Narcissism Less Apparent in Women, Equally Damaging

The term narcissism may conjure up images of chest-pumping, arrogant, male self-promoters. The personality trait - with its hallmark features of overt grandiosity, assertiveness and superiority - is, in fact, more commonly observed in men.


  • Ava Green

    Lecturer in Forensic Psychology, City, University of London

  • Claire Hart

    Associate Professor of Psychology, University of Southampton

That is because these central features align closely with traditional masculine traits. In fact, up to 75% of people diagnosed with narcissistic personality disorder are men.

But in reality, narcissism is a modern epidemic that afflicts men and women alike. Our new research, published in Sex Roles, shows how narcissism manifests itself differently in women - but reveals that narcissistic women can be as dangerous and violent as their male counterparts.

Our research reveals that women with high traits of narcissism tend to be more vulnerable and insecure than their male peers. That means it can sometimes be missed by clinical professionals, for example, misdiagnosed as borderline personality disorder.

Narcissism is a complex personality trait. While full-blown narcissistic personality disorder isn't too common, affecting about 1-2% of the population, we all have narcissism to varying degrees.

Narcissistic personality traits can be expressed in two forms: grandiose and vulnerable. People who exhibit more grandiose features are self-assured and socially dominant. People who exhibit more vulnerable features are introverted and have lower self-esteem. Both forms share an antagonistic core, demonstrated by high levels of entitlement and a willingness to exploit others.

In the context of intimate relationships, narcissism has similarly been associated with men's perpetration of violence. Threats to their self-esteem can evoke feelings of shame, humiliation and wounded pride, leading to aggressive behaviour.

Although women are less likely to display stereotypical manifestations of narcissism, it does not mean that narcissism is not as common in women. For instance, consider the numerous reality TV stars who are notorious for their self-centredness and vanity - traits often associated with narcissism.

Yet narcissism in women extends beyond self-absorption. Vulnerable narcissism involves traits such as emotional vulnerability, low self-esteem and inhibition. These traits overlap with traditional notions of femininity. Such gender differences in narcissism may stem from gender-specific stereotypes of masculinity and femininity ingrained from childhood.

Consequently, the tendency for men to display more grandiose features and women to display more vulnerable traits may partly originate from parenting styles aimed at making boys more assertive and girls more nurturing.

However, there is a danger of interpreting women's narcissism as less harmful due to their initial presentation as more soft-spoken, nurturing, passive and vulnerable than men. Beneath this persona, they may be devoid of empathy and harbour high levels of entitlement and a willingness to exploit others.

This suggests that men and women may be aggressive or violent in different ways. Narcissistic women may be more likely to manipulate people, spread rumours or be passive aggressive than narcissistic men, for example.

Our recent research tested this for the first time. In a study of 328 adults (176 women and 152 men), we examined the complex dynamics between childhood experiences, narcissism and the perpetration of intimate partner violence in men and women.

Participants completed an online survey and were asked questions about their personality traits. This captured both grandiose and vulnerable features of narcissism using the Pathological Narcissism Inventory. Participants were also asked to indicate any conflicts that may have arisen during their past or present intimate relationships.

Men scored higher on grandiose narcissism while women scored higher on vulnerable narcissism. Despite these marked gender differences, it is important to remember that narcissism exists along a spectrum. Men can exhibit vulnerable features and women can exhibit grandiose features, too.

Grandiose narcissism in men was associated with greater perpetration of psychological partner violence such as being controlling, bullying or manipulative.

Somewhat surprisingly, grandiose narcissism in men was not associated with the perpetration of physical violence. That clashes with some previous research that measured narcissism using different methods. But overall, men are more likely than women to perpetrate violence, so a proportion of narcissistic men are likely to be violent.

More surprisingly, vulnerable narcissism in women was linked with greater perpetration of physical, sexual and psychological partner violence. It is important to note here that not every woman with vulnerable narcissistic traits is violent.

Instead, specific features of vulnerable narcissism such as devaluing others (assigning exaggerated negative qualities about them) and having entitlement rage (lashing out when you don't get what you think you deserve) are associated with violent behaviour.

Women who exhibit these features to a higher extent are more likely to be shamefully dependent on others to provide admiration. As a result, they are more likely to respond violently in an attempt to regulate their self-esteem and gain positions of power.

For women, recalling having a caring mother during childhood was associated with reduced levels of vulnerable narcissism and subsequent perpetration of violence toward their partner. This suggests there may be buffers that can be acknowledged and integrated into intervention programmes.

Spotting narcissistic women

Despite longstanding evidence portraying narcissistic men as more violent than women, our research shows that narcissistic women are not only verbally aggressive, as commonly portrayed in studies, but also physically violent towards their partner.

Despite this, the manner in which narcissistic women abuse others may not be recognised as stereotypically narcissistic. Instead, they may use their feminine identity to leverage societal expectations of women as being nurturing and passive.

This might include exploiting their perceived victimhood to gain positions of power and control. Insidious tactics may include making threats of (false) allegations of abuse, withholding intimacy and affection, exploiting their motherhood to turn their children against their partner, and physically assaulting their partner and blaming it on self-defence to gain sympathy from legal authorities.

Our research challenges the stereotype that women are always the victims in abusive relationships. This balanced understanding promotes a more nuanced view of relational dynamics and gender roles in intimate relationships. By investigating features of narcissism in women, we can better recognise and unmask their true nature.

The Conversation

The authors do not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and have disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

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