Covert narcissism (also known as hypersensitive or vulnerable narcissism) is a class of narcissistic personality disorder (NPD). People with covert narcissism will have similar personality traits to other types of narcissism, but are more introverted and insecure.

Traits of a covert narcissist

High sensitivity to criticism:

Covert narcissists have a negative self-image and low self-esteem. This can mean that they react badly to criticism, and often overreact to something that may not have been meant negatively. [1]

This high sensitivity to criticism will not always be clear. Covert narcissists will often try to brush off criticism or dismiss it and will internalise their anger and humiliation.

Low self-esteem

Low self-esteem [2] in covert narcissists can lead to insecurities about achievements and looking for compliments.

Their low self-esteem can cause them to fish for compliments, perhaps by mentioning their achievements or complimenting someone else, hoping for them to return it. They may resort to exaggeration or outright lying about something they have done to boost their self-esteem.

Introversion

Covert narcissists are more introverted than those with other forms of NPD. They feel like being around others will expose their negative thoughts about themselves and make others think less of them. As a result, they will often not go out in public and steer clear of relationships. [3]

Grandiose fantasies

Grandiose fantasies are what a covert narcissist will tell themselves to inflate their self-importance, often extremely removed from reality. [4]

Fantasises usually include situations where they receive a lot of praise for doing something such as saving someone or getting recognition for something that they did not actually do.

Holding grudges

Covert narcissists will often hold grudges against people, often overinflating the severity of the situation and portraying themselves to be the victim in the situation. [5]

A confrontation is not necessary for them to hold a grudge. Grandiose fantasies can lead to their holding grudges against people who receive praise for something they feel they deserve the credit for. This can lead to their envying others for praise that they feel they are entitled to more than their peers or colleagues.

Exploitation of others

Covert narcissists can show some levels of empathy towards others; however, this will usually be for their own gain. Offers to help friends and family in need can be to receive praise for being selfless and inflating their own sense of entitlement, self-importance, and superiority. [4]

Examples of covert narcissist behaviour

  • Grandiose self-importance
  • Beliefthat they are special or perfect
  • Requiringexcessive admiration
  • Expectation of unreasonably good treatment
  • Exploitationand taking advantage of others
  • Lackingempathy
  • Arrogance
  • Envy of others and the belief thatothers should be envious of them [1]

Causes of covert narcissism

Covert narcissism may be caused by genetics and upbringing. [4] Children who are constantly belittled and rejected, as well as those who are always praised for being more important and extraordinary, can develop NPD in adulthood.

Covert vs. overt narcissism

Overt narcissism (also known as grandiose narcissism) narcissism and covert narcissism differ in the way inflated feelings of self-importance and lack of empathy are expressed. Overt narcissists are more extroverted and even bold or charming. They want to be the centrer of attention in most situations and will try to make situations about themselves, often at the expense of others. [3]

Unlike the covert narcissist, the overt narcissist will be more public with their views and can become aggressive and confrontational when they feel challenged or threatened by others.

However, clinical research shows that overt narcissism is always accompanied by covert narcissistic traits. [3] They may switch between overt and covert traits, but this is more common for those diagnosed with overt narcissism.

Covert narcissism in relationships

Covert narcissists often require nonstop attention, and struggle empathising with others. In addition, they can become quite jealous, especially when observing other people in relationships. Their jealousy can cause them to jump to conclusions in some situations, potentially making them overly aggressive. [5]

This makes relationships for covert narcissists very difficult, as well as for those in relationships with them. Maintaining relationships in the face of narcissistic abuse can be very draining on partners, especially as the defensive nature of NPD means that it is very difficult to confront them about their behaviour.

Covert narcissism is not an excuse for domestic violence. If you feel unsafe in your relationship, speak to someone you trust. If you or someone you know is in danger, call 911 immediately.

How to deal with a covert narcissist

Maintaining a relationship with a covert narcissist can be very difficult. It is important to remember to put yourself and your mental wellbeing first, although it can be challenging if it involves a loved one or a close friendship.

  • Learn about covert narcissism and the common traits to look out for. This can help if you are deciding whether it is best to leave your relationship and/ordistance yourself from the person with covert narcissism.
  • Don’t make excuses for their actions. Even though it may not be their fault, some of their actions can harm others and yourself.
  • Surround yourself with people you trust and who care about you. If you do not want to end your relationship with them,it is important to have people to rely on to talk about your problems and to keep you safe.
  • Seek medical help if necessary. Therapeutic methods can help you build mechanisms to cope with covert narcissistic behavior and keep your relationship healthy.
  • Don’t be afraid to set boundaries with them. This may include limitations on the amount of time you spend with them, especially if they are a family member or friend. Whilst they can’t always control their comments and behavior, it is important that you put your mental health first.

Resources:

  1. American Psychiatric Association (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders(Fifth Edition: DSM-5 ed.). Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Publishing, Inc.
  2. Rogoza, R., Żemojtel-Piotrowska, M., Kwiatkowska, M. M., & Kwiatkowska, K. (2018). The bright, the dark, and the blue face of narcissism: The spectrum of narcissism in its relations to the metatraits of personality, self-esteem, and the nomological network of shyness, loneliness, and eFrontiers in Psychology, 9, 343.
  3. Jauk, E., Weigle, E., Lehmann, K., Benedek, M., & Neubauer, A. C. (2017). The relationship between grandiose and vulnerable (hypersensitive) nFrontiers in Psychology, 8, 1600.
  4. Mitra P, Fluyau D. Narcissistic Personality Disorder. [Updated 2022 May 1]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2022 Jan-. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK556001/
  5. Day, N. J. S., Townsend, M. L., & Grenyer, B. F. S. (2020). Living with pathological narcissism: a qualitative study. Borderline Personality Disorder and Emotion Dysregulation, 7(1), 19.