Why does it matter so much that there are different types of narcissists?
A Tale of Two Narcissists
Tim and Sarah are in a relationship and things have been perfect, almost a little too perfect. She’s beautiful–just the kind of woman that makes him look good. Tim had her in his sights for a long time and the sex has been great, but he’s beginning to get bored. He learned what she wants in a partner and thinks he’s made her pretty happy, but now that he has her where she will do whatever he wants, the whole thing is starting to lose its luster.
He starts to withdraw from her and ignore her calls and texts. Secretly, however, he gets a thrill out of the pain he sees in her eyes when she starts to question what’s wrong. The emotional turmoil starts to escalate when he stops hiding his contempt. Things about her that he used to find endearing now annoy him and he makes sarcastic and cutting comments about them. When she cries in response, he enjoys that he can control her emotions so easily. It makes him feel powerful.
Soon, he grows bored with that too, however, and starts to look around for someone new. He doesn’t even try to hide his phone when other women start texting him when she is around, and as the relationship starts falling apart, he lets her self-destruct and beg for answers for a while, before he finally walks out on her, leaving her completely clueless about how he turned from her soulmate into a nightmare.
Steve and Lisa are in a relationship. They fell in love quickly, idealizing one another in what appears to be a storybook romance. Lisa, however, is starting to feel as if Steve isn’t as attentive as he used to be and is always looking for signs that he will cheat on her or leave. She keeps a secret supply of men stocked with old boyfriends she talks to frequently and new men she meets at random places.
When Steve finds out, he is shocked and upset, thinking the two of them had been very much in love. Lisa promises to stop talking to them. But when Steve is withdrawn and needs time to trust her again, she is upset that he doesn’t have the same level of devotion and trust he once did so she reverts back to her old behavior of getting attention from other men.
She even starts to ignore and resent Steve and become more interested in one of the other men, feeling more and more as if Steve is not worth it and she will dump him for her new love interest. She feels that Steve doesn’t appreciate all the chances she’s given him.
When Steve finds out that she is talking to someone else again and on a more serious level this time, she explodes and blames Steve for her actions and says, “If you would have loved me the way I needed you to love me, this never would have happened. This is all your fault.”
Two Types of Narcissists, Two Types of Relationships
What these two stories illustrate is that not all those on the narcissist/sociopath spectrum behave the same way or have the same motivations. This is true even though their actions are self-centered and the effects of their abuse are very damaging in both cases.
In the first example, Tim’s motivation was mostly to alleviate his boredom and if that included hurting Sarah for his own entertainment, he was willing to do that. From the beginning, there was never any intention of entering into a genuine, mutually-beneficial relationship.
In the second example, Lisa thought she was having a real relationship with Steve, however, she is incapable of having a mutually-beneficial relationship that meets the needs of both people, as she can only think about her own needs.
She is determined to perceive Steve’s actions as disrespectful to her as a person when they don’t revolve around her. To get her own need for constant attention and affirmation met, she engages in actions that incidentally, but not intentionally, harm the relationship and Steve.
Meeting her own needs will always be her primary factor in decision-making. She will never be able to put Steve’s feelings above her own needs.
These are just examples, but I use them to illustrate that there is enough difference here in how these two self-absorbed individuals behave to cause confusion if you’re trying to understand their motivations.
The reason why it can make a difference is that as you read about forms of narcissism, you may not find these distinctions noted. Much of what you read may use the general term “narcissism” without acknowledging that there are many types.
A Narcissist By Any Other Name…
Another issue is that there are many terms used to describe narcissist categories, but the behavior is often described in general terms. There is a lot of terminology switching.
Sometimes, it seems that not everyone is using the same labels even when it is clear by the descriptions they are describing the same types.
For instance, let’s say I have two friends who tell me a story about a third mutual friend, but there is confusion about which friend it happened to. One of them says it happened to “John,” and the other says it happened to, “James.” When I ask them to describe who they are talking about, they both describe “John.” (see left)
This happens sometimes when reading about narcissism. Two writers will use a different label to describe the same type of narcissist.
