Grandiose and “vulnerable” narcissists: how do they differ?

Both the beggar and the king could be narcissists with a different M.O.

An interesting article in Psychology Today explains the difference between grandiose (invulnerable) narcissists, and “vulnerable” narcissists. Either can be somatic or cerebral, and either can also be malignant or non-malignant.

The two kinds of narcissists can seem very different on the surface:

Grandiose narcissists can seem emotionally cold, convinced of their achievements or success, and rarely if ever talk about their fears or their problems. They can be very quick to judge others though. On the surface they seem strong and tough. You won’t see them show emotions other than rage or pride, and if they are ever sad or fearful, you will never see that side of them. Like all narcissists, they are never happy,but they can “act” happy if they need to. And like all narcissists, they are incapable of love but may be able to put on a show of “falling in love” to obtain a new source of narcissistic supply.

Grandiose narcissists are the CEOs, politicians, narcissistic celebrities and others who have achieved a high level of success. Those who haven’t achieved success will stop at nothing to rise to the top, even if it means destroying their competition in the process. They are ruthless predators. Our current society glorifies the traits of the grandiose narcissist and doesn’t seem to bemoan what they don’t have: the ability to show emotion and feel love or empathy. Grandiose narcissists don’t care what others think of them.

Vulnerable narcissists, rather than brag about their achievements and never showing their feelings, are given to bouts of self pity, and use emotions (like crying, whining, demanding, or sulking) to manipulate others into giving them what they want. They are less likely to be materially successful, and may be dependent on others for their survival. In fact, they may seem to take a kind of perverse pride in their failures and hard luck. Vulnerable narcissists are the emotional and financial vampires who will suck your funds dry and constantly demand attention and comfort for their many problems. They are high-maintenance “drama queens.” They seem to have no self esteem. They will wear down their sources of supply with their constant demands and mind games. Both types of narcissists will shamelessly manipulate others to have their way.

…narcissists feel emotions like vulnerability, sadness, empathy and compassion in a shallow way, if at all, and cover them up with rage, blame, manipulation and disdain for others. This coping mechanism has a heavy price: they don’t feel secure enough to relax and really feel happiness and joy, although they may have fleeting moments of those emotions.

Vulnerable narcissists tend to swing back and forth between acting superior and feeling hurt; may become self-destructive when their vulnerabilities are pointed out; they may accuse their spouse or significant other of having affairs and being unfaithful, and may resort to spying on their partner or constantly asking for reassurance. They also have a pattern of looking for the “perfect mate” and then demand constant reassurance they are loved and valued.

Grandiose narcissists have much in common with people with Antisocial Personality Disorder; while vulnerable narcissists have more in common with people who have Borderline Personality Disorder. Both of these disorders, along with NPD and Histrionic Personality Disorder, comprise the Cluster B (dramatic) personality disorders in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). It can be very difficult to distinguish those who have NPD from those suffering from one of the other two disorders.

Grandiose narcissists were more likely to have been spoiled as children and treated like a little king or queen by their families; vulnerable narcissists are much more likely to have been abused or neglected as children.

But both types are still narcissists, so they still have many things in common under the surface, especially their sense of entitlement, lack of empathy and inability to feel joy.

According to the Psychology Today article, the main difference between vulnerable narcissists and and invulnerable narcissists is in the way they feel:

With their fragile self-esteem, vulnerable narcissists experience helplessness, anxiety, and depression when people don’t treat them as they desire.

They feel shamed and humiliated by negative feedback or when others challenge their superior self-image. They also experience anxiousness, bitterness, dissatisfaction, and disempowerment.

They suffer from many BPD-like emotions, like feelings of emptiness and inadequacy. Others find them sensitive and emotional; preoccupied with fears of rejection and abandonment. They are touchy, quick to be offended, and easily provoked.

A vulnerable narcissist may seem “nice” at first, but their constant demands will wear you out and they will never ask you how your day was or how you feel. They don’t care. Vulnerable narcissists may seem sensitive but they are only sensitive about themselves and how others feel about them; they are oblivious (or just don’t care) if you are suffering or have been hurt or need to talk. They are unable to give love in return for the love they demand. They cannot feel joy or ever appreciate anything. They are vampires who will keep taking until you have nothing left to give–or leave.

