Vulnerable Narcissist: How to Spot Them and How to Cope

Narcissism refers to a personality style typically characterized by a pervasive pattern of self-centeredness, an excessive need for admiration and attention, and a lack of empathy for others.

Vulnerable narcissism is a subtype of narcissistic personality disorder (NPD). While narcissists typically exhibit grandiosity, arrogance, and a sense of superiority, vulnerable narcissists manifest these traits in a more subdued, insecure, and sensitive manner.

However, underneath a vulnerable narcissist’s shy presentation lies the same attention-seeking and antagonist core that characterizes narcissism.

The profile of NPD in the most recent Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) is aligned with the grandiose type of narcissism.

Narcissists with an inflated sense of self-importance and superiority are the most well-studied and diagnosed. But more recently, vulnerable narcissism has become more formally recognized as a distinct subtype of NPD.

Vulnerable Narcissism

The Vulnerable Narcissist Profile

As the name suggests, a vulnerable narcissist is someone who presents with traits of both narcissism and vulnerability. Like all narcissists, these individuals have an inflated sense of self-importance and a deep need for admiration, yet they also display feelings of inadequacy, low self-esteem, and an exaggerated need for validation.

In line with the Five Factor Model of Personality, the vulnerable narcissist’s core personality traits are low agreeableness (antagonism), low extraversion (introversion), and high neuroticism (emotional instability).

Antagonism is characterized by anger, hostility, opposition, and resistance towards others.

Neuroticism relates to one’s emotional instability and how prone someone is to experiencing negative emotions such as anxiety, depression, or irritability. Vulnerable narcissist’s tend to have low emotional stability and high levels of anxiety, depression, and irritability. 

Because they are introverts, vulnerable narcissists often present as shy and reclusive. But at their core, they are self-centered, entitled, and manipulative.

While they may not overtly display their sense of superiority, they still fantasize about power and fame.

Unlike the more overtly grandiose narcissist, the vulnerable narcissist is fragile and self-doubting. They are hypersensitive to criticism and the feedback they receive from others, reacting with defensiveness or withdrawal when they are slighted.

Because they are so preoccupied with maintaining a positive self-image and so focused on their own needs and desires, vulnerable narcissists tend to suffer from poor mental health and social isolation.  

How Does Vulnerable Narcissism Develop?

Early childhood experiences and interactions with caregivers play a crucial role in shaping an individual’s personality and self-concept, including the development of narcissistic traits. Vulnerable narcissism is believed to develop, at least in part, as a result of inadequate and inconsistent approval and validation during childhood.

Inconsistent parenting, emotional neglect, traumatic experiences, and/or excessive attention can contribute to the development of a fragile self-esteem and a need for constant validation.

Specifically, if a child receives inconsistent or inappropriate levels of approval and validation from their caregivers, such as alternating between excessive praise and harsh criticism, they are likely to have an unstable sense of self. This can create confusion and, as a result, many children develop narcissist traits as a coping mechanism.

Researchers have theorized that vulnerable or grandiose narcissistic features develop depending on the strength of a child’s sense of self and their level of extraversion.

Introversion and extraversion are hereditary (i.e., they have a biological basis), while narcissism tends to develop as a result of the environment. Thus, someone who is more introverted and who experienced maltreatment during childhood is more likely to develop vulnerable narcissism.

Despite craving attention and admiration from others, vulnerable narcissists tend to distrust and avoid other people because they are introverted individuals who are deeply insecure and hypersensitive to perceived rejection. They tend to go to great lengths to avoid situations where they could be confronted or challenged.

The Vulnerability of the Vulnerable Narcissist

The vulnerability of vulnerable narcissists lies in their fragile ego, hypersensitivity, and underlying sense of inadequacy. This vulnerability sets them apart from the more overtly grandiose and assertive narcissistic subtype.

Vulnerable narcissists rely heavily on external validation and approval to maintain a positive self-image. Because of their fragile sense of self and deep rooted fear of rejection, vulnerable narcissists are emotionally unstable individuals.

