, TLLP

Vulnerable narcissism is one of two core expressions of pathological narcissism. The grandiose narcissist makes their accomplishments known, feels entitled to the admiration of others, actively manipulates people to get what they want, has fantasies of unearned power, and explodes with anger when they don’t get their way. This is what people think of when they hear the term “narcissism.”

Vulnerable narcissism is just as common, but harder to detect. The vulnerable narcissist has an unstable self-image dependent on the opinion of others. They feel empty and worthless when their work goes unrecognized but elated and powerful when they receive any accolade. They do not take criticism well. They often shift blame or torment themselves over their mistakes. They struggle to accept help and feel disgusted with themselves when others see them in a weakened position—like being sick or fatigued. Vulnerable narcissists commonly experience the emotional states of shame, worthlessness, inadequacy, and envy.  

A vulnerable narcissist will be extremely reluctant to accept the label because the terms “vulnerable” and “narcissist” both have strongly negative connotations; they have challenges acknowledging shortcomings. In spite of that reluctance, they are prone to profoundly negative emotional reactions in evaluative settings such as school exams, performance reviews at work, dating, or any other context in which they might experience negative feedback. 

Their reaction to negative feedback is telling. Well-adjusted, mentally healthy individuals do not enjoy receiving negative feedback and they may even experience some negative emotion; however, vulnerable narcissists tend to have exaggerated reactions including feelings of worthlessness, intense and overwhelming shame, and even suicidal ideation. On the other hand, vulnerable narcissists can restore their vitality through positive feedback. They may even experience short episodes of abnormally elevated mood when they receive positive recognition. Whether a comment is negative or positive, a vulnerable narcissist has a hard time regulating their emotions in situations where they receive performance feedback. 

While there are no evidenced-based treatments for vulnerable narcissism yet, there are a few therapeutic approaches that can be helpful. 

1. Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT): CBT focuses on the relationship between thoughts, emotions, and actions. A CBT therapist could help challenge underlying core beliefs, like “I am never good enough.” Core beliefs like that often give rise to automatic negative thoughts that can drive negative emotional reactions such as shame and worthlessness. By unraveling this and other related core beliefs, the vulnerable narcissist could learn to internally challenge the automatic thought before it leads to negative emotions.

2. Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT): ACT focuses not on symptom reduction but on increasing overall wellbeing. ACT teaches us to accept rather than fight our symptoms. An ACT therapist could use cognitive diffusion with a vulnerable narcissist to help them learn to relate to their thoughts and feelings in less literal ways. For example, when feeling shameful, one could react by internally saying, “Oh, hi, shame! Nice to see you again,” in a welcoming and jovial tone. In this way, shame becomes less serious and less impactful; it’s simply an emotion just like any other. 

3. Psychodynamic Therapy (PT): PT places emphasis on the therapeutic relationship and the development of self-understanding. A psychodynamic therapist is likely to make comments about relationship patterns in and outside of the therapy to generate insight into why the vulnerable narcissist feels shame in the first place. They will likely come up with hypotheses about what childhood experiences played an important role in the vulnerable narcissist’s personality development and listen for echoes of past events in the present therapeutic relationship. Over time, the vulnerable narcissist will become more aware of their patterns and gain more agency over their mental life and behavior. 

If left untreated, a vulnerable narcissist is likely to experience loneliness, bitterness, a victimized mentality, and a general feeling of emptiness as they age. They reduce others to sources of criticism, envy, or praise. To regulate the pain, they blame others and refuse to accept fault. This is not an inevitability! Treatment is available and accessible to those willing to do the work and make the choice to undergo the transformative process of therapy.

Brady Malone, MA, TLLP, provides individual psychotherapy for adults and couples at Apex Therapy Services. He takes an integrative therapeutic approach for those interested in uncovering the roots of their problems. While experienced with a range of mental health problems, he has specialized training and expertise in narcissism, low self-esteem, long-term depression, exiting long-term relationships/divorce, and self-sabotaging behavior.