Two Types of Narcissism and How to Tell the Difference

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The two types of narcissist present very different problems in relationships and very different realities about the prospects for change. Here’s how to tell which kind you might be dealing with.

Even though the American Psychiatric Association decided to remove Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) as an official category in the latest revision of its diagnostic and statistical manual, most mental health professionals still recognize narcissism as a significant personality disturbance. Those who happen to live or work with a narcissist know all too well how problematic relationships can be: it’s always about them, they can never be wrong, they think they’re all that, etc. Sometimes you can find yourself wondering if they even see how arrogant, self serving, and insensitive they appear to others. Understanding these egotistical individuals and their inner workings is no easy task. Recently, researchers have come to believe that narcissists actually come in two very different varieties, which makes the task of really understanding what they’re all about a bit more complex.

Traditional theories and perspectives viewed narcissists as esteem damaged individuals desperately trying to appear perfect and worthy of adulation, while underneath it all fearing they’ll be exposed as both inept and unworthy. The way they act, it was assumed, is a manifestation of their neurosis — an unconscious attempt to compensate for underlying feelings of insecurity and inadequacy. But over the years of case study research for my first book In Sheep’s Clothing I came to the conclusion that most narcissists I was encountering in my clinical practice didn’t fit within that model. They weren’t struggling with fears of inadequacy, fragile self image, or fears of being unlovable, and they weren’t unconsciously compensating for those things. Rather, they truly thought of themselves as special and important, and more especially entitled not only to privileged treatment themselves but also to a reckless disregard for the rights, needs, and concerns of those they viewed as inferior. And, perhaps most importantly, they knew exactly what they were saying and doing and why. I attributed the kind of narcissism I was seeing to cultural variables I believed were increasing the prevalence of character disturbance as opposed to “neurosis,” and decided that perhaps there were two types of narcissists: the classic “neurotic” type (of which I’d seen a precious few), and the more “character disturbed” type (of which I was seeing many). I also conjectured that because of the cultural climate of the times and the increased prevalence of character disturbance, it was a fair bet that most narcissists a person might encounter were more likely to be of the character disturbed variety, which I tried to emphasize in my book Character Disturbance.

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Over the past few years, a consensus of sorts has developed in the professional community, backed up by a good bit of research, that there are indeed two different kinds of narcissists, although presently the preferred labels for each are “vulnerable” vs. “grandiose” as opposed to the “neurotic” vs. “character disturbed” labels I have long used. There’s even been some research suggesting that differences exist between men and women as to which type of narcissism each is likely to have. (See “Do Men Have More Ego Problems than Women?”.) Whether you’re a man or a woman and dealing with a male or female narcissist, it’s hard to distinguish between the two types from just their more obvious surface level behaviors. Both types can cultivate an air of confidence and self assuredness, and both appear to have a need to be recognized, praised, and adulated. Both can also act in a manner that pays adequate heed to the rights and needs of others. But because each type of narcissist presents not only some very different problems in relationships but also some very different realities about the prospects for change, it’s helpful to be able to tell them apart.

So how does a person tell the difference between these two types? Here are some areas in which they differ that can help you make the call:

Truly “vulnerable,” or more “neurotic” narcissistic types have relatively fragile egos and are both anxious and hypersensitive when it comes to their social image. They tend to be constantly comparing themselves to others and “have something to prove” about themselves. It’s hard for them to experience joy in someone else’s success, especially if they think it makes them look bad or inferior by comparison. These individuals are forever looking for positive strokes and “baiting” others to confer attention, recognition, and praise upon them. Grandiose narcissists, on the other hand, already have a remarkable degree of self assurance and confidence. They feel good about themselves even in the face of others’ misgivings. They don’t just think they’re special or act like they’re important, they know they’re superior and don’t need anyone else’s affirmation to confirm it.
Vulnerable narcissists are hypersensitive to criticism. They hate looking bad and have obvious emotional reactions in situations that invite embarrassment. By contrast, grandiose narcissists are truly shameless. They can do and say the most outrageous things and remain completely unfazed by any negative reaction that comes their way. While they might be very “aware” of unfavorable attitudes towards them, they simply don’t care what others think, feel, or believe. All that matters to them is how they feel about things, and having such a grandiose self-image, in their eyes, they can do no wrong. How others perceive them and regard what they do, therefore, is both unimportant and irrelevant. So they let any negative criticism simply roll off them like water off the back of a duck.
This is a hard aspect of personality to observe directly but there are some reliable ways to gauge its presence. Vulnerable narcissists want to be seen in a positive light. So not only does it upset them when their image is tarnished, but when they’ve done something that truly injures, while they might be “in denial” about it for a time, they feel bad when they realize the damage they’ve caused and will do what it takes to restore their good name. Grandiose narcissists have a remarkable lack of concern not only for how they’re perceived but also for what they might do to others. They’re capable of the most hurtful behavior, feeling “entitled” to do whatever they want and having little to no regret, remorse or contrition for the injuries they might inflict on others. (See “Regret, Sorrow and True Contrition” and “What Real Contrition Looks Like”.) They often act without compunction or reservation. The most “malignantly” narcissistic individuals have severe empathy deficits. (See “Narcissism: Pathological Self-Love”.)

Living with, working with, or otherwise dealing with a narcissist is always a challenge, regardless of what type they are. Knowing what type of character you’re involved with can really help you assess what could possibly happen to you and the prospects for change. Such knowledge can also help you determine the better tack to take to protect and empower yourself in your encounters with a narcissist, and I’ll have more to say about these very issues in a future post.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .

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