When faced with adversity or negative feedback, they experience significant shame and emotional turmoil. Their antagonistic traits combined with this shame and anger often leads to frequent mood swings, high levels of aggression, and abusive tendencies.

They can spend long periods of time ruminating about who wronged them and how they can seek revenge. Vulnerable narcissists typically experience more conflict around their entitled needs and expectations than grandiose narcissists.

When their entitled expectations are not met, they may react with defensiveness, withdrawal, or even hostile outbursts.

They may become excessively preoccupied with gaining acceptance and approval from others, which can lead to a fear of intimacy and difficulties in forming healthy relationships.

Signs of Vulnerable Narcissism              

Vulnerable narcissism, like other personality traits and disorders, exists on a continuum, and different individuals may have varying degrees of vulnerability.

Vulnerable narcissists’ personalities and behavioral tactics are often more subtle than those of a grandiose narcissist. They tend to appear calm and composed on the surface, but in reality, they have a dark, vulnerable core.

Some common signs and behaviors that may indicate the presence of vulnerable narcissistic traits include:

Passive Grandiosity

Vulnerable narcissists do not openly demand admiration and attention from others, but instead use more cunning ways to get an “ego boost.”

For example, they may fish for compliments, exaggerate their accomplishments, or boast about their achievements to gain validation from others and counteract their underlying feelings of inadequacy.

Victim Playing

When faced with adversity or negative feedback, vulnerable narcissists may adopt a victim mentality, portraying themselves as helpless and unfairly treated. This tactic is used to garner sympathy and support from others while deflecting accountability for their actions.

They might also tell stories about their abusive childhoods or ex-partners to receive affection, sympathy, and attention.

They also use this victim mentality to deflect accountability for their actions. For example, if you confront a vulnerable narcissist about their poor behavior, they might remind you of how difficult their life has been.

Or, they might start crying and say “everything is always my fault” or “why does everyone hate me.”

Covert Manipulation

Despite their apparent vulnerability, vulnerable narcissists will still engage in manipulative tactics to gain sympathy or attention from others.

This can include gaslighting, stonewalling, victim playing, emotional blackmailing (e.g. “if you leave me I will kill myself”), and other passive-aggressive behaviors.

Some narcissists may exploit others for their own gain. They may manipulate or use people to achieve their goals, showing little concern for the well-being of others.

Hypersensitivity to Criticism

Vulnerable narcissists are hypersensitive to criticism and any perceived slights. Criticisms will be met with hostility, rage, and resentment. They may react with defensiveness, withdrawal, or even aggression when their actions or beliefs are questioned.

For example, if their boss gave them a poor review, they will plot their boss’s demise. Or, they might explode into rage if their partner questions their choice of outfit.

Emotional Instability

Vulnerable narcissist’s fragile self-esteem and fear of rejection contribute to emotional instability.

They may experience frequent mood swings and emotional turmoil, making it challenging for them to regulate their emotions effectively. As such, they often experience poor mental health and suicidal ideation.

Making Others Walk On Eggshells

Because of vulnerable narcissists’ deep-rooted insecurities and susceptibility to mood swings, other people often feel like they have to “walk on eggshells” when around them.

They might feel afraid to offer their honest opinion, second-guess everything they say, and have a constant feeling of unease.

This emotional volatility can make it difficult for vulnerable narcissists to sustain healthy and reciprocal connections with others.

Hiding Their True Self

In front of others, vulnerable narcissists might appear confident, calm, and in control, but behind the facade is a deeply vulnerable core.

Vulnerable narcissists struggle to express their needs and desires. Because they fear failure and rejection, they tend to withdraw socially and isolate themselves from others.

They tend to hide their true self from friends, family, and strangers and avoid taking responsibility for their actions. Instead, they blame others or external circumstances for their failures or mistakes.

