Covert Narcissism: The Quiet Counterpart to Narcissistic Personality

Closeup on face of woman, staring out into the distanceEven people without an extensive knowledge of mental health concerns have likely heard of narcissistic personality disorder (NPD), or narcissism, as it’s commonly called. The term “narcissist” is often used casually to refer to people who don’t necessarily have a diagnosis of narcissism if they appear to have some narcissistic traits, such as grandiose delusions, low empathy, arrogance, and a need for admiration.

Portrayals of characters with narcissism in movies and television have also increased the condition’s notoriety. While depicting characters with mental health issues in the media can help increase awareness, it can also create problems. In the case of narcissism, much of what’s seen in popular culture rests heavily on stereotypes associated with grandiose and malignant narcissism. If people with narcissism aren’t portrayed as outright villains, they’re typically portrayed as toxic or harmful individuals.

If you’ve had a close relationship with someone who has NPD, you might agree that many of these stereotyped traits have truth to them. Still, it’s important to recognize that NPD can occur in varying degrees of severity, occurs on a spectrum, and can present in different ways. As a result, you may not always recognize someone has narcissism, especially if they live with a less-known subtype such as covert (vulnerable) narcissism.

Covert narcissism is also known as shy, vulnerable, or closet narcissism.

Covert vs. Overt Narcissism

Covert narcissism is also known as shy, vulnerable, or closet narcissism. People with this subtype tend not to outwardly demonstrate arrogance or entitlement. Instead, they might put themselves down and seem anxious about what others think of them, rather than exuding charm or confidence. Other people may describe them as quiet and sensitive, especially to criticism.

Similarities between subtypes may become more evident with closer exploration of symptoms and feelings. People with overt narcissism generally seek attention outwardly and put themselves forward as superior. They might show patterns of exploitative or manipulative behavior that relate to a personal sense of entitlement and need for recognition.

Covert narcissism often involves a more internalized experience. People with these traits still feel unappreciated, need admiration, have contempt for those they consider inferior, and believe they should get special treatment. But instead of displaying outward grandiosity, they may privately fantasize about having their special qualities recognized or getting revenge on people they believe have slighted or wronged them in some way.

Signs of Covert Narcissism

Not every person with some or all of the listed traits will have any type of NPD, but the following characteristics may help identify covert narcissism in people who meet criteria for NPD.

  • A reserved or self-effacing attitude
  • Humility or a tendency to put themselves down
  • Smugness or quiet superiority
  • Passive-aggressive behavior
  • Envy of others and/or feeling that they deserve what other people have
  • A lack of empathy for the feelings or situations of other people
  • A tendency to step in and help others out of a desire for recognition

Narcissistic traits usually show up in all of a person’s relationships and interactions, but they might manifest in slightly different ways depending on the situation.

  • In parents: Parents may seem to prioritize their child’s needs and feelings and make sacrifices to ensure their child’s success. But these behaviors generally result from the desire to be the “best” or perfect parent and achieve recognition and admiration from others. Not receiving this recognition may lead to anger or self-pity. Parents with covert narcissism may also use guilt to manipulate children who attempt to claim some independence.
  • In the workplace: People with covert narcissism may feel superior to coworkers or supervisors, believe they’re the most intelligent or best at what they do, and harbor fantasies of being elevated above others. They may envy peers who do receive recognition, believing others don’t understand or appreciate them. This may contribute to interpersonal difficulties or subtle bullying.
  • Among friends: Friends may offer admiration and respect, and it’s common for people living with narcissism to manipulate others in order to get sympathy, support, or attention. People with narcissism don’t always completely lack empathy for the difficulties of others, but the empathy they can offer tends to be limited to what they’ve experienced themselves. They tend to feel neglected or rejected when they’re not getting the attention they feel they deserve, so they may try to bring every conversation back to them—but this may be done in less obvious ways.

Covert Narcissism and Relationships

Recognizing covert narcissism in a loved one may be more difficult than recognizing grandiose or malignant narcissism. Some people living with narcissism may function well in society and maintain romantic relationships without causing their partner distress. But it’s very common for partners of people with NPD, especially untreated NPD, to experience gaslighting, neglect, and manipulation.

Some common experiences include:

  • Lack of empathy from your partner
  • Passive-aggressive attempts to get your sympathy
  • Dismissiveness or contempt from your partner
  • Feeling controlled or belittled

Covert narcissism involves a high level of sensitivity, so your partner might take things you say as criticism, rejection, or personal attack. They might act as if you bore them and show disinterest in your emotions and experiences. It’s important to reach out to a therapist if you feel manipulated, neglected, or otherwise distressed as a result of your partner’s actions. Couples counseling may help in some instances, but it won’t work unless your partner wants to change. Individual therapy, however, can help you get support.

