Uncovering the Fragile Side of Narcissism: 9 Signs of a Vulnerable Narcissist

Crystal Jackson

Photo byCaroline Hernandez on Unsplash

Researchers who have investigated the relationship between self-esteem and narcissism discovered something curious. While the grandiose narcissist generally is associated with high self-esteem, the vulnerable narcissist often reports low self-worth.

It might surprise you to know that narcissism is considered to fall on a spectrum. There’s a bright face, a dark face, and a blue face of narcissism. The bright face is associated with the positive aspects of a narcissistic character — high self-confidence, charm, self-efficacy, and assertiveness. The dark face of narcissism is associated with the negative side of narcissism — aggression, entitlement, and manipulation. The blue face of narcissism represents the side that is fragile, depressed, anxious, and paranoid.

The extreme grandiose narcissist has traits of hubris and exhibitionist tendencies while the extreme vulnerable narcissist has traits of defensiveness and resentment. The vulnerable narcissist is reported to embody the blue face of the narcissism spectrum. The fragile nature of the vulnerable narcissist’s ego is one reason they may sneak through our defenses in the first place.

9 Signs You’re Dealing with a Vulnerable Narcissist

They Are Hypersensitive and Defensive

The vulnerable narcissist is hypersensitive to criticism. Even the most constructive criticism will be met with defensiveness and resentment. The vulnerable narcissist’s key trait is a fragile ego that will react strongly to the suggestion that they are in any way at fault or in need of improvement.

This can be one of the more frustrating aspects of dealing with a more fragile narcissist. They have a deep, underlying insecurity but simultaneously object to the idea that they need to change or improve in any way. Those partnering with a vulnerable narcissist will likely meet resistance when it comes to conflict resolution that requires the narcissist to compromise.

“Realize that narcissists have an addiction disorder. They are strongly addicted to feeling significant. Like any addict they will do whatever it takes to get this feeling often. That is why they are manipulative and future fakers. They promise change, but can’t deliver if it interferes with their addiction. That is why they secure back up supply.” ― Shannon L. Alder

They Have Low Self-Worth

This may seem counterintuitive. After all, narcissists generally project an attitude that they are superior to others. Yet, the vulnerable narcissist nurses an underlying feeling of unworthiness.

This is one reason that many people fail to recognize a vulnerable narcissist. On the one hand, they certainly have behaviors that make you wonder. On the other hand, they have such fragile self-esteem that you doubt they could possibly qualify as possessing narcissistic traits. Yet, these two things don’t cancel out each other.

“When I look at narcissism through the vulnerability lens, I see the shame-based fear of being ordinary. I see the fear of never feeling extraordinary enough to be noticed, to be lovable, to belong, or to cultivate a sense of purpose.” Brené Brown

They Have a Fear of Being Ridiculed

A major fear of the vulnerable narcissist is being mocked or ridiculed. Their fragile egos react strongly to the idea that others could be laughing at them. Sometimes, it may seem like they just can’t take a joke, but they don’t lack a sense of humor. They do, however, struggle to laugh at themselves and much prefer turning their humor out in other directions.

“I am a recovering narcissist. I thought narcissism was about self-love till someone told me there is a flip side to it. It is actually drearier than self-love; it is unrequited self-love.” — Emily Levine

They Make Fun of Others

The vulnerable narcissist will do almost anything to avoid being the punchline in someone else’s jokes — including turning the spotlight on someone else. Make no mistake: the vulnerable narcissist can be a bully happy to make fun of others. They enjoy exploiting other people’s weaknesses and have no problem deflecting negative attention onto someone else.

Researchers refer to this trait as neurotic antagonism. Vulnerable narcissists project their own insecurities, aggression, and fears onto other people. The act of making fun of other people is a way for them to express their feelings in a way that feels safe and helps them avoid ridicule themselves.

“Sadly, when many individuals realize that the narcissist is insecure and isn’t reassured, they try harder to love this person. Additionally, the narcissist blames his her behavior on something that you are or aren’t doing, and a hooked person we may try to ‘do it better’ or ‘get it right.’ Your increased efforts to love and fix the narcissist only lines you up for more abuse.” — Melanie Tonia Evans

They Are Introverted

Unlike the more extroverted grandiose narcissist, the vulnerable narcissist tends to be an introvert. Researchers refer to this trait as neurotic introversion. Vulnerable narcissists use introverted tendencies to hide their low self-worth and feelings of shame. They prefer to isolate themselves from others rather than potentially expose their fragile identity.

