3 types of narcissism and how they affect behavior, according to mental-health experts

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  • Narcissism, which is characterized by an extreme sense of self-importance and entitlement, exists on a spectrum.

  • People with the most extreme form, narcissistic personality disorder, develop their behaviors to cope as children.

  • Vulnerable and grandiose narcissists could be more difficult to spot, say experts.

When someone refers to a narcissist, they may conjure up images of an always-dramatic and attention-seeking ex, or a manipulative former friend or parent. But not every narcissist looks, thinks, and acts in the same way.

While most people fall on the narcissistic spectrum to some degree, some have full-blown narcissistic personality disorder, where their sense of self-importance and tendency to be hyper-critical impacts all or most of their relationships. An estimated 6% of the population is diagnosed with narcissistic personality disorder, or NPD.

In addition to NPD, a mental-health diagnosis only trained professionals can give, experts have pinpointed two other distinct types of narcissism, grandiose narcissism and vulnerable narcissism.

People who fall into these categories have "a failure of a healthy sense of self" that leads to an over-inflated sense of self-importance, Dr. Elizabeth G. Loran, assistant professor of medical psychology at Columbia University Medical Center in New York City, told Health.com. Within each category, however, how they exhibit their sense of entitlement, obsession with self, and need for adoration may differ.

Grandiose narcissists tend to be likable, successful, and take-charge

People who exhibit grandiose narcissism tend to be charming and well-liked leaders.

"These individuals tend to be more successful in life than the majority of the population because they strive to be more attractive, healthier, and more successful versions of themselves," Paul Hokemeyer, psychotherapist and author of "Fragile Power: Why Having Everything Is Never Enough," told Health.com.

For them, their external successes are proof they're better than others and should take on a leadership role, Health.com reported. At the same time, grandiose narcissists will do anything they can to conceal their negative qualities, or information that could make others dislike them.

Often, celebrities and politicians show signs of grandiose narcissism, according to W. Keith Campbell, a professor of psychology at the University of Georgia and author of "The New Science of Narcissism: Understanding One of the Greatest Challenges of Our Time — and What You Can Do About It."

Hokemeyer told Health.com that grandiose narcissists tend to fall into one of two categories. Adaptive narcissists use warmth and friendliness to persuade others into getting what they want, while maladaptive narcissists gravitate towards hostility and anger to exploit people around them.

Vulnerable narcissists want to be the center of attention, but don't seek it out

Unlike the grandiose, vulnerable narcissists don't assert their entitlement in obvious ways. Instead, a vulnerable narcissist "thinks they deserve special treatment, but isn't aggressive in getting their needs met," Campbell told Health.com.

For example, a vulnerable narcissist will stand in the corner alone at a party, wishing people would notice them and give the special treatment and admiration they deserve, Campbell told Health.com. He said this thinking is a way for a vulnerable narcissist to feel better about themself.

They become irritated when they're not noticed, but remain passive and withdrawn, according to Campbell.

Narcissistic personality disorder is the most extreme form and develops early in life

Last, the most extreme and "classic" form of narcissism is narcissistic personality disorder.

Like all personality disorders, NPD is developed in childhood as a coping mechanism for extreme trauma. People with NPD may come from families where their childhood caretaker was suffocating or neglectful.

As adults, people with NPD apply their exaggerated self-importance to their relationships to subconsciously protect from feeling criticized or abandoned.

"These individuals are self-absorbed, manipulative, and exploitative in relationships. They lack compassion and empathy and believe they're superior to everyone and everything around them," Hokemeyer told Health.com.

Deep down, people with NPD have very low self-esteem.

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