Do you know a covert narcissist?

Do you know a covert narcissist?

A covert narcissist is just as damaging as an overt narcissist but they are clever at disguising their disorder. Instead of overt behaviour, they will ignore you, be passive-aggressive or disengage and replace you without any discussion. Their actions will have the same damaging result but they will act in more subtle ways. Sometimes this subtype is called a covert narcissist, a fragile narcissist, or a vulnerable narcissist.

People with the closet narcissistic variation may appear quite normal at first glance. In order to recognize that someone is a closet narcissist, you will need to spend a lot of time with the person and also understand the general characteristics of narcissistic personality disorder quite well.

Similarities between overt and covert narcissists:

  • Unstable self-esteem.
  • Self-centeredness.
  • Preoccupation with status.
  • Lack of whole object relations.
  • Lack of object constancy.
  • Lack of emotional empathy.
  • Easily triggered by small slights that most people would overlook.
  • Envy of other people’s successes, belongings, and self-confidence.
  • Fear of being publicly exposed as inadequate.

Main Issue: Afraid of the Spotlight

According to Masterson, closet narcissistic disorder differs from the exhibitionist subtype in that people with this NPD variation are afraid to be directly in the spotlight. While exhibitionists will elbow you aside to become the center of admiring attention, people with CNPD are afraid to openly seek admiration. They are too concerned that if people were to take a close look at them, they would be exposed as inadequate fakes.

The Closet Narcissistic Dilemma

Most people with this variation were taught in early childhood that if they exhibited themselves for attention or openly acted “special,” they would be harshly punished or devalued. So, their basic dilemma is, “How do I get to feel special and prop up my shaky self-esteem without being open about my agenda?”

Solution 1: Get Indirect Attention. One of the common ways that people with closet narcissistic disorder deal with their conflict about wanting to be special is by attaching themselves to people, groups, and objects that they idealize as special. Then, instead of saying, “Admire me!” as the exhibitionist does, they say, “Admire this!” Then, they feel special by association.

Example: Paul wanted to feel important, so he joined a religious group that did missionary work. He was not comfortable saying “I am special,” but he felt that it was perfectly okay to tell strangers that “My religion is special. You should worship God the way we do. We have the one true religion that will save you from going to Hell.”

Solution 2: Work Extra Hard. Many people with CNPD work extra hard to please the people whom they admire. They live for the bit of attention and approval that they get from whomever they idealize.

Example: My client Sara idealized her boss. She would stay late at work to finish any project that he assigned her. Sometimes she came into the office on weekends because she wanted his approval so badly.

Solution 3: Be Manipulative. Instead of asking directly for what they want, people with CNPD may try and manipulate the situation so that the other person feels obligated to them or sorry for them. Some of this is simply due to the closet narcissist’s shaky self-esteem. Many believe that if they just ask for what they want, no one will care. They have to prepay with favors and then the person will owe them.

Example: Jennifer did big favors for her friends that they did not ask for. Once she offered her new work friend Jane the use of her cabin in the mountains for a weekend. Jane accepted and was grateful. But not grateful enough.

When Jennifer was not chosen to be a bridesmaid at Jane’s wedding, she felt cheated. She complained, “Jane owes me big time! How could she leave me out of her bridal party after what I did for her?” In Jennifer’s mind, everything was transactional. She could not understand that Jane simply took her gift of the weekend as a lovely generous gesture—not an obligation.

Solution 4: Gossiping. Most people with CNPD are not comfortable directly confronting people. Instead, they usually gossip to third parties about their grievances.

Example: Jennifer told everyone in her office about how badly Jane had treated her. When she had the opportunity, she made sure to “accidentally” let their boss know that Jane had been fired from her last job. This was something she had been told in confidence by Jane and had promised to keep a secret.

