covert narcissism
A covert narcissist may appear shy or modest even though they have NPD

Narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) occurs on a broad spectrum that involves a wide range of traits. Covert narcissism, also called vulnerable narcissism, is one of them. 

A covert narcissist is someone who has NPD but does not outwardly display the grandiosity or sense of self-importance that is typical of NPD. Instead, they may appear shy or modest.

10 signs of covert narcissism

1. Extreme sensitivity to criticism

Feelings of insecurity are typical of NPD. In a covert narcissist, this manifests as extreme sensitivity to criticism. 

Of course, sensitivity to criticism isn’t unique to NPD, since few people enjoy being criticized. However the way someone responds to both real and perceived criticism can shed light on whether this sensitivity is extreme.  

Someone with covert narcissism might act as if they are above the criticism. Internally, however, they may feel empty, humiliated or angry, and their dismissive, sarcastic remarks are an attempt at hiding these feelings.

2. Passive-aggressive behavior

A covert narcissist may use passive-aggressive behavior to convey frustration or make themselves look superior. Passive-aggressive behavior may involve:

  • Sabotaging other people’s work or relationships
  • Mocking others
  • Giving others the silent treatment
  • Making others feel bad
  • Procrastinating on tasks they think are beneath them

3. Tendency to put themselves down

People with NPD crave admiration and rely on others to build self-esteem. Covert narcissists are no different, but instead of boasting about themselves, they tend to put themselves down with an underlying goal of earning compliments.

4. Shy or withdrawn nature

Covert narcissism is more strongly linked to introversion than other types of narcissism. People with this type of NPD are deeply insecure and afraid of other people seeing their failures. They may therefore avoid situations or relationships that lack clear benefits.

5. Grandiose fantasies

A covert narcissist usually spends more time thinking about their abilities and achievements than talking about them. They may have an “I’ll show you” attitude and often withdraw into a fantasy world of unlimited success or brilliance where they are superior to others.

6. Feelings of depression and anxiety

People with covert narcissism have a higher risk of depression and anxiety than other types of narcissists. Because of a deep fear of failure and frustration over unrealized perfectionistic ideals, they may struggle with feeling empty or even suicidal.

7. Tendency to hold grudges

Covert narcissists tend to hold grudges for a long time. If they feel they are being treated unfairly, they may say nothing at the moment but wait to take revenge in some way. Along with a desire for revent, these grudges can lead to feelings of bitterness and resentment. 

8. Envy

People with NPD are often envious of others who possess things they feel they should have. While a covert narcissist may not openly discuss their feelings of envy, they may show bitterness and resentment over not getting what they want.

9. Feelings of inadequacy

When covert narcissists can’t meet their own high standards, they often feel inadequate. This can result in feelings of shame, anger or powerlessness.

10. Fake empathy

Covert narcissists have the ability to seem empathetic and compassionate, but it’s usually self-serving and just for show. They may try to be helpful or generous but with the goal of winning approval and admiration.

How is narcissistic personality disorder treated?

While treating NPD can be difficult, therapy as well as medications in some cases can often help. Treatment options include:

  • Supportive psychotherapy involves using both psychodynamic and cognitive behavioral techniques combined with psychopharmacologic management.
  • Structured psychotherapies include mentalization-based therapy where therapists teach their patients to self-reflect.
  • Transference-focused psychotherapy involves identifying a patient’s treatment goals and establishing a treatment contract between therapist and patient.
  • Schema-focused psychotherapy involves using cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), attachment theory and psychodynamic therapy to treat negative perceptions of self, others and one’s place in the world that are established in early life.
  • Dialectical behavioral therapy is a form of CBT that combines individual therapy with group treatment and has core principles of acceptance and change.
  • Medications may be used to treat patients who have severe symptoms, may be a risk to themselves or others and have other, treatable psychiatric conditions. Medications that used to treat NPD may include:


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Medically Reviewed on 5/19/2021
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