“Relationship with a narcissist in a nutshell: You will go from being the perfect love of their life, to nothing you do is ever good enough. You will give your everything and they will take it all and give you less and less in return. You will end up depleted, emotionally, mentally, spiritually, and probably financially, and then get blamed for it.” — Bree Bonchay

They Worry a Lot

Researchers believe that the vulnerable narcissist tends to worry more often. Vulnerable narcissism is associated with depression, anxiety, and social isolation, which can exacerbate their fear. While they might project an attitude of superiority, what’s happening beneath the surface is simmering fear and anxiety.

In fact, dark empaths can qualify as vulnerable on the narcissism spectrum. They tend to possess many of the inflated traits of the grandiose narcissist but equally possess fragile traits and low self-worth. What’s unfortunate is that their narcissistic tendencies often create the isolation that feeds the fears, which is a vicious cycle that won’t end without addressing those narcissistic traits.

“Half the harm that is done in this world is due to people who want to feel important … They justify it because they are absorbed in the endless struggle to think well of themselves.” — T.S. Eliot

They Love Attention and Recognition

While the vulnerable narcissist overreacts to criticism, they soak in attention and recognition. They constantly crave accolades, and they’ll go out of their way to get them. They’ll even go as far as manipulating others to make it happen.

The vulnerable narcissist finds positive attention soothing and is unlikely to stay in relationships without it. Jobs that make them feel unappreciated or under-appreciated will lose their luster. Relationships that don’t stroke their ego will lose their interest. They crave constant affirming feedback and will leave when they can’t get it.

“The narcissist is like a bucket with a hole in the bottom: No matter how much you put in, you can never fill it up. The phrase “I never feel like I am enough” is the mantra of the person in the narcissistic relationship. That’s because to your narcissistic partner, you are not. No one is. Nothing is.” ― Dr. Ramani Durvasula

They Dodge Accountability

The vulnerable narcissist carries so much inner shame. Perhaps it’s not surprising that they struggle so much with accountability. They’re more likely to shift the blame than own up to their mistakes.

Good luck ever getting a vulnerable narcissist to genuinely apologize unless they want something from you. They simply don’t do it. They’re more likely to gaslight and blame you for the problem than accept that they could be in the wrong. Their fragile egos are constantly spinning stories to put them in the role of both hero and victim, but never the villain.

“Narcissism is voluntary blindness, an agreement not to look beneath the surface.” — Sam Keen

They Use Other People

The vulnerable narcissist is still a narcissist. Despite their low self-worth and worrywart personality, they possess neurotic traits and will manipulate others to get what they want. While they may feel bad about using people, they’ll do it anyway.

Manipulation comes naturally to those with narcissistic personality traits. They can think analytically about what will work for them without necessarily considering how it will impact the people they’re manipulating. Even if they have an awareness of the impact, they’ll likely value the benefits higher than the cost to others.

“Narcissists withhold affection to punish you. Withhold attention to get revenge. And withhold an emotional empathetic response to make you feel insecure.” ― Alice Little

Final Thoughts

Interestingly enough, younger generations of adults are more likely perceived as displaying more traits of vulnerable narcissism and entitlement than grandiose narcissism. Yet, researchers concluded that older generations often perceive younger ones as possessing more negative traits, a tendency that can be alarming for emerging adults. In other words, older people tend to dismiss younger ones as entitled without factoring in generational changes in society and culture.

The vulnerable narcissist may not look like the ones we’ve been taught to expect. They can be charming, and empathetic at times, and even display flashes of their fragile self-worth. Yet, ignoring their narcissistic tendencies could put you at risk of a toxic and even abusive relationship.

Pop culture has fully embraced narcissism as an archetype. Yet, we all can possess narcissistic traits. Few of us meet the qualifiers to be diagnosed with a narcissistic personality disorder. Being aware of these traits can help us make healthy choices for ourselves and our relationships while ignoring them could put us at risk.

There aren’t nearly as many narcissists out there as the Internet and pop culture would have us believe. Yet, it does make me wonder if all that focus outward is, in itself, a narcissist trait. It carries the same sense of blame and a refusal to be accountable for our own choices.

We cannot control what other people do. We can label them if we like, but it would be far more useful to turn our attention inward and focus on how we treat people — and how we allow ourselves to be treated.

Originally published on Medium

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Crystal Jackson is a former therapist turned writer. She is the author of the Heart of Madison series and a volume of poetry entitled My Words Are Whiskey. Her work has been featured on Medium, Elite Daily, Thought Catalog, The Good Men Project, and Elephant Journal. When she's not writing, you can find her traveling, paddle boarding, cycling, throwing axes badly but with terrifying enthusiasm, hiking, or curled up with her nose in a book in Madison, Georgia, where she lives with one puppy and two wild and wonderful children. Crystal writes about relationships, mental health, parenting, social justice, and more. Never miss an update. Subscribe to emails: https://crystaljacksonwriter.substack.com/

Madison, GA

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