Narcissism is both a clinical disorder and a personality trait. Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders explants narcissism as bloated self-esteem, an exaggerated sense of superiority and self-centeredness, an exploitative tendency to manipulate others for their self-interests, lack of empathy, a constant need for attention, and most importantly entitlement for special treatments. Existing studies on narcissism are predominantly, male-oriented, excluding female narcissistic traits from the discourse. Narcissism is not one-dimensional, it’s shaped by the complex interplay between upbringing and gender expectations.

Narcissism affects everyone… but likely more men than women.

A study from the University of Southampton and City, University of London, titled ‘Unmasking gender differences in narcissism within intimate partner violence’ analysed the role of narcissism in perpetuating violence (physical, psychological, and sexual). Published in Sex Roles Journal, this study conducted exploratory research to inspect the narcissistic traits of both men and women.

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Two types of narcissism

There are two subtypes of narcissism- grandiose and vulnerable narcissism. Grandiose narcissism, also known as ‘overt narcissism’ is the most featured in research for narcissism personality disorder. Mostly when one thinks of narcissism, grandiose narcissism comes to mind. Grandiose narcissism is when one covets to hog the spotlight and screams “Everyone look at me, I am the best!” With a condescending and self-absorbed demeanor, they have an inflated sense of self-importance, obsess over power and money, disparage those around and dramatise their achievements and talents. They rely on others for validation and exploit them. Studies show that men, owing to masculine expectations, are more likely to show grandiose narcissism.

Vulnerable narcissism is less studied than grandiose narcissism and is also known as covert narcissism. Vulnerable narcissists are low on self-esteem and feel inadequate. They are easily offended, and hypersensitive to criticism. When they feel threatened, they display toxic behaviours like manipulation, avoidance, or even aggression. With insecure self-esteem, they keep to themselves in a gathering but envy the attention. “How could they ignore me? Can’t they see how incredible I am?” Vulnerable narcissism involves more emotional manipulation, gaslighting, and victim complexity. They would often say things like “If you don’t get me this/do this, you don’t love me.”

The researchers studied 328 adults (176 women and 152 men) where on several parameters, men scored higher on grandiose narcissism whilst women scored higher on vulnerable narcissism. Women show subtle and covert narcissism, owing to the demure expectations of upbringing, while men display exaggerated and loud narcissism.

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Correlation between narcissism and intimate partner violence

Both forms of narcissism are positively correlated with abuse (physical, psychological, and sexual) in intimate partner relationships. Narcissism trait is also a strong predictor of intimate partner violence. For psychological abuse, grandiose narcissism is a strong predictor for males (belittling, mocking their partners.) For females, vulnerable narcissism is the only predictor for violence (emotional manipulation, guilt-tripping, playing the victim.) But men get physically and sexually abusive when they are insecure and display vulnerable narcissism. It suggests the possibility of feeling emasculated when they perceive a threat in the form of casual criticism from their partner.

Correlation between narcissism and bullying

The researchers also studied how the two forms of narcissism contribute to bullying. With vulnerable narcissism, there’s a high chance of engaging in verbal and indirect forms of bullying; while grandiose narcissism leads to physical bullying.

The findings indicate the ages-old conditioning of female emotions to be in line with docile femininity. Narcissistic traits are more subtle and covert in women, due to the subconscious anxiety of violating the societal norms of ‘a perfect woman’.