High sensitivity is typically viewed as a positive trait, while narcissism is viewed as a wholly negative trait. Yet a pair of studies published in the Journal of Clinical Psychology suggests that the characteristics of highly sensitive people and vulnerable narcissists share substantial overlap.
The studies were conducted by researcher Emanuel Jauk and his colleagues, who were intrigued by the apparent similarity between certain features of high sensitivity and narcissism. The term “highly sensitive person” was coined by Elaine Aron in 1996 The construct describes people who have an increased sensitivity to sensory stimulation and are more easily overwhelmed by stimuli. People with high sensitivity tend to view the trait as both a blessing and a curse — while high sensitivity gives them unique abilities, it also makes navigating society a challenge since they have different needs.
“A number of people identify with being ‘highly sensitive,” said Jauk, a researcher and clinical psychologist at the Medical University of Graz. “While the concept is certainly appealing as it provides a biologically-oriented explanation for the respective aspects of one’s personality and emphasizes their adaptive qualities, identifying as highly sensitive might also stand in opposition to personal growth in certain aspects.”
Jauk and his team proposed that this sense that one is different than others may lead highly sensitive people to feel they are special and deserving of special treatment. These features, the authors said, call to mind two fundamental characteristics of narcissism — entitlement and self-importance. Moreover, the vulnerable facet of narcissism involves a sensitivity to social stimuli which resembles the sensitivity to external stimuli seen among highly sensitive people.
“Contents of online forums as well as clinical experience suggest that those who consider themselves highly sensitive might also display self-regulatory mechanisms which are characteristic of hypersensitive narcissism, or more generally vulnerable narcissism,” Jauk told PsyPost.
In a pair of studies, the researchers explored whether the constructs of high sensitivity and vulnerable narcissism share common characteristics. Two separate samples of 280 adults from Germany and 310 adults from the United Kingdom completed online questionnaires that assessed various personality characteristics as well as psychological and somatic symptoms.
Both samples completed the Highly Sensitive Person Scale (HSPS) which assessed participants’ tendency to feel overwhelmed (ease of excitation), sensitivity to external stimuli (low sensory threshold), and sensitivity to aesthetic value (aesthetic sensitivity). They also completed two measures of vulnerable narcissism via the Hypersensitive Narcissism Scale (HSNS) and the Brief Pathological Narcissism Inventory (B-PNI).
In both studies, high sensitivity was positively correlated with hypersensitive narcissism and vulnerable narcissism. In particular, the ease of excitation factor was most strongly tied to the two measures of narcissism. There was also evidence that high sensitivity shares the entitlement that is characteristic of narcissism.
In Study 2, overall HSPS scores were tied to vulnerable-based entitlement, as were the ease of excitation and low sensory threshold factors. “This likely indicates that highly sensitive individuals, to some extent, hold an attitude of ‘I am fragile, so I deserve to avoid any discomfort’, similar to those who display hypersensitive narcissism,” the authors wrote.
Again in both studies, high sensitivity and narcissism shared ties to neuroticism and introversion, and neuroticism explained a large part of the covariance between the two traits. Both traits were also linked to greater symptoms of psychological distress and a higher likelihood of mental health diagnoses.
“Our study showed that high sensitivity and hypersensitive narcissism are not the same thing, but they do have significant overlaps,” Jauk told PsyPost. “In particular, they do share self-regulatory mechanisms which likely counteract personal growth in the long run. This is particularly true for individuals who show strong ease of excitation – a characteristic of high sensitivity which circumscribes irritability by external stimulation, paired with an attitude that discomfort must be avoided.”
“One of the main suggestions for clinicians working with patients who consider themselves highly sensitive, or for readers who see aspects of high sensitivity in themselves, could be to critically evaluate aspects of a high sensitivity mindset with respect to the extent to which they really benefit the individual.”
The researchers said that their study is not an attempt to “pathologize” high sensitivity, but rather to study all aspects of high sensitivity and narcissism — including the favorable and unfavorable aspects.
“We wish to emphasize that we try to regard neither of the constructs as ‘pathological’ or ‘normal’ in nature, but instead try to study them as what they are – including more adaptive aspects alongside potentially more problematic ones,” Jauk explained. “We believe that only a perspective facing both desirable and undesirable qualities of one’s personality in an upfront manner allows for individual growth.”
A limitation of both studies was that personality traits were assessed using self-report questionnaires, which tend to be less accurate than clinical reports. The authors said that future research might try to gather outside reports in addition to self-reports, or even obtain behavioral data via experimental paradigms.
The study, “Do highly sensitive persons display hypersensitive narcissism? Similarities and differences in the nomological networks of sensory processing sensitivity and vulnerable narcissism”, was authored by Emanuel Jauk, Madita Knödler, Julia Frenzel, and Philipp Kanske.