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The word narcissist has become so commonplace in our selfie-crazed culture that some forget it’s actually a diagnosable medical condition.
People with narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) show patterns of grandiosity, feeling superior, and curating an impressive facade for themselves. Narcissists seek admiration, and often lack empathy towards others.
Narcissists are popularly portrayed as charming, charismatic, and always love to be the center of attention. However, there are different types of narcissism, including overt and covert narcissism. While people with overt narcissism tend to be extroverts, covert narcissists lean towards introversion.
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What is a covert narcissist?
The term covert or closet narcissist seems like an oxymoron. How can someone hide their need for attention and praise?
Covert narcissists tend to be shy and outwardly modest, keeping their thoughts of grandiosity to themselves. They care how other people view them and are hypersensitive to slights and insults from others. Covert narcissists can be manipulative and need reassurance from others. You might hear them use excuses to justify their superior self-image.
Traits of covert and overt narcissism aren’t always mutually exclusive. Some narcissists have overt tendencies in one area of life while feeling vulnerable in another (Crowe, 2018). Therapy is the most common treatment for narcissism, although most narcissists won’t seek treatment on their own and may require encouragement from family and friends.
Signs of covert narcissism
Due to the quieter nature of vulnerable narcissists, diagnosis may be less likely than in their grandiose counterparts.
It’s important to remember that covert narcissists have the same feelings of superiority and need approval as any other person with NPD. However, covert narcissists aren’t often outwardly showy, resorting to passive aggression and manipulative behavior instead.
Narcissistic personality disorder: traits, symptoms, testing
These individuals can be very insecure, their self-worth depending on reassurance from others. Even people with NPD with low self-esteem have feelings of self-importance and are dismissive and critical of others.
When confronted, covert narcissists may feel their self-image is attacked and respond with rage. People close to covert narcissists report that they feel like they’re walking on eggshells around those individuals (Day, 2020).
Covert narcissists will use justification and excuses to preserve their image. Here are a few examples of subtle excuses a vulnerable narcissist might use (Hart, 2017):
- I’d be as successful as Bill if I had the same connections helping me out
- It must be nice to have parents who gave you a trust fund
- If I were taller, I could have been a professional athlete
What causes narcissism?
NPD can manifest as a result of experiences in childhood, genetics, or a combination of factors (Mitra, 2021).
Certain parenting styles can bolster superior self-views and feelings of entitlement in a child. Children with overprotective parents are at risk of having fewer opportunities to learn from their own experiences. And with their parents always around to validate them, they learn to rely on feedback from others.
On the other side of the spectrum, lenient parenting can also lead to vulnerable narcissism. Children with no boundaries may also feel entitled, as limits give children a sense of reality and self-discipline (Van Schie, 2020).
Brain imaging studies show that teens with more narcissistic traits have exaggerated responses to negative social experiences. This hypersensitivity to emotional pain or social exclusion may explain why narcissists have such a fragile sense of self-esteem (Cascio, 2015).
Is there treatment for covert narcissism?
Talk therapy is a mainstay treatment for NPD. Initial sessions focus on examining symptoms and checking for other common mental health conditions that present with NPD (Caligor, 2015).
Sometimes prescription medications are used to treat NPD symptoms, such as anxiety and depression. While antidepressants can help with mood and reduce thoughts of self-harm, they don’t treat the underlying causes of NPD (Mitra, 2021).
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How to deal with a covert narcissist
Recognizing that a person exhibits these traits is step one. Encouraging them to seek help likely won’t be effective (and can easily fail spectacularly).
Try talking to family members or people close to the individual––see if they notice the same behaviors you do. If so, together you can determine the best way to approach the person.
There are also support groups for people affected by NPD. Whether you’re in a toxic relationship or a victim of narcissistic abuse, speaking with others in similar situations can be helpful.
Unfortunately, there’s no formula or road map to direct you on this journey. Your approach depends on the nature of your relationship. If you’re a parent with a child under age 18, you may have a significant role in getting them started with therapy. You may also benefit from talking to a therapist or counselor about parenting styles and tools you can use to help your child.
Some relationships are one-way streets. You might need to break ties with a person exhibiting narcissistic behavior if they refuse to seek help and negatively impact your life. Either way, it’s essential to have a plan if the individual denies their condition and declines help.
No matter the relationship, remember to take care of your own wellbeing and set boundaries. If possible, try not to take the person’s actions or words personally. People with narcissistic personality disorder prioritize protecting their self-image, which can turn into emotional abuse for those around them.
- Caligor, E., Levy, K. N., & Yeomans, F. E. (2015). Narcissistic personality disorder: diagnostic and clinical challenges. The American Journal of Psychiatry, 172(5), 415–422. doi: 10.1176/appi.ajp.2014.14060723. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25930131/
- Cascio, C. N., Konrath, S. H., & Falk, E. B. (2015). Narcissists’ social pain seen only in the brain. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 10(3), 335–341. doi: 10.1093/scan/nsu072. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/24860084/
- Crowe, M. L., Edershile, E. A., Wright, A., Campbell, W. K., Lynam, D. R., & Miller, J. D. (2018). Development and validation of the Narcissistic Vulnerability Scale: An adjective rating scale. Psychological Assessment, 30(7), 978–983. doi: 10.1037/pas0000578. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/29781662/
- Day, N., Townsend, M. L., & Grenyer, B. (2020). Living with pathological narcissism: a qualitative study. Borderline Personality Disorder and Emotion Dysregulation, 7, 19. doi: 10.1186/s40479-020-00132-8. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/32817795/
- Hart, W., Adams, J., Burton, K. A., & Tortoriello, G. K. (2017). Narcissism and self-presentation: Profiling grandiose and vulnerable Narcissists’ self-presentation tactic use. Personality and Individual Differences, 104, 48–57. Doi: 10.1016/j.paid.2016.06.062. Retrieved from https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0191886916308121?via%3Dihub
- Jauk, E., Weigle, E., Lehmann, K., Benedek, M., & Neubauer, A. C. (2017). The Relationship between Grandiose and Vulnerable (Hypersensitive) Narcissism. Frontiers in Psychology, 8, 1600. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2017.01600. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/28955288/
- Mitra, P., & Fluyau, D. (2021). Narcissistic Personality Disorder. In StatPearls. StatPearls Publishing. Retrieved May 29, 2021 from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/32310461/
- van Schie, C. C., Jarman, H. L., Huxley, E., & Grenyer, B. (2020). Narcissistic traits in young people: understanding the role of parenting and maltreatment. Borderline Personality Disorder and Emotion Dysregulation, 7, 10. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/32426139/