Are You Being Drained By a Vulnerable Narcissist?

I recently learned the term vulnerable narcissist for people who drain you of all your energy, after spending years calling people who exhibit the same traits emotional vampires. I don’t think vulnerable narcissism is actually a diagnostic label, but it certainly does work well for us lay-people.

Vulnerable narcissists, I’ve learned, are sometimes also referred to as covert narcissists. As my understanding of the term evolves, I am beginning to see vulnerable narcissists more as a sub-category of covert narcissists. They share similar traits, but have some unique characteristics that set them apart.

As the name implies, vulnerable narcissists use their stories of pain and trauma as a way to emotionally drain, manipulate, and control the people around them. They are the types who constantly have conflict with others and drama all around them. They tend to view the world as unfair, believing that the things that happen to them are categorically worse and of a different kind than those that happen to other people. Pity is their currency, and they want to withdraw every penny in your bank account.

There are a few common traits among vulnerable narcissists:

They are demanding and feel entitled to other people’s time and energy.

Vulnerable narcissists use the people around them for supply, and they expect access to that supply whenever they want it. Telling them no or being too busy to listen to their drama will often elicit a temper tantrum.

They depict themselves as perpetual victims.

It’s difficult to tell if they actually believe they are victims of every circumstance and relationship in their life, or if they just need everyone else to believe it. Either way, they have a constant victim narrative that depicts everyone around them as abusers, bad people, and ironically, narcissists.

They weaponize their “pain” to emotionally manipulate others.

These are the folks you typically see putting their phones on their tripods, turning on their ring lights, and crying dramatically into the camera to post online or send to the group chat. They are eager to make other people feel pity or sympathy, and they will keep escalating their drama until they get it.

They are reactive, defensive, and accusatory.

There is no world in which the vulnerable narcissist can be the one in the wrong, and they are going to make sure you know it. Sharing your own needs, wants, or disappointments in how the vulnerable narcissist treats you will result in an argument at best, and a smear campaign and character assassination at worst. They will twist the story any way they need to in order to suit their narrative.

They are oblivious to everyone else’s needs and humanity.

Although some vulnerable narcissists may be able to cosplay joint attention and mutual regard for a time, it isn’t something they can truly give. Even when they are listening to someone else, they are thinking about how to derail the conversation back to themselves and their own pain.

They have heard this about themselves before.

Vulnerable narcissists tend to have a long list of former lovers and friends who they don’t speak to anymore because those people confronted them about their self-centered and emotionally manipulative ways. Being unable to see themselves as anything apart from the victim, they will discard those people and move on to a new supply.

It’s important to note that anybody, at any time, could demonstrate one or even several of these traits. Real, genuine, and authentic pain and trauma can cause people to behave in these ways for a moment or a season. Those people deserve compassion, within reason, and patience as they navigate their difficult feelings. But if you’re like me, you’ve probably known your fair share of folks who make these traits their entire personality. Pity is an addiction—a supply they cannot live without. If someone is showing a prolonged and systemic pattern of this type of behavior, it’s possible they’re a vulnerable narcissist.

As you navigate your relationship with the vulnerable narcissist, you must not let your pity become their main source of supply. If you are an empathic person, a natural care-taker and nurturer, you need to be especially wary. Vulnerable narcissists are drawn to people like you because they know you have an abundant supply to give them. Be on the lookout for the red flags listed above. When you see a pattern of that type of behavior, consider creating some distance from them. You don’t have to cut them out of your life if they aren’t doing you real harm. You can create distance and set emotional boundaries. Furthermore, you can choose to invest less time than you did before. Establishing boundaries with the vulnerable narcissist early on may prevent them from seeing you as a potential source for their supply.

Try to remember that even narcissists and people with narcissistic traits are wounded people, too. Narcissistic tendencies are often born from trauma that has gone unresolved. Try to remember their humanity and show grace and compassion, as best you can, while doing everything in your power to protect your peace and energy.

Amber Wardell is a doctor of psychology and author who speaks on women’s issues related to marriage, motherhood, and mental health. Subscribe to the free newsletter to get exclusive content delivered to your inbox and to never miss an upload.

Check out her blog called Compassionate Feminism on Psychology Today to join a feminist conversation centered in openness, empathy, and equity.

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