What is a Narcissist?
So…what is a narcissist, anyway?
They generally believe they are superior to others and are entitled to special treatment. They exhibit a pervading pattern of grandiosity sometimes in their behavior, and other times just in fantasies of success and power. Under the surface, they do not love themselves (which I believe means that they are incapable of truly loving anyone else). They are driven by shame, have a constant need for admiration, and will go to great lengths to protect their fragile egos, with their coping mechanisms being straight-up abusive. Lastly, and probably the most well-known symptom of the disorder, is their blatant lack of empathy for others.
Now, because one narcissist can present very differently than the next, I decided to scour the internet looking for information on how exactly to categorize the different types of narcissists that walk among us, and there seemed to be a wide range of terms used, sometimes to describe the same pattern of behaviors, which only adds to the confusion surrounding this under-studied form of personality disorder. However, I finally stumbled across an article written by Kristen Milstead, a Ph.D. in Sociology, that laid all these miscellaneous terms I had come across out beautifully in a way that made total sense.
Researchers have identified four main types of narcissists, each exhibiting different behaviors in an effort to protect their fragile inner core sense of self. Within each of these three types are six sub-types that characterize how the traits may appear to others.
It is also important to keep in mind that these different types are generalizations, and not every narcissist is going to fit neatly into one single category. As with all things in life, there are always shades of grey and a narcissist may cross over more than one type.
Classic narcissists are the typical narcissists that most people think of when they hear the term “narcissist”, also described as high-functioning, exhibitionistic, or grandiose narcissists. They exhibit attention-seeking behavior, tend to brag about their accomplishments, feel entitled to special treatment and expect others to bow down and kiss their feet. They really aren’t interested in anyone but themselves, and get easily bored when the conversation turns away from them. They tend to perceive themselves to be superior to most people, but ironically are desperate to feel important.
The second major type of narcissist is the vulnerable narcissist, also sometimes called fragile, compensatory or closet narcissists. Like the classic narcissists, they also feel superior to most people they meet; however, they are more introverted and despise being the center of attention. They prefer to attach themselves to special people instead of seeking the special treatment themselves. They are more likely to seek out pity from others or flatter and suck up to others, sometimes through excessive generosity, just to receive the attention and admiration they desire to boost their sense of self-worth.
The third major type of narcissist is the communal narcissist. This type is a little trickier to spot at first glance because they focus on promoting themselves through their commitment to others, communal goals, and their self-proclaimed super-ability to listen and connect with others. They will often give to charities (or brag about how little they spend on themselves) and volunteer their time “helping” others. They may talk about their “life’s mission” in grandiose terms or commit themselves to a cause that will “change the world”.
Although they appear selfless on the surface, dig a little deeper and you may find that they are hugely territorial of the charity they serve and much more concerned with receiving a pat on the back for their contribution rather than the communal goal they are supposedly working toward. The truth of the matter is that they are only involved in community to validate their sorely lacking sense of self.
The fourth and final major type of narcissist is the malignant, or toxic, narcissist. They are highly manipulative and exploit others (typically for pleasure). These narcissists tend to display paranoia and antisocial traits not present in classic, vulnerable, or communal narcissists. They can be ruthless in their primary goal to control and dominate others. They are deceitful and aggressive. Worse yet, they lack remorse for their actions.
Sub-Type 1: Overt vs. Covert
As I mentioned earlier, each of these major types of narcissists include sub-types that characterize how the traits may appear to others. The first sub-type describes the methods the narcissist uses to get his or her needs met…Are they overt and use methods that are obvious and out in the open for all to see? Or are they covert and use methods that are stealthier and more secretive? For example, we all know that narcissists like to deliver insults and put people down. An overt narcissist will do so in obvious and unmistakable ways, while a covert narcissist will do so in more passive-aggressive ways. A covert narcissist can manipulate others without them knowing they were manipulated, or their tactics allow them to deny what happened.
Classic and communal narcissists are always overt, and vulnerable narcissists are always covert; however, when it comes to malignant narcissists…they can be either.
Sub-Type 2: Somatic vs. Cerebral
The second sub-type defines what the narcissist values most in him or herself and others. No narcissist wants to be out-shined by their partner. Their partner is viewed more like a shiny object they can show off to raise their own social status. This sub-type includes somatic narcissists, who are obsessed with their bodies and their external appearance, and cerebral narcissists who come across as know-it-alls. They view themselves as the most intelligent ones in the room and like to try to impress people with their accomplishments. Any of the four major types of narcissists – classic, vulnerable, communal or malignant – can be either somatic or cerebral.
Sub-Type 3: Inverted vs. Sadistic
The last and final sub-type includes a couple of special types of narcissists. The first special sub-type is the inverted narcissist, which only applies to vulnerable, covert narcissists. This group of narcissists are codependent and tend to attach themselves to other narcissists to feel special. They tend to have a victim mindset and suffer from child abandonment issues.
The second special sub-type is the sadistic narcissist…a special type of malignant narcissist. This group is comparable to sociopaths and psychopaths in that they take great pleasure in others’ pain. They like humiliating and hurting people, and sometimes have bizarre sexual fetishes.