A Few More Signs to Look Out For:

  • Difficult to connect with emotionally
  • Passive-aggressive behavior (e.g. sarcasm or hurtful “jokes”)
  • Dismissive and abusive behavior (e.g. telling you that your work is unimportant or saying things like “you are worthless”)
  • Engaging in affairs or flirting with others to make their partner jealous
  • Being loving and kind, but only when it suits them
  • Indecisiveness
  • Envy and resentment towards others who appear more successful or accomplished

It’s important to note that everyone may exhibit some of these traits occasionally, especially during times of stress or vulnerability.

For a person to be diagnosed with NPD, however, the presence of these signs must be persistent and cause significant distress or impairment to one’s life and/or relationships.


The following case vignette is taken from Ronningstam & Weinberg (2013). It illustrates some core features of vulnerable narcissism. 

This report describes a patient’s need for an “intense activity track,” including competitive sports and extramarital affairs – a common desire among narcissistic individuals. Mr. M presents with a “distant, unempathetic, and self-preoccupied” personality.

Mr. M aligns more so with the vulnerable narcissistic type because he suffers from feelings of “emptiness and frustration” and “deep internal darkness.”

Grandiose narcissists are less likely to experience suffering to this extent, and if they do, they would likely not admit it. 

“Mr. M, a successful financial investor in his early 50s, began psychotherapy after facing an ultimatum from his wife of 30 years who had threatened to leave him if he did not seek treatment and change his attitudes and behavior.

Mr. M described himself as a committed, goal-oriented, and success-focused man, but one also in need of many parallel intense activity tracks, including competitive sailing and extramarital affairs, to balance what he described as a deep internal darkness that he had suffered from since early childhood.

Easily irritated by others’ inconsistency and imprecision, he also described himself as distant, unempathetic, and self-preoccupied.

But most importantly he struggled with a sense of emptiness and frustration of never reaching the satisfaction and sense of accomplishment that he so intensely desired.”

Can You Have a Relationship with a Vulnerable Narcissist?

Being in a relationship with a vulnerable narcissist can be challenging, emotionally exhausting, and confusing, but it is not impossible.

As with any relationship, success depends on both parties’ willingness to understand and address the dynamics at play and work towards healthier interactions.

You should be aware that narcissist individuals often experience extreme mood swings, suffer from mental health, and have an expectation of you to “fix” or “save” them.

If you criticize or disagree with them in some way, they will likely become enraged. They might meet you with overt aggression (e.g. shouting) or passive aggression (e.g. stonewalling).

Although they can be loving and kind at times, vulnerable narcissists tend to engage in behaviors that are detrimental to a healthy relationship (e.g., manipulation, extramarital affairs, and aggressive tendencies).

Partners of vulnerable narcissists are likely to feel like they have to constantly walk on eggshells. They also need understand that they will never fully satisfy or meet their partner’s unattainable expectations. And, offering endless reassurance or giving in to their demands will only reinforce the negative patterns.

Eventually, this behavior is likely to negatively affect your self-esteem. Their subtle manipulation tactics may cause you to question your thoughts, feelings, and sanity.

Recognize that the vulnerable narcissist may not change overnight, if at all. You must ask yourself whether the person and relationship are worth your energy, time, and well-being. Managing your expectations can help you cope with the challenges in the relationship.

If your partner is willing to go to therapy and commit to changing their behavior, it might be possible to have a more stable and healthy relationship.

It’s essential to remember that the level of success and fulfillment in the relationship will vary depending on the individual circumstances. In some cases, a relationship with a vulnerable narcissist may improve with time and effort, while in other cases, it may be healthier to distance yourself from the relationship for your own well-being.

If the relationship becomes toxic, abusive, or negatively impacts your mental health, it may be necessary to consider setting stronger boundaries or even ending the relationship altogether.


Can a Vulnerable Narcissist Love?

Yes, a vulnerable narcissist is capable of feeling love, just like any other individual. However, their experience and expression of love may be influenced by their narcissistic traits and underlying insecurities.

For a vulnerable narcissist, love may be driven by a strong desire for validation and admiration from the person they love.

Vulnerable narcissists’ goal is to maintain their grandiose self-esteem and they will pursue this by any means possible. Thus, love may be more about fulfilling their emotional needs rather than genuinely empathizing and caring for the other person’s well-being.

