In August 2022, I wrote a post strongly questioning an article saying that high sensitivity (HS) can “overlap” with vulnerable narcissism (as opposed to the grandiose form). Scott Barry Kaufman wrote a good post on this too. Vulnerable narcissists are a relatively new conception, a category of narcissists born from the observation that they are highly focused on themselves—"Am I good enough?” and all that—to the point that they fail to consider what others are feeling. It can make anyone seem selfish or callous if their only thought seems to be, “What do you think of me? How am I doing?” Or, “Wow, congratulations—I wish I were that good.”
While there was some truth to the possibility that HSPs could also sometimes have these tendencies, the article implied a basic similarity between high sensitivity and narcissism in its use of the term “overlap” (referring to the fact that on a questionnaire, both HSPs and vulnerable narcissists will be somewhat likely to say yes to a few particular items, such as “I worry that I am not good enough.”). This idea of an overlap ignores where there is no overlap in basic aspects–for example the strong empathy characteristic of HSPs and the lack of it in all varieties of narcissism.
Recently Scientific American covered the research on narcissism, both the grandiose and new vulnerable type (not mentioning HSPs of course). It was then that I realized there is a far better way to separate normal HS from vulnerable narcissism, based on the fundamental nature of narcissism that none of the researchers are seeing.
I believe narcissism is basically a problem of being obsessed by ranking. You will immediately get this, I think, if you understand ranking and linking from reading any of the places I have discussed it (for example, my book The Undervalued Self or my previous post here). But for those of you who do not see the connection, I will review the idea in light of narcissism.
Reviewing Ranking and Linking
Like other social animals, we constantly rank ourselves among others—comparing, competing, or after enough of that, just “knowing our place." If you bring a treat to a group of horses, dogs, monkeys, or giraffes—any social animal living in a group–you will immediately know who the alpha is. He or she gets the treat and the others back off. It can be more subtle among humans, but often not much. In any group, we know everyone else’s rank in the social hierarchy, while trying to maintain or maybe raise our own. (What you rank others on depends on you and the particular group—it could be kindness, popularity, income, social skills, etc., not just tennis playing or Scrabble scores.)
Ranking is automatic and very useful. Imagine every day having to figure out at work who’s best at each job, including President. When ranking is settled and clear it saves energy, and limits fighting, and the resulting woundss. Of course, it can be fun to compete and even more fun to win. The trouble with ranking is being challenged, because at some point we all experience defeat. That’s why we mostly like rankings to be stable.
Just as often, however, we engage in our other social instinct: linking. Social animals have friends, too. If you watch them in groups, there are certain specific ones they hang around. In humans, linking means liking or loving certain others, so that we want to be near them, get to know them, and meet their needs if we can. Obviously linking brings far more comfort and pleasure, and although I have no data on it, in general HSPs especially seem to prefer to link.
What Goes Wrong?
The reason I wrote The Undervalued Self was that I realized as a therapist that although patients came in wanting closeness, connection, and to feel loved, they tended to think in terms of ranking, especially that they are not as good as others, do not deserve respect or caring, and, in relationships, cannot believe a partner really likes them. They feel the partner is too superior to them to actually care for them.
When someone suffers chronically from low self-esteem and depression, it is almost always due to having an insecure adult attachment style, learned in infancy. As children the love they received was inconsistent and contingent on certain behaviors, so they always had to be on guard to keep their caregivers loving them. As adults they can (but do not always) become vulnerable narcissists, focused solely on how they are being seen by others.
There is another insecure attachment style: being avoidantly insecure. These people learned as children to act like they do not care how the caregiver (usually neglectful or abusive) treated them. As adults they are the same way: determined not to care. That’s easy to do if you feel superior to everyone. These people can become grandiose narcissists, switching to the vulnerable type when they are unable to maintain enough admirers.
You can easily see how either type of insecure child can learn to see the social world only in terms of ranking. Anxious insecurity keeps the child one-down. The caregiver has all the power to bestow love or walk away. The avoidant type tries to be one-up by acting indifferent, by seeming to possess all the power to stay or leave. But beneath the bravado there is an even deeper insecurity.
