Within the broad category of narcissism are some fascinating and important distinctions.

April 20, 2021
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Narcissism has become a catchword to describe pretty much anyone who's vain, self-obsessed, and craves the spotlight. (You can probably think of a few examples off the top of your head.) But there's a lot more about this personality trait to unpack—including that there's more than one type of narcissism.

Surprised? Here's what to know about the different types.

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Credit: Getty Images

What is narcissism?

"Narcissist," "a**hole," and "jerk" are often used interchangeably, but experts would beg to disagree.

"Narcissism is a failure of a healthy sense of self," Elizabeth G. Loran, PhD, an assistant professor of medical psychology at Columbia University Medical Center in New York City, tells Health.

In general, a narcissist has an outsized need to be admired, a sense of entitlement, and constant thoughts about being better than others, whether that means being more successful or more loved. The overarching expression of this type of personality "is an obsession with self that prevents intimacy with others," Paul Hokemeyer, PhD, a psychotherapist and author of Fragile Power: Why Having Everything Is Never Enough, tells Health.

While it's unclear if narcissism is on the rise, what has increased are the outlets where narcissistic personality traits can be put on display—and celebrated. From TikTok to Instagram to reality TV, "these mediums have brought narcissism into our lives and homes with an increased frequency and intensity," says Hokemeyer.

Narcissists fall into two broad categories: grandiose and vulnerable; a third category, narcissistic personality disorder, is an actual mental health disorder. All share a couple of traits, such as self-centeredness and an exaggerated sense of self-importance. But within each type are some important differences.

Grandiose narcissism

Take a sense of "I'm better than you" and add in ambition, charisma, and charm, and you get a grandiose narcissist, "like Tony Stark from Iron Man," W. Keith Campbell, PhD, a professor of psychology at the University of Georgia and author of The New Science of Narcissism: Understanding One of the Greatest Challenges of Our Time — and What You Can Do About It, tells Health. "They're sometimes likable, like a politician or a celebrity, and people look up to them, so they don't have to be mean all the time."

A grandiose narcissist has high self-esteem, a tendency to overestimate their abilities, and a habit of trying to manipulate or control others. They'll push forth positive illusions about themselves, while simultaneously trying to suppress any info that puts them in an unflattering light.

Some studies have shown that a grandiose narcissist can also be either "adaptive" or "maladaptive," depending on which traits they display the most.

Adaptive narcissists build up their self-esteem as a way to protect themselves from being hurt by others. "These individuals tend to be more successful in life than the majority of the population because they strive to be more attractive, healthier, and more successful versions of themselves," says Hokemeyer.

They can also be friendly, warm, persuasive, and have real leadership qualities. (One study found that adaptive narcissists were also more likely to be politicians.)

But maladaptive narcissists don't have such sunny intentions—they're willing to exploit others so they can get ahead, and they feel entitled to do so.

Vulnerable narcissism

Unlike a grandiose narcissist, a vulnerable narcissist isn't the life or leader of the party. They're more likely to be standing in the corner, sipping a drink, irritated that no one's paying attention to them.

Vulnerable narcissists are insecure, introverted, and have low self-esteem—"someone who thinks they deserve special treatment, but isn't aggressive in getting their needs met," says Campbell.

Although they fantasize about success and want other people to admire them so they feel better about themselves, vulnerable narcissists are passive and withdrawn, which makes reaching their goals a tough sell.

Narcissistic personality disorder (NPD)

Narcissism exists on a spectrum. Showing traits that could classify you as a grandiose or vulnerable narcissist doesn't necessarily mean you have a mental health disorder. In small amounts, it may even give you a healthy edge in getting ahead in the world.

But extreme narcissistic symptoms are classified as narcissistic personality disorder, or what some call "pathological narcissism."

"This is the type of narcissism we think about when we state with derision that a person is a narcissist," Hokemeyer says. "These individuals are self-absorbed, manipulative, and exploitative in relationships. They lack compassion and empathy and believe they're superior to everyone and everything around them."

According to the DSM-5 (the manual of mental disorders that experts use to make a diagnosis) people with NPD display five or more of the following traits:

  • An inflated sense of self-worth
  • Constant fantasies about being better than others
  • A belief that they are more special than others/should only associate with high-status people
  • An insatiable need for flattery and admiration
  • Feelings of entitlement
  • Willingness to take advantage of others to get what they want
  • A lack of empathy
  • Arrogance
  • Feeling envious of others or that they're jealous

The irony? Despite these behaviors, people with NPD often suffer from low self-esteem.

Can narcissism be treated?

Counseling is considered the best treatment for NPD, since it can help people who have it understand how to connect with others in a healthier way. "Different forms of narcissism lead to different problems, and those demand different solutions," Campbell says.

For instance, a grandiose narcissist may get better perspective by spending more time in (and being awed by) nature. A vulnerable narcissist could feel less anxious by learning to meditate or taking antidepressants.

"People hear NPD and think, 'That must be a bad person' versus someone who struggles to see others clearly," says Loran. "But with treatment, people can change and people can recover."

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