How Do You Know if You Are a Vulnerable Narcissist?

Knowing whether you are a vulnerable narcissist requires honest and deep self-reflection. Examine your thoughts, beliefs, and behaviors and assess them against the description and profile of vulnerable narcissism.

There are also psychological tests that measure your level of vulnerable narcissism, such as the Hypersensitive Narcissism Scale (Hendin & Cheek, 1997) and the Maladaptive Covert Narcissism Scale (Cheek, Hendin & Wink, 2013).

But, only a trained and qualified health professional, such as a psychologist, can diagnose mental health disorders. You should avoid self-diagnosing.

Can Vulnerable Narcissism be Cured?

As a personality trait, narcissism tends to stay relatively stable over time, which makes treating vulnerable narcissism difficult.

Furthermore, vulnerable narcissism lies on a scale ranging from low levels to high or pathological (NPD) levels, which impacts its treatability.

Someone who has lower levels of narcissism can adjust their ways of thinking and behaving if they develop insight, work hard, and genuinely want to change.

Therapy and other forms of structured and systematic support can be helpful to guide someone through their journey of change.

Personality disorders, such as NPD, are difficult to treat. But with the right treatment, like specific therapies and medication, their symptoms and behaviors can become manageable.

When it comes to mental health, people are typically not “cured,” but rather they can learn to live with their challenges and build meaningful relationships and lives.

Is Vulnerable Narcissism the Same as Covert?

Yes, vulnerable narcissism has many different labels including covert, closet, hypervigilant, hypersensitive, or thin-skinned narcissist. Most of these names allude to their vulnerable and hypersensitive nature.

Their antagonistic, egocentric, and entitled needs and expectations are often hidden or covert – hence “covert narcissist.”


Cheek, J. M., Hendin, H. M., Wink., P. M. (2013). An extended version of the Hypersensitive Narcissism Scale. Association for Research in Personality.

Dickinson, K. & Pincus, A.L. (2003). Interpersonal analysis of grandiose and vulnerable narcissism. Journal of Personality Disorders, 17 (3), 188-207.

Hendin, M.H. & Cheek, J.M. (1997). Assessing Hypersensitive Narcissism: A Re-examination of Murrays Narcissism Scale. Journal of Research in Personality, 31.

Jauk, W., Weigle, E., Lehmann, K., Benedek, M. & Neubauer, A.C. (2017). The Relationship between Grandiose and Vulnerable (Hypersensitive) Narcissism. Frontiers in Psychology, 8.

Kohut, H. (1971). The analysis of the self: A systematic approach to the psychoanalytic treatment of narcissistic personality disorders. University of Chicago Press.

Loeffler, L.A.K., Huebben, A.K., Radke, S., Habel, U. & Derntl, B. (2020). The Association Between Vulnerable/Grandiose Narcissism and Emotion Regulation. Frontiers in Psychology, 11.

Ronningstam, E. & Weinberg, I. (2013). Narcissistic Personality Disorder: Progress in Recognition and Treatment. Focus, 11 (2), 167-177.

Zajenkowski, M., Rogoza, R., Maciantowicz, O., Witowska, J. & Jonason, P.K. (2021). Narcissus locked in the past: Vulnerable narcissism and the negative views of the past. Journal of Research in Personality, 93.

Saul Mcleod, PhD

BSc (Hons) Psychology, MRes, PhD, University of Manchester

Educator, Researcher

Saul Mcleod, Ph.D., is a qualified psychology teacher with over 18 years experience of working in further and higher education. He has been published in peer-reviewed journals, including the Journal of Clinical Psychology.

Anna Drescher

Mental Health Writer

BSc (Hons), Psychology, Goldsmiths University, MSc in Psychotherapy, University of Queensland

Anna Drescher is a freelance writer and solution-focused hypnotherapist, specializing in CBT and meditation. Using insights from her experience working as an NHS Assistant Clinical Psychologist and Recovery Officer, along with her Master's degree in Psychotherapy, she lends deep empathy and profound understanding to her mental health and relationships writing.