A while ago I wrote a blog post called ‘5 Signs You Might Be Dating a Narcissist’. I thought if more people knew the signs to look for early in the relationships, it just might prevent them from investing so heavily in people who ultimately turned out to be destructive and even abusive.
But even if you know all the signs of the stereotypical narcissist, there’s another, more subtle kind of narcissism that’s quite a bit harder to detect. These people are often referred to as ‘covert’, ‘hidden’ or ‘closet’ narcissists.
In psychology we refer to their characteristic behaviours as Vulnerable Narcissism. They don’t necessarily display the behaviours you’d typically associate with narcissism like being extraverted, charismatic or successful, openly boasting about their achievements or being unashamedly egotistical and self-confident.
In fact, vulnerable narcissists can present as humble, shy and insecure. This is why they’re hard to spot! They can still be highly manipulative and exploitative but it often takes a whole lot longer for you to realise that what you’re dealing with is a form of narcissism.
Let’s run through a few characteristics or behaviours of closet narcissists.
Five typical features of covert narcissism
1. Their efforts to get attention are more subtle
Grandiose or ‘overt’ narcissists have no problem standing in the centre of a room gushing about their own achievements and assuming everyone will be enthralled. Their entitlement and arrogance is always on display.
Vulnerable narcissists also feel entitled to attention and validation but they tend to be introverted and insecure, therefore they’re more likely to use subtle manipulation to get recognition, support or sympathy. They’ll find ways to always turn the topic of conversation to themselves (and disengage completely or change the subject if they’re not the centre of attention).
Unlike the more boastful narcissist, the covert narcissist often talks about about how disappointed or lonely they feel because no-one understands or appreciates them. The vulnerable narcissist may present themselves as selfless, big-hearted and “giving without any expectation of return” and yet they’ll be the first to complain if they believe their kindness is not reciprocated.
While narcissists are often accused of lacking empathy, the closet narcissist will present themselves as caring and compassionate as a strategy to garner attention and praise, which means they’ll often make sure any generous act they perform is on full display.
2. They’re passive aggressive
Grandiose narcissists are known for their rage. They can be explosive if you confront or criticise them. The vulnerable narcissist, on the other hand, is more likely to use passive aggressive tactics because their sense of self is too fragile for direct confrontation. They might ‘forget’ to pass on important details about events or leave it until the last minute to share information that doesn’t give you time to prepare.
At work they believe they’re more intelligent and superior to everyone else so they might avoid doing work they believe is beneath them. They may have a pattern of not getting along with the boss because they don’t handle feedback well and always think they know better (in fact, they believe they should be the boss).
Another passive aggressive tactic is to give back-handed compliments or offer ‘friendly advice’ that is actually insulting or critical. They will always be the first to point out any mistake you make but they’ll wrap it up in a way that makes them sound like it’s really because they care.
3. They’re thin-skinned
Narcissists of all kinds don’t take criticism well. Nothing is ever their fault and they typically don’t ever apologise.
Covert narcissists are hyper-sensitive to criticism, and their emotional instability makes them prone to depression and anxiety. They’re wounded by any perceived slight, deeply insecure and extremely defensive, unable to take on board any kind of negative feedback. For this reason, they’re often referred to as ‘thin-skinned’.
Often they’ll pretend to brush off criticism as if they’re unaffected by it, using sarcasm or off-hand remarks to hide the fact they feel insulted, humiliated and angry. If they feel you’ve attacked them or said anything at all that portrays them in a negative light, they’re more likely to cut you off than have a direct conversation or be open to listening to your feedback.
Criticism evokes feelings of shame, which can cause them to be vindictive. They typically will hold a grudge and perhaps even spend time secretly plotting revenge.
4. They’re competitive and jealous
The vulnerable narcissist does not take kindly to someone else getting the attention or praise they believe they deserve. If the focus is on someone else, they might try to ‘one-up’ the person or else they might criticise, dismiss or devalue the other person’s achievement. Alternatively, they check out of the conversation completely, change the subject and probably simmer with resentment.
Just like the more obvious grandiose narcissist, they are obsessed with image and if you are famous, successful or popular, they will want to be associated with you because it reflects well on them. But if you don’t reciprocate their admiration, they will feign disinterest, devaluing and ignoring anything you do.
5. They’re uniquely miserable
The covert narcissist has a victim mentality and they believe that whatever struggle they are experiencing is unique and special. They are always more stressed, more misunderstood and having to deal with more problems than anyone else.
Because they fail to take any responsibility, their suffering is always someone else’s fault. Sometimes their unique struggle is that they’re just so much more sensitive, caring and giving than anyone else, always going above and beyond to be helpful to others (and then complaining that others let them down in their time of need).
They will often use their challenges as evidence that they would be achieving the success and recognition they deserve if only they had all the advantages that someone else has.
The line isn’t hard and fast
While it helps people to gain clarity by having a sense of the difference between an overt, grandiose narcissist and a sensitive, vulnerable one, the truth is grandiose narcissists can be vulnerable and vulnerable narcissists will have moments of grandiosity. For this reason, some professionals find it unhelpful to create sub-categories of narcissism.
It’s also true that many, many people (including you and me) possess narcissistic traits, without necessarily meeting criteria for what might be described as a narcissistic personality style or a full blown narcissistic personality disorder.
While we don’t need to run around categorising or labelling people, if you are in a relationship or a workplace with someone who possesses these traits, it definitely IS helpful to recognise the signs that will help you make decisions and perhaps give you some insight into the behaviours you’re dealing with. “Gaslighting” (or causing you to questions yourself and your own judgement) is common with narcissists and so, the sooner you recognise those signs the better able you’ll be to protect yourself.
For more on this topic, you might be interested in the work of W. Keith Campbell who wrote “The New Science of Narcissim”.
Does any of this sound familiar to you? Drop me a comment below if you’ve ever had a covert narcissist in your life. It’s super helpful for other readers to get a sense of the types of behaviours to look out for.