What Are Covert Narcisists Like?

Covert narcissists exhibit traits that contrast with those of overt narcissism. Let's look at the characteristics, causes, and indicators.
What Are Covert Narcisists Like?

Last update: 09 June, 2023

Covert narcissists are people who have narcissistic personality disorder but whose symptoms don’t match those that are standardized for the disorder. It’s for this reason that they can easily go unnoticed, even by people with the necessary training to identify them. Sometimes known as vulnerable narcissism, it’s characterized by introversion, passive aggressiveness, and social insecurity.

Many people use the term narcissist to refer to a self-centered, proud, or pedantic person. However, from the clinical point of view, it’s a mental disorder. Narcissistic personality disorder is included in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders in its fifth edition (DSM-V), in group B, which includes disorders of a dramatic, emotional, and erratic nature. Today, we’ll address covert narcissists from a clinical point of view.

The characteristics of covert narcissists

As experts point out, narcissistic personality disorder can be categorized into two types: Grandiose (or overt) narcissism and vulnerable (or covert) narcissism. The first is characterized by exaggerated self-esteem, feelings of grandiosity and superiority, a constant search for admiration, entitlement, and arrogance. It’s what’s usually imagined when thinking about narcissism.

However, the disorder has another manifestation, one that most of the time goes unnoticed. Covert narcissists are characterized by pronounced self-absorption, low self-esteem, hypervigilant behavior, social withdrawal, and emotional hypersensitivity. It’s for this reason that they’re also known as vulnerable or hypersensitive narcissists.

Although it may not seem so, in practice covert narcissism can have greater psychosocial consequences than its overt counterpart.

A study published in Frontiers in Psychology in 2020 found that, in contrast to the overt variant, covert narcissism is positively related to depressive symptoms, anhedonia, and passive-aggressive behaviors. Therefore, it shouldn’t be seen then as a milder, more treatable type of narcissistic disorder or one without major consequences.

Regarding its signs, and as indicated by specialists, the main characteristic of covert narcissists is their introversion.

The trait contrasts with the extroversion of overt narcissists, so it’s difficult to diagnose it clinically, as it’s far from the standardized parameters of diagnostic manuals. The defining features of the disorder are less subtle and not as obvious to the observant eye.

The signs of covert narcissists

Covert Narcissists Suffer in Silence.
A covert narcissist can be especially difficult to spot at first, as they don’t bring out many facets of their personality.

This type of narcissism presents with oversensitivity, dissatisfaction, and defensiveness. Similarly, these individuals often develop great doubts and anxiety, as well as hypersensitivity regarding social interactions.

They’re characterized by insecurity, shyness, and low social competence, which is why they participate less in social situations, are unable to promote a positive personal image, and receive less attention and admiration from others.

All of these traits are in contrast to the behavior of overt narcissists. While narcissists gain public attention and admiration (which confirms and fosters their sense of superiority), vulnerable narcissists lack positive feedback due to low social competence and high anxiety in face-to-face interactions with others. Here are some defining features:

  • External feelings of inferiority
  • Reserved behaviors when interacting with others
  • Social insecurity and lower degree of self-awareness
  • A tendency to develop ideas that place them as a victim
  • Low self-esteem and self-awareness
  • Sensitivity to criticism and a tendency to accept it easily
  • Hostility and anger as protection mechanisms
  • Passive aggressive attitudes
  • Manipulation of their inner circle through subtle techniques (such as gaslighting)
  • Suicidal thoughts

The trait often manifests in comorbidity with other mental disorders, the most common being bipolar disorder, substance use disorder, borderline personality disorder, antisocial personality disorder, and histrionic personality disorder. If this is the case, they’ll develop symptoms characteristic of these disorders. Anxiety and depression are also very common among covert narcissists.

At the same time, different studies and investigations warn about the pathological use of social media in this type of narcissism. Given the tendency to avoid social situations, those affected may develop episodes of internet addiction as a way of isolating themselves.

Similarly, the interactions they receive through social networks (comments, likes, and so on) can further enhance their feelings of inferiority (in some cases, enhancing their narcissistic ideas).

Causes of covert narcissism

Covert narcissists are hard to spot.
Many factors go into developing the personality of a covert narcissist.

The causes of narcissistic personality disorder (both overt and covert) aren’t well understood. The most accepted hypothesis is that it is a condition that develops due to multifactorial triggers.

Experiences during the first years of life can play a leading role. Traumas, attachment attitudes, education, and the relationship with parents are some of the catalysts.

Similarly, excessive praise from parents and the inner circle can translate into narcissistic traits. When these contrast with experience with reality or with other groups (schoolmates, for example) the covert tendency can develop. Therefore, as researchers point out, parents can encourage the disorder by means of excessive praise.

The disorder is also known to have a strong genetic component, meaning that the trait can be inherited from both the father and the mother. The conjunction of genetic and environmental elements is what leads to narcissistic behaviors. The presence of other mental disorders may mediate its appearance.

The treatment for vulnerable narcissism

As with overt narcissists, and with other people with similar disorders, there’s a propensity to avoid seeking professional help. In the same way, the percentage of abandonment of those who do accept help is very high. There’s currently no standardized pharmacological or psychological therapy to address the disorder.

Psychodynamic psychotherapy, transference-focused therapy, schema-focused therapy, and cognitive behavioral therapy are some options that may be considered. Pharmacological alternatives are addressed to control specific traits or symptoms, such as anxiety, depression, mood instability, transient psychosis, and impulse control problems.

The support of family and friends is very important, especially to encourage adherence to treatment. Given the propensity to develop anxiety and depression in contrast to overt narcissism, those who have developed this type of disorder are more vulnerable. Professionals can help control it, so you should always count on them.

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