We all know that narcissists need an audience but why they do depends on the type of narcissist you’re dealing with. Is the narcissist you know grandiose or vulnerable? New research suggests that they hone the art of self-presentation in different ways and for different reasons.
If there’s a narcissist in your life, these findings may well give you a bead on what makes him (or her) tick and let you get a step or two ahead so that you’re not ensnared and taken prisoner by his apparent cool and suave moves. Feel free to switch up the pronouns as you read.
Grandiose or vulnerable? Birds of a feather or not?
Both types of narcissists feel entitled, are exploitative, and have outsized fantasies about powerfulness, even though the first impressions they make are notably different. The grandiose narcissist comes across as socially skilled, in command, incredibly self-assured and outgoing; he looks and sounds good. In contrast, the vulnerable narcissist may appeal to your inner nurturer; at first blush, he seems somewhat introverted, shy, a bit neurotic and not at all self-absorbed. That first impression erodes over time as you get to know him better and he begins to sound more arrogant, sometimes even rude, and more than a little conceited.
Both types focus on self-presentation which is key; the researchers define self-presentation as actively controlling how the self is perceived and behaving in such a manner to cultivate that perception.
Self-presentation can be assertive or defensive and it turns out that while grandiose narcissists avail themselves of the assertive tactics, the defensive ones are not part of their arsenal. Vulnerable narcissists, as two studies showed, avail themselves of both assertive and defensive tactics.
Here’s a handy list the researchers provide which you can use as a checklist to see which kind of narcissist has landed feet-first in your life.
Assertive tactics for self-presentation
Basically, exaggerating his accomplishments and possessions. Quick to tell you about successes and acquisitions—the house, the car, the job. Anything you can do, he can do better.
Manipulating or bullying people to gain respect or acceptance. He always knows more and better than you do. He might even deride or mock you in the process.
Flattery is the name of the game and the chances are good, you’ll like him for it—just as he planned.
He’s # 1 for a reason and he’s not shy about telling you. He takes credit for every positive event, whether he deserves to or not.
He’s quick to mete out criticism of others so he looks even better in comparison. Praise his colleagues? Don’t go there. Like his friend’s apartment? He’ll tell you why you shouldn’t. Cutting down others is his way of building himself up.
It may seem out of character coming from someone so self-assured but it’s really quite charming to see him pivot and say that you or someone else is so much better at something than he is. Of course, that’s a way of getting you to do whatever it is for him. It works every time and it has the benefit of keeping his image intact.
He’s always eager to provide a shining example of how everyone should act. That makes you think he cares about others, doesn’t it? Wrong.
Defensive tactics for self-presentation
Whenever something goes wrong or turns out not as expected, it’s not his fault. Ever.
It’s not as bad as it seems. He always has an excuse handy, no matter what. He’ll downplay what happened so he doesn’t look like a flop.
He’ll always lower your expectations before anything happens. That way, he’s off the hook for the outcome.
He’s quick to enumerate all the things that stood in the way of success so he doesn’t take responsibility. If you can’t see the obstacles, it’s your problem, not his.
Yes, he’s quick to take the blame because he knows that if he apologies and promises never, ever to do it again, you’re likely not to see whatever happened as a reflection of his true character.
Different motivations for each
Previous research had suggested that grandiose narcissists are motivated by approach goals—feeling good about themselves—while vulnerable narcissists are driven by avoidance—feeling bad about himself or being rejected. These studies confirmed that, along with the finding that grandiose narcissists sometimes relied on the defensive tactic of justification, the apology or supplication or anything that made him look weak was off the table. Vulnerable narcissists weren’t likely to use the tactic of apologizing but were game to excuse and justify themselves, self-handicap, and make disclaimers—along with using most of the assertive tactics. (One note: the narcissist I knew made meaningless apologies all the time to deflect attention. In fact, he put a cherry on top by crying manly tears. Make of that what you will.)
If you consider that the grandiose narcissist is motivated by being validated and accepted and the vulnerable narcissist has his eye on avoiding rejection along with being validated, there’s a logic to the tactics they use.
The bottom line? The narcissist needs to feel good (or not bad) about himself to maintain equilibrium—whether that’s keeping the “I’m better than anyone” vibe going or “No one is seeing the chinks in my armor” mantra alive. Whatever they’re doing or saying, rest assured that it’s not about you.
Photograph by Ethan Sykes. Copyright free. Unsplash.com
Hart, William, John Adams, et.al.” Narcissism and self-presentation: Profiling grandiose and vulnerable Narcissists’ self-presentation tactic use,” Personality and Individual Differences (2017), 104, 48-57.