The term “narcissist” gets thrown around a lot. It’s often used as a catch-all to describe people with any traits of narcissistic personality disorder (NPD).
These people might seem self-centered or so focused on their own importance that they’ve lost touch with reality. Or maybe they don’t appear to care about others and rely on manipulation to get what they want.
In reality, NPD isn’t that simple. It occurs on a broad spectrum that involves a range of potential traits. Experts generally agree that there are four distinct subtypes. One of these is covert narcissism, also called vulnerable narcissism.
Covert narcissism usually involves fewer external signs of “classic” NPD. People still meet criteria for diagnosis but have traits that aren’t usually associated with narcissism, such as:
- sensitivity to what others think of them
The following signs may also point to covert narcissism. Keep in mind that only a qualified mental health professional can diagnose a mental health condition.
If you’ve noticed these traits in a loved one, encourage them to seek support from a therapist trained to help people with personality disorders.
NPD typically involves insecurity and an easily damaged sense of self-esteem. This can manifest in covert narcissism as extreme sensitivity to criticism.
This sensitivity isn’t unique to NPD, of course. Most people don’t love criticism, even constructive criticism. But paying attention to how someone responds to real or perceived criticism can offer more insight on whether you’re looking at narcissistic sensitivity.
People with covert narcissism might make dismissive or sarcastic remarks and act as if they’re above the criticism. But internally, they might feel empty, humiliated, or enraged.
Criticism threatens their idealized view of themselves. When they receive a critique instead of admiration, they can take it pretty hard.
Most people have probably used this manipulation tactic at one time or another, possibly without realizing it. But people with covert narcissism often use passive-aggressive behavior to convey frustration or make themselves look superior.
Two main reasons drive this behavior:
- the deep-seated belief their “specialness” entitles them to get what they want
- the desire to get back at people who wronged them or had greater success
Passive-aggressive behavior can involve:
A need for admiration is a key trait of NPD. This need often leads people to boast about their achievements, often by exaggerating or outright lying.
Maury Joseph, PsyD, suggests this may be related to internal self-esteem issues.
“People with narcissism have to spend a lot of time making sure they don’t feel bad feelings, that they don’t feel imperfect or ashamed or limited or small,” he explains.
People with covert narcissism also rely on others to build up their self-esteem, but instead of talking themselves up, they tend to put themselves down.
They might speak modestly about their contributions with an underlying goal of earning compliments and recognition. Or they may offer a compliment to get one in return.
Covert narcissism is more strongly linked to introversion than other types of narcissism.
This relates to narcissistic insecurity. People with NPD are deeply afraid of having their flaws or failures seen by others. Exposing their innermost feelings of inferiority would shatter the illusion of their superiority. Avoiding social interactions helps lower the chances of exposure.
People with covert narcissism may also avoid social situations or relationships that lack clear benefits. They simultaneously feel superior and tend to distrust others.
Research from 2015 also points out that managing the distress associated with NPD can be emotionally draining, leaving little energy for developing meaningful relationships.
People with covert narcissism generally spend more time thinking about their abilities and achievements than talking about them. They might seem smug or have a “I’ll show you” attitude.
“They may withdraw into fantasy, into an inner narrative world that’s not equivalent to reality, where they have inflated importance, powers, or a specialness that is opposite of what their actual life is like,” Joseph says.
Fantasies could involve:
- being recognized for their talents and promoted at work
- being admired for their attractiveness everywhere they go
- receiving praise for saving people from a disaster
Covert narcissism involves a higher risk of co-occurring depression and anxiety than other types of narcissism.
There are two major reasons for this:
- Fear of failure or exposure may contribute to anxiety.
- Frustration over idealized expectations not matching up with real life, and the inability to get needed appreciation from others, can trigger feelings of resentment and depression.
Feelings of emptiness and thoughts of suicide are also associated with covert narcissism.
“People under deep pressure to be pleasing and likable to themselves have to go to great lengths to keep that up and preserve their self-esteem. Failing to keep up that illusion involves the bad feelings that come with the reality of failure,” Joseph says.
Someone with covert narcissism may hold grudges for a long time.
When they believe someone’s treated them unfairly, they might feel furious but say nothing in the moment. Instead, they’re more likely to wait for an ideal opportunity to make the other person look bad or get revenge in some way.
This revenge might be subtle or passive-aggressive. For example, they might start a rumor or sabotage the person’s work.
They may also hold grudges against people who earn the praise or recognition they think they’re entitled to, such as a co-worker who receives a well-deserved promotion.
These grudges can lead to bitterness, resentment, and a desire for revenge.
People with NPD often envy people who have things they feel they deserve, including wealth, power, or status. They also often believe others envy them because they’re special and superior.
People with covert narcissism may not outwardly discuss these feelings of envy, but they might express bitterness or resentment when they don’t get what they believe they deserve.
When people with covert narcissism can’t measure up to the high standards they set for themselves, they may feel inadequate in response to this failure.
These feelings of inadequacy can trigger:
- a sense of powerlessness
Joseph suggests this is based in projection.
People with NPD have unrealistic standards for themselves, so they unconsciously assume other people also hold them to these standards. To live up to them, they’d have to be superhuman. When they realize they are, in fact, just human, they feel ashamed of this “failure.”
Contrary to popular belief, it’s possible for people with NPD to at least show empathy. But they spend so much time trying to build up their self-esteem and establish their importance that this often gets in the way, according to Joseph.
People with covert narcissism, in particular, may seem to have empathy for others. They might seem willing to help others out or take on extra work.
You might see them performing an act of kindness or compassion, such as giving money and food to someone sleeping on the street, or offering their spare bedroom to a family member who was evicted.
But they generally do these things to win the approval of others. If they don’t receive praise or admiration for their sacrifice, they may feel bitter and resentful and make remarks about how people take advantage and don’t appreciate them.
Narcissism is more complex than it’s made out to be in pop culture. While people with narcissistic tendencies might seem like bad apples that should be avoided, Joseph points out the importance of having sensitivity to narcissistic dynamics.
“Everyone has them. We all want to basically feel OK in our own eyes. We’re all under pressure to be like our ideals, to make ourselves into a certain image, and we do all sorts of things to create the illusion that we’re fine, including lying to ourselves and others,” he says.
Some people have an easier time than others with regulating these feelings and emotions. Those who struggle with them may be more likely to develop NPD or another personality disorder.
Crystal Raypole has previously worked as a writer and editor for GoodTherapy. Her fields of interest include Asian languages and literature, Japanese translation, cooking, natural sciences, sex positivity, and mental health. In particular, she’s committed to helping decrease stigma around mental health issues.