Earlier I said both types of narcissists can be somatic or cerebral. My guess is that women, who are more likely to be somatic narcissists, are also more likely to be the “vulnerable” type of narcissist. Acting needy and helpless are traits that are still found more socially acceptable in females than in males. That being said, I’ve known several males of the vulnerable type and some of them are cerebrals. My ex-husband is a great example of a “vulnerable” cerebral narcissist.

I also think it’s possible to be both types at once, swinging back and forth between acting invulnerable/grandiose and vulnerable/helpless. Their dramatic mood swings would probably make this hybrid type of narcissist easily misdiagnosed as suffering from the manic-depressive form of Bipolar Disorder.

A narcissist can also be vulnerable in one area of their life and grandiose in another. The high achieving company president who never seems ruffled and terrifies his underlings may go home to his wife and demand attention and sympathy from her, and sulk or whine if he doesn’t get it. The snobbish, perfectly groomed and physically fit trophy wife may fall apart and act helpless and needy if forced to look for a job.

30 thoughts on “Grandiose and “vulnerable” narcissists: how do they differ?

  1. Mine was definitely “vulnerable,” but I can’t decide if he’s cerebral or somatic. I feel like he’s *both*, but yet neither. Athletic and artistic. Intelligent. I feel like he’s in a sort of crisis as he’s entering middle age and his “bright light” is dimming. He’s a “nice” guy on the surface, but he really can’t see others as individuals with lives apart from him. He gets grumpy, judgmental, and deeply hurt if the world doesn’t revolve around him. He doesn’t beg for attention but somehow always finds a way to get it. People flock to him, and those who don’t he cuts out. He’s so subtly manipulative. Looking back, I see his use of gaslighting, hovering, and silent treatment on me. No matter how sensible I am when in contact with me he someone gets me to feel like there is a problem with me (without him even having to say anything of the sort). It’s hard to explain. I don’t know if he fits nicely into any particular category, but he’s definitely bad news. The scary part is that I know no one who met him would believe me. It makes me feel crazy sometimes.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I think your narc could be both cerebral and somatic–it’s possible to be both, even though most of them will lean more one way than the other. He definitely sounds like a vulnerable type. They may not *seem* dangerous, but they are dangerous because they will suck the life out of you.

      Mine was grandiose in the earlier years of our marriage; later on reverted to being vulnerable (after a series of losses and development of various disabilities that made him unemployable). He was just as dangerous later on, but instead of overtly abusive behavior and intimidation, he became an skilled gaslighter and triangulator and his use of projection was off the charts. He was convinced (and even convinced me, through his endless gaslighting) that *I* was the narcissist and he was the victim. Most other people believed that too, because he made use of flying monkeys which included one of our own children. I think vulnerable narcissists can even be more dangerous because they don’t come with a warning label–you don’t realize how much power they really have over you until it’s too late. They’re nowhere near as benign as they seem.


  2. Wow! This post has answered something I’ve been puzzling over this past few weeks. I knew she was a narcissist, but too many of the BPD type symptoms were present… Vulnerable narc, that’s it, spot on!!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m glad this cleared some things up for you about your mom. It can be really hard to tell BPD and NPD apart when the NPD is of the vulnerable type.

      Borderlines would still have the ability to feel empathy or remorse though, even though it may not be obvious because they can be so self absorbed. They usually feel bad after it’s pointed out they did something wrong or hurt someone and they can feel empathy. A narc cannot.

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  3. Perhaps we should make a zoo where we can keep all of these strange creatures for people to look at. Surely many would pay to see them. There could be a cage containing “narcissistus vulnerabilis”, separated off from the more dangerous “narcissistus grandiosus.” In other enclosures could be kept “borderlinus drammaticus” and “schizophrenicus psychoticus”. In still other pens we could put similar creatures like unicorns, griffins, and dragons. Information could be provided to the public about their natural habitats and about how to respond if you are confronted by one of these beasts in the wild.

    This might have initially seemed like a joke, but it isn’t. These are unique human beings, not labels. How often do you see a “vulnerable narcissist” walking down the street? The notion that distinct “types” of narcissists exist is unsupported by scientific evidence. A more reasoned would view would be that traits of both “grandiose” or “vulnerable” narcissists can exist to different degrees in different individuals, along a continuum. In other words, the grandiose or vulnerable “narcissist” is not found in a pure form in nature. To your credit, you recognized this in your post, whereas Kreger didnt do so as well.