Other times, they will use the same label to describe two distinct types of narcissists.
So to use another example, two mutual friends each tell me two completely different stories about two different friends. They both say the two incidents happened to John. Yet, only one of the incidents happened to “John” and the other one happened to “James.” (see below)
Writers will sometimes both talk about two different types of narcissism as evident by the ways they describe how the narcissist behaves, but they will call it the same type.
By me, as the outsider reading the two different descriptions and comparing the two, I can see the two descriptions are different but that they are labeling it the same thing.
I wanted to know how many terms existed and how they overlapped one another. I was curious about how well descriptions and labels translated. For example, if I saw a label in one place, how consistently did it mean the same thing elsewhere?
In this article, I will do four things:
identify all of the major types and sub-types by all of their most common names
clear up confusion where descriptions and labels don’t agree
explain how the types and sub-types are related to one another
describe the motivations and behaviors of each
To resolve the confusions and disagreements, I noted where they existed and typed narcissists into categories according to two factors:
(1) by general consensus; and/or
(2) where an evidence-based argument existed. I was careful to balance the two where appropriate.
Using this approach, I have identified three major types of narcissists, as well as six subtype categories of these major types for a total of nine. This chart shows how they can be related to one another.
Narcissists may belong to one of the three major types: classic, malignant or vulnerable. They may then further qualify as one or more sub-types.
Which of the major types a narcissist falls into determines which subtype category he or she can be further classified in: Subtype 1 (Overt or Covert) and Subtype 2 (Somatic or Cerebral). Sadistic and Inverted Narcissists are special sub-type designations of other major types.
The Three Major Types of Narcissists
Also known as High-Functioning, Exhibitionist, or Grandiose Narcissists, these are the typical narcissists that most people think of when they hear the term “narcissist.” These are the attention-seeking narcissists who brag about their accomplishments. They also expect others to flatter them and feel entitled to special treatment. They get bored when they are not the focus of the conversation and rarely like to share the spotlight with others.
The irony is that they are desperate to feel important, and at the same time they often already perceive themselves to be superior to most people they meet.
Also known as Fragile, Compensatory, Victim or Closet Narcissists, they still feel as if they are superior to most people they meet. Yet they actually despise the spotlight.
They often try to attach themselves to special people instead of seeking special treatment themselves. They may seek pity or ingratiate others through excessive generosity. This enables them to receive the attention and admiration they need to boost their sense of self-worth.
Also known as Toxic Narcissists, malignant narcissists are highly manipulative and exploitative. These narcissists have many antisocial traits that are not present in the other two major types. They are similar to sociopaths and psychopaths and often have a sadistic streak that makes them different from the other two major types.
Their primary goal is often to dominate and control, and they will use deceit and aggression to accomplish it and lack remorse for their actions. They may even enjoy the suffering of others.
* * * * *
In the two examples above, Tim would likely be a malignant narcissist or even a sociopath or a psychopath. Lisa, based on the description above, would probably not be a malignant narcissist or sociopath, but is, instead likely to be a classic narcissist.
Understanding that these different types of narcissists exist is useful for knowing whether the conclusions in an article about narcissism are applicable to your own experience when you are reading it.
Overt vs. Covert
This sub-type describes whether the narcissist uses methods to get his or her needs met that are more out in the open or whether those methods are more stealthy and secretive.
For example, both overt and covert narcissists may put people down, boast, and look for opportunities to take advantage of people. Overt narcissists, however, do so in unmistakable and noticeable ways.
Covert narcissists work behind the scenes or are more passive-aggressive. Others may come away from an encounter with a covert narcissist not knowing they were manipulated. Sometimes the covert narcissist’s tactics may be harder to spot. This hidden abuse may allow him or her to deny what happened.
Classic narcissists will always be overt narcissists, and vulnerable narcissists will always be covert narcissists, however, malignant narcissists could be either.
