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Are Narcissists Actually Covering Up Insecurity?

Vulnerable narcissists feel inadequate and cover up by elevating themselves.

Key points

  • A new study suggests that narcissists' attempts to elevate themselves may be due to underlying insecurity, emptiness and unstable self-esteem.
  • Grandiose narcissists tend to be boastful and are thought to have high self-esteem, while vulnerable narcissists try to elevate their status to cover up for insecurity.
  • Vulnerable narcissists may be the true narcissists, whereas grandiose narcissists are more like psychopaths, according to the study.
  • It's still not entirely clear why narcissists act superior to others, but research suggests that they may have been excluded or grown up in privileged families.
Obi Onyeador/Unsplash
Source: Obi Onyeador/Unsplash

You have probably encountered a narcissist at some point, whether it's a jealous work colleague, a raging boss, a mom who boasts about her latest fabulous group trip to Cabo, or an online date who seduces and then ghosts you. Narcissists can leave us feeling insecure, used, unworthy, rejected, stupid or otherwise diminished.

A new study suggests that narcissists' attempts to elevate themselves at the expense of others may actually be the result of an underlying sense of insecurity, emptiness and unstable self-esteem that depends too much on status or recognition from others. The study also distinguishes narcissism from psychopathy, which is more about gaining power and control than gaining status and admiration.

Grandiose and vulnerable narcissists

Traditionally, psychologists have defined narcissism as having two subtypes: grandiose and vulnerable.

Grandiose narcissists are what we traditionally think of as narcissists. They are boastful, entitled, competitive and act like they are better than you, and that you should feel lucky to be graced by their presence. Grandiose narcissists have been thought to have high self-esteem and genuinely feel superior to others. They may have grown up in a privileged environment, attended high-status institutions, and have been able to get their way, not follow the rules, and experience few or no negative consequences for misbehavior.

Vulnerable narcissists, on the other hand, are thought to act grandiosely to compensate for underlying feelings of insecurity. They may have unstable self-esteem, be over-sensitive to criticism and rejection, and may have anxiety about their relationships and how well-liked they are.

Are vulnerable narcissists the true narcissists?

However, a new study challenges this distinction and argues that grandiose narcissists are more likely to be psychopaths, whereas vulnerable narcissism is the "real" deal. One major difference between psychopaths and narcissists is that psychopaths seek power and control whereas narcissists seek high status. Narcissists care what other people think of them whereas this is less important to psychopaths who care mostly about controlling others for personal gain. Narcissism and sociopathy often occur together, and people can have both traits. This has led to difficulty differentiating the two and perhaps led to a false concept of grandiose narcissism, which is actually psychopathy.

Elevating yourself, protecting your image, seeking status and admiration

By combining a variety of questionnaires and sophisticated statistical analyses, the researchers identified four features that they defined as characteristic of "pure" narcissism. These attributes were strongly correlated with vulnerable narcissism and not strongly associated with psychopathy. Their resulting model of narcissism consisted of the following:

Self-Elevation: Acting like you have high status or are more sophisticated than others (e.g., appreciating great art or fine wines, being well-traveled, having friends in high places).

Explicit Impression Management: Controlling or manipulating how other people see you (e.g., acting differently in private than in public, being charming, trying to appear more successful than you actually are, etc.).

Need for Social Validation: Needing other people to think highly of you (e.g., wanting to be seen as attractive, witty, charming, successful, smart, wise, etc.)

Social Dominance Motivation: Wanting to be part of an in-group that is superior to others (e.g., wanting to attend an elite institution or have a high-level job and be successful, wanting to be part of a popular group or a fraternity or club where there are barriers to entry).

The researchers found that these four attributes were highly correlated with one another (occurring together) and less correlated with other factors like psychopathy. For example, when given a hypothetical moral dilemma (e.g., whose life would you save?), people who were high in these narcissism factors reported experiencing guilt when making their choice whereas those high in psychopathy did not.

Why are narcissists motivated to act superior to others?

This question has not been fully answered by research. Clinical observations suggest that many narcissists either grew up in privileged families or, conversely, in situations where they were excluded from belonging to an elite group that they desperately wanted to be part of. Parents may have emphasized the importance of what the neighbors think, making a lot of money or being a high achiever, being good-looking, and so on. Love was often conditional and dependent on meeting the needs of the parents or making the family look good. Children may have been encouraged to enter high-status professions (e.g., law, finance, or medicine) rather than pursuing their intrinsic interests. They may have learned that people who have lower status or are less successful are less worthy and valuable. They may have been subjected to high standards in terms of their appearance, achievements, knowledge, or popularity. Failure may have been regarded as unacceptable whereas winning at any cost was admired.

As children may have been shamed and humiliated or else excessively praised or some of both. The importance of good character, being a team player, doing your share, or contributing to your community may not have been emphasized. These conditions can lead to variable self-esteem in which you love yourself when you are winning but feel shame and humiliation when you lose or have lower status or achievement. The result can be deep insecurity. Narcissists may be invested in never losing or being humiliated, and be willing to lie, cheat, and manipulate to gain the approval and admiration of others.

If you have a narcissist in your life, it may be helpful to understand the roots of their behavior, which is meant to impress you but probably ends up pushing you away.

References

Mary Kowalchyk, Helena Palmieri, Elena Conte, Pascal Wallisch. Narcissism through the lens of performative self-elevation. Personality and Individual Differences, 2021; 177: 110780 DOI: 10.1016/j.paid.2021.110780

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