Here’s How to Spot a Vulnerable Narcissist

5 min.

Narcissism is usually associated with overt symptoms, but this subtype of the condition is more subtle. Keep reading to learn the signs of vulnerable narcissism.

By: Charlie Health Editorial Team

Clinically Reviewed By: Dr. Don Gasparini

May 2, 2024


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Table of Contents

Narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) is usually associated with overt symptoms like grandiosity, superiority, and exploitative behavior, but research shows that the condition actually sits on a spectrum. Some people with NPD actually show symptoms of introversion, sensitivity, and defensiveness — a subtype of NPD known as vulnerable narcissism or covert narcissism. 

People with this condition might not appear narcissistic initially because they can seem shy or self-effacing, but vulnerable narcissism is still considered a subtype of NPD. Below, we will look at the common signs of vulnerable narcissism, explore how to have a relationship with someone with covert narcissism and discuss treatments for the condition.

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What are the common signs of vulnerable narcissism?

Vulnerable narcissism manifests in different ways, but the condition has some hallmark symptoms. However, not all people who show these traits are necessarily vulnerable narcissists, as narcissistic tendencies exist on a spectrum. However, if the behaviors outlined below are persistent and significantly impact daily functioning and relationships, they may be indicative of NPD or other psychological issues that warrant professional intervention.

Excessive sensitivity

Vulnerable narcissists tend to be highly sensitive to criticism or perceived slights. They may react strongly to even minor feedback, feeling deeply wounded or attacked.

Insecurity masked by arrogance

Despite their outward appearance of confidence, vulnerable narcissists often harbor deep-seated feelings of insecurity. They may compensate for this by adopting an arrogant or entitled attitude.

A constant need for validation

They crave constant validation and approval from others to boost their fragile self-esteem. They may fish for compliments or seek reassurance excessively.

Difficulty handling rejection

Vulnerable narcissists struggle to handle rejection or failure. They may become defensive, hostile, or withdrawn when faced with situations challenging their self-image.

Emotional manipulation

This trait underscores the way vulnerable narcissists may manipulate others to maintain their fragile self-esteem and gain sympathy or attention.

Chronic self-pity

The tendency to engage in self-pity reinforces their victim mentality and plays a significant role in their interpersonal interactions.

Difficulty maintaining relationships

Their challenges in forming and maintaining healthy relationships stem from their self-centeredness, lack of empathy, and the other traits mentioned above.

Can you have a relationship with a vulnerable narcissist?

In short, yes. But (like any relationship), it takes time and effort. Specifically, navigating a relationship with a vulnerable narcissist requires setting clear boundaries and prioritizing self-care to foster a healthy relationship. Communication about needs and expectations is crucial, especially when looking for signs of emotional abuse, narcissistic rage, and domestic violence. Validating their feelings while not enabling negative behavior fosters better understanding in the relationship. While encouraging therapy may help, managing expectations is important; you can’t change them. 

If the relationship becomes too toxic, prioritize your well-being and seek support from a trusted source. It’s important to find a balance that respects your needs and theirs while prioritizing your happiness and health.

Do vulnerable narcissists know they are narcissists?

Vulnerable narcissists may not necessarily recognize that they are narcissists. This lack of self-awareness can be attributed to various factors. Firstly, they often engage in self-deception to shield their fragile self-esteem, perceiving themselves as victims or rationalizing their emotional reactions as justified responses to others’ behaviors rather than acknowledging their vulnerabilities. Also, their hypersensitivity to criticism and perceived slights act as a defensive mechanism, hindering them from accepting or even considering their narcissistic tendencies. 

A young woman talks with her friend who is a vulnerable narcissist.

In addition to self-perception and hypersensitivity, people with narcissism tend to lack insight into their own behaviors and their impact on others. This contributes to the unawareness of their condition, as they may understand their feelings of insecurity or unhappiness but fail to connect these with their narcissistic traits or recognize the broader implications of their actions on relationships. Also, the negative stigma associated with the label narcissist further complicates their self-recognition, as people are often hesitant to identify with terms that imply selfishness or a lack of empathy.

Can a vulnerable narcissist heal themselves?

With the correct kind of support, yes. Healing or making significant changes in behavior for someone with vulnerable narcissism can be challenging, but it’s not impossible. Self-directed change, especially in personality disorders or traits, can be difficult without external help due to the inherent lack of self-awareness and the deep-rooted nature of these behaviors. Here’s how the process typically needs to be supported:

Professional help

Engaging with a mental health professional, especially a psychologist or psychiatrist experienced in treating personality disorders, is often essential. Therapy can provide the insights and tools needed to understand and modify narcissistic behaviors. Therapeutic approaches such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), or schema therapy are effective.


The first step towards change is often gaining self-awareness. This involves recognizing a narcissistic behavior and understanding its impact on oneself and others. Reading about narcissistic behavior, reflecting on past interactions, and receiving feedback can start this process, but professional guidance is usually necessary to fully grasp and address the issues.

Commitment to change

Change requires a strong commitment and is often a lengthy and challenging process. A vulnerable narcissist needs to consistently work on their emotional regulation, develop empathy, and challenge their deeply ingrained beliefs about themselves and others.

Coping strategies

Learning new coping strategies to deal with insecurity, rejection, and criticism without resorting to narcissistic defenses is a key part of therapy. This involves developing healthier ways to manage emotions and build genuine self-esteem.

Mental health support at Charlie Health

If you or a loved one are struggling with narcissistic personality disorder (NPD), Charlie Health is here to help. Charlie Health’s virtual Intensive Outpatient Program (IOP) provides more than once-weekly mental health treatment for dealing with serious mental health conditions, including NPD. Our expert clinicians incorporate evidence-based therapies into individual counseling, family therapy, and group sessions. With treatment, managing NPD is possible. Fill out the form below or give us a call to start healing today.

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