    James Masterson used to write about these “types” – which he called the exhibitionistic and closet narcissists – in his books, for example The Emerging Self, and the Narcissistic and Borderline Disorders. But not many therapists would take his literal categories seriously today. Nevertheless, Masterson was actually optimistic about treating both of these “types” and presented lengthy case examples where both kinds did very well in therapy. Of course, you wouldn’t know that from all the pessimism floating around the net today.

    In my opinion, the fact that Randi Kreger cites Vaknin as an authority makes her viewpoint harder to take seriously. It should be remembered that Vaknin was a convicted criminal, is not a certified mental health professional, and most importantly, that his writing is rife with distortions, exaggerations, and outright lies, which is something he even warns his readers about at times. His writing about narcissism is hardly likely to encourage people to view these benighted individuals in a less stigmatizing, condemning way. Of course, that is not its purpose.

    Further, Kreger’s writing is so full of generalizations that it could be applied to many people that have emotional problems. In this regard, it has a “PT Barnum” like quality – i.e. it almost reminds me of reading a horoscope or fortune cookie – because the problems she mentions are so universal in people who’ve experienced trauma (whether they’re called “borderline”, “narcissist”, “schizoid”, “PTSD”, “paranoid” or whatever) that they could apply to different degrees to almost anyone who has significant mental health problems.

    Perhaps that reason that these “disorders” are so difficult to distinguish using the DSM is that they are not actually distinct conditions. The DSM is an unscientific fabrication, the categories of which have neither validity nor reliability. I could list a bunch of books here that support this position – three good ones would be The Book of Woe (Greenberg), Mad Science (Kirk) and A Straight-Talking Introduction to Psychiatric Diagnosis (Johnstone).

    Sorry if this comes over as harsh. It’s not meant as a personal criticism (although it is certainly meant as a criticism of psychiatry). It’s my opinion, but obviously one that I feel strongly about.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I hear what you’re saying. I did have to giggle at the imagery of exhibits in a zoo. I agree these are just labels and no human being fits that neatly into a given label, because by nature we are more complex than that.

      But the labels help us to make sense of why some people act the way they do. It’s not meant to be insulting, but of course some will still take offense. I see what you’re getting at comparing it to astrology. Psychiatry/psychology isn’t an exact science (or much of a science at all–it’s more like a social “science” or even an art form) but unlike astrology there have been empirical studies and it’s not based on some random configuration of the stars and planets on a given date (of course there are those who swear by astrology too). But I see what you’re getting at.

      The DSM keeps changing because even the professionals in the field can’t agree on what’s a mental illness, how it should be categorized, where it should be categorized, etc. But for ACONS recovering or coping with narcissistic abuse, being able to stick a label on the perpetrators makes it all a little easier to deal with.

      I don’t expect commenters to always agree with me. Sometimes differing opinions can make a conversation more interesting and raise new questions. As long as they’re stated respectfully (as yours is) there are no problems and no offense is taken.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Yeah I definitely understand how it can be helpful as a victim of abuse, being able to objectify the perpetrator. I used to do that a little bit with my dad

        As for psychiatric diagnoses being able to be studied empirically, I would argue that is an illusion, and that such diagnoses are in fact quite comparable to constellations… i.e. they are projections of our imagination that don’t exist in reality (although all the symptoms exist, just like all the stars in a supposed constellation exist). There was an interesting study by the British Psychological Society in the year 2000… it used statistical techniques to investigate whether the symptoms of a large group of mental health patients (with differing supposed diagnoses) did actually cluster together in the way predicted by the DSM’s diagnostic approach. The result was negative – i.e. The correlation between groups of symptoms was actually not found; i.e. the symptoms might as well have been put together randomly in each person. In fact, the majority of the patients could not even be assigned to any of the supposed diagnostic groups (which is related to the problem of “co-morbidity”). This was reported in Paris Williams’ book Rethinking Madness. In my opinion, the current diagnostic system should be abandoned, since its disorders do not actually exist (the symptoms do, but the disorders don’t), but the issue is what to replace it with. That is the difficult question.

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  4. Wow! When you provide the symptoms of a vulnerable narcissist, you could be describing one of my cousins. For years, she’s been wearing-out everyone in our family. We want to love her, but few of us like her anymore. Everything’s a personal affront, a reason to hang up the phone, or stomp out of the room, and become estranged from yet another person.

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    • It’s very difficult to tell a vulnerable (or covert) narcissist from someone with BPD. Maybe there really is no difference. All the different labels and categories within categories get so confusing. I’m sorry you are having to deal with someone like that in your family. These are people you would never suspsect of being narcissists because they appear to HATE themselves, but it’s their “professional victim” status they use to get supply, instead of grandiosity.


