9 Types of Narcissists Mental Health Experts Want You To Know About and How To Spot Them in Action

Photo: Getty Images/ Stephen Zeigler
In the era of therapy speak, "narcissist" is right up there with gaslighting and boundaries—which is to say it's often thrown around haphazardly and misused. While many people associate the term with anyone who regularly talks about themselves, narcissism goes beyond situational instances of dominating attention. These may certainly reflect narcissistic tendencies, but true narcissism is characterized by a constant inflated sense of self-importance—something that can show up differently among the various types of narcissists.

To be sure, a diagnosis of narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) has one particular manifestation as described in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders or DSM-5 (more on that below), and a narcissist or someone with narcissistic traits does not always fit that clinical picture. Below, therapists share exactly how to identify a narcissist, as well as the nine core types of narcissists and the kind whose behavior is most dangerous.

Experts In This Article

What is a narcissist?

“A narcissist is someone who has a pathological level of narcissism,” says psychotherapist Alena Scigliano, LPC, author of Swimming with Sharks: Surviving Narcissistic-Infested Waters. The key word there is "pathological," notes Scigliano, since some degree of narcissism is “inherently within all of us and inherently healthy.” (After all, the polar opposite of narcissism, called echoism, entails having no clear sense of self or understanding of your own needs and emotions—which isn't ideal.)

As an example of healthy and typical narcissism, Scigliano points to adolescents, who “need to have some level of narcissism, so they can focus on themselves and become their own person separate from their parents.” In fact, some narcissistic traits—like having a strong sense of authority and self-sufficiency—are referred to as adaptive narcissism because they can actually help a person get ahead in life and assume leadership roles.

Maladaptive narcissism, by contrast, is characterized by the kinds of negative narcissistic behaviors, like entitlement and exploitation of others, that can interfere with a person's relationships and daily life. It's in this context that the narcissistic behavior becomes pathological, and the person exhibiting it would be called a narcissist.

What are the 5 main habits of a narcissist?

According to therapist Jillian Brandmaier, MHC-LP, the five main habits of a narcissist include:

  • Acting in a self-centered manner
  • Constantly seeking attention, validation, and admiration from others
  • Fantasizing about methods to increase their power, status, and wealth
  • Habitually using others to meet their needs
  • Acting without empathy, sympathy, or remorse for harm caused to others

What is narcissistic personality disorder?

Distinct from narcissism, narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) is “the diagnosis that is prescribed within the DSM-5,” says Scigliano, referring to the manual used to diagnose mental health disorders. She adds that an individual must exhibit five out of nine established narcissist traits—and to the point where they interfere with their relationships and daily life—for them to be diagnosed with NPD. These include traits like an inflated sense of self-importance, a persistent need for praise and admiration, and an inability or unwillingness to empathize with others.

While there’s only one clinical diagnosis for narcissistic personality disorder in the DSM-5, there are various shades of narcissism, however, all of which can be problematic to encounter in any kind of relationship.

Why are narcissists dangerous in relationships?

The behavior of a narcissist can be dangerous and damaging in a relationship because they generally lack empathy and have an unending need for admiration, says psychologist Danielle Forshee, PsyD. Both qualities make it tough to manage conflict with them, “as they tend to require compliance with what they believe is correct,” she says.

By the same token, a narcissist will not accept responsibility or blame for hurtful actions—which is necessary for being in a healthy relationship. “I like to think of narcissists as doing the ‘D’s,’” says psychologist Rachel Hoffman, PhD, LCSW, chief clinical officer at mental wellness platform Real. “They deny, devalue, and get defensive.”

This behavior “can quickly turn into gaslighting that leaves you doubting yourself,” says Dr. Hoffman. Some narcissists will even try to get your loved ones on their side of conflicts, so that you begin to doubt your reality even further in a manipulation technique known as triangulation. This is all in service of their ultimate goal, which is to be recognized as “superior,” regardless of their actual achievements or behaviors in the relationship, says Dr. Forshee.

“Your whole relationship can become centered around pleasing this person, as opposed to addressing your needs and the needs of the relationship itself.” —Danielle Forshee, PsyD, psychologist

Over time, having your wants and needs repeatedly sidelined by a narcissist can convince you that they just aren’t as important as your partner’s wants and needs. “Your whole relationship can become centered around pleasing this person, as opposed to addressing your needs and the needs of the relationship itself,” says Dr. Forshee.

Why can it be difficult to identify a narcissist?

It's often difficult to spot a narcissist because of the human tendency to give someone the benefit of the doubt, says therapist Lesli Doares, LMFT. "Many times, people just refuse to believe that a person can be that self-centered or lacking in empathy, especially because they may occasionally act in ways that seem generous," she says. "But that's just a ploy to keep someone connected to them or get something specific in return.”

Particularly in the beginning of a relationship with a narcissist, there are typically lots of signs of love bombing that can read as genuine care and concern, says Dr. Hoffman: “They’ll give you compliments and inflate your ego, so you internalize that they’re making you feel good or loved.” In reality, however, this is just manipulative narcissist behavior designed to ensure that you choose to date them, she says.

