The Difference Between Grandiose and Vulnerable Narcissism
The central premise of my book "How White Evangelicals Think" is that white evangelicalism has become infected with what is called "collective narcissism" where the group as a whole functions narcissistically, believing itself to be special, entitled to special treatment, and hostile toward others who don't share that opinion. I also argue in the book that the church likely attracts higher than normal rates of people with narcissistic traits and even Narcissistic Personality Disorder.
Narcissism is a persistent personality trait characterized by an exaggerated sense of self-importance, a lack of empathy, and a need for admiration. While all narcissists share these traits to some extent, there are two main subtypes of narcissism: grandiose narcissism and vulnerable narcissism. These two subtypes differ in important ways and have different origins and consequences.
Grandiose narcissism is characterized by an inflated sense of self-importance, a belief in one's own superiority, and a need for constant attention and admiration. Grandiose narcissists are often confident, charismatic, and extroverted, and they may seek positions of power and influence. They tend to be self-assured and immune to criticism, and they may have a sense of entitlement. In the church, these are often the high-profile pastors or others who seek the public platform. These people can often be charming, funny, and impressive, but they also put themselves in positions where they are in power with no one who can tell them no. When they do get criticized, they typically become very defensive, even overtly angry, and usually box the other person out.
There are a variety of reasons that grandiose narcissism may develop. Some people may develop this type of narcissism as a result of being raised in an environment that promotes self-aggrandizement and a sense of entitlement. For example, parents who overvalue their children or who constantly praise them for their accomplishments may contribute to the development of grandiose narcissism. Other people may develop grandiose narcissism as a way to cope with feelings of inadequacy or insecurity. By exaggerating their own importance and superiority, they may be able to feel better about themselves. Either extreme of early over-indulgence or a feeling of inadequacy can lead to grandiose narcissism.
Vulnerable narcissism is characterized by a deep sense of insecurity, a need for constant validation, and a tendency to become easily hurt or offended. Vulnerable narcissists may be thin-skinned and sensitive to criticism, and they may have a fragile ego. They may also have difficulty with emotional regulation and may be prone to mood swings and outbursts.
Like grandiose narcissism, vulnerable narcissism may have a variety of origins. Some people may develop this type of narcissism as a result of being raised in an environment that is overly critical or neglectful. For example, parents who are consistently harsh or who fail to provide emotional support may contribute to the development of vulnerable narcissism. Other people may develop vulnerable narcissism as a result of trauma or other life experiences that leave them feeling vulnerable and insecure. In the church, these vulnerable narcissists tend to become what we call "narcissistic followers" where they seek out the charismatic leader who will protect them and make them feel safe and special. They become the loyal army behind the narcissistic leader who is almost always a grandiose narcissist.
Regardless of the type of narcissism, it is clear that narcissism can have a negative impact on individuals, local churches, national and international ministries, and on society as a whole. Narcissists tend to be self-absorbed and lack empathy, which can make it difficult for them to form truly meaningful relationships with others. Their relationships are prone to being more superficial, but when they do become deeper, narcissists usually try to destroy the other person in some way when things inevitably go south. In extremes where a narcissist completely lacks empathy, he or she is prone to exploiting or manipulating others in order to get what they want.
In his excellent book, When Narcissism Comes to Church, therapist Chuck DeGroat describes the massive negative impact narcissists have on local churches. On a broader societal level, narcissism can contribute to a culture of entitlement, selfishness, and a lack of concern for the well-being of others.
Overall, grandiose and vulnerable narcissism are two distinct subtypes of narcissism that have different origins and consequences. While both types of narcissism can be damaging to individuals and to society. Vulnerable narcissists may often be harder to spot because they lack the big charismatic personalities, they also have the capacity to cause real damage to relationships and communities.
How White Evangelicals Think is available now at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and other fine booksellers.