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Is There a Link Between High Sensitivity and Narcissism?

Findings on "vulnerable" narcissism, and what they might mean for HSPs.

Key points

  • The highly sensitive personality can be both a blessing and a curse.
  • A new study looked at the relationship between the highly sensitive personality and hypersensitive narcissism.
  • Ease of excitation was substantially correlated with hypersensitive narcissism, vulnerable entitlement, and entitlement rage.
  • Personal growth requires an accurate and balanced assessment of one's strength and weaknesses.
Nina Buday/Shutterstock
Source: Nina Buday/Shutterstock

In her groundbreaking book The Highly Sensitive Person: How to Thrive When the World Overwhelms You, psychologist Elaine Aron argues that being a highly sensitive person (HSP) can be both a blessing and a curse.

Estimating that only 15 to 20 percent of people are HSPs, she found that such individuals report that they are easily overwhelmed by their environment (they get bothered by loud noise, startle easily, and get rattled when having to do a lot in a short amount of time), they are often deeply moved by the arts and music, are more aware of the subtleties in their environment, and they report having a "rich, complex inner life."

While it's great that there has been a greater cultural acceptance for HSPs, over the years I've noticed that in online forums, articles, and books, the way HSPs are talked about rarely mentions the potential downsides of being highly sensitive, and the way that HSPs get described has gotten more and more bombastic.

For instance, in the book The Highly Sensitive Person's Guide to Dealing with Toxic People: How to Reclaim Your Power from Narcissists and Other Manipulators, the authors tell readers that:

"We are able to recognize and identify patterns, take in information more thoroughly, connect past and present experiences, and think over decisions in a more comprehensive and intuitive manner than non-HSPs... Society might have taught you that your sensitivity is a weakness, but it can be your biggest strength... As an empathic human being, your sensitivity is a super-power."

First of all, there aren't actually any items on the HSP scale that involve empathy or kindness. It's entirely possible to be overreactive to all the stimuli in your environment and to criticism and even be deeply affected by the mood of others and still be a colossal asshole. I'm reminded of this listicle: "7 Signs Kanye West Is Secretly an Introvert." The article tries to convince the reader that Kanye really isn't a jerk; he's just a highly sensitive introvert. Well, actually, you can be both!

What's more, this way of thinking about one's personality traits as not just different from others but idealized and better than others has the flavor of narcissism—which is ironic considering that the book The Highly Sensitive Person's Guide to Dealing with Toxic People is all about reclaiming your superpower from those other narcissists in the world!*

This irony wasn't lost on psychologists Emanuel Jauk and his colleagues who observed the similarities between the way some self-identifying highly sensitive people talk about themselves and two core features of narcissism: self-importance and entitlement.

More specifically, the researchers noticed similarities to hypersensitive narcissism. Not all narcissism is grandiose, chest-thumping narcissism. Psychologists have also discovered a quieter, more passive-aggressive form of narcissism called "vulnerable" or "hypersensitive" narcissism which is associated with anxiety and shame for wanting to be in the spotlight. Here are some of the items on the hypersensitive narcissism scale:

  • I can become entirely absorbed in thinking about my personal affairs, my health, my cares, or my relations to others.
  • My feelings are easily hurt by ridicule or the slighting remarks of others.
  • When I enter a room I often become self-conscious and feel that the eyes of others are upon me.
  • I feel that I am temperamentally different from most people.
  • I tend to feel humiliated when criticized.
  • I have problems that no one else seems to understand.
  • I try to avoid rejection at all costs.
  • Defeat or disappointment usually shame or anger me, but I try not to show it.

The Surprising Link Between the Highly Sensitive Person and Hypersensitive Narcissism

Curious as to the association between the two concepts, Emanuel Jauk and his colleagues set out to empirically test the association between the HSP scale and hypersensitive narcissism. What did they find?

First, the researchers found that high sensitivity and hypersensitive narcissism are substantially correlated with each other. The "ease of excitation" aspect of the HSP scale was most strongly correlated with hypersensitive narcissism. According to the researchers, "This shows that an irritability through external stimuli, paired with an attitude of own fragility... have not only theoretical but also substantial empirical overlaps with hypersensitive/vulnerable narcissism."

