To be diagnosed with narcissistic personality disorder, someone needs to express five of nine different traits. Most commonly, they are characterised as having a lack of empathy, a grandiose sense of themselves, and a need for admiration.
Although many narcissists can follow similar patterns, such as love bombing their partners, gaslighting, and then finally discarding people they no longer have a use for, they can also behave in very different ways.
Their actions largely depend on what type of narcissist they are. Many psychiatrists and therapists separate narcissists into three distinct types: Exhibitionist, closet, and toxic.
According to therapist Elinor Greenberg, author of “Borderline, Narcissistic, and Schizoid Adaptations: The Pursuit of Love, Admiration and Safety,” different forms of narcissism can depend on someone’s upbringing.
Exhibitionist narcissists are just like the stereotype
For example, exhibitionist – or grandiose – narcissists have the “look at me” mindset children often have. Most children don’t conceive of their parents’ problems, but then they grow up.
“[Children] can’t even conceive of their problems, so they don’t have empathy that way,” Greenberg said. “If you go through the stage with sufficient attention, then you grow out of it, and get satisfied and it’s over.”
But some people, she said, grow up in homes where children are encouraged to be narcissistic. For example, being told your family name makes you special, and you deserve success because it’s “in your blood.”
Shannon Thomas, a licensed clinical social worker and author of “Healing from Hidden Abuse,” told Business Insider that the exhibitionist is the stereotypical idea of a narcissist.
“They think they’re amazing, they think themselves to be smarter, better looking, more powerful than other people, and they pretty much believe it,” she said. “Even with their friends and peers, they believe themselves to be one step up.”
Exhibitionist narcissists don’t tend to be insecure at all, Thomas said. When they aren’t spending time bragging about themselves, exhibitionist narcissists are putting down everyone else. They will often be carelessly rude and cruel about people, and tend to ignore or not even notice how people react to it.
Closet narcissists have different personas
Greenberg said some narcissists may have grown up being actively discouraged by another narcissist in the family. They cannot compete with them, and will only give approval when they are being worshipped.
This can cause the closet, or covert, narcissist – people who want to be special, but are conflicted about it. Like exhibitionists, closet narcissists are also incredibly entitled, but they are also much more insecure.
“A closet narcissist doesn’t say ‘I am special,’ they point to something else, a person, a religion, a book, a dress designer, and they are special, so they feel special by association,” Greenberg said.
“When someone feels special because they have a designer thing on and other people can tell, that’s special by association. For closet narcissists, they usually have self-doubt, and they are looking for the person they can idealise.”
They also tend to behave in a much more passive-aggressive way. For instance, if they are with a romantic partner, they will set them up for frustrations all the time. They will say they will do something, only to not do it. They also get a kick out of how that makes other people react.
“They do what they want to do when they want to do it,” Thomas said. “And then they make themselves look like the victim.”
Constantly saying one thing and doing another can make their partners feel like they are going crazy. This is called gaslighting, where the victim starts to question reality. The closet narcissist might start blaming their partner for things they didn’t do, but the partner ends up believing it because their sense of the world has become so warped.
Whereas an exhibitionist narcissist is fairly similar most of the time, closet narcissists have different personas. They tend to act differently in public versus in private. This can be even more confusing for their victims, because they will see someone charismatic and kind in public, then someone abusive and cruel when they are alone.
Toxic narcissists crave chaos and destruction
Toxic, or malignant, narcissists take it a step further. Not only do they want the attention, they also want everyone else to feel inferior. They are sadistic and enjoy hurting other people, thriving off their fear.
“The toxic narcissist is like the evil queen in Snow White,” Greenberg said. “When the mirror says Snow White is prettier than her, she decides to kill Snow White and keep her heart in a box.”
Thomas calls it an extra layer of sadistic behaviour, because toxic narcissists find it entertaining to set people up and watch them fall.
“It’s bordering on that anti-social personality disorder coming out of narcissistic personality,” she said. “Folks who are perfectly fine destroying careers of other people, basically fine with just imploding people emotionally, physically, and spiritually.”
Thomas added that there tends to be a lot of chaos around a toxic narcissist. This is because they enjoy it, and they thrive off the feeling they have created havoc for someone else.
“Harmony is not their goal,” she said. “We’re worn out by it but they actually gain energy through it. That’s why we see them spinning different issues, and different dramas with people. They always say ‘I hate drama,’ but they’re in the centre of it every time.”
If you want to take the risk, it’s up to you
Ultimately, all types of narcissists lack object constancy, meaning when they are angry with you, they can’t see that in the context of your relationship. If they are mad about something you did, all you will see is their hatred for you, and their wish to hurt you.
This makes relationships with narcissists very draining, whether you’re in a romantic relationship with them, are related to them, or work with them.
According to Greenberg, it might be possible to maintain a relationship with a narcissist if you identify their type, and work out how they function. However, many relationship experts say the best thing is to stay away altogether. In the long run, it is your decision, but it’s worth reading about what you’re getting yourself into beforehand.