  5. My ex sounds like a vulnerable narcissistic. I sometimes wonder if he really was one. Is it possible for someone to be a narcissistic because they don’t like themselves and because they over compensate? Do you think one can recover from being a narc after getting their issues resolved?

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    • All narcissism, even the grandiose (aggressive) type is based on having very low self esteem. Narcissists hate themselves which is why they act as they do. Yes, in a way it is a form of overcompensation. They don’t love themselvs, they love their “false self” they present to the world but that isn’t really who they are. They live in terror of being exposed or their false self being attacked and that’s why they will attack you if they perceive a threat.

      It is very difficult to heal from NPD. I don’t believe, as some do, that it’s impossible, but a narcissist must be both willing and self-aware (know they have the disorder) and even then a cure is difficult and can take years of therapy. I think malignant narcissists are too far gone though and will not be willing to change.


          • I sometimes wonder if my ex faked it and used it to hide behind his behavior and that he made up his symptoms and that would explain why he was so textbook and a stereotype of it and scored close to 200 on the RDOS quiz. I don’t see many aspies like that. He acted like it all described him and anything he read about it screamed him.

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  6. I need help and I don’t know what to do! I’ve always identified as an HSP. I’m sensitive to external stimuli, hate loud music and strong smells, and always thought I cared about people. That was until I read about “covert narcissism” back last December. I thought a lot of it sounded like me and ever since then I’ve obsessed about it every single day.

    My mother has OCPD, nothing I did for her was ever good enough, and she made sure I knew that. I didn’t clean well enough, cook well enough, take care of my daughter well enough, etc. She can get in my face or give me certain looks to let me know she isn’t pleased, and I can get really defensive and bitter about it. I don’t have a problem with constructive criticism though, but I take insults or harsh criticism really badly.

    In 2005 I was told I had BPD but my psychiatrist since then says I don’t have any PD, but I do have BPD traits. Along with OCD. My current therapist agrees with that assessment, and said I don’t have NPD or AVPD either (which covert narcissism is apparently a combination of?).

    Anyway, it’s been hard to function since last December, because I’m constantly worried that I might have covert NPD. That maybe I really don’t feel empathy even though I think I do. I notice some narcissism in me, but I really don’t think I’m superior to anyone. My husband says if I’m faking empathy I’m “the best actress he’s ever seen” lol.

    I don’t know what to do, but I’m fed up with this obsession…

    Liked by 1 person

    • Natasha,
      Were we separated at birth? Because everything you have said sounds exactly like what I’ve been worrying about now for months. I too identify as an HSP. I also think “covert narcissism” seems a lot like a combination of BPD and AvPD (and I have been dx’d with both of those disorders) but I’m not 100% sure if it’s the same thing. The scary thing is, I never knew about covert NPD until I started blogging about narcissism and everything I’ve read about it sounds EXACTLY LIKE ME. šŸ˜® Covert NPD isn’t recognized by the DSM as an official disorder though–it’s mainly become popularized in the narcissistic abuse community but some psychologists and doctors do write about it. I think it probably does coincide with the lower functioning type of BPD or AvPD (where the person has low self esteem, insecure and avoids other people for fear of being rejected). It’s all very confusing. Borderlines and covert narcissists (like classic narcissists) have a reputation for lacking empathy. I have empathy, but sometimes I think it’s stunted or limited, and that bothers me. Maybe we’re just being too hard on ourselves and seeing things that aren’t really there (like lack of empathy) but I know for a fact I have most of the other symptoms, although they’re getting better. HSPs are easily offended, and they have this in common with borderlines and narcissists, although usually HSPs are very empathetic and people with NPD are not. I think BPD’s do have empathy, but get so caught up in their emotions and drama they sometimes forget other people exist.

      You might want to read this article I wrote when I first read about covert narcissism–I think you might be able to relate:
      To set your mind at ease, I would go with what your psychiatrist says. You probably don’t have a PD but just some BPD traits. But if you’re still worried you could go get a second dx. They don’t diagnose covert NPD though, but you could at least rule out NPD (the official description in the DSM includes features of grandiosity and arrogance, which people like us don’t really have).

      It does seem that the more we learn about these disorders, the more confused we get and the more questions arise. But that’s because even within the psychiatric community, there’s so much confusion and disagreement over the labels. BPD could even be a form of complex PTSD, which I have written about and lean toward believing.
      Don’t worry too much about the labels–they are just that: labels, and they really don’t mean much.
      Good luck in your recovery journey and thank you for your comments.