In particular, the ease of excitation aspect of the HSP scale was most strongly related to the following aspects of hypersensitive narcissism: contingent self-esteem (basing one's self-esteem one what others think of you), hiding the self, and devaluing oneself.

While the researchers didn't find an overall correlation between the HSP scale and entitlement, they were able to find a specific correlation between the HSP scale and "vulnerable-based entitlement."

In recent years, psychologists have found that vulnerable-based entitlement differs from grandiose-based entitlement. Whereas those high in grandiose-based entitlement think they are entitled to special privileges because they think they are inherently superior to others, those with vulnerable-based entitlement believe they are entitled to special privileges in life simply because they have suffered in the past and are fragile.

Ease of excitation was also substantially correlated with a measure of "entitlement rage". Taken together this suggests that those who self-identify as highly sensitive people hold to a certain extent the attitude: "I am fragile, so I deserve to avoid any discomfort and I react with rage when my needs are not met."

Both the HSP scale and the hypersensitive narcissism scale were correlated with the personality traits of neuroticism and introversion, suggesting some common personality traits that run through both constructs. Interestingly, although the HSP scale was correlated with a measure of vulnerable-based entitlement, the scale was not related to overt measures of disagreeableness and antagonism suggesting that the flavor of entitlement associated with the HSP scale is of a more passive-aggressive flavor (just like you see in hypersensitive narcissism).

It should be noted that the items on the HSP scale having to do with heightened appreciation of beauty and aesthetics and feeling art and music more deeply were not related to hypersensitive narcissism. Instead, those items were much more strongly related to the personality trait openness to experience.

These findings are consistent with prior research that has found that not all facets of the highly sensitive personality scale are equally related to well-being and life outcomes. While those scoring higher in ease of excitation ("I get annoyed when people try to get me to do too many things at once") and low sensory threshold ("I become unpleasantly aroused when a lot is going on around me") tend to report stronger negative emotions and neuroticism in their daily lives, and lower levels of happiness, those scoring higher in the aesthetic sensitivity facet of the highly sensitive personality scale tend to report greater positive emotions in their daily lives and also report higher levels of openness to experience.

Does This Mean Highly Sensitive People Are Hypersensitive Narcissists?

No, no, no! The researchers emphasize that the aim of their study was not to pathologize high sensitivity. Instead, the researchers wanted to study HSPs "as they are; including more adaptive aspects alongside potentially more problematic ones. We believe that only a perspective facing both desirable and undesirable qualities of one's personality allows for individual growth."

Part of personal growth is facing one's own personality structure with piercing reality, understanding the benefits as well as potential ways one can be inhibiting their own self-actualization. Being highly sensitive to the world does not necessarily indicate narcissism, but those who perceive themselves as especially fragile due to their personality paired with an attitude that discomfort must be avoided at all times can be prone to show aspects of hypersensitive narcissism and a sense of entitlement to special treatment simply because they are more sensitive than others.

This fragility mindset and the notion that they are highly sensitive beings (i.e., it's inherent in their nature) might limit them from ever attempting to change or grow. This can inhibit experiencing a fuller life, getting out of their comfort zones, and relating to others in ways that lead to growth and deeper connections rather than avoidance and even more shame. (The avoidance and shame cycle is real and can set off negative feedback loops with self and others.)

Also, hiding one's self from others and a tendency to only share one's highly sensitive identity with other HSPs on online discussion forums may also inhibit self-actualization. On the one hand, they may feel shameful to own who they are, but on the other hand, they will talk to other HSPs about how much of a "super-power" it is to be who they are. This is not a healthy level of integration with the rest of the personality structure.

At the end of the day, I wholeheartedly agree with Elaine Aron's original sentiment that the highly sensitive temperament can be both a blessing and a curse. However, I believe this research highlights the potential downside of self-identifying too much as a highly sensitive person, as though it's so inherently a part of your nature that you must continue to be overwhelmed by the world and other people.

A more evenhanded understanding of the highly sensitive personality recognizes that yes there is immense potential for noticing more beauty in the world, for heightened creative experiencing, and for depth of feeling. But there is also the potential for staying stuck in the zone of avoidance and fear of the world that can inhibit one's greatest potential in life.

*Someday I want to write a book with the title, Maybe the Narcissist Is You.

Facebook/LinkedIn image: Andriiii/Shutterstock

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