How easy is it to spot the signs of narcissism when it is much less overt? Most of us are familiar with the concept of clinical narcissism. More than simply taking one too many selfies on social media, folks with narcissistic personality disorder typically display impaired empathy, a constant need for admiration, difficulty sustaining relationships, and an inflated sense of self importance. We expect them to be grandiose, charming, and attention- seeking. This is the better-known ‘overt’ form of the disorder.
By contrast, there are also ‘covert’ or ‘vulnerable’ narcissists, who appear shy and self-deprecating. Their status as narcissists is less obvious due to this mask, and many bystanders would never guess at their true nature. Scratch the surface, however, and they display the same entitlement, hypersensitivity to criticism, sense of superiority, and lack of regard for the needs and feelings of others as their overt counterparts.
We can all display narcissistic traits at various points, but this doesn’t necessarily mean you have the personality disorder, which is confined to those whose behaviours are at the extreme end of the spectrum. There’s nothing wrong with craving a little attention, love, and success occasionally.
Strictly speaking, ‘covert narcissism’ is not a separate diagnosis in itself according to the psychological ‘bible’, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5). Instead, it falls under the category of narcissistic personality disorder, which is characterised by nine symptoms.
These are self-importance; a preoccupation with fantasies of unlimited success in various facets of life; believing they are ‘special’ and unique; an intense need for admiration; a feeling of entitlement; exploiting others for their own gain; a lack of empathy; envy of others or suspecting others envy them; and arrogance. A patient must be assessed as possessing at least five of these to receive the diagnosis.
Around 0.5 to 1 per cent of the population has the disorder. The exact cause is unknown, although genetics are suspected to play a part, along with early trauma, abuse, and excessive praise or judgement from parents. So how can you tell if someone around you is a vulnerable narcissist? This kind of narcissist can be difficult to identify because the ways in which they operate are less ‘in your face’ than the more familiar overt type.
“Tt takes longer for people to start to feel and become aware of what the other person is doing to them,” says psychiatry resident, Dr Kieran Kennedy. “A covert narcissist is more likely to use those more subtle, emotional, relational ways of asserting that they are more in need and more important, and leave you feeling like you actually don’t matter.”
Clinical psychologist and author Eve Dyer says covert narcissists can initially come across as generous and caring, or anxious and needy. Conversing with them will often leave a baffling feeling of guilt and obligation or a feeling that something is ‘off’.
“You feel guilty even though you haven’t done anything and your mind is confused, and it’s easier just to give in and comfort the narcissist, which is of course what they want,” says Dyer. “You’re then on the back step because you’re now on edge when that person comes near you, which means you’re not thinking clearly and not listening to your intuition.”
Confusing signals: the signs of narcissism
When you look at what the covert narcissist is saying versus their body language, facial expression and other signals, it simply doesn’t add up. The listener might brush it off by thinking the other person means well, but their gut instinct is trying to warn them that the overall message isn’t genuine. “With someone who has no empathy, even if they try to fake it at times, our gut, our emotional response, will tell us that it’s not real,” says Dyer.
Even more confusingly, it can be difficult to explain to friends how you are being treated by a covert narcissist, as their methods often operate within the limits of plausible deniability — a snide remark that can be explained away, an insult or hypocritical comment that’s only biting when you understand the history or context, or pretending to forget about events that are important to others.
If your friends are compassionate types, they might err on the side of encouraging you to forgive. The bottom line is that you’ll get the sense that your needs will always come second to the narcissist’s as long as the relationship continues.
While deep down, covert narcissists might feel similarly to more overt narcissists about how special and superior they really are, how they present to the outside world can be entirely different.
In a family setting, narcissists are likely to seek out a partner who would be more willing to overlook or explain away their more questionable behaviour. For this reason, they often go for kind, caring people who would be more likely to take responsibility for any conflict than turn the blame towards the narcissist.
“The type of partner a covert or overt narcissist might gravitate towards would probably be one that naturally fits the carer role or who is very empathic, wanting to help others, and who is quite emotionally open and available,” says Kennedy. “Those are the type of people that a narcissist can really tuck into and use for their own gains.”
Even if the person is not like this initially, being with someone who has narcissistic personality disorder can whittle away at their self-worth and confidence until they feel like they must be the problem. There will be considerable pressure from the narcissist for their partner to behave in certain ways to accommodate their needs, as well as a barrage of criticism about the many things the partner has supposedly done wrong.
“They’ll complain you’re not loving enough, or warm or caring, and that you’re too demanding and selfish, which is just the opposite of the truth, and then you’ll doubt yourself more and more,” says Dyer.
Children in the family might be split into gentle souls whom the narcissist will show clear favouritism towards, and offspring who may be demonised for either challenging the narcissist’s behaviour or failing to show their parent in the best light.
Overall, catering to the narcissist’s moods, rules, and requirements will take up the lion’s share of family time and focus, while the narcissist will fail to meaningfully reciprocate this support.
“A narcissist will be quite emotionally unavailable,” says Kennedy. “It will be about them being the centre of the emotional universe in the family and getting what they need. It often leaves relatives, partners and children feeling quite emotionally overlooked, used, and neglected.”
In the workplace, the best approach is to arrange to come into contact with the narcissist as little as possible, although Dyer warns to be prepared for repercussions in the form of a smear campaign.
“Say ‘I won’t be able to help you out, I’ve got a deadline’ — break contact as much as you can,” says Dyer. “When they’re not getting what they want, they will start spreading vicious gossip about you — just know that that’s going to happen.”
Similarly, it’s best to gracefully withdraw yourself from a friendship with a narcissist and sidestep any accompanying drama as best you can. Alternatively, set limits around how often and how long you come into contact with them. Bear in mind your former friend might be set on revenge and rumour spreading, but not all your mutual buddies will be taken in by their tactics