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Beneath the Mask of Vulnerable Narcissism
Humiliated fury, angry rumination, hostility, shame, and mistrust
One of my favorite blogs from the Before Times was The Last Psychiatrist. He is most known for his writings on narcissism. When I discovered him in 2015, I read through most of his archive over the course of a few weeks. You can read my review of his book here.
On narcissistic injury and narcissistic rage:
“A narcissistic injury occurs when the narcissist is confronted with the reality that he is not the main character in his movie…The worst thing that could happen to a narcissist is not that his wife cheats on him and leaves him for another man…He's still the main character in his movie; it was a romantic comedy but now it's a break-up film…The worst thing that could happen to a narcissist is that his wife cheats on him secretly and never tells him, and she doesn't act any differently towards him, so that he couldn't even tell. If she can do all that, that means she exists independently of him. He is not the main character in the movie. She has her own movie and he's not even in it. That's a narcissistic injury…But all narcissistic injuries lead to rage…The violence serves two necessary psychological functions: first, it's the natural byproduct of rage. Second, the violence perpetuates the link, the relationship, keeps him in the lead role. ‘That slut may have had a whole life outside me, but I will make her forever afraid of me.’ Or he kills himself—not because he can't live without her, but because from now on she won't be able to live without thinking about him. See? Now it's a drama, but the movie goes on. So if you cause a narcissist to have a narcissistic injury, get ready for a fight.”
Psychological researchers have found that there are two categories of narcissist:
1. Grandiose narcissists: Dominant, extraverted, overconfident, exploitative, egotistical, low emotional distress. This is the version of narcissism people tend to be most familiar with.
2. Vulnerable narcissists: Self-centered, introverted, defensive, resentful, high emotional distress. Psychologists sometimes refer to them “hidden” or “shy” or “covert” narcissists because they don’t self-promote the way the grandiose types do.
Grandiose narcissists enjoy seeking any kind of attention. Their positive self-image is resistant to criticism. They always think they’re amazing no matter what people say.
In contrast, vulnerable narcissists have mixed feelings about seeking attention. They are overly excited at the prospect of positive feedback but excessively sensitive to negative feedback. They have a high opinion of themselves but this high opinion can be thwarted if the external world does not validate it.
Both types tend to be exploitative, hold high opinions of themselves, and see themselves as deserving of special treatment.
Compared to grandiose narcissists, vulnerable narcissists are more sensitive to insults, ruminate more about perceived unfairness, and report more anger when they do not receive what they think they deserve. Although vulnerable narcissists require external feedback to maintain their sense of self, they are often dissatisfied with the feedback they receive.
Narcissists, when they feel their carefully constructed identity is threatened, are prone to lashing out in an attempt to eliminate the source of the threat. Narcissistic rage is the response to a combination of shame and depression.
The Austrian-American psychoanalyst Heinz Kohut wrote, “the narcissistically injured cannot rest until he has blotted out a vaguely experienced offender who dared to oppose him, to disagree with him, or to outshine him.”
Narcissistic injuries result when a narcissist feels that the image they present in public has been threatened. They feel shame when their hidden “true self” has been revealed both to themselves and others.
To conceal the shame (which is often too painful), they react with rage. Some psychologists use the term “humiliated fury.” People who feel shame in response to their flaws being exposed are more likely to lash out.
But what kind of narcissist is most prone to this kind of explosive response?
In a widely-cited paper titled “Narcissistic Rage Revisited,” the researchers investigated which kind of narcissist is most prone to experiencing shame, hostility, aggressiveness, and anger.
Researchers gave different scales to participants, who rated the extent to which they agreed with statements such as:
“I can usually talk my way out of anything.”
“Modesty doesn’t become me.”
“I will usually show off if I get the chance.”
“My feelings are easily hurt by the slighting remarks of others.”
“When I enter a room I become self-conscious and feel the eyes of others are upon me.”
“I often interpret the remarks of others in a personal way.”
The researchers were interested in which of these two types of narcissism would be most associated with:
Aggression (e.g., “I have threatened people I know,” and, “I have become so mad that I’ve broken things.”)
Anger (e.g., “I sometimes feel like a powder keg ready to explode,” and, “I have trouble controlling my temper.”)
Angry rumination (e.g., “I think about certain events from a long time ago and they still make me angry,” and, “I ponder about the injustices that have been done to me.”)
Hostility (e.g., “I am sometimes eaten up with jealousy,” and, “I wonder why sometimes I feel so bitter about things.”)
Shame (e.g., “A friend tells you that you boast a great deal. What is the likelihood that you would stop spending time with that friend?”)
Mistrust (e.g., “I am wary of others,” and, “I suspect hidden motives in others.”)
What kind of narcissist is more prone to negative emotion and violence?
Vulnerable narcissism (r = .56) was a much stronger predictor of aggression than grandiose narcissism (r = .23)
Vulnerable narcissism (r = .56) was a much stronger predictor of anger than grandiose narcissism (r = .15)
Vulnerable narcissism (r = .58) was a much stronger predictor of angry rumination than grandiose narcissism (r = -.06; not significant)
Vulnerable narcissism (r = .58) was a much stronger predictor of hostility than grandiose narcissism (r = .07; not significant)
Vulnerable narcissists were more likely to experience shameful self-evaluation (r = .29) and grandiose narcissists were less likely (r = - .32)
Vulnerable narcissism (r = .42) was a strong predictor of mistrust compared to grandiose narcissism (r = -.12; apparently grandiose narcissists are slightly more trusting than average)
In short, vulnerable narcissism is a consistent and powerful predictor of aggression, anger, angry rumination, hostility, shame, and mistrust. Vulnerable narcissism is more likely to lead to violence than grandiose narcissism. Additionally, vulnerable narcissism is associated with stronger shame responses, whereas grandiose narcissism predicts less shame.
As the researchers put it, these findings “consistently reveal narcissistic vulnerability to be a driver of narcissistic rage, an explosive mix of mistrust, anger, and rumination that results in lashing out at those who stand in the way.”
In his book The Status Game, Will Storr points out that “Humiliation has been described by researchers as 'the nuclear bomb of the emotions’” and that “the fundamental cause of most human violence is the wish to ward off the feeling of shame and humiliation and replace it with its opposite, the feeling of pride.”
These findings suggest we should be at least as wary of the “hidden” narcissists among us as we are of the grandiose ones.
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