A lot of the scientific research on narcissism tends to focus on one specific type of narcissism known as grandiose narcissism, according to lead researcher Ava Valashjardi, Ph.D., a forensic psychology lecturer at the City University of London. Grandiose narcissism involves an overly exaggerated, unrealistic view of oneself, which fuels a sense of entitlement and superiority over others.
“Grandiose features of narcissism resemble stereotypically masculine expressions including an inflated self-esteem, physical expressions of aggression, entitlement, excessive need for power, and an authoritarian character style,” Valashjardi told PsyPost.
But women tend to present a different type of narcissism known as vulnerable narcissism, also sometimes referred to as covert narcissism. Vulnerable narcissists tend to be highly sensitive to other people’s views of them or to perceived criticism, and they see their feelings and problems as more important than everyone else’s. They’re self-absorbed like any other narcissist, but they’re more preoccupied with feeling victimized than ruling over others.
“Vulnerable traits resemble more feminine expressions, including overt shyness, neuroticism, shame, hypersensitivity, and low self-esteem,” Valashjardi explained.
Valashjardi and her colleagues surveyed 152 men and 176 women on their personality traits and relationship behaviors. Vulnerable narcissism was assessed based on agreement with statements such as “When others don’t notice me, Istart to feel worthless.” Their findings showed women tended to have much more vulnerable narcissistic traits than men did, whereas grandiose narcissism was less linked to gender.
Importantly, among women, that vulnerable narcissism alone was linked to perpetrating both physical and psychological abuse, including things like verbally attacking their partner, shoving or hitting them, or destroying their belongings.
Narcissism was also linked to abusive behavior in men, of course, though there was more variation: their grandiose narcissism was linked to psychological abuse while their vulnerable narcissism was linked to physical abuse.
“Our findings suggest narcissism in females is expressed in more hidden and subtle ways (e.g., devaluing, hiding behind the self) which may not be recognized as stereotypically ‘narcissistic’ when exploiting intimate partners,” Valashjardi explained. “Narcissism in females moves beyond the masculine stereotype commonly conceptualized in theory, research, and vernacular language. Assessing narcissism through the lens of grandiosity may not accurately capture narcissism in females and the harmful impact they have in intimate relationships.”