Some narcissists don’t have an “I’m better than you” swagger. They harbor feelings of vulnerability that can make them more prone to unexpected bursts of aggression.
Understanding the relationship between envy and narcissism may offer insight into these potentially dangerous behaviors.
Because of an inflated sense of superiority, most narcissists are not likely to feel envy, says Zlatan Krizan, assistant professor of psychology at Iowa State University:
“They really buy into their own fantasy. If you think you’re the greatest, it makes sense that you wouldn’t envy others because everybody is beneath you, so there’s nothing to envy. It’s really the vulnerability that predicts envy and it predicts it very, very strongly.”
Grandiose and Vulnerable Narcissism
The study disputes existing theories that suggest envy is a core characteristic for those who are self-absorbed, arrogant, and exploitive.
The new work helps to better define the different dimensions of narcissism, what psychologists refer to as grandiose and vulnerable narcissism. Those who are more vulnerable show stronger feelings of envy.
“Narcissism is a more multifaceted construct than we believe,” Krizan says. “I think that’s an important point, because this public image of narcissism that most people have of this grandiose, dramatic individual is only one side of the coin.”
Krizan and Omesh Johar, a graduate student at Iowa State, surveyed nearly 200 undergraduate students and more than 150 adults to identify their feelings of envy and the frequency. Those identified as vulnerable had low self-esteem, were often distraught, anxious, and depressed.
“These individuals still think they’re special, entitled, and they want to be great, but they just can’t do it,” Krizan says. “As a result they’re vulnerable, their self-esteem fluctuates a lot, they tend to be self-conscious and not very proactive, but passive, shy, and introverted.”
Unexpected Outbursts of Aggression
When the feeling of envy is added to the mix, Krizan says, it can be a dangerous combination. Though vulnerable narcissists are not as overt in their behavior, they may be more prone to unexpected outbursts of aggression.
“It’s these vulnerable individuals who are in some sense more worrisome because they are quiet, sort of festering in anger out there in a corner. And it’s just a matter of time before they get frustrated and lash out and verbally assault somebody, maybe even an innocent party, because of some provocation that they felt,” Krizan says.
This becomes a concern when that anger turns to violence. The Columbine school shooting in 1999 is an example in which narcissism and envy were possible motivating factors. He points to the videotapes left behind by the two shooters as evidence.
“If you look at evidence that is often left over, in Columbine for example, you had those videos, these shooting escapades seem to be a kind of power grab by these individuals,” Krizan says.
“The tapes are also narratives, in which they are the person taking control, they’re the one in charge, and they will determine how things will go.”