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The Fragile Reality of a Vulnerable Narcissist

... and why they're set off by mockery or laughter.

Key points

  • A new study examined the relationship between a specific type of narcissism, called vulnerable narcissism, and noxious interpersonal behavior.
  • Vulnerable narcissists show hypersensitivity to rejection, social isolation, negative emotions, distrust, and increased anger and hostility.
  • The study showed those who scored higher on vulnerable narcissism were more likely to fear being laughed at and more likely to laugh at others.
Andrew Neel / Unsplash
Source: Andrew Neel / Unsplash

Narcissism is typically described by qualities of selfishness, a sense of entitlement, a lack of empathy, and a strong need for admiration.

A new study published in Personality and Individual Differences examined the relationship between a specific type of narcissism, called vulnerable narcissism, and a variety of noxious interpersonal behaviors.

“Vulnerable narcissism is broadly defined in terms of hypersensitivity to rejection, negative emotion, social isolation, a distrust of others, and increased levels of anger and hostility,” says co-author of the study Ana Blasco-Belled of the University of Girona in Spain. “We came up with the idea of testing the connection between vulnerable narcissism and dispositions towards ridicule and laughter.”

To better understand this phenomenon, the researchers invited over 400 undergraduate students to fill out questionnaires measuring their levels of vulnerable narcissism as well as their outlook on situations involving ridicule and laughter. The questionnaire targeted three types of behavior:

  1. People’s fear of being laughed at or being the topic of mockery.
  2. A possible feeling of joy and/or reward in being laughed at.
  3. And feeling pleasure in exploiting and putting others down through mockery.

The researchers found that people who scored higher on the measure of vulnerable narcissism were more likely to fear being laughed at and were more likely to enjoy laughing at others. Vulnerable narcissists were also more likely to indicate using isolation and social withdrawal as methods to avoid interactions where they might feel vulnerable, shameful, and inferior.

“Vulnerable narcissism is considered an internalizing trait, meaning that it is characterized by high levels of neuroticism and low levels of agreeableness and extraversion,” says Blasco-Belled. “The inner experience of inferiority or the paranoid fear of being criticized and rejected is something ‘built in’ vulnerable narcissists.”

The study identified two other key dimensions of vulnerable narcissism, neurotic introversion and antagonism, which are described below.

  1. Neurotic introversion — Avoidance and social withdrawal used by vulnerable narcissists to avoid exposing their fragile selves by hiding their feelings and evaluations of inferiority, shame, and envy against others
  2. Neurotic antagonism — Projecting aggressive feelings onto other people and attempting to express their feelings in secret

The authors highlight how the behaviors of vulnerable narcissists can have many detrimental effects, including depression, anxiety, withdrawal, feelings of hostility, and social ostracism — and they offer a compelling example of how vulnerable narcissism can play out in the workplace.

“To characterize this, let’s introduce a vulnerable narcissistic co-worker and call him Vladi,” says Blasco-Belled. “Vladi would think: ‘I’m really afraid that someone could hurt me, but I also want people to admire me. (This represents the high psychological fragility and entitled expectations of vulnerable narcissism.) However, people don’t demonstrate signs of admiration towards me (because vulnerable narcissists expect others’ reactions but do nothing so that reactions appear), so I feel ashamed.’ As a result of the negative self-evaluation, Vladi would engage in hostile behaviors against himself and the others.”

Blasco-Belled continues her analogy by stating that Vladi’s colleagues never had any idea what had happened because this entire reality was inwardly developed by Vladi; they just watched the ‘end of the film,' which is Vladi manifesting (even secretly) his antagonistic attitudes.

Facebook image: G-Stock Studio/Shutterstock


Blasco-Belled, Ana (Interview). A psychology professor explains what it means to be a vulnerable narcissist., March 29, 2022.