Might the Dark Triad Personality Have a Vulnerable Side?

7 min read

When you think of people with Dark Triad personality traits, meaning that they are high on manipulativeness (Machiavellianism), narcissism (grandiosity), and psychopathy (lack of empathy), your first association might be to people who are both confident and strong. The overlap among these traits does suggest a certain rashness as well as a supreme belief in their own powers. However, just as there can be a vulnerable side to narcissism, can there also be weakness in some people with Dark Triad personalities?

Think about a boss you had or someone else who had power over you whose behavior was unscrupulous and seemingly driven by a desire to look better than you and everyone else they dominated. Even when they prevailed, however, they never seemed to take much pleasure in having come out on top. It’s possible you’ve been lucky enough not to have such a person in your life. However, you’ve got plenty of examples who demonstrate these qualities in fictional characters who, with others around, put on a front of self-aggrandizing power. At times when they are alone and voice their thoughts, they express a strong and enduring self-hatred. Clearly, there’s a disconnect between their outer presentation and inner turmoil. Although technically you might consider them exemplars of the dark triad, something about that inner turmoil doesn’t seem to fit all that neatly into this category.

Introducing the Vulnerable Dark Triad

Introduced more than 10 years ago (Miller et al., 2010), the concept of the vulnerable Dark Triad (VDT) has received far less attention than its showier counterpart. In a way, this lack of focus is similar to the fate that occurs to the “vulnerable narcissist.” After all, someone who is both evil but also inwardly weak just doesn’t have the same panache as the glib, attention-grabbing, charming but equally evil, psychopathic narcissist.

As pointed out by Université du Québec à Trois-Rivières psychologist Dominick Gamache and colleagues (2023), one of the problems in the scientific literature that has caused the VDT to lag behind the ordinary Dark Triad is a lack of sufficient documentation that it is a measurable entity. Prior research attempting to do so only partially took advantage of appropriate statistical methods, meaning that it could not gain traction to justify VDT’s existence. However, as Gamache and his fellow researchers note, the dark triad itself might reduce to what they call the “D” factor in personality. Rather than be limited to narcissism, psychopathy, and Machiavellianism, D could also incorporate such qualities as callousness, deceitfulness, vindictiveness, sadism, and entitlement.

Flipping over to the VDT, the original Miller et al. formulation proposed that it would be associated with borderline personality disorder, vulnerable narcissism, and the reckless and impulsive component of psychopathy, the part that gets people in trouble (e.g., being caught for illegal behavior). This pattern would fit the toxic people who torment both others and themselves. Even as they commit acts that are antisocial in nature, they are eaten away on the inside by feelings that they are weak failures.

All of this is part of a general effort by personality researchers to move beyond the categories of personality disorders cataloged in the psychiatric diagnostic system known as the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM)-5-TR. Being able to zone in on the clusters of underlying traits that become expressed in various behavior patterns would have important implications for understanding and treating people whose lives are so negatively affected by long-term disturbances in ways of thinking, behaving, and relating to others.

Testing the VDT’s Profile

With the background of Miller and colleagues’ approach to identifying the VDT, the Canadian authors sought to expand the statistical rigor of tests used to determine whether it indeed hangs together as a construct. Beyond this measurement aspect of their research, Gamache et al. then tested whether VDT scores would relate to external, so-called “criterion” variables including the DSM-5-TR‘s “alternate” model for personality disorders (negative affectivity, detachment, antagonism, disinhibition, and psychoticism), and self-reports of aggression. With their online sample of more than 1,000 French-Canadian adults (average age 39 years), the authors used a variety of personality measures intended to test VDT’s internal structure and its relation to those external criteria.

Turning to the results, there ended up being two dimensions to the VDT. One of these related most strongly to borderline personality disorder, with the strongest contributors to this dimension including self-hatred, self-punishment, feelings of worthlessness, and the belief that one has no right to be alive. This general factor included such other qualities as inner tension, shame, mood cycling, meaninglessness, fascination with death, and self-disgust.

Forming the second dimension of the VDT were three qualities that the authors labeled “reckless” (lack of premeditation, always getting in trouble, and venting frustrations), “entitled” (avoiding ungrateful others, wanting to get all that is deserved), and “hiding” (feeling weak for relying on others, feeling shame or anxiety over one’s needs).

Dark Triad Essential Reads

Reverting back to a classic concept in the study of personality of “p” for “general psychopathology,” the authors believe that their findings “point to the role of a profound self-hatred, arguably rooted in negative self-representations imbued with hostility and aggression.” However, because the first factor was heavily weighted toward borderline personality disorder qualities, the findings also show that the VDT should be seen as separate from this disorder. As the authors state, “borderline pathology may be quite unique among PD’s in how it can be defined as a pathology in self- and other-representation.”

Using the VDT Knowledge to Your Benefit

Apart from the somewhat technical features of this study, particularly in showing that borderline personality disorder can be distinguished from vulnerable narcissism (a matter of clinical and academic debate), you can now see that those people you only thought of as evil in an obvious type of way may not be quite as smooth on the inside as they are on the outside. Some live with feelings of shame, and some commit acts that make their lives worse. Maybe these are the bosses who not only try to push their weight around to get ahead but also conduct lengthy inner soliloquies about how much of a failure they are. They don’t dare ask for help because this will confirm their feelings of frailty.

Knowing that this is the case might give you some insight into how to manage those people high on VDT traits who aren’t just fictional characters but the people you have to interact with. You can feel better about yourself, even if these people seem intent on nothing but making your life worse.

Because borderline pathology also factored into the general “p” quality that the research team identified, you can also realize that you might be dealing with someone whose outer grandiosity is simply a very breakable shell roiling with inner doubts and the feeling that they’re not worthy of being alive. This, again, can help you feel stronger as you seek to put your own self-esteem on higher ground.

To sum up, knowing that the Dark Triad may have a vulnerable counterpart can give you a new way of looking at the people whose behavior seems to be based on a foundation of dominance, manipulativeness, certainty, and self-satisfaction. Turning their vulnerability into your strength can help you find your own brighter path to fulfillment.

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