All of this insecurity occurs in a family when there is not enough linking going on. Some ranking is always there. Caregivers always have more power—hopefully it is what I call power in the service of love, and wanting the other to grow into equality, and the child senses the love behind the boundaries or even criticism. Indeed, sensing no boundaries can make a child anxious. But some families are nothing but ranking. And constant praise for achievements is of course another way of saying, “Your high rank in the world is all that matters to me.” It is certainly a source of grandiose narcissism in many people.
What about those with a secure adult attachment style? It means you are confident that most people will like you and that you will like most people—that linking prevails in the world.
A preoccupation with ranking is not always from childhood. Blows to one’s ego happen in adulthood, too, again involving ranking, and can also cause low self-esteem, as when someone chooses to end a relationship with you or your business fails. But these are not usually as persistent as the effect of always experiencing ranking at home. It’s persistent ranking at home and at school, with little or no linking, that can lead to an obsession with ranking in adulthood—that is, to both kinds of narcissism.
Can Narcissism Be Innate?
The research on narcissism does find a small genetic component. Psychopathy, which is generally innate, involves an intense focus on ranking—that is, it is an extreme case of narcissism. For instance, rhesus monkeys, similar genetically to humans, can inherit an innate trait of heightened ranking behavior and aggressiveness. Males with the trait are often ostracized and generally do not live long. The trait endures because females inheriting the trait are dominant in the female group and so their offspring have all the resources they need, and some will have inherited the trait and pass it on.
What about vulnerable narcissism being innate? I doubt there is a gene pattern directly causing it, but it might develop in someone who inherits any characteristic that made them feel that others saw them as inferior (for example, a learning disability or being very short), so they grow up feeling constantly low in rank for that reason. But environment is also always a factor (in that case, parents and teachers might keep the child from feeling inferior). If you look into the family life of a narcissist, whether grandiose or vulnerable, you can usually see how they became obsessed with rank.
I think you can understand how all of this applies to HSPs. We are not innately narcissistic, and I think very few of us become vulnerable narcissists in the sense of losing all track of others’ needs and being callous or calculating. But we are strongly affected by our childhood environment through our innate “differential susceptibility.” If we are insecurely attached, we are likely to just try constantly to please others. True, in this case we could miss the cues of what others really need. Skilled linking requires knowing the other person, not just projecting onto them that they will like us if we try hard enough. But all of this hardly amounts to an “overlap” between HS and vulnerable narcissism.
A Word About Grandiose Narcissism
I believe grandiose narcissism is sometimes not due to childhood environment but created by acquiring a very high rank and influence over others as an adult—that is, having too much power. There is considerable research on how people, given power, will start to use it for their own advantage. Having power for long, they get used to having their own way. To most people in power, it feels good. They are changed by having power and become more narcissistic. (For a review of some of this work, see Keltner, D., Gruenfeld, D. H., & Anderson, C. (2003).) This applies to almost anyone—for example, research participants randomly assigned a role of power over others in an experiment. When taken to an extreme, we see political figures and spiritual leaders, to take two prime examples, sometimes horribly misuse their power financially or sexually. Very often they never would have thought of it until the door was left wide open and they just walked through it. But that is another subject. Mostly I just want to take this opportunity to remind you to try looking at the world, including narcissism, through this lens of ranking and linking. Even though most of the world’s problems are caused by ranking on a massive scale, very often some genuine linking, just a hug and some sympathy, works wonders. Love helps.
Kaufman, S.B. (2022, August 15). Is There a Link Between High Sensitivity and Narcissism? Psychology Today.
Kwon, D. (2023, September 1). What Is Narcissism? Science Confronts a Widely Misunderstood Phenomenon. Scientific American.
Keltner, D., Gruenfeld, D. H., & Anderson, C. (2003). Power, approach, and inhibition. Psychological Review, 110(2), 265.