Some writers do not distinguish between covert narcissists and vulnerable narcissists. Other researchers, however, argue for a distinction between the two because malignant narcissists can operate covertly.
For example, a malignant narcissist may make covert statements to attack someone’s self-esteem such as, “That’s a good major for you given your abilities” or “That outfit really flatters your body type but I could never wear something like that.”
Somatic vs. Cerebral
This sub-type defines what the narcissist primarily values in himself or herself and in others. Neither sub-type wants to be outshined by their partner, but they do want someone around who enhances their status. To narcissists, their partners are objects they can show off as if they were objects.
Somatic narcissists are obsessed with their bodies, youth and external appearance. They often spend a lot of time at the gym and in front of mirrors.
Cerebral narcissists are the know-it-alls. They think of themselves as the most intelligent ones in the room, trying to impress people with their accomplishments and positions of power.
Any of the three types of narcissists—classic, vulnerable, or malignant—can be either of these two sub-types.
Some writers classify cerebral narcissists as vulnerable narcissists only and somatic narcissists as classic narcissists only. Others argue, however, that this is a stereotype because of the connections people tend to make between the body being “physical” and out in public view, while the mind, being “mental,” is more hidden.
These associations, however, don’t take into account other scenarios. Vulnerable narcissists may use their bodies to get their needs met, such as through physical illness. Classic narcissists may be cerebral narcissists and seek attention for their educational status or accomplishments, for example.
Some researchers have identified a special type of covert, vulnerable narcissist called an inverted narcissist. These narcissists are codependent. They attach themselves to other narcissists to feel special. The only time they feel satisfied is when they are in relationships with other narcissists. They are victim-narcissists who suffer from childhood abandonment issues.
This is a special type of malignant narcissist that is the most similar to sociopaths and psychopaths. They take pleasure in hurting people and their purpose in interacting with others is always to control. They enjoy humiliating others and may have unusual sexual fetishes.
Misunderstanding That There Are Types of Narcissists Has a Cost
It was a breakthrough when I realized that I was sometimes reading articles about narcissists that had nothing to do with what I had experienced. Not knowing this had actually had a negative effect on me in two important ways:
1. It made it more difficult for me to leave the relationship. When information was presented as the only way that all narcissists act, it fed into all of my own confusion about what I was experiencing. This kept me in the relationship longer. Is he a narcissist? Is this abusive?
Sometimes I would hold out hope that maybe he wasn’t a narcissist after all or if he was that things could change. Other times, the information aided my own abuse amnesia and allowed me to deny what had been happening.
2. It made it more difficult for me to heal and move on. Information presented as applying to all narcissists left me mired in questions that made it difficult for me to move forward in my recovery.
I would wonder why the articles I read did not explain my experiences, which made me more susceptible to my ex-boyfriend’s excuses and explanations during hoovers.
When you’re in the middle of a relationship with a narcissist or recovering from one, few things make sense about it. Arming yourself with information is crucial. There is a fine line between knowing enough to walk away and loading up on so much information that you become paralyzed.
Gathering the right information is like having a tool in your toolbox to use to dismantle anything that blocks the path toward recovery.
I hope to have accomplished my goal of adding something to that toolbox.
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Raskin, Robert N., Hall, Calvin S. (October 1979). “A narcissistic personality inventory.” Psychological Reports. 45 (2): 590.
Raskin, Robert; Terry, Howard (1988). “A principal-components analysis of the Narcissistic Personality Inventory and further evidence of its construct validity.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 54(5): 890-902.
My name is Kristen Milstead. I have a Ph.D. in Sociology and I am also a narcissistic abuse survivor. I'm passionate about using research to help other survivors heal and to promote awareness of narcissistic abuse. Read more about the mission of Fairy Tale Shadows here. My writing has been featured on PsychCentral, HealthyPlace, Your Tango, Thought Catalog and others. In addition, my research was used to support discussions about Fyre Festival and I was interviewed for the upcoming documentary #UNFIT. Learn more about my story here. Welcome! Wherever you are in your healing journey, you are not alone.
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