Published On: August 17, 2022
Reviewed On: August 17, 2022
Updated On: June 22, 2023
While some people with narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) strive to be the center of attention, others behave in more subtle ways. People with covert narcissistic personality disorder — also referred to as vulnerable or closet narcissism — can be quiet and introverted, which can cause narcissistic tendencies and behaviors to fly under the radar.
Understanding more about this narcissistic personality disorder type can make it easier to spot covert narcissistic traits. Read on to learn everything you need to know about covert narcissism.
Individuals with covert narcissism will have many of the traits and behaviors associated with narcissistic personality disorder — such as low empathy or a strong desire for admiration and praise. However, people with this type of NPD may not show these traits in obvious ways.
It’s not that covert NPD necessarily causes someone to try and hide their symptoms from others, though. Instead, their personality just makes them display behaviors and traits in different, more subtle ways. Many people with this covert NPD are emotionally fragile and try to avoid social interaction.
Although covert NPD can still give people a feeling of superiority over others, they also tend to see themselves as victims. They might feel unhappy and fearful of others. In some cases, they may believe that they’re uniquely miserable because they think they’re better than the people around them.
While covert narcissism is usually found in people who are introverted, those with overt NPD (also known as grandiose or agentic narcissism) tend to be extroverts. An individual with covert narcissism has an exaggerated sense of self-importance that may make them behave in arrogant and showy ways. In contrast, someone with covert NPD might tend to keep their feelings of grandiosity a secret.
“While covert narcissism is still rooted in a foundation of insecurity and excessive needs for validation, it tends to imply that the attempts at achieving these things depend on subtle passive-aggressive moves rather than aggressive.”
Individuals with covert narcissism may behave aggressively towards others, but people with covert NPD are more likely to engage in passive-aggressive behavior. While it’s common for people with any type of narcissistic personality disorder to try to manipulate others, covert narcissism can result in more subtle manipulation techniques, like narcissistic gaslighting, to influence others.
A lack of outward narcissistic traits can make covert narcissistic personality disorder difficult to notice. Although behaviors may be subtle, traits can be spotted when you know what to look for. Covert narcissism traits may include the following signs.
Individuals with covert narcissism feels entitled to relationships, talent, and success. They often feel more deserving of success than others and may feel angry and jealous of people who have the things they want. It’s common for them to obsess over the accomplishments of others, and they might often discuss the ways in which those accomplishments are undeserved.
While overt narcissism may result in someone seeking attention in a flashy way, someone with covert NPD will generally try to get compliments through more subtle tactics. They may minimize their own strengths and accomplishments so people will praise them. It’s also common for them to seek reassurance from others.
“Subtle hints of narcissism may look like getting back at people by talking negatively about them behind their back. It could also look like damaging someone’s property to increase their dependence on them. Also, playing favorites without acknowledging what they are doing.”
Someone with covert NPD may be considered a “vulnerable narcissist” because they are deeply wounded by any criticism, even if it’s mild. When they receive negative feedback or rejection, they may respond with an emotional outburst. Someone with covert NPD may also actively avoid situations where they believe they could be criticized.
Insecurity is a hallmark of covert NPD, and people with this condition may project those insecurities onto others around them. For example, if someone with covert NPD is insecure about their physical appearance, they may constantly nitpick the way other people look. It’s also common for someone with covert narcissism to blame others for their own mistakes and shortcomings.
It can be difficult for people with covert NPD to build bonds with others. When they are in a relationship, they often demand a near-constant level of attention. If someone isn’t giving them sufficient attention, they may lash out in anger or threaten suicide or self-harm, which has been linked to covert narcissism.
While experts are still unsure about what causes narcissistic personality disorder, it’s believed that many factors, including environment, genetics, and childhood trauma, can all contribute to the condition. People who develop overt narcissism often receive excessive praise from parents, but for those with covert NPD, the opposite can be true.
People with covert NPD have commonly experienced traumatic events that give them a negative view of the past. It’s also not uncommon for individuals with covert narcissism to have a negative memory bias, which means they’re more likely to remember negative events than positive ones.
It’s difficult to say exactly why people with NPD develop covert, rather than overt, traits. However, some research does suggest that NPD is more heritable than various other mental health conditions. Many people with covert NPD may have a parent who displays similar traits.
Even though covert NPD has more subtle symptoms than overt NPD, it still has the potential to be highly damaging. Whether you’ve noticed these narcissistic personality disorder symptoms in others or in yourself, figuring out how to deal with narcissistic personality disorder is key.
You can’t control their narcissistic tendencies, but you can take steps to protect yourself from their behaviors. Learn how to set healthy boundaries with a narcissist and stand up for yourself in personal interactions. Work to build a support system that can build you or your relationship back up if your loved one tries to tear it down.
Although it can be difficult, you should also try not to take their behavior personally. People with narcissistic personality disorder lash out and hurt the people around them. You’re not the cause of their behavior, and poor treatment isn’t your fault.
“Dealing with someone’s covert narcissistic behavior includes several attempts at rerouting and/or redirecting their behavior towards something more positive and then reinforcing positive behaviors when they are achieved, fueling the need to feel validated while also extinguishing the harmful behaviors.”
While it can be difficult to acknowledge symptoms of covert NPD in yourself, a mental health professional can help you make sense of your behaviors. Many people living with covert narcissism struggle with feelings of unhappiness and low self-esteem. By treating narcissistic personality disorder, you can address these feelings and learn to live a happier, more positive, and rewarding life.
“Individuals who struggle with NPD are strongly encouraged to seek out professional assistance. It’s the combination of medication and talk therapy that have the greatest degree of success. Having medication can assist in the intensity of the reactions while also having talk therapy to challenge dysfunctional beliefs and perspectives.”
The signs of covert NPD can be difficult to spot. People with covert NPD are often reserved and don’t always outwardly demonstrate many behaviors that are strongly associated with narcissism. This can be a major obstacle to treatment.
Once those signs are recognized, however, someone with covert NPD can benefit greatly from therapy for narcissistic personality disorder. Therapy can help people with NPD address harmful behaviors and develop healthy coping mechanisms. Professional support can also benefit people with a family member or partner who has covert NPD.
Admitting they need help can be challenging for people with covert NPD, but Talkspace makes getting therapy convenient, affordable, and most importantly, easy. Our online therapy platform has changed what “getting therapy” looks like. With Talkspace, you can find skilled, experienced therapists who can help you learn to manage covert narcissism. Learn more about Talkspace today.
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Meaghan Rice is a mental health consultant specializing in professionals who are looking to close the gap between where they are and where they envision themselves being. With a decade of experience in the mental health field, working in a variety of different capacities, Dr. Rice has found her niche amidst the therapist, consultant, and trainer roles.