12 Signs of a Vulnerable Narcissist

Jealous man sulking with woman comforting him.

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Although harboring a grandiose sense of self importance, entitlement and need for admiration, a type of narcissism known as vulnerable narcissism is also characterized by feelings of insecurity, low self-esteem, and hypersensitivity to criticism. People with this type of narcissism tend to be more vulnerable to rejection and have difficulty forming meaningful relationships. They may also become easily overwhelmed and have difficulty dealing with stress.

Vulnerable narcissism is also known as covert narcissism.

How to Spot a Vulnerable Narcissist

Dr. Jay Serle, LMFT, Ph.D., notes "A vulnerable narcissist describes someone who is hypersensitive to rejection and extremely self-conscious. They tend to be insecure, as well. They become angry or offended when not put on a pedestal. A person with vulnerable narcissism is highly sensitive to criticism. People with vulnerable narcissism often lack empathy. If they do show empathy it is used to build their own self-importance."

While it is impossible to diagnose someone with narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) without a professional evaluation, there are signs that may indicate you are dealing with a person with vulnerable narcissism.

Below are 12 signs of a vulnerable narcissist.

Difficulty Handling Criticism

People who suffer from narcissistic vulnerability often have difficulty accepting criticism, even when it is constructive. They may become defensive or aggressive when faced with any kind of feedback.

Need for Constant Praise

Those who are vulnerable narcissists often require an excessive amount of attention and validation from others in order to feel good about themselves. This need for excessive external validation can lead to feelings of insecurity and anxiety if they don’t receive the attention they crave.

Unclear Sense of Self

People with narcissistic vulnerability often struggle to identify their own emotions and needs. This lack of clarity about their own identity can lead to feelings of confusion and emptiness that can be difficult to overcome.

Manipulative Tendencies

Those who live with narcissistic vulnerability may frequently use manipulation as a way to get what they want out of situations. They may attempt to manipulate people into giving them what they want by using guilt or shame as leverage.

Inability to Empathize

A common trait among vulnerable narcissists is an inability (or unwillingness) to put themselves in another person’s shoes and understand how their actions might affect someone else emotionally or mentally.

Difficulty Forming Relationships

Because vulnerable narcissists tend to focus too much on themselves, they often find it challenging to form meaningful connections with other people. This inability to connect with others can leave them feeling isolated, lonely, and misunderstood.

Controlling Behavior

Individuals living with narcissistic vulnerability may try desperately hard to control every aspect of their lives, including other people's lives. They may attempt to micromanage everything from conversations, and decisions, to activities.

Jealousy and Envy

Vulnerable narcissists often feel jealous or envious of those around them. This can lead to negative comparisons and overly competitive behavior that may make it difficult to maintain healthy relationships.

Difficulty Trusting Others

Vulnerable narcissists often have trouble trusting people, even those that are closest to them. They may be suspicious of others’ motives, leading them to keep people at a distance to protect themselves from potential hurt. These feelings of mistrust can prevent them from forming meaningful connections with others.

Projecting Blame Onto Others

When things don't go their way, those with narcissistic vulnerability may resort to blaming everyone else rather than looking within themselves for explanations as to why things didn't turn out the way they wanted.

Poor Boundaries

Individuals with this vulnerability can have difficulty setting healthy boundaries between themselves and other people. This inability leads them into situations where their needs are not taken into consideration or respected which can cause resentment and conflict over time.  

Fear of Abandonment

People with this personality vulnerability may struggle with a deep fear of abandonment. They may cling to people too tightly or become overly possessive to prevent others from leaving them. This kind of behavior can be very damaging and hard to break out of without proper help.

Causes of Vulnerable Narcissism

Some cases of narcissistic vulnerability can be traced back to childhood maltreatment or neglect, however, the exact cause is not known. It is likely complex involving genetic and biological vulnerabilities along with parent child interactions that involve too much unrealistic adoration and not enough validation that match the child's actual lived experience. Other childhood, environmental and cultural contributions can also be involved.

