Given their constant need be lavished with praise, grandiose narcissists, unsurprisingly, get the lion’s share of research attention — they wouldn’t have it any other way. But that disordered personality has a close cousin: vulnerable narcissism (VN). Where the grandiose narcissist is externalizing their feelings all the time — shouting people down, sending out all-caps tweets, and the like — the vulnerable narcissist internalizes, withdrawing into the ruminative eddies of their internal world.
In a new paper in the Journal of Personality, University of Georgia clinical psychologist Joshua D. Miller and his colleagues uncover the building blocks of VN. Most crucially, they found that VN is incredibly similar to neuroticism, the most troublesome of the Big Five personality traits. The researchers administered a bunch of tests to more than 500 undergraduates from two universities, 865 adults recruited online, and 110 community adults undergoing psychiatric care. (The tests included personality-trait and narcissism inventories; “social vignettes” where they’d have to explain how they’d react in awkward situations, like someone “roughly” bumping into them at a dance club; and videotaped responses to “what they like to do,” which were rated by psych grad students for self-centeredness, likability, and other traits.)
In every sample, neuroticism was the biggest predictor of VN, to the point that Miller tells Science of Us that vulnerable narcissists and people high in neuroticism were “basically identical” in their results. “They were not similar — they were almost exactly the same,” he said in an email. So the study may have uncovered a prime example of the “jangle fallacy,” where the same phenomenon gets two different names and is falsely treated as two different things. Though different literatures have grown around neuroticism and vulnerable narcissism, they may very well be one and the same.
For a potent portrayal of how VN and neuroticism coincide, consider Miller’s go-to example, one George Costanza. The Seinfeld character “was depressive, anxious, cynical, and manipulative but also harbored grandiose fantasies of what he might be and tended to see others as having gotten in the way of his grander plans,” Miller said. “Although often distressed and unhappy, he rarely took responsibility for his role in how his life was going.” (Though there are many case studies of this behavior, perhaps the finest is when George asks Jerry to not be funny, so that he may better impress his date. “I mean, would it kill you not to be so funny all the time? That’s all I’m asking,” he says. “This woman thinks I’m very funny. Now you’re gonna be funny, so what am I gonna be? I’m gonna be a short bald guy with glasses who suddenly doesn’t seem so funny.”)
Therein lies the key to understanding the vulnerable narcissist. The extroversive, dominant grandstander is easy to identify as narcissistic, since they demand everyone’s attention on them all the time; clearly, that’s self-centered. The vulnerable variety operates with a quieter absorption, Miller says; they’re egocentric because their own distress gets in the way of being able to see from others’ perspectives. “As a clinical psychologist, I often tell students that it is hard to be a great therapist when one is suffering (feeling depressed; anxious; angry) because the emotional dysregulation and distress makes you focus inward and become more self-absorbed and myopic,” he explains. “Individuals who are chronically distressed, like those who are vulnerably narcissistic, have these problems on a more chronic scale.”
In addition to getting caught up in their feelings, Miller says, vulnerable narcissists also make a habit out of something called the hostile attribution bias, in which you assume that people have it out for you, and that’s why they took the last soda from the fridge. They tend to be skeptical of others’ motives, so they think that other people’s behavior is somehow directed at them and trying to do them ill. This is also a pattern with depression: having a negative view not just of yourself, but of everybody around you.
Still, the negative emotionality that defines the vulnerable narcissist (and the neurotic) means that they may have greater potential for change than their grandiose counterparts, who are notorious for insisting there’s nothing wrong with them. Since they’re in distress, Miller says, they may be more likely to seek therapy. There is hope: Neuroticism lowers as people go through life, and just a few months of therapy can accelerate that process by decades, so vulnerable narcissists may be similarly malleable.