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Narcissistic personality disorder is one diagnosis, but there are three distinct types of narcissists.
People with the disorder are categorized based on how they act and treat others.
Some experts say that identifying a person's type of narcissism can make relationships with them possible, but others say it's best to stay well clear.
To be diagnosed with narcissistic personality disorder, someone needs to express five of nine specific traits. People with the disorder are often characterized as having a lack of empathy, a grandiose view of themselves, and a need for admiration.
Many psychiatrists and therapists separate narcissists into three categories based on their actions: exhibitionist, closet, and toxic.
According to Elinor Greenberg, a therapist who wrote the book "Borderline, Narcissistic, and Schizoid Adaptations: The Pursuit of Love, Admiration, and Safety," a person's form of narcissism can depend on their upbringing.
Exhibitionist narcissists represent the stereotype
For example, exhibitionist — or grandiose — narcissists have the "look at me" mindset children often have.
Children generally can't conceive of their parents' problems, "so they don't have empathy that way," Greenberg said. "If you go through the stage with sufficient attention, then you grow out of it and get satisfied, and it's over."
But some people, she said, grow up in homes where children are encouraged to be narcissistic — for example, they may be told their family name makes them special and that they deserve success because it's "in your blood."
The exhibitionist is the stereotypical idea of a narcissist, said Shannon Thomas, a licensed clinical social worker who wrote "Healing from Hidden Abuse."
"They think they're amazing — they think themselves to be smarter, better-looking, more powerful than other people, and they pretty much believe it," she told Business Insider. "Even with their friends and peers, they believe themselves to be one step up."
Exhibitionist narcissists don't tend to be insecure, Thomas said. When they aren't bragging about themselves, they're putting down everyone else. They are often carelessly rude and cruel about people and tend to ignore or not even notice how others react to it.
Closet narcissists have different personas
Some people with narcissistic personality disorder may have grown up with another narcissist in the family competing with or discouraging them, Greenberg said, and they may give approval only when they are worshipped.
Closet — or covert — narcissists want to be special but are conflicted about it. Like exhibitionists, closet narcissists also feel incredibly entitled, but they are also much more insecure.
"A closet narcissist doesn't say, 'I am special,'" Greenberg said. "They point to something else — a person, a religion, a book, a dress designer — and they are special, so they feel special by association."
She added: "When someone feels special because they have a designer thing on and other people can tell, that's special by association. For closet narcissists, they usually have self-doubt, and they are looking for the person they can idealize."
They also tend to behave in a much more passive-aggressive way. For instance, they are likely to set their romantic partners up for frustration all the time. They may say they will do something but not do it, then get a kick out of other people's reactions.
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"They do what they want to do when they want to do it," Thomas said. "And then they make themselves look like the victim."
Constantly saying one thing and doing another can make people close to a closet narcissist feel gaslighted, where they start to question reality and feel as if they're going crazy. The closet narcissist may start blaming their partner for things they didn't do, but the partner can end up believing it because their sense of the world has become so warped.
Whereas exhibitionist narcissists' behavior is fairly consistent, closet narcissists have different personas. They tend to act differently in certain situations — they may be charismatic and kind in public but abusive and cruel when they are with just their partner, who may feel even more confused.
Toxic narcissists crave chaos and destruction
Toxic — or malignant — narcissists take it a step further. Not only do they want the attention, but they also want everyone else to feel inferior. They tend to be sadistic and enjoy hurting other people, thriving on their fear.
"The toxic narcissist is like the evil queen in 'Snow White,'" Greenberg said. "When the mirror says Snow White is prettier than her, she decides to kill Snow White and keep her heart in a box."
Toxic narcissists find it entertaining to set people up and watch them fall, something Thomas calls an extra layer of sadistic behavior.
"It's bordering on that antisocial personality disorder coming out of narcissistic personality," she said. "Folks who are perfectly fine destroying careers of other people, basically fine with just imploding people emotionally, physically, and spiritually."
There tends to be a lot of chaos around a toxic narcissist, Thomas said, because they enjoy it and thrive on feeling that they have created havoc for someone else.
"Harmony is not their goal," she said. "We're worn out by it, but they actually gain energy through it. That's why we see them spinning different issues and different dramas with people. They always say, 'I hate drama,' but they're in the center of it every time."
Relationships with narcissists can be risky
People with narcissistic personality disorder lack object constancy, meaning that, for example, when they are angry with a partner, they can't see that in the context of the relationship and tend to display only hatred or a desire to hurt the partner.
This can make relationships with narcissists — whether romantic, familial, or professional — very draining.
Greenberg says it may be possible to maintain a relationship with a narcissist if you identify their type and how they function. Many relationship experts, however, say it's best to stay away altogether.
In the long run, it's your decision, but it's worth reading beforehand about what you may be getting yourself into.