Dr. Brené Brown's Definition of a Narcissist

Dr. Brené Brown is a renowned writer, academic, and expert in human vulnerability. She recently shared her definition of a narcissist. She defined it as a shameful personality disorder. We explain her reasoning.
Dr. Brené Brown's Definition of a Narcissist
Valeria Sabater

Written and verified by the psychologist Valeria Sabater.

Last update: 07 June, 2023

A narcissist is more than an irritating stone in your shoe. They’re not only the kind of people who disrupt your daily routines. They’re figures that are really difficult to understand, no matter how hard you try. In fact, if you have a narcissistic father, mother, boss, or partner in your life, you’ll probably never stop wondering what motivates them.

Today, some people consider narcissism to be fashionable. For example, they assume that the power of the media and social media is creating a more individualistic generation. However, studies don’t support this theory, at least not without pointing out certain important nuances.

There’s also another inherent reality. We often tend to label merely selfish characteristics as narcissistic behaviors. For this reason, we need to define and understand exactly what narcissistic personality disorder is like and what orchestrates it.

Dr. Brené Brown is a big name in the field of psychology and research. She recently provided some interesting insights on this topic.

Dr. Brené Brown defines narcissism as a shame-based fear of being ordinary.

Girl teasing partner to represent that Brené Brown defines narcissists that way
Narcissists can inhabit any social setting.

Dr. Brené Brown’s definition of a narcissist

Dr. Brown became really well known after giving a rather surprising TED talk on vulnerability. Since then, she’s published many successful books. She’s a professor at the University of Houston and her works on vulnerability, empathy, courage, and shame are outstanding.

Recently, she appeared on the podcast of another bestselling author and skill-building expert, Tim Ferris. The goal of his program was to update, discuss, and better understand the anatomy of narcissistic personality disorder. After all, this is a reality that has a tendency to affect the majority of us in one way or another. What’s more, many of us have to deal with emotional wounds caused by these kinds of personalities.

Let’s explore the ideas that emerged from this interesting discussion.

In narcissism there’s little self-esteem and self-love. Instead, it hides a lingering sense of inferiority and shame that sufferers must compensate for at all costs, via grandiosity.

Narcissism, the most shameful of all personality disorders

An idea often reinforced about narcissism is that the condition is fueled by large doses of self-love. But, this vision doesn’t always conform to reality. In fact, Dr. Brené Brown argues that one of the most natural inclinations of narcissistic individuals is shame.

Narcissistic personality disorder is driven by grandiosity, by the need to appear resolute, perfect, and functional. However, this craving hides large amounts of self-hatred. Narcissists need, so to speak, to revert to their golden suit of armor to camouflage the feelings of insignificance inside them.

Indeed, Dr. Brown insists that the narcissist feels great shame and fear. Moreover, at all costs, they seek to avoid appearing ordinary. They’re desperate to wear a crown on their head, even if it means trampling over others and invalidating as many as they can to gain the upper hand.

Narcissists are made of fears

Clearly, most of us find it difficult to link narcissists with the emotion of fear. But, this personality disorder is, indeed, conditioned by the weight of infinite fears and insecurities. In this regard, research conducted by the University of Gerona (Spain) claims that narcissists don’t hesitate in laughing at others, but they’re actually terrified of being laughed at themselves.

Narcissists who display vulnerable traits fear the following actions:

  • Criticism.
  • Rejection.
  • Making mistakes.
  • Going unnoticed.
  • Appearing incompetent.
  • Not being the center of attention.
Dr. Brené Brown also defines narcissists as individuals with large doses of raw fear and shame

The flaw of a narcissist lies in not accepting their vulnerability

One of Dr. Brené Brown’s most remarkable books is The Power of Vulnerability: Teachings on Authenticity, Connection, and Courage (2012). Its central premise is that as social beings we’re oriented toward bonding and interaction. Thus, our relationships could improve if we worked on the dimension of vulnerability.

In fact, Brown claims that the ability to accept and exhibit our vulnerability builds more humane and nurturing relationships. From this framework, we can be more authentic with others. We’re able to express what we need, can be more sincere, and have better tools to connect with each other with respect, empathy, and humanity.

Her book also addresses the topic of narcissistic personality disorder. She claims that individuals with this trait are ashamed of their vulnerability and dress it up with aggressive behavior. They seek to have power with which they can silence their fears. Furthermore, they overwhelm and humiliate others in an instrumental way to appease their own insecurities and buried shame.

“Want to be happy? Stop trying to be perfect.”

-Brené Brown-

Couple arguing to represent that Brené Brown defines narcissists that way
The narcissist is ashamed of themselves. In addition, they need to have power over others to strengthen their ego.

Final note

Dr. Brené Brown’s definition of a narcissist is an individual who’s constantly dealing with the feeling of shame. They’re also obsessed with success, having power over others, and being a shining beacon that turns off the light of everyone around them.

Dr. Brown’s innovative ideas reaffirm the image and anatomy of one of the most hostile and problematic presences in society today. Indeed, they’re often found both in the workplace and at home. For this reason, we often find ourselves asking how we should interact and deal with them. 

In reality, we can’t always distance ourselves from these kinds of people. Therefore, if it isn’t possible to completely break with them, we must ensure that their effect on us is as minimal as possible. The gray rock strategy is one of the most interesting.

This consists of not responding to the narcissist’s behavior or challenging them, or giving any value to their words. It implies being cold and distant before those who want to control us. Moreover, it means knowing how to set boundaries and not give in to or reinforce any of their demands. Remember, narcissists thrive on what others give them, so we must withdraw what they crave most: our attention and validation.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

  • Blasco-Belled, Ana & Rogoza, Radosław & Alsinet, Carles. (2022). Vulnerable narcissism is related to the fear of being laughed at and to the joy of laughing at others. Personality and Individual Differences. 190. 11153610.1016/j.paid.2022.111536.
  • Brown. Brené (2016) El poder de ser vulnerables: ¿Qué te atreverías a hacer si el miedo no te paralizara? (2016). Urano. https://clea.edu.mx/biblioteca/files/original/fd45b5869c49eb7c555fdfa11aaf9b26.pdf
  • Cain, N. M., Pincus, A. L., & Ansell, E. B. (2008). Narcissism at the crossroads: phenotypic description of pathological narcissism across clinical theory, social/personality psychology, and psychiatric diagnosis. Clinical psychology review28(4), 638–656. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cpr.2007.09.006
  • Zajenkowski, M., Maciantowicz, O., Szymaniak, K & Urban P. (2018). Vulnerable and grandiose narcissism are differentially associated with ability and trait emotional intelligence. Front. Psychol, 9. https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyg.2018.01606/full

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.