- There are three groups of narcissists—exhibitionist, closet, and toxic—and each has their own typical relationship pattern.
- Exhibitionist narcissists openly devalue others, closet narcissists tend to devalue themselves, and toxic narcissists like to see others squirm.
- Narcissists are not all alike, but all use other people to help regulate their self-esteem.
When you say the word “narcissist,” most people immediately picture an outgoing, extroverted person who appears supremely self-confident and immediately takes center stage at every gathering. While this is an apt, if brief, description of the behavior of a typical exhibitionist narcissist who is feeling grandiose, it leaves out many other people who also have narcissistic disorders.
I have found it useful to divide narcissistic personality disorder into three main subtypes — exhibitionist, closet, and toxic. Some theorists give them different names, or they may describe fewer or more types of narcissists. The ones that I call toxic narcissists, others may call malignant narcissists, or they may describe all non-exhibitionists as covert narcissists. Putting the names aside, the easiest way to recognize which subgroup you are dealing with is by paying close attention to how they prefer to get their narcissistic supplies. In brief:
- Exhibitionist Narcissists: Want to be admired.
- Closet Narcissists: Want to be associated with someone whom they admire.
- Toxic Narcissists: Want to dominate and make the other person feel worthless.
Why is it important to recognize which subgroup a narcissist belongs in?
If you find yourself in a relationship with anyone who has narcissistic personality disorder, you need to understand exactly what you are getting into, and how it is likely to affect your relationship. You can get some basic information by simply recognizing that they have narcissistic issues:
- Preoccupied with self-esteem issues.
- Lack emotional empathy.
- Ultra-sensitive to perceived slights.
- Easily angered.
- Highly status conscious.
All of this makes it difficult for people with narcissistic personality disorder to sustain stable, intimate, and loving relationships.
If we take the above information a step further and sort narcissists into the three basic subgroups, this gives us even more information about how they are likely to react in intimate relationships.
You may have been in a relationship with a narcissist without realizing it.
Each of the three narcissistic groups has their own typical relationship pattern. Because there has been so much focus on the exhibitionist narcissist, many people do not realize that any other type of narcissistic disorder exists. This means that you could be with a non-exhibitionist narcissist for years without realizing it.
When things go badly wrong, and a partner’s narcissistic traits are suddenly more obvious, people ask me: “Is it possible that my husband (or wife) suddenly became a narcissist after all these years?” The answer is no; narcissistic personality disorder is formed in childhood and diagnosable by early adulthood. You just did not recognize the signs until now.
Why is their narcissism more obvious now? It usually turns out that some life crisis has threatened the narcissistic spouse’s self-esteem. In their attempt to cope with this challenge, the person has increased their use of narcissistic defenses. This has now made these defensive behaviors much more obvious.
This means that it is highly likely that your partner’s narcissistic difficulties and coping strategies have been creating problems in your relationship the whole time you have been together. You simply did not understand that this was the issue. Once you understand what to look for, you will probably be able to see how your mate’s narcissistic sensitivities may have played a role in many of the fights and misunderstandings the two of you have had over the years.
The three narcissistic subgroups and their approaches to relationships:
Below is a brief introduction to the three major subtypes of narcissistic personality disorder and some examples of how they might act on a first date.
How they act on that date can provide useful information about how they would behave in an ongoing relationship, should one develop. The difference is that on a first date, they are putting their best foot forward. If you do not like their behavior then, you are even less likely to enjoy their company later on, when they are taking you for granted and not trying so hard.
Narcissists are usually fairly overt when it comes to demonstrating their relationship style because they are not usually aware of what their actions say about them. They also tend to repeat the same relationship patterns over and over again. You are usually safe in assuming that if they do it with you on a first date, they have done it before — and will do it again.
1. Exhibitionist Narcissists
This is the group of people who come to mind when most people hear the word “narcissist.” They like to be the center of admiring attention. They tend to dominate conversations, feel entitled to special treatment, act supremely confident, and enjoy telling stories and giving advice. When they feel insecure, they use what I call the "GOD Defense," for Grandiose, Omnipotent, and Devaluing.
The GOD Defense is my shorthand way of describing the defensive, unrealistically perfect facade that exhibitionist narcissists attempt to construct to hide their own self-doubt. Instead of presenting themselves as normal human beings with assorted talents and flaws, they insist that they are special, perfect, know everything, and are always right. They also expect everyone around them to agree with their point of view. In their mind, they are “above,” and everyone except a select few are “below” them.