Solution 5: The Cold Shoulder. Unlike people with the exhibitionist subtype of NPD, people with CNPD are unlikely to pick a screaming fight with you in public when they are triggered. Instead, in addition to spreading malicious gossip about you behind your back, they may conspicuously ignore you. If you happen to meet in public, they may refuse to acknowledge you in any way. This extends to not responding to your texts, emails, or phone calls.

Example: Marco was furious with his friend Jim for not taking his side in a quarrel with someone they both know. The next time they met at a birthday celebration for a mutual friend, Carlos, Marco conspicuously ignored Jim. Carlos did not know about their fight, so he had seated them next to each other at the table. Marco refused to turn his head to speak to Jim and made his dislike obvious to everyone. When Jim asked him a question, Marco made a big show of pretending not to hear or see Jim. In true narcissistic fashion, Marco did not care that his behavior was ruining the party for Carlos and the other people there.

Covert narcissists typical behaviours

Passive aggression

Most people have probably used this manipulation tactic at one time or another, possibly without realizing it. But people with covert narcissism often use passive-aggressive behavior to convey frustration or make themselves look superior.

Two main reasons drive this behavior:

  • the deep-seated belief their “specialness” entitles them to get what they want
  • the desire to get back at people who wronged them or had greater success

Passive-aggressive behavior can involve:

  • sabotaging someone’s work or friendships
  • teasing or mocking remarks framed as jokes
  • silent treatment
  • subtle blame-shifting that makes other people feel bad or question what really happened
  • procrastinating on tasks they consider beneath them

A tendency to put themselves down

A need for admiration is a key trait of NPD. This need often leads people to boast about their achievements, often by exaggerating or outright lying.

Maury Joseph, PsyD, suggests this may be related to internal self-esteem issues.

“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 explains.

People with covert narcissism also rely on others to build up their self-esteem, but instead of talking themselves up, they tend to put themselves down.

They might speak modestly about their contributions with an underlying goal of earning compliments and recognition. Or they may offer a compliment to get one in return.

A shy or withdrawn nature

Covert narcissism is more strongly linked to introversion than other types of narcissism.

This relates to narcissistic insecurity. People with NPD are deeply afraid of having their flaws or failures seen by others. Exposing their innermost feelings of inferiority would shatter the illusion of their superiority. Avoiding social interactions helps lower the chances of exposure.

People with covert narcissism may also avoid social situations or relationships that lack clear benefits. They simultaneously feel superior and tend to distrust others.

Research from 2015 also points out that managing the distress associated with NPD can be emotionally draining, leaving little energy for developing meaningful relationships.

Self-serving ‘empathy’

Contrary to popular belief, it’s possible for people with NPD to at least show empathy. But they spend so much time trying to build up their self-esteem and establish their importance that this often gets in the way.

People with covert narcissism, in particular, may seem to have empathy for others. They might seem willing to help others out or take on extra work.

You might see them performing an act of kindness or compassion, such as giving money and food to someone sleeping on the street, or offering their spare bedroom to a family member who was evicted.

But they generally do these things to win the approval of others. If they don’t receive praise or admiration for their sacrifice, they may feel bitter and resentful and make remarks about how people take advantage and don’t appreciate them. They need gratitude and respect unconditionally.

Punchline: Closet narcissistic personality disorder can be very hard to recognize. Unless you are well trained in the narcissistic subtypes, you may not even know that this particular narcissistic subtype exists. Most people who spend a lot of time around someone with this disorder just see the person as a bit insecure or annoying. Even therapists may be unfamiliar with the CNPD diagnosis because it was not included in the DSM-5.

It is not until you get on someone with CNPD’s bad side, and you are portrayed as an all-bad villain because you have not lived up to their expectations, that you are likely to realize that something more complex than simple dislike is behind their behavior.


Masterson, J. F. (1993). The Emerging Self: A Developmental, Self, and Object Relations Approach to the Treatment of the Closet Narcissistic Disorder of the Self. NY: Brunner/Mazel. 

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