Narcissist traits can also be cloaked by the narcissist’s preoccupation with ideal love, says Dr. Forshee. To win your admiration, “they’ll usually be very adept at showing you only the parts of themselves they want you to see—like success, power, brilliance, or beauty,” she says.

And even if you catch on to the narcissistic pattern, it can be tough to escape it. “When a narcissist feels like they might be losing you, they’ll typically revert to their earlier ways and try to make you feel really good about yourself again through love bombing,” says Dr. Hoffman. “But again, it’s always all about them in the end, making this nothing more than an emotional roller coaster.”

9 different types of narcissists

The types of narcissists generally fit into two overarching categories: overt and covert narcissists, with the former exemplifying the kind of outwardly narcissistic behavior that someone with NPD would have and the latter displaying narcissistic traits in a more subtle or passive manner. Below, you'll find a breakdown of overt and covert narcissism, as well as seven other types of narcissism that reflect different manifestations of both main categories.

1. The overt narcissist

“Overt narcissists are the people whom you can tell are narcissists from a mile away,” says Dr. Hoffman. “They’re super into themselves, super competitive, and super arrogant, and when you talk to them, the conversation only moves forward if it’s about them.” They won't ever think to ask you a question about yourself.

In turn, the overt narcissist is typically highly extroverted and gains a lot of energy from being around other people who help to inflate their sense of self, says Scigliano.

2. The malignant narcissist

Among the overt kinds of narcissists is the malignant narcissist, also known as a psychopathic narcissist, who will embody some of the unstable, aggressive qualities of psychopathy. That means they will often be violent in service of their ego and show no remorse for their hurtful behavior, says clinical psychologist John Mayer, PhD.

What makes malignant narcissism so dangerous is that these individuals “want to do harm to other people or take pleasure out of doing harm to others,” he says.

3. The exhibitionist narcissist

The exhibitionist narcissist, also known as the grandiose narcissist, is the most obvious of the overt narcissists about their self-interest, self-importance, and sense of overconfidence. “They need to be in the spotlight and get uncomfortable when they’re not,” says psychotherapist Alisa Ruby Bash, PsyD, LMFT. As a result, they're often at the center of conflicts (though they'll never concede to doing anything wrong), and will openly do what they want at all times, even if it runs counter to rules, regulations, or the preferences of others.

4. The antagonistic narcissist

The antagonistic narcissist combines two terrible traits: bullying and self-absorption. They build themselves up by putting down others, says Dr. Mayer. They’re often fixated on winning and will mock or threaten others to get their way, ultimately getting joy from making others feel bad, small, or unworthy.

Whereas a typical bully tends to put people down for social gain, a bullying or antagonistic narcissist does it for personal motivation and typically in a very overt fashion.

5. The communal narcissist

“A communal narcissist does good things for others in hopes of receiving the praise they seek and believe they deserve,” says therapist Michelle Hunt, LMHC. (Rather than, you know, because they feel empathy and compassion toward those other people.) Because their narcissistic behavior often mimics genuine altruism and kindness, this type of narcissist can be especially tough to spot and often goes undetected for some time, she adds.

6. The covert narcissist

Different from overt narcissists, covert narcissists typically serve their self-interest in less obvious ways. “These people tend to have very low self-esteem or a deep fear of never being ‘enough,’ which ends up manifesting as narcissism because they refuse to accept any criticism about themselves,” says Dr. Hoffman.

Why? Well, they tend to already have such a deep-seated sense of insecurity that they can't fathom the idea of external criticism, so instead of address it, “they choose to walk away from any situation where they may be at fault,” says Dr. Hoffman.

7. The closet narcissist

A particular subtype of the covert narcissist, “a closet narcissist is one who doesn’t inflict their personality upon others or society but firmly believes in the characteristics of narcissism,” says Dr. Mayer.

Examples of closet narcissist behavior can include privately feeling entitled, constantly needing other people to admire them, being preoccupied with success, being jealous of other people, and lacking empathy for others. “They often try to pretend that they’re really selfless, but like to associate themselves with someone that they admire and ride their coattails,” says Dr. Bash.

8. The seducer narcissist

This type of narcissist relies most heavily on love bombing to get the attention that they so desperately crave from others—and in doing so, they often come across as more doting than they do manipulative, making them a subtype of the covert narcissist.

The seducer will “make you feel great about yourself just to ‘win’ you over as a sexual or love conquest,” says Dr. Mayer. But once they successfully get you to date them, they will stop the fawning behavior and expect you to provide them with constant admiration and validation in return.

9. The vulnerable narcissist

Perhaps the trickiest type of covert narcissist to spot is the vulnerable narcissist, also called a victim narcissist, whose  obsession with self manifests as an assumption that everyone is always out to get them.