Since I love visuals, I put together the following info-graphic so you can see how the types and sub-types are all interrelated:
Now that we’ve reviewed the 10 different types of narcissists, let’s take a look at what the heck causes this personality disorder. There is a lot of speculation out there, but the reality of it is that no one really knows. However, I did find two different formal theories on this one…the first developed by Otto Kernberg and the second by Heinz Kohut.
I want to start by saying that children are naturally narcissistic…and this is completely normal. Their self-esteem is regulated by external influences and they need others to admire them in order to feel good about themselves. Thus, the reason why we, as parents, provide positive reinforcement to our children.
According to Kernberg, having an unempathetic and distant mother who is hypercritical and devalues her child causes the child to create an internalized grandiose self as a defense mechanism against the perceived lack of love and resulting emotional trauma. He theorized that NPD is a pathological development.
Kohut, on the other hand, felt the environment alone is the major cause and that NPD was the result of arrested development in normal psychological growth.
Now, I’m not a psychologist; however, I have rubbed elbows with a lot of people who demonstrate narcissistic personality traits in my time, and I can confidently say that I have met some that have definitely had an upbringing in a home with an extremely unempathetic mother. On the other hand, I have met narcissistic people who also have seemingly “normal” mothers and had more of a latch-key type of childhood. The common thread from my perspective appears to be one of the child not getting his or her emotional needs met, whether that be through a hypercritical parent or a neglectful parent.
At the end of the day, it seems that there is agreement that some of the risk factors in early childhood include:
- insensitive parenting,
- unpredictable or negligent care,
- excessive criticism,
- extremely high expectations, and
- over-praising and excessive pampering, when parents focus intensely on the child’s appearance or particular talent (usually as a result of their own lack of self-esteem).
There is also speculation that abnormalities in a person’s genes may affect the connection between their brain and their behaviors.
So…what are the warning signs that you may be in the presence of, or worse, in a relationship with a narcissistic individual?
Well, there are many outward signs that should get your Spidey senses tingling…
At first, they may come across as exceedingly charming and likable. You know…that person you just couldn’t wait to see again because they made you feel so good?
However, if you dig a little deeper you might just notice that they:
- always bring the conversation back to themselves,
- tend to brag about their abilities or accomplishments,
- like to name-drop,
- are really quite superficial and are unable to truly be vulnerable…there is no such thing as a deep conversation with a true narcissist.
- are inclined to fish for compliments because of their exaggerated need for validation,
- can become hostile when criticized…even with constructive criticism,
- are perfectionistic,
- like to one-up everyone because they view themselves as superior,
- may not follow the rules because of their sense of entitlement,
- are incapable of self-reflection and unable to take responsibility for their own actions. They like to play the “blame game”.
- are control freaks, so they tend to not communicate very well and certainly don’t work as part of a team,
- posses an obvious lack of empathy of others…they truly don’t know the meaning of the phrase “to put yourself in someone else’s shoes”.
- may be overly critical of others,
- lack boundaries, as part of their sense of entitlement,
- have a lot of superficial friends, perhaps on their social media accounts; however, they are severely lacking in close or long-term friendships or relationships.
- in general, they just leave a wake of wreckage behind them wherever they go…be it a series of broken friendships, intimate relationships gone seriously wrong, or horrible work experiences.
These are some of the outward signs you may be dealing with a narcissistic person; however, I want to dig a little deeper and look at some of the inward signals we really need to be watching out for. In other words, how they make us feel.
As I mentioned earlier, a narcissistic person will make you feel truly special at the beginning of your relationship. They may shower you with compliments, or take you on great adventures. They will make you feel so good that you may just ignore some of the warning signs.
You may even start to make excuses for their poor behavior…”he must have just had a bad day.” Or…” wow, that person must have really hurt her.” Or you may even take it on yourself…”I must have misunderstood.”
After you’re completely drawn in, the narcissist in your life is going to start changing it up and become manipulative. It will be subtle at first, but over time, you will start doubting yourself and may even find yourself living in a fog of confusion. You may feel like you just aren’t good enough and can’t do anything right. Your self-esteem will be stripped away and you will be forever walking on eggshells trying to appease the person who once made you feel incredibly special.
If you are concerned you may be stuck in a relationship with or are dealing with a narcissistic ex that is endangering your children, I encourage you to reach out for help.
Sheenie Ambardar, MD, Narcissistic Personality Disorder, MedScape, May 16, 2018
Eve Caligor, M.D., Kenneth N. Levy, Ph.D., Frank E. Yeomans, M.D., Ph.D., Narcissistic Personality Disorder: Diagnostic and Clinical Challenges, The American Journal of Psychiatry, April 30, 2015
Kristen Milstead, Ph.D. Sociology, 9 Types of Narcissists: The Ultimate Guide, Fairy Tale Shadows, December 4, 2018
Margalis Fjelstad, PhD, 14 Signs You’re Dealing With A Narcissist, Mind Body Green
Amanda Chan, HuffPost, 18 Ways To Spot A Narcissist, November 2, 2018
Previously Published on Pathways Family Coaching