The Vulnerable Narcissist

The passive version of antagonism and entitlement

“The manipulator portrays him or herself as a victim of circumstance or of someone else’s behavior in order to gain pity, sympathy or evoke compassion and thereby get something from another. Caring and conscientious people cannot stand to see anyone suffering and the manipulator often finds it easy to play on sympathy to get cooperation.” George K. Simon / In Sheep’s Clothing: Understanding and Dealing with Manipulative People

As a trauma therapist in NYC who specializes in treating victims presenting with narcissistic abuse syndrome, I have found it to be more insidious and baffling to identify the injuries incurred by a vulnerable narcissist as compared with the traumas incurred by an overtly conspicuous narcissist. This is primarily because the vulnerable subtype of the pathologically narcissistic person is often misconstrued.

This dilemma is illustrated in the following scenario.

John sulked repentantly, but truth be told he was enraged at how beaten down he felt by Alison’s demands. No wonder he couldn’t perform sexually. It was months since he even touched her. It was all her fault they were in this mess, moaning on about the fertility injections and the miscarriages.

“What about me,” John whimpered. She’s such a bitch and she used to be so mothering! It was her maternal nature that prompted him to chase her down years after the divorce. She bolted to the other side of the country, but he valiantly got her back professing life-changing epiphanies and growth. Now it seems he’s nothing but a meal ticket, exploited by this ‘borderline’ woman who he could never please. How dare she leave him again, when it was he who endured so much suffering.

John’s therapist nodded compassionately in agreement. She affirmed he was a responsible provider and a good person. Too good, she considered. Not enough backbone to adequately protect himself from dangerous, exploitative women. Just a forlorn little boy alone in the world. Sure he was quietly smug and insular. Chalk that up to being a talented frustrated thespian. She would provide him with the understanding and care he needed to heal from this awful betrayal and acquire the necessary self-regard to achieve mutuality.

Unwittingly, John’s clinician became a reliable source of steadfast supply for a covert vulnerable narcissist.

Like John, vulnerable narcissists seem benign, modest, even contrite, and compassionate. It’s challenging to discern the nuanced ways in which their deep-seated shame, insecurities, and self-absorption take on a form unique to their vulnerable narcissistic presentation. They appear to be the antithesis of the more commonly recognized overtly grandiose, arrogant, and willful narcissist.

Unlike the overt displays of predation and aggression typically associated with a malignant narcissist, the vulnerable narcissist is repeatedly let down, victimized, and disappointed by life. They mean well, but for some inexplicable reason, they are continually misunderstood and denied their due. In fact, it is this narrative that is their greatest ploy as it is how they feed off the sympathy of others and glean supply.

The failed struggling artist who is too deep for others to comprehend comes to mind. The soft-spoken virtue-signaling social justice warrior, doting caregiver, and humble philanthropist who manages to glean admiration and favors through their ostensible moral superiority are also exemplary of the vulnerable narcissist.

Indeed, this type of narcissist can be the most daunting to peg as disordered, as the signs are more subtle and their presentation is gentle, even self-effacing. Their displays of empathy can appear sincere. Yet, beneath this facade lurks a fragile sense of self steeped in bitter resentment and envy, along with insatiable needs for admiration and control.

Unlike their bombastic overt counterpart, the vulnerable narcissist evidences high levels of neuroticism, meaning they present with personality traits of emotional instability and reactivity that show up as self-consciousness, moodiness, and persistent worries.

Irrespective of what presentation is embodied, narcissistic grandiosity is a facade to mask an underlying vulnerable self (Kernberg, 1975; Kohut, 1977). Yet this sensitive, brittle personae does not suggest the absence of grandiosity. The vulnerable narcissist views themself as entitled and ‘special’. They possess an unrealistic sense of superiority, which like the overtly grandiose narcissist, defends against deep-seated feelings of inadequacy and fragility.

The grandiosity of the vulnerable narcissist is couched in the paradoxical power of victimization. They aggrandize their suffering and latch onto it as a self-identity. This narrative purports they are owed compensation for a life of parental neglect, hard knocks, and hardship. In turn, the vulnerable narcissist is defiantly passive and avoidant, adamantly refusing to embrace adult autonomy, responsibility, and accountability.

In fact, a study by Jauk & Kaufman confirmed that at the higher range of grandiosity, the vulnerable narcissist is just as overtly antagonistic, needy, and entitled as their extroverted counterpart.

Driven by an absence of warmth in their parental relationships and resultant insecurities about their attachment to their mothers, these hypersensitive covert narcissists are anxious for others’ acceptance (Paul Wink). Their core fears, especially of rejection, contribute to an avoidant relational style. Their signature traits of discernible fragility and self-reproach typify their character. Hyper-sensitive to perceived rejection, they appear brow-beaten and reticent. Unlike the overtly grandiose narcissist, internalization as opposed to explosive discharging of volatility is how they navigate emotions.

Being on the receiving end of the vulnerable narcissist’s insatiable need for constant infallible adulation and irrefutable recognition of their anguish is exhausting and dispiriting. Failures to measure up to their impossible demands and needs result in grudges and antipathy that cannot be effectively addressed. Indeed, the vulnerable narcissist gleefully creates a lengthy dossier of all perceived slights and infractions. The rage and hate festering beneath their facade of victimization is fueled by their outrage with basic human fallibility. Any iota of human error is subject to severe scrutiny that is magnified and tenaciously clung to. There is no hope for resolution or redemption.

When a relationship with a vulnerable narcissist reaches its end and they are provoked to the edge by criticism or the loss of control over their supply, one may witness oscillation into a more overtly grandiose presentation. In these instances, the mask can fall and one might catch a glimpse of the vulnerable narcissist’s well-cloaked rage, envy, hatred, and contempt.

It is often in the aftermath of a relationship with a vulnerable narcissist, that the target is shocked by the surreal reality of the breadth and scope of the final character assassination. Here one fully sees how vilification and condemnation are the end game for the vulnerable narcissist. The ‘degrade and discard’ offers the vulnerable narcissist the amplest opportunity to victimize their supply by playing the victim. That is their principal calling card and their most treacherous weapon.


Once again, Sheri has shared an intuitive and timely article. Vulnerable narcissists should definitely be on people’s radar and discussed. Thanks, Sheri!


Rev. Sheri Heller, LCSW

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