Like any narcissist, the vulnerable narcissist can’t accept criticism, but in this case, it’s because their warped sense of reality makes them feel as if they’re always being victimized and life has always been uniquely unfair to them. "But no matter how much empathy [the vulnerable narcissist] may receive from a partner, it’s never enough," clinical psychologist Ramani Durvasula, PhD, previously told Well+Good.

What is the most common type of narcissist?

While overt narcissism is the most obvious category of narcissism, Brandmaier says the most common type is actually covert narcissism—largely because the behavior it entails can sneakily manifest in more socially acceptable ways. “Rather than clearly and outwardly displaying the grandiose thinking and self-perception that's common in an overt narcissist, a covert narcissist will use more subtle behaviors to bolster their sense of self and desire for power, control, and admiration,” she says.

What is the most dangerous type of narcissist?

Among all the types of narcissists, the malignant ones may be the most dangerous to have in your life. “Other kinds of narcissists aren’t going to go out of their way to hurt somebody—they’re just obsessed with themselves,” says Dr. Bash. “But a malignant narcissist may actually set out to hurt you.” This element of bad intention can make a relationship with a malignant narcissist particularly damaging to your psyche and sense of self.

Can you tell a narcissist they are a narcissist?

It's not the best idea to tell a narcissist they're a narcissist. While there’s a chance that someone with narcissistic tendencies can acknowledge the gravity of their actions—and perhaps even commit to acting differently in the future—a true narcissist is not going to accept feedback that is a reflection of anything other than their own greatness, says Dr. Forshee.

As a result, telling a narcissist that they’re a narcissist is almost always futile. “Even as a therapist, to be transparent, I find it very hard to work with narcissists, so it’s tough for me to see how someone untrained would get a narcissist to change their ways by alerting them to the fact that they’re a narcissist,” says Dr. Hoffman.

Not to mention, doing so could create some serious backlash, in some cases. “Be prepared for some type of war in response to criticism, whether it be the silent manipulative and coercive-control type of war, or outright disdain wrought with counterattacks, and possibly rage,” says Dr. Forshee.

What is the root cause of narcissism?

There is no singular cause that can explain the development of narcissism—but experts point to a couple common reasons for it. For starters, people can be born with a personality that predisposes them to being less empathetic and socially aware, says Scigliano. And in a similar realm, someone can also be raised within an environment that engenders a hyper-focus on the self, she adds.

Commonly, a narcissistic person is a product of a narcissistic parent. “If a child is raised by a narcissist, then they’re being repeatedly failed empathetically by their parent and hurt over and over,” says Scigliano. “That leads them to not be able to develop a healthy attachment to their parent nor a healthy sense of who they are.” Such insecurity can then lead them to embody narcissistic tendencies in adulthood, like constantly seeking validation from others.

Does narcissism run in families?

As with any personality disorder, narcissistic personality disorder may involve a genetic component. “It also might not be the case that a parent has narcissistic personality disorder, but it’s possible that they have a different personality disorder, which could still make it more likely that a kid has narcissistic personality disorder,” says Dr. Hoffman.

“Someone who never felt like they got enough attention or affirmation or praise when they were younger can develop a need for excessive praise when they get older.” —Rachel Hoffman, PhD, LCSW, psychologist

Narcissism and narcissistic tendencies may also run in families as a response to childhood trauma. “Someone who never felt like they got enough attention or affirmation or praise when they were younger can develop a need for excessive praise when they get older,” says Dr. Hoffman. And in other family dynamics, it’s possible that a person grew up witnessing narcissistic behavior in a caretaker or sibling and saw this behavior rewarded with additional praise, leading them to pick up this narcissistic streak themselves, she adds.

Can a narcissist be a good person?

Someone with narcissistic traits may not have bad intentions, particularly if their narcissism developed in response to an uncaring childhood environment or growing up with a narcissistic parent.

But, a narcissist (or someone with pathological narcissism) or a person with narcissistic personality disorder is not acting in healthy or good ways. “A narcissist is, again, someone with such an inflated view of the self that they’re not able to process and respect the needs, wants, and feelings of others,” says Dr. Hoffman. This lack of empathy in narcissists is what makes their behaviors so inherently hurtful.

How to deal with a narcissist

If you determine that you're in a relationship with a narcissist, your best bet is to end that partnership (or at least to emotionally detach from it). But if that's not possible—perhaps the narcissist is a family member or the parent of your child—Dr. Hoffman has an important word of caution: Do not forget who you are outside of the relationship.

“What so often happens with people in relationships with narcissists is that they become a corpse of themselves, as they become laser-focused on constantly pleasing their partner,” says Dr. Hoffman. “The best thing you could possibly do for yourself in this situation is to create a life for yourself outside of your partner.” That means consciously engaging in hobbies you love and seeing friends and family members who lift you up.

Scigliano adds that it's important to set strong boundaries around the time you spend with a narcissist, the activities you'll do together, and the topics you'll discuss—and stick with them. And if a conflict arises, focus on objective facts, she adds, "and avoid sharing your emotions because they can use those against you."

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