Because this arrogant posture is a thin, easily pierced façade and not how they really feel inside, it is easily disrupted. This makes exhibitionist narcissists hypersensitive to even minor slights. They are quick to get angry and ready to fight over things that most people might not even notice. They can also be quite cruel because they lack emotional empathy.
When they are not bragging about their own accomplishments or telling stories in which they play a heroic or starring role, they are busy devaluing anyone who disagrees with them. They may cruelly mock someone who is within hearing distance: “Boy, does she look fat in that dress!” or “I can’t believe how stupid our waiter is.” They tend to be oblivious to other people’s real reactions to their attitudes and behavior. They are so blinded by their own defenses that they assume everyone either agrees with them or thinks that what they are saying is amusing.
Ted and Sue on a date
Ted, an exhibitionist narcissist businessman, went on a first date with an attractive woman, Sue, whom he met through a dating site. Here is how each described their date later.
Ted: “I really impressed her! I told her about how many important people I know, and I took her to a fancy restaurant, and I ordered a fabulous dinner for her and chose an excellent wine that she had never tasted before. I can’t wait for the next date. And she is hot; next time we will end up at my apartment for the night.”
Sue: “Boy, that was a wasted evening. My date was so obnoxious. All he did was talk about himself. He didn’t ask one question about me. Then he insisted on ordering a steak dinner and red wine for me over my protests. I never eat red meat, and the salmon really looked good. I wanted to try this peach and vodka cocktail, but he insisted on this 'special' wine instead. That was how it was all night. Everything was what he wanted. If he ever texts or calls me again, I won’t pick up.”
Basic exhibitionist narcissist relationship style: Insensitive and bossy. They expect whomever they are with to admire and agree with them about everything. Disagreement is seen as criticism and is met with devaluation They need continual reassurance that they are special, perfect, and always right.
2. Closet Narcissists
Unlike exhibitionist narcissists, closet narcissists are uncomfortable when the spotlight is directly on them. They want to be “special,” but they are conflicted. They have usually been trained since childhood that they will be attacked if they openly display themselves for admiration. They often have had an exhibitionist narcissist parent who devalued them, because he or she saw them as competition. They were only rewarded with praise for admiring their exhibitionistic parent. Their own narcissistic grandiosity was squashed or was deeply buried in their personality.
In general, closet narcissists tend to be more insecure than exhibitionist narcissists. They feel too exposed and vulnerable to enjoy being the center of admiring attention. They are afraid that other people will see all their flaws and attack and devalue them the way that their narcissistic parent did. Instead, they find ways to attach themselves to people, causes, religions, and other things that they admire and consider special. They then feel special by association.
They do not say, I am special, admire me! They do say, This is perfect and special. You should admire (my religion, my lover, my school, this book, etc.)!
Instead of being openly demanding, closet narcissists sometimes try to manipulate the situation to get their way indirectly. They may play the victim and use your pity to persuade you to do what they want. They often pretend to be much nicer than they really feel inside.
Many people with closet narcissistic personality disorder allow themselves to be used by their more confident friends. They live for the praise that they hope to get by working hard for the people, causes, and groups that they admire. There is a song in the movie Beaches called “The Wind Beneath My Wings” that beautifully describes the type of appreciation most closet narcissists dream about getting from the people that they idealize.
Ted and Lara on a date
Ted is the exhibitionist narcissist that we met in my earlier example with Sue. Now he is out on a first date with Lara, who has a closet narcissist disorder. Here they are each describing the date later.
Ted: He says exactly the same thing as he did about his date with Sue because he repeats basically the same first date with every new woman. For exhibitionist narcissists, women are basically interchangeable, as long as they serve the same function for him: “I really impressed her! I told her about how many important people I know, and I took her to a fancy restaurant, and I ordered a fabulous dinner for her and chose an excellent wine that she had never tasted before. I can’t wait for the next date. And she is hot; next time we will end up at my apartment for the night.”
Lara: “Ted is so wonderful! I can’t believe he wants me. He is so masterful! I love that he took charge and ordered for me. How did he know that I love steak and a good red wine? He is so perceptive.”
As a closet narcissist, Lara looks up to Ted and idealizes him for the exact same qualities Sue found obnoxious. Lara misunderstands Ted. Unlike Sue, who quickly realized how selfish he was being by ordering for her, Lara mistakes his selfishness for confidence and idealizes him for it.
