Sometimes a person?s draining behavior goes beyond typical egotism.
Adora Crellin of Gillian Flynn?s Sharp Objects displays qualities of a vulnerable narcissist | Sharp Objects/HBO
?We are all at the mercy of the Narcissist in Chief,? writes Jennifer Senior of the New York Times. Beyond a shadow of a doubt, drama, ego, and lust for power have infected the United States? political culture. Narcissism is embedded in the exceptionalism of the ?America First? motto and the pageantry of the demagogue at its helm. Even Trump?s supporters recognize his boastfulness, though many consider his absurd self-aggrandizement an asset rather than a drawback.
Given its palpability on the national stage, narcissism has become a familiar phenomenon. We feel it heaved at us from the presidential pulpit and marketed to us through celebrity social media ads. A term once circumscribed to the realms of clinical psychiatry and Greek mythology has busted into the mainstream.
These divergent definitions ? one of them rooted in the mental health vocation and the other in classical literature ? lead to a schism in what we mean when we say, ?She?s a narcissist.? On one end of the spectrum, we have full-blown Narcissistic Personality Disorder, or NPD. Despite the zeal of some armchair psychologists to diagnose the collective ?selfie generation? with such an affliction, NPD is pretty rare; according to Dr. Laurie Helgoe, author of Fragile Bully, ?A systematic review of studies looking at the prevalence of NPD in the general population found an average estimate of 1.06%, meaning only one in about one hundred people meet the criteria for NPD.?
On the other hand, we often use narcissism as a behavioral descriptor corresponding to arrogance, self-absorption, and vanity. Just as someone can feel depressed without having clinical depression, an individual can act selfishly in a given situation without being a pathological narcissist. We all center ourselves at times, and ? as with any emotion ? narcissism can be constructive in moderation. Helgoe explains, ?We see healthy narcissism in the form of ambition, self-confidence, and a sense of personal effectiveness.?
As a persistent personality trait, however, narcissism can exhaust those caught in the egomaniac?s manipulative maelstrom. The thin-skinned peacock?s contemporaneous self-praise and persecution complex lays an emotional minefield for anyone seeking mutually fulfilling interaction. Donald Trump?s bombastic insolence combined with his self-pitying allegations of a political ?witch hunt? epitomizes the stereotypical grandiose narcissist to an almost comical extent.
But what about a less perceptibly self-absorbed person? Someone who ? like Donald Trump ? frequently antagonizes others and then plays the victim, but lacks his ostentation? An individual who subtly but intently controls those around her? It?s possible this person is a vulnerable narcissist, or at least demonstrates the qualities of one.
How can one identify a vulnerable narcissist?
The covert nature of vulnerable narcissists? psychological domination can make their destructive behavior more difficult to recognize. In many aspects, the vulnerable narcissist acts similarly to the garden variety overt narcissist: both feel entitled to more empathy than they?re willing to show others, react hostilely to criticism, and refuse to take responsibility for their part in disagreements. In the narcissist?s world, it?s always someone else?s fault.
This behavior courts controversy in the narcissist?s relationships. Beware of habitual bridge burners; phrases like ?All my exes are crazy!? are major red flags. Narcissists cannot healthily process rejection and will often demonize any person they feel has scorned them in the past. They constantly demand praise but squander friendships by guzzling affection without offering any in return.
Vulnerable narcissists weaponize fragility to manipulate the people around them. They are hypersensitive to even tactful and merited criticism. Often, they frame themselves as victims in interpersonal conflicts, thereby centering their own emotions and casting the other party as a perpetrator rather than someone with a differing opinion or legitimate grievance. In addition to trivializing the feelings of others, vulnerable narcissists frequently engage in psychological abuse like alienating their perceived detractors from social communities or ? in more extreme cases ? threatening self-harm.
Such ploys can prove detrimental for the vulnerable narcissist?s scapegoat. Consider this pressing example of vulnerable narcissism outlined by Sister Outsider/FeministGriote on Twitter:
?Almost every BW [Black woman] I know has a story about a time in a professional setting in which she attempted to have a talk with a WW [White woman] about her behavior & it has ended with the WW crying. The WW wasn?t crying because she felt sorry and was deeply remorseful. The WW was crying because she felt ?bullied? and/or that the BW was being too harsh with her.?
In her book White Tears/Brown Scars, author Ruby Hamad details how spectacles of white fragility function to punish women of color in the workplace. Taglines like ?Why are you attacking me?? brand well-intentioned critics as bullies. For Black women especially, the ?angry? or ?aggressive? allegation demoralizes its target by intimating a racist stereotype. Meanwhile, as colleagues hasten to comfort the vulnerable narcissist who has christened herself the victim, the other person finds herself socially isolated or professionally discredited.
Another example of vulnerable narcissism in action includes parents who hold their children to impossible standards and complain when those children inevitably fail to meet them. Often these parents see their children as extensions of themselves rather than individuals with distinct feelings and emotional needs. When the child acts out, the narcissistic parent will center her own esteem (?What will people say about me??) over her child?s potential pain (?Are you okay? Do you need my help??).
Vulnerable narcissists typically suck romantic partners into their volatile vortexes too. The fragile bully requires constant validation from his mate but only reciprocates emotional energy when he needs something. He construes any suggestion that he modify his behavior as an attack; perhaps he reacts angrily to constructive criticism without considering its nuance, or sulks when his partner asks for more empathy or attention. For all the devotion he demands, he?s apathetic and emotionally distant when his companion needs care.
Only a mental health professional can diagnose someone with NPD and clinically evaluate where they usually behave on the spectrum between grandiose and vulnerable narcissism. Still, if someone in your life exhibits narcissistic tendencies to the point that they often leave you feeling drained and disoriented ? as if a vampire has siphoned your emotional energy ? you might need to change your approach to that relationship for the sake of your own mental wellness.
How can one deal with a vulnerable narcissist?
Once you?ve recognized a destructive relationship, the next step entails developing strategies to protect yourself from psychological abuse. Observers often advocate emotional abstinence: ?Why don?t you leave?? or ?Just ignore it.? In an ideal world, we would all be able to sever ties with individuals who consistently cause us stress.
Sometimes, however, the vulnerable narcissist?s position relative to ours doesn?t allow a healthy detox. If the individual in question is your boss at a job you can?t afford to leave, or a member of your social group threatening to sabotage your reputation, or the leader of your country, ?just ignoring it? probably isn?t an option.
Interacting with vulnerable narcissists without enabling their emotional manipulation can take practice, but it is possible. Consider trying the gray rock method: basically, make yourself so mundane that the narcissist finds no satisfaction in needling you. Don?t fuel the narcissist; drama, conflict, and even stimulating conversation are off-limits. How are you today? Fine. What have you been up to? Work. How is work? Fine. Has it been busy? Same as usual. (You get the idea.)
Some people find reprieve in journaling. Vulnerable narcissists finagle every conversation to revolve around them and their emotional needs; writing down your thoughts and experiences allows you to focus on yourself without the pressure to appease the narcissist. It provides a record of your feelings to consult after a draining encounter so you can reprioritize your wellbeing and defend against manipulative tactics like gaslighting. Journaling also compels you to take charge of your own words; this fosters self-reflection and prevents the narcissist from dominating the narrative.
Connecting with genuine friends can help us recover from toxic situations. Cultivating healthy relationships increases self-confidence, reduces stress, and ground us in reality. Reaching out for support might also include seeking therapy to organize and communicate your thoughts, and reorient yourself toward more wholesome relationships. Spend your time around those who encourage constructive behaviors: patience, empathy, and kindness.