I thought you’d be interested in this short tid-bit I’ll elaborate on in the book.
In nearly 20 years of counseling diagnosably narcissistic individuals and in two years of writing (in fits and starts!), I thought I had a pretty good grasp on definitions. That is, until I got the big green book, the Handbook of Narcissism and Narcissistic Personality Disorder. Paging through the dense volume, I came upon the phrase Narcissistic Vulnerability. An entirely new dimension of narcissism was opened to me.
You won’t find a distinction between grandiose and vulnerable narcissism in the DSM-IV diagnostic criteria. As it sounds, grandiose narcissism looks like the classic definition of grandiosity – supposed superiority, a lack of empathy, impairments in identity and intimacy.
On the other hand, vulnerable narcissism looks more fragile, hyper-vigilant, shy, sensitive, and depressed. It may look a bit more like Borderline Personality Disorder, but it isn’t – it is another face of narcissism.
Craving attention and approval, vulnerable narcissists may act out of a fear of abandonment, demanding love and anxiously grasping after it. This may just be the flip side of grandiose narcissism for some, a kind of ego-deflated state they find themselves in when the world isn’t admiring them or when failure comes their way. But it can harden into a chronic state of helplessness, where the narcissistic ego becomes sticky, manipulative, even self-sabotaging. This narcissism ain’t quite as pretty as the dressed-up narcissism manifesting in grandiosity.
I recall a pastor who was a self-described curmudgeon. He was constantly picking fights – often theological fights – just for the sake of the drama and the attention it afforded him, especially when congregational spectators would gather around. He reminded people often that “few people get me,” and paraded a kind of “woe is me” theology (often citing Isaiah 6 as his life verse) that highlighted his belief that “no one is good, no not one” (Rom 3:10-12). But this masked something else – just about everyone who knew him saw this as precisely the opposite, a subtle arrogance masked in words intended to show humility. He controlled through passive-aggressive means, he quietly judged all who didn’t see the world like he did, and (as his wife would later tell me) he was the most depressing, self-centered man you’d ever meet. Yet, for many who followed his weekly blog, he was a saint, a defender of truth, the last man with theological integrity.
Vulnerable narcissists secretly clamor for affirmation and adoration, but instead of claiming it as a matter of arrogant entitlement, they manipulate and maneuver in ways that are just as toxic and harmful. Curiously, this kind of narcissism manifests within systems, too, and is sometimes called “low self-esteem narcissism.” Indeed, an entire church system may be infected with this ego-deflated, manipulative, and chronically depressive state. Some churches manifest the same qualities as the pastor above, secretly proud of their low view of themselves, claiming a high doctrine of sin but failing to see their judgmentalism, control, arrogance, certainty, and more often than not racism and sexism.
If you’re following me so far, you’ll sense that this is a tough form of narcissism to deal with and confront. The “superior-victim” dynamic is sticky. The self-centeredness allows for little to no real introspection. The narrative of being misunderstood or neglected shows up in blaming everyone but himself/herself. There is a circular, self-fulfilling prophecy, a belief that it will never get better with a corresponding pull for you to make it better, ultimately by seeing how special, great, humble, misunderstood, or saintly he/she is. I see an especially significant debris field of toxicity when someone divorces a vulnerable narcissist, as he/she can switch to yet another gear of manipulation, control, and victimization. Lord have mercy.
Narcissism comes in many forms – this is just one instance of a kind of narcissism that looks different than the caricature. In the book I’m writing, I devote an entire chapter to a kind of experiment – I’m looking at narcissism through the nine faces of the Enneagram. That’s a fun chapter, and reveals even more nuance. But allow me to say this – my goodness, this is the toughest book I’ve written…even tougher than the book with “tough people” in the title! Thanks to those of you who’ve said you are praying.