      • I just read that other article and can totally relate. I don’t think I have full-blown AVPD but I definitely am a bit shy (might be some social phobia?). I thought too that covert NPD was a combination of BPD/AVPD! And it very well might be. But isn’t the definition of narcissism the love of (false) Self? So someone with pervasively low self-esteem and not caring about narcissistic supply, etc. can they REALLY be a narcissist? That’s my question.

        I read somewhere that vulnerable NPD is actually a personality “style” and not a disorder when they tested for it in the general population, which I found interesting.

        Another thing about covert narcissism is apparently they try to get their needs met then feel shame over having needs in the first place. That’s actually a sign of insecure attachment! It’s not specific to narcissism.

        What I found interesting is the covert narcissism test, it was posted on a BPD forum and almost all the people with BPD scored extremely high on it, so I think you’re onto something!

        I agree with you that generally people with BPD (and most definitely AVPD) have empathy. And in that article you mentioned about feeling guilt easily, that’s definitely me, if I do something “wrong” I feel guilty and feel the need to make up for it.

        For what it’s worth, I’ve been reading your blog for some time and you definitely don’t seem arrogant or conceited to me at all!

        Thanks for the reply šŸ™‚

        Liked by 1 person

        • Well, thank you–your last sentence just gave me my fix of narcissistic supply, LOL! šŸ˜‰

          I see what you’re saying about the false self thing–since narcissists only worship a false self (and hate or aren’t aware of their true one), how could someone who is lacking a false self put themselves on a pedestal or be narcissistic at all?
          I’ll try to answer that as best I can. I think for a covert narcissist, the “false self” might be the desire to be pitied and felt sorry for. I have known people who seem to take almost a perverse sort of pride in being as pathetic as possible–and they can be as obnoxious as an arrogant, grandiose NPD. I don’t think I (or probably you for that matter) fall into that category (I HATE being pitied!) But it;s not really a false self, because they really do feel like they’re nothing and the “supply” (pity) they are trying to get from others is exactly the same thing as someone with BPD who wants love but alienates other people with their incessant demands and overpowering emotions, “going off” on people, etc.

          BPD is a disorder that is unfortunately associated closely with NPD and that’s a shame because I don’t think there are that many similiarites. BPD’s can be selfish and obtuse to other’s needs, but it’s not because they lack empathy. Like you said, it’s insecure attachment and the fear and associated emotions are overwhelming. But BPD, as a cluster B disorder, has a HUGE stigma (as being “evil”, etc), which many BPD’s are unhappy about and are trying to fight back against (the “BPD Awareness” movement, etc.) I think that’s a good thing–Aspies are doing it, why not BPD’s?

          I’m not surprised BPD’s scored high on that test for covert narcissism, but I’m not sure covert narcissism should really be considered narcissism at all.
          Confused yet? I am.

          I also wanted to add that like you, I am CONSTANTLY struggling with guilt and shame. I absolutely HATE it when I’ve hurt someone (unintentionally) and always beat myself up over it. I think the fact we feel guilty about things so easily (even when it’s not warranted) indicates we aren’t narcissists. (As a blogger though, I have been accused of being a narc…but blogging is by nature a narcissistic thing to do, so…)


  7. Yes you are right. Covert narcissism is a borderline personality with an overlay of narcissism and a good dose of paranoia. We are mid spectrum narcissists. Fragile narcissists. There are two types. Counter Dependent or avoidant types like me. We hate being bossed around and are quite nice most of the time! Yet quite often rude and arrogant with people who bore us. Then, there’s a Codependent variety like my wonderful mother, our Queen and several georgeous women I know or could name. Winston Churchill and Alan Turin were CNs also. They saved us from the Germans in the Forties you might remember! CNs do have a habit of throwing themselves under trains when anxiety gets the better of us and the ego supply drys up! Which is what I wish some of you haters would do sometimes!!!

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    • I think I’m both counter dependent and codependent.
      Right now, cNPD is not recognized by the psychiatric community and is mostly an Internet meme, though it is starting to get attention as a legitimate disorder. Most of us would fail the standard narcissism tests but fit the criteria for BPD, which I have ben diagnsed with. However, there are differences, and cNPDs do have a false self, but it’s hidden away under a nice exterior. In essence, cNPDs have two false selves rather than just one. BPDs have no viable false self at all.


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