In her engaging memoir, Lady in Waiting: My Extraordinary Life in the Shadow of the Crown, Anne Glenconner devotes many pages to the behaviour of her husband, Colin Tennant, later Baron Glenconner. His family’s vast wealth had been created in the 19th century from developing and selling bleach. She describes his frequent full-scale tantrums when he couldn’t get his own way, often involving lying in the foetal position on pavements, in theatres, or on one occasion in the aisle of a British Airways plane. In the plane incident, police were called and he was hauled off, crying, ‘Help me, Anne!’. He was barred for life from BA. He squandered the family fortune and bequeathed what was left of it to an employee, disinheriting his wife and children. He was rich, entertaining, ruthless, compulsively unfaithful, unable to sustain relationships – and wholly out of control.
Colin Tennant is an extreme example of behaviour that falls into the category of Vulnerable Narcissistic Disorder (VND). No exceptions: it starts in childhood where the overwhelming fear of the child, and later of the adult, is of abandonment. Colin Tennant suffered all the worst excesses of the parenting customs of his time and class: his care was delegated to an ever-changing series of paid helpers and boarding schools. He rarely saw his parents.
Underneath what may look like confidence and good humour, the person with VND is a mass of insecurities. They are tortured by anxiety, jealousy, resentment and hidden shame. They can cause mayhem.
What are the signs of Vulnerable Narcissism?
They reel you in with rapid love-bombing. The relationship starts with flattery and intense expressions of affection. The purpose is to create dependency.
Then it slowly turns to criticism – they are disappointed in you, it’s your fault. They need 100% devotion. Even the smallest reproach may provoke an angry response: how dare you! You are wrong!
They find it impossible to accept responsibility for their own problems.
They triangulate. To boost their fragile ego, the person with VND will recruit a third party. A coaching client described how her husband had tried to enrol her mother, texting her frequently, asking her act as referee in their disputes. A friend got drawn into an argument which became loud. He found himself accused, absurdly, of coercive control when his ex-partner called the police.
They gaslight. When you disagree or challenge, you are told that you are ‘abusive’ or have mental health problems.
They are consumed by anxiety which they manage through overt or covert attempts to control their environment and the people in it. They may punish with silence, blocking your texts and emails.
They are over-concerned with appearance and with external signs of approval. They may take many hours to set up the perfect picture for Instagram. A client in a senior role told me of his embarrassment that he and his wife were routinely more than an hour late for high profile public events because of her insistence on perfection in her make up and clothing, discarding many different outfits before reluctantly settling for one.
These people have never processed the rejection, neglect, hurt and blame they experienced as children. They may obsessively tell and retell stories of the imperfections of their parents. I could have recited with her word for word the tale from one late friend who constantly repeated the story of how, as a 10 year old, her abusive father had thrown the entire contents of her bedroom into their garden as a punishment for her untidiness.
People with VND can give way to abusive rants, technically described as Narcissistic Rage. They find it difficult to regulate their emotions. They may display melodramatic despair as well as uncontrolled anger when they hear something negative about themselves or cannot get what they want. They may vent on friends as often as they make violent verbal attacks on people providing services. Their rage conveys hatred; it is out of all proportion to the trigger. Later, they may deny it happened, may downplay its importance or say they were provoked – ‘you made me do it’. They typically minimise these incidents as ‘wobblies’, ‘justifiable anger’. or ‘my little blow ups’.
They lack close friends and complain of loneliness. People with VND know how to be charming so they have little problem initially attracting others. They can’t grow intimacy and trust because they display hostility when their unquenchable need for approval remains unsatisfied. Their lives are a trail of wrecked relationships.
They find it difficult to sustain employment. The person with VND shows anger at work just as they do at home. There is a limit to an employer’s tolerance, even when the employee is a high achiever with talent that the organisation needs. One such person, reluctantly submitting to my coaching, had difficulty in accepting that he was known to his team as ‘The Perp’. They may have a patchy attendance record since they frequently succumb to mysterious stomach bugs, flus, migraines, ME, back pain, depression and, more recently, Long Covid.
Vulnerable Narcissism conceals despair. When the narcissistic behaviour fails to get results, which, longer term it always does, the person with VND may sink into a suicidal depression, overwhelmed by shame. They may threaten suicide so often that others may not take them seriously, though this final flourish of anger, directed this time at themselves, may indeed result in their death.
Can People with Vulnerable Narcissism be helped by coaching or therapy?
Professional opinion varies on this. Someone close to the person with VND may propose therapy or coaching as a solution to their obvious misery.
An experienced psychotherapist described to me what typically happens:
‘The first few sessions are about convincing me of the awfulness of Mum and Dad. And I don’t need convincing. They truly do sound awful. They were cold, distracted, abusive, neglectful, drunk, smothering, rejecting, narcissistic, bullying – and so on. But when I offer the idea that childhood is not Fate, the connection between us begins to dissolve. I ask, very respectfully, “And what responsibility do you have for what’s happening in your life right now?” Usually that’s the last I see of them. Later I may hear from a mutual acquaintance that I was ‘not smart enough’, ‘lacked emotional intelligence’ ‘never spoke’, or ‘was too judgemental’.
The pivotal question is the one about change and responsibility. It can be terrifying to the person with VND that you need to take responsibility for the impact you have. Change may feel impossible.
My own experience is that you can sometimes work on behaviour which is the biggest threat to career or to an important relationship. The key is to assess how far the client shares this view and how willing they are to do something about it.
How do you cope with Vulnerable Narcissistic behaviour?
Recognise that this is what you are dealing with. We try being reasonable, we are forgiving when we are the focus of those terrifying rages. We hope it was just a blip. But when it becomes the dominant pattern the only thing to do is to face it.
We humans are more than our labels. The negative word ‘disorder’ troubles me. So many psychiatric diagnoses seem to combine vagueness with harsh judgement. Giving someone this label may in itself prevent them getting the help they need. It seems obvious to me that Vulnerable Narcissism is an adaptive response, a self-protective shield. VN is a spectrum like any other personality problem. It can be anywhere between mild and extreme.
Anne Glenconner stayed with her husband despite his multiple lapses from anything resembling good behaviour. She says she accepted ‘all of him’. If there is a person with VN in your life, you may love them. They may have other excellent qualities. You want to preserve the relationship. If so, your most important task is to set boundaries. It will not be acceptable to be the target of narcissistic rage. You will remove yourself if this is what happens. A client discussed with me how to do this with his sister. He did not want to lose her from his life but her late-night calls, often ending in shouting and crying, had become too much. They lived in different time zones. His message to her was, ‘I don’t answer my phone after 2230 our time. When we do talk, if you start screaming I will end the call; happy to resume when you feel calmer but only within 1000- 1700 my time’.
An apparently small disagreement may lead to a sudden explosion. Don’t get involved in the subject of the argument. Concentrate instead on the process: ‘I can’t talk to you while you’re so angry and upset’.
Ending the relationship: this could be painful, but sometimes it may be the best option when the other person’s behaviour is obnoxious and seems fixed. You are sorry, you do understand, but you accept that they may not be able to change. You know that you can’t change them because the only person we can ever be sure of changing is ourselves.