Covert Narcissistic Personality Disorder: Signs and Symptoms

Reviewed by Whitney White, MS CMHC, NCC., LPC

Published 12/09/2020

The word “narcissist” has gained increased popularity in its usage in recent times. However, a lot of people use it colloquially for someone who may seem self-centered. This usage may be stereotyping and adding a stigma for a real personality disorder, Narcissistic Personality Disorder.

 The people being described may seem as though they are self-centered, or they may seem as though they seem so concerned with their importance to the extent that they have begun to lose touch with reality. It may also be the case that these people do not care about any other person, so they manipulate people to achieve what they want. Although these can be symptoms of narcissistic personality disorder, it is important to keep in mind that not all people who may experience this disorder have these stereotyped symptoms.

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In reality, narcissistic personality disorder is not what most people think it is. This personality occurs on a wide spectrum that comprises a variety of possible traits. Some experts are of the opinion that there are four different subtypes of narcissistic personality disorder. One of these subtypes is covert narcissism, which may also be regarded as vulnerable narcissism.

Often, covert narcissism comprises fewer external symptoms that are typically manifested in person with “classic” narcissistic personality disorder. Many people still meet the laid-out criteria required for a diagnosis, but they exhibit certain traits that do not typically accompany narcissism. These traits include:

  • Humility
  • Shyness
  • Being sensitive to opinions other people hold of them

The signs and symptoms below may also serve as indicators of covert narcissism. However, it is important to note that only a certified mental healthcare professional is qualified to diagnose any mental health disorders.

Extreme Sensitivity to Criticism

Typically, narcissistic personality disorder is accompanied by a high level of insecurity and a sense of self-esteem prone to be damaged. In persons with covert narcissism, this may manifest as excessive sensitivity to criticism.

But then, this sensitivity to criticism is not particular to persons who have a narcissistic personality disorder. Generally, a lot of people do not appreciate criticism, even when it comes to constructively. However, being able to pay attention to how an individual responds to criticism, either actual or perceived can reveal a lot about whether what you are looking at is narcissistic sensitivity or not.

Individuals who have covert narcissistic personality disorder tend to make sarcastic or dismissive replies and portray themselves as being above the criticism. Whereas within themselves, they might be feeling humiliated, enraged, or empty at times.

When such individuals are criticized, they see the criticisms as threats to the idealized view they have created of themselves. When they get criticized instead of being admired, the comments may take a toll on them.

Passive Aggression

Many people are likely to have employed this tactic of manipulation at some point in time, and the chances are that they did it without being consciously aware. However, people who have covert narcissistic personality disorder may often display behaviors that show passive aggression as a channel for their frustration or sometimes to make themselves feel more superior.

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Two major reasons drive this behavioral trait:

  • A deep-seated belief that they are entitled to get whatever they want because they are “special”
  • The need to get even with persons they feel may have wronged them, or they feel had greater successes

Behaviors that show passive aggression may include:

  • Intentionally sabotaging the work or friendship of another person
  • Framing mocking or teasing remarks as jokes
  • Procrastination of tasks that in their opinion are below them
  • Silent treatment
  • Subtly shifting blame to make others feel bad

The Inclination to Suppress Themselves

The constant want of admiration is one key trait common to persons who have a narcissistic personality disorder. This want often causes a lot of people to openly brag about what they may have achieved, and in doing so, they may exaggerate the truth or tell outright lies.

Maury Joseph, PsyD, suggested that this trait may be linked with self-esteem issues they may have within them.

“People with narcissism have to spend a lot of time making sure they don’t feel bad feelings, that they don’t feel imperfect or ashamed or limited or small,” he stated.

Persons that have covert narcissism tend to rely on other people to help build their self-esteem. Rather than talk themselves up, usually, they feel inclined to suppress themselves.

You might notice them speaking about their achievements and contributions in a manner that portrays them as modest. They may do this to get complimented, commended, or recognized. It is even possible that they offer compliments to other people just so they get one back.

Shyness

Covert narcissism disorder is more associated with introversion when compared to the other various types of narcissism.

This situation is linked to narcissistic insecurity. Persons that have narcissistic personality disorder are very scared of other people seeing their failures or flaws. They feel that exposing the feelings of inferiority they hold within them would destroy the faux superiority they have created. So, as a result, they avoid social interactions because doing so may reduce the chances of the exposure they dread.

Persons that have covert narcissism are likely to shy away from relationships or social situations that they feel have no clear benefits. At the same time, they feel as though they are superior and are likely not to trust other people around them.

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Overblown Fantasies

Generally, covert narcissism tends to spend long periods thinking about their several abilities and numerous achievements rather than talk about them with other people. This may cause them to seem self-satisfied.

Maurey Joseph says, “They may withdraw into fantasy, into an inner narrative world that’s not equivalent to reality, where they have inflated importance, powers, or a specialness that is opposite of what their actual life is like.”

These fantasies may include:

  • Being noticed for the talents they possess and getting promotions
  • Getting admired by everyone else for their attractiveness
  • Getting praised for saving other people from danger

Feeling Anxious, Depressed, and Empty

Covert narcissism is associated with an increased risk of co-occurring anxiety and depression compared to other subtypes of narcissism.

There are two main reasons why this happens:

  • The fear of being exposed or failing may lead to anxiety
  • Frustration from the inability to match their idealized expectations with reality and the inability to court enough appreciation for people around them may cause them to get depressed

Joseph Maurey says, “People under deep pressure to be pleasing and likable to themselves have to go to great lengths to keep that up and preserve their self-esteem. Failing to keep up that illusion involves the bad feelings that come with the reality of failure.”

The Inclination to Bear Grudges

Persons who have covert narcissism may bear grudges for very long periods.

When they believe that somebody treated them unfairly, they may feel angered and furious at that point in time but may keep quiet. Instead, they are likely to wait till they feel they get successfully get revenge or make that person feel bad.

These acts of revenge may be subtle, or they may be acts of passive aggression like sabotage or spreading rumors.

They are also likely to bear grudges against other people who may have earned the recognition or commendation they believe they have an entitlement to.

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These grudges may cause them a lot of resentment, bitterness, and the urge to revenge.

Envy

Persons with a narcissistic personality disorder often envy people who seem to possess things they think they deserve, things like power, status, or wealth. They also tend to believe that people around them are envious of them because they are superior and special.

Persons that have covert narcissism are not likely to discuss the feelings of envy they have outwardly. However, they may express resentment or bitterness when they cannot get things they believe they are deserving of.

Feelings of Inadequacy

When persons who have covert narcissism are unable to rise to the several high standards that they may have set for themselves, there is a strong tendency that they may start to feel inadequate as a form of response to the failure.

The feelings of inadequacy they get may cause:

  • Anger
  • Shame
  • A sense of powerlessness

Self-Serving ‘Empathy’

As opposed to the popular belief most people hold, it is possible for persons who have narcissistic personality disorder to show some empathy at the very least. However, the issue is that they spend way too much time attempting to build their self-esteem and ascertain their importance to the extent where it eventually gets in their way.

It seems that persons that have covert narcissism, especially, may show empathy towards other people. They may show a willingness to assist other people. You may see them carrying out various acts of compassion or kindness.

But more often than not, the chances are high that they do most of these things just so they can win other people’s approval. When they cannot get praised or admired for the sacrifice they made, it may cause them to feel resentful and bitter. It may also cause them to utter comments about how other people are taking advantage of them and do not seem to be appreciative of them.