Covert narcissist is a term to describe a person who has narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) but does not display the grandiose sense of self-importance that psychologists associate with the condition. They may appear shy or modest.
Other names for covert narcissism include closet narcissism or introverted narcissism. Researchers tend to use the term vulnerable narcissism, as people with this subtype of NPD appear to lack self-confidence.
In this article, we discuss covert narcissism in more detail, including the signs and causes. We also explain how a person can respond to narcissistic behavior.
What is narcissism?
Narcissism is a general term that encompasses several personality traits, including:
- a sense of entitlement to special treatment
The term comes from the Ancient Greek myth of Narcissus, a young man who fell in love with his reflection.
Anyone can behave in a narcissistic way at times. However, someone who displays highly narcissistic traits consistently across all situations may have NPD.
According to the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), NPD is a long-term mental health condition that presents with symptoms such as:
- a constant need for admiration
- an unrealistic sense of self-importance
- lack of empathy
- difficulty forming meaningful relationships
It is worth noting that self-importance is not the same as self-esteem. A person with good self-esteem feels valuable in themselves and does not feel the need to assert their superiority over others.
For this reason, people with NPD can have low self-esteem, as their self-image depends on comparing themselves with other people. A 2013 study found that people with NPD scored lower on self-esteem tests than people without the disorder.
Experts split NPD into two subtypes: grandiose narcissism and vulnerable narcissism. Or, as some people call them, overt and covert narcissism.
Both types of NPD share the same traits, such as a need for admiration and lack of empathy. However, the outward behavior of those with each subtype can be very different.
People with overt narcissism are typically extroverted, bold, and attention-seeking. They may become aggressive or violent if a person or situation challenges their sense of status.
The covert subtype is less obvious. A person with covert narcissism may come across as shy, withdrawn, or self-deprecating. However, they will still be self-absorbed and believe that they are better than other people.
Although covert narcissism is less apparent than the overt subtype, several signs can indicate that a person has this disorder.
Secret sense of superiority
Researchers say that while people with covert narcissism appear to be modest, they believe that they are superior to other people. As a result, they avoid situations or tasks that challenge this sense of superiority. For example, they may avoid doing work that they believe is beneath them.
Avoids social situations
Hypersensitive to criticism
People with vulnerable or covert NPD are very sensitive to criticism. They may perceive insults where others do not and are likely to become defensive easily. They may act in a vindictive or passive-aggressive way if they believe that someone has slighted them.
Difficulty with relationships and work
The way that a person with covert narcissism behaves often makes it difficult for them to stay in work. Sometimes, they may choose not to work because it does not match up with their sense of self. They may also struggle to maintain relationships.
Depression and anxiety
Psychologists are still learning about the causes of narcissistic personality traits and NPD. However, research shows that a mixture of factors may play a role.
A 2015 study found that adults with narcissistic personality traits frequently had parents who overvalued their achievements, emphasizing status and praise. The researchers speculate that this teaches children that they are superior to their peers.
By contrast, parents with warm, affectionate parenting styles were more likely to have children with healthy self-esteem. The researchers theorize that this is because parental affection teaches children that they are valuable, rather than superior.
The causes of NPD are likely more complex. According to the American Psychological Association, personality disorders in general are associated with:
- childhood trauma
- verbal or sexual abuse
People with covert narcissism may have a parent who displays similar traits, abused them as children, or both. Psychologists do not yet understand why some people develop covert NPD rather than overt NPD.
Regularly interacting with someone with covert NPD can be challenging.
Someone with a close friend or family member with NPD may find that this individual’s narcissistic behavior affects their own mental health. In these cases, a person might benefit from setting some boundaries.
For instance, the person could limit their interactions with the friend or family member with NPD so that they only see them on specific days or for certain periods. They may also want to limit the amount of personal data that they share with them.
If someone has experienced abuse or trauma as a result of their relationship with a person who has NPD, they may need to cease contact with them entirely.
Anyone living with mental health symptoms that interfere with their work or personal life should consider seeking help. Speaking to a doctor or psychotherapist is a good first step. These healthcare professionals can assess the problem and recommend treatments.
A person who is recovering from an unhealthy relationship with someone who has NPD may benefit from the support of organizations such as Narcissist Abuse Support.
If someone is in an abusive relationship with a person who has narcissistic traits, they may require help leaving the relationship. Abuse can include:
- physical abuse, such as hitting, scratching, or kicking
- emotional abuse, including gaslighting or guilt-tripping
- verbal abuse, such as insults, yelling, and threats
- financial abuse, in which the abusive person seizes control of the partner’s money
- sexual abuse, such as rape
If you or someone you know is in immediate danger of domestic violence, call 911 or otherwise seek emergency help. Anyone who needs advice or support can contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline 24/7 via:
- the phone, at 1-800-799-7233
- live chat, at thehotline.org
- text, by texting LOVEIS to 22522
Many other resources are available, including helplines, in-person support, and temporary housing. People can find local resources and others classified by demographics, such as support specifically for people of color, here:
Narcissism is a personality trait that involves self-interest, a sense of entitlement, and vanity. Some people have NPD, which is a lifelong mental health condition causing a lack of empathy, feelings of superiority, and a need for admiration and attention.
People with the vulnerable or covert form of NPD may appear shy, withdrawn, and lacking in confidence. Interacting with someone with covert narcissism can be difficult. In some cases, a person may need to limit or break contact with the individual to protect their own mental and physical well-being.
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- Caligor, E., et al. (2015). Narcissistic personality disorder: Diagnostic and clinical challenges.
- DSM-IV and DSM-5 criteria for the personality disorders. (2012).
- Grapsas, S., et al. (2020). The “why” and “how” of narcissism: A process model of narcissistic status pursuit.
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- Signs of domestic violence or abuse. (2018).
- Vater, A., et al. (2013). When grandiosity and vulnerability collide: Implicit and explicit self-esteem in patients with narcissistic personality disorder.
- What causes personality disorders? (2010).