Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


A Face of Narcissism: The Vulnerable Narcissist

Sensitivity or charade? Spot the signs of vulnerable narcissism.

By Lisa M. Juliano, PsyD and Kristen Beesley, Ph.D.

We are all by now well acquainted with the characteristics of the narcissist.

Ben Schonewille for Getty Images via Canva
Are they sensitive or is a charade? Learn more about the vulnerable narcissist.
Source: Ben Schonewille for Getty Images via Canva

This person is grandiose in manner.

Devalues others while inflating themselves.

Lacks empathy for anyone (besides themselves, of course.)

Is a person whose achievements are just the greatest.

Owns the very best stuff. They deserve the finest, after all.

But how do you spot a vulnerable narcissist?

A vulnerable narcissist feels he or she must protect themselves from negative scrutiny. And to them, any scrutiny feels negative. They struggle with taking in compliments, mistrusting the source and perverting such feedback into veiled attacks.

They can tend to be secretive, only revealing some of their personality for fear of being emotionally annihilated. You might experience them as helpless, defeated, yet easily angered by what they are not getting. They can lack empathy, mostly because they have not experienced much empathy growing up.

You may perceive them as pleasant enough but soon, an interpersonal detachment leaves you feeling unseen and confused.

You may think:

Are they listening to me?

What just happened?

I thought we were getting along, but all of a sudden, they withdraw or become angry and you feel bad about something but can’t figure out what.

How to deal with the vulnerable narcissist?

Dealing with the vulnerable narcissist involves something the narcissist lacks – empathy.

The vulnerable narcissist has emotional wounds that led them to become defensive. They express feelings of grandiosity. There’s an air of haughty secretiveness and devaluation, expressed as withdrawal and quiet rage toward others.

This person may feel depressed, but the actual malady may be this overwhelming sense of vulnerability that inhibits them from being fully authentic and achieving a cohesive sense of self. It may sound trite – but it’s “not their fault.” The notion of “fault” might make some readers feel as though they need to excuse someone who may have caused them a great deal of pain. And it may not be their “fault” but it remains their responsibility to attend to their part of a dysfunctional interpersonal interaction.

For the vulnerable narcissist, therapy can help unravel this mystery and promote a stable self-esteem and a stronger, more resilient identity. If you are involved with someone who exhibits these traits, try to provide empathy while maintaining healthy and strong boundaries in the relationship. Therapy can help you, as well.

Lisa M. Juliano, PsyD is a licensed Clinical Psychologist and Psychoanalyst in private practice in New York City, where she is on the supervising faculty at William Alanson White Institute for Psychotherapy and Psychoanalysis. She is a member of the American Psychoanalytic Association Committee on Public Information.

More from Kristen Beesley Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today