The 2 Faces of Narcissism: Can You Recognize Them?

The Trifurcated Model shows how two different aspects of narcissism connect.

Posted Sep 29, 2020

Soroush Karimi/Unplash
Source: Soroush Karimi/Unplash

In everyday conversations about narcissism, we often have different ideas and images of what “narcissism” means and who it describes. It can be confusing when we don’t have a clear idea of what someone else is saying or what exactly they mean by it. In reality, narcissism has nuance and falls on a spectrum, and it can show up in different ways in different people.

In recent years, psychologists and psychotherapists began to highlight these differences and try to classify them so people could discuss narcissism from common ground. Until recently, the default view focused on the extraverted, arrogant qualities of narcissism that make people “grandiose.” However, psychotherapists saw clients in treatment who were less grandiose and more vulnerable, and their definitions conflicted with the traditional model.

When experts met in recent years to discuss the discrepancies, they decided to include both sides of the picture to give a more well-rounded view. Both were accurate depictions of narcissism, but they couldn’t be defined by one term. That laid the groundwork for the “Trifurcated Model,” which shows how both the grandiose and vulnerable forms relate to the core narcissistic personality traits of antagonism, self-importance, and a sense of entitlement.

Carolyn Crist/author
Source: Carolyn Crist/author

Grandiose and vulnerable narcissism are the “two faces” of narcissism that represent related but separate traits. Grandiose narcissists, for instance, tend to exhibit confidence, boldness, and self-esteem as it relates to their disagreeableness and ego. Vulnerable narcissists, on the other hand, tend to have anxiety, low confidence, and low self-esteem, which also links back to their callous and ego-centric behaviors.

As an example, consider these three people and their personality traits, which line up with different aspects of the Trifurcated Model featured in our book (released today, Sept. 29!):

  • Your favorite influencer loves to talk about the high-status people she knows and the fancy places she travels. She name-drops all the time, and you can see that she thinks highly of herself — and believes she’s better than others. She always turns the conversation back to herself and her life experiences, no matter the topic, and it seems like the world revolves around her. However, she’s entertaining, attractive, and charming, and you like her despite the self-centered behavior. You think you could be her friend.
  • Your shy and insecure friend — more like an acquaintance, really, since you can’t seem to get close to him — is often depressed but also full of himself. He’s rigid and wants everything to be done his way. He doesn’t show compassion for others and complains about them often, usually focusing on the idea that they don’t recognize his intelligence or skill. You or others have talked to him about his depression, but he can’t take responsibility for it. Instead, he believes his problems stem from the “unfair” treatment he’s received from the world. If others recognized his brilliance, everything would be fine.
  • Your coworker brags about his work accomplishments on social media, though you don’t consider them to be as great as he does. He puts down other coworkers and doesn’t show gratitude when they help him with projects. He often expects special treatment, and when he doesn’t get what he wants, he’s mean and vindictive. He also reacts harshly to criticism of his work and is quite defensive. However, the boss likes him and sees him as a “go-getter.” You think of him as a suck-up.

All three of these people show aspects of narcissism. The first one, who is outgoing and charming, is considered a grandiose narcissist. The second person, who is insecure but entitled, is a vulnerable narcissist. The third person, who is arrogant and defensive, is a mix of the two.

You likely think about grandiose narcissists most often when talking in conversations. Since they’re bold and outgoing, you’re more likely to see them at work and in relationships. They’re charming at first and often draw fans easily, but then people are repelled by their self-centered nature and lack of empathy. The vulnerable narcissists are harder to see because they tend to be more introverted, depressed and hurt by criticism, but they have some of the same self-centered qualities as their grandiose counterparts.

To make things more difficult, the combination example includes both grandiose and vulnerable qualities. Someone can be extraverted and ambitious but also defensive and reactive. Psychologists and psychotherapists are coming to see narcissism as part of a spectrum — or really two spectra. One spectrum moves from a clinical disorder to a normal personality trait, and the other spectrum moves from vulnerability to grandiosity, as explained by Zlatan Krizan and Anne Herlache at Iowa State University. In fact, you may notice some of these qualities in yourself — and for the most part, everyone tends to have some amount of narcissism, which can display in positive or negative ways.

Ultimately, the Trifurcated Model unites these “two faces” of narcissism and clarifies some of the conflicting definitions that we see in the real world. The new model has also changed our understanding of narcissistic personality traits, and we’ve been able to better see the connections of narcissism in various types of research, including links to social media, leadership, and relationships. This new understanding of narcissism has the potential to change the cultural conversation around narcissism, too, and how it operates in society today.

Facebook image: fizkes/Shutterstock


Campbell, W. Keith & Crist, Carolyn. (2020). The New Science of Narcissism: Understanding One of the Greatest Psychological Challenges of Our Time—And What You Can Do About It. Boulder, CO: Sounds True.

Krizan Z, Herlache AD. The Narcissism Spectrum Model: A Synthetic View of Narcissistic Personality. Personality and Social Psychology Review. 2018;22(1):3-31. doi:10.1177/1088868316685018.