Covert Narcissism and Mental Health

According to 2015 research looking at the diagnostic and clinical challenges associated with narcissism, people often seek treatment for co-occurring mental health conditions rather than narcissism itself.

People with covert narcissism may be more likely to have anxiety or depression than people with other subtypes. Non-suicidal self-harm is also not uncommon, and people with covert narcissism often experience feelings of emptiness or low self-esteem that can contribute to suicidal ideation.

Treating narcissism can be difficult, since many people living with the condition never seek or want help. The stigma associated with narcissism can make it even more difficult to get help. Receiving messages like “narcissists are evil” and “narcissists can’t change” may discourage even those who do want to seek help from trying.

Like other personality disorders, narcissism involves a long-standing pattern of emotions and behavior that may not seem unusual to someone living with the condition. Because of this, people who have covert narcissism, or any NPD subtype, will probably seek treatment for a co-occurring mental health issue. A therapist who recognizes traits of narcissism may then be able to help a willing individual begin working to change problematic patterns of behavior.

Some therapies show particular promise in helping address NPD. Schema therapy and psychodynamic therapy are two approaches considered most helpful. Therapists who offer compassion, validation for negative emotional experiences, and empathy for distress may be able to help clients uncover reasons for their vulnerability and address problematic behaviors, which may lead to change. People with covert narcissism may do better in therapy than those with malignant narcissism, which is often characterized by manipulative and sadistic behavior.

It’s generally accepted in the mental health field that people who want to change can improve if they seek support and are willing to make an effort. If you’d like to seek support for yourself or a loved one, begin looking for a compassionate counselor at GoodTherapy today.

References:

  1. American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders, fifth edition. Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Association.
  2. Behary, W. T., & Dieckmann, E. (2011, July 20). Schema therapy for narcissism: The art of empathic confrontation, limit-setting, and leverage. In W. K. Campbell and J. D. Miller (Eds.), The handbook of narcissism and narcissistic personality disorder: Theoretical approaches, empirical findings, and treatments. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.
  3. Caligor, E., Levy, K. N., & Yeomans, F. E. (2015, April 30). Narcissistic personality disorder: Diagnostic and clinical challenges. American Journal of Psychiatry, 172(5), 415-422. Retrieved from https://ajp.psychiatryonline.org/doi/full/10.1176/appi.ajp.2014.14060723?url_ver=Z39.88-2003&rfr_id=ori%3Arid%3Acrossref.org&rfr_dat=cr_pub%3Dpubmed&
  4. Dickinson, K. A., & Pincus, A. L. (2003). Interpersonal analysis of grandiose and vulnerable narcissism. Journal of Personality Diosrders, 17(3), 188-207. Retrieved from https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/8db5/d181e5ec85fd61de162d3c43e70611eaf4a4.pdf
  5. Jauk, E., Weigle, E., Lehmann, K., Benedek, M., & Neubauer A. C. (2017, September 13). The relationship between grandiose and vulnerable (hypersensitive) narcissism. Frontiers in Psychology, 8. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2017.01600
  6. Luchner, A. F., Mirsalimi, H., Moser, C. J., & Jones, R. A. (2008). Maintaining boundaries in psychotherapy: Covert narcissistic personality characteristics and psychotherapists. Psychotherapy, 45(1), 1-14. doi: 10.1037/0033-3204.45.1.1
  7. Mayo Clinic Staff. (2017, November 18). Narcissistic personality disorder. Retrieved from https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/narcissistic-personality-disorder/symptoms-causes/syc-20366662
  8. Poless, P. G., Torstveit, L., Lugo, R. G., Andreassen, M., & Sutterlin, S. (2018, March 12). Guilt and proneness to shame: Unethical behaviour in vulnerable and grandiose narcissism. European Journal of Psychology, 14(1), 28-43. doi: 10.5964/ejop.v14i1.1355

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  • 2 comments
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  • Karen

    Karen

    August 27th, 2019 at 12:00 PM

    Enjoy reading your articles.

  • Dan

    Dan

    November 2nd, 2019 at 2:59 AM

    Interesting article, but I’m far more interested in ways to help the victims of narcissistic abuse. Finding a good therapist who can help with C-PTSD and/or narcissistic abuse can be challenging. I mostly had to figure it out on my own.

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