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.