This can lead to an increased focus on themselves and their own needs in adulthood as a way to try and make up for what they did not receive in childhood.

How to Deal With a Vulnerable Narcissist

It can be difficult to cope with someone who lives with narcissistic vulnerability, but it is not impossible. The key is setting and maintaining healthy boundaries while trying to empathize with the individual’s struggles.

"While fragile narcissists try to avoid direct confrontation at all costs, they are big fans of passive-aggressive put-downs, especially when they are feeling threatened. They'll keep denying it if you call them out on it," says Katie Adams, Qualified Trainer, Mental Health First Aid Trainer & Psychologist at Skills Training Group. "Those with NPD have a strong need for plausible deniability. It's a vital weapon in their arsenal. Those who have serious problems will try to pick at your weak spots in a passive-aggressive way. You should not put up with such emotionally toxic behavior."

Here are some other tips for dealing with a vulnerable narcissist in your life:

  • Take time for yourself: Set aside regular “me time” to focus on yourself, do things you enjoy, take care of your needs and wants, etc. This will give you a break from the draining energy of a vulnerable narcissist and help you stay focused on taking care of your own mental health first.
  • Communicate calmly: If there is an issue between you and a vulnerable narcissist, try to communicate as calmly and objectively as possible. Explain how their behavior is making you feel, and try to be open to listening to their perspective if they are willing to talk it out.
  • Set boundaries: Make sure to set and enforce boundaries that are healthy for you. This may mean setting limits on how much time you spend with them, turning down certain requests or invitations, etc. It’s important to remember that it is okay to prioritize your own needs first when dealing with a vulnerable narcissist.
  • Seek professional help: If the situation feels too overwhelming or if your attempts at communication with the narcissist aren’t successful, seeking outside help from a mental health professional can be beneficial for both parties involved. A therapist can offer insight into why the person is behaving in a certain way and also provide strategies for coping and healthy communication techniques.

Can a Vulnerable Narcissist Love?

Yes, a vulnerable narcissist can love, but it may be difficult for them to express their feelings in a healthy way. They may struggle with intimacy and intimacy-related issues such as trust and vulnerability due to their past experiences, but if they are willing to work on these things with a mental health professional, they can learn how to form meaningful connections with others.

Do Vulnerable Narcissists Have Empathy?

Yes, a vulnerable narcissist can have empathy, but they can often struggle to put themselves in someone else’s shoes and be understanding of others' perspectives. Particularly when their sense of self-esteem feels threatened. But again, with the help of a therapist, they can work on developing their empathy.

Vulnerable Narcissism vs. Other Types of Narcissism

It’s important to note that vulnerable narcissism is different from other types of narcissism, such as grandiose or malignant narcissism. While vulnerable narcissists may still feel a sense of entitlement and superiority, their behavior is usually not malicious as it would be with grandiose or malignant narcissism.

Vulnerable narcissists often struggle to take responsibility for their own actions and will instead blame others, but they may be more willing to get help given the emotional pain they can often experience.

With the appropriate help and motivation, those living with vulnerable narcissism can learn how to better identify their own needs while also respecting the needs of those around them so that all involved feel safe, heard, valued, and understood.

2 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Miller JD, Lynam DR, Vize C, et al. Vulnerable Narcissism Is (Mostly) a Disorder of NeuroticismJ Pers. 2018;86(2):186-199. doi:10.1111/jopy.12303

  2. Skodol AE, Bender DS, Morey LC. Narcissistic personality disorder in DSM-5Personal Disord. 2014;5(4):422-427. doi:10.1037/per0000023

By Arlin Cuncic, MA
Arlin Cuncic, MA, is the author of "Therapy in Focus: What to Expect from CBT for Social Anxiety Disorder" and "7 Weeks to Reduce Anxiety." She has a Master's degree in psychology.