Closet narcissist's basic relationship style: They choose someone whom they can idealize as perfect and special. They bask in this person’s reflected glory. They imagine that some of this specialness will rub off on them. They treasure the small bits of approval that they get from whomever they idealize. They often form relationships with exhibitionist narcissists, because they mistake their defensive grandiosity for true self-confidence.
3. Toxic Narcissists
Toxic narcissists are not satisfied by being the center of attention; they want complete dominance and for others to submit. They usually have a sadistic streak and enjoy hurting other people. They want you to obey and fear them.
Some are what I think of as “failed exhibitionists.” They are angry and bitter that they have not been able to live up to their unrealistic fantasies of limitless achievement. They envy anyone who has what they want. They have given up on being a constructive force in the world and are now mainly intent on thwarting other people’s happiness.
Their poisonous intent is very obvious when they present in an overt form, such as the classroom bully who terrorizes the weakest kids, or the boss who angrily devalues a different person every day in front of the whole team: “You screwed up again! Are you an idiot? Or did you decide to get yourself fired today because you are too lazy to work?”
Toxic narcissists can also present more covertly, such as your seemingly “sweet old aunt,” who always manages to ask you embarrassing questions that make you squirm in front of the whole family: “Why are you so fat? Neither of your parents were fat as children.” Or, “Such a shame that you lost your job again! How many have you lost? Why can’t a bright girl like you keep a job?”
Ted and Mona
Ted, the exhibitionist narcissist, has a first date with Mona, a toxic narcissist. Ted tried to do his usual first date plan. Here is how the evening went.
Ted: “Let me order for you. I know you will love it.”
Mona: (After taking a few bites of the steak and a sip of the wine.) “It is such a shame that really prime beef is no longer available, and they pass off meat like this as prime. Please don’t feel bad. You are not alone. Most people don’t know better, because they have never tasted the real thing! This wine is not bad. I see why you might like it. It is better than most.”
As you can see, Mona, the toxic narcissist, quickly asserts her dominance over Ted, the exhibitionist narcissist. She neatly ruins any pleasure Ted might have felt in supplying this meal. According to Mona, she is the real expert on steak and wine, and poor Ted is simply used to an inferior grade of both and does not know any better. What is really happening is that Mona is devaluing Ted.
Toxic narcissist basic relationship style: Their goal is to establish themselves as better than you and make you feel inferior and inadequate. Life with them is one long putdown. You will never please them, and they will never praise you. Any self-confidence that you entered the relationship with is likely to get eroded and replaced with self-doubt.
Devaluation and Narcissistic Personality Disorder
All narcissists will devalue other people to support their own self-esteem. By devalue, I mean that they will say insulting things that are designed to make someone else feel worthless. The three types of narcissists differ, however, in whom they devalue, how often they devalue, and when they devalue.
Exhibitionist Narcissists: Exhibitionist narcissists will openly devalue other people whenever they cannot get the admiration that they crave, or when they feel criticized. In general, they will not devalue people that they consider above them on the status totem pole — only those who are competing with them, or who are clearly below them.
The exhibitionist narcissist’s use of devaluation sometimes leads untrained people to mistake exhibitionist narcissists for toxic narcissists. As you can see from the above examples, Ted the exhibitionist narcissist began by actively seeking his dates' admiration, while Mona the toxic narcissist began by devaluing Ted.
Closet Narcissists: Closet narcissists are more likely to devalue themselves than other people. They are always apologizing. If they do devalue other people, it is likely to be behind their back or take the form of coldly withdrawing. They are more likely to openly express envy than to publicly insult or berate another person.
Toxic Narcissists: Toxic narcissists like to see other people squirm in embarrassment. They also like to knock people off stride. They often begin an interaction by putting the other person down in some way, as Mona did with Ted. They may do this subtly, or they may be bluntly and openly devaluing. Unlike the exhibitionist narcissists, who usually first display themselves for admiration and only resort to devaluation when that is not working well, toxic narcissists lead with devaluation. They generally prefer being feared to being admired — or they may equate the two things.
Narcissists are not all alike, but all use other people to help regulate their self-esteem. If you are in a relationship with a narcissist, it can be helpful to recognize their subtype, what they are looking for from you, and what this means in terms of how you are likely to be treated. Depending on your inner resources and preferences, you might find one type of narcissist tolerable as a partner, while another type might literally drive you insane.
Adapted from Quora.com 12-19-17: What are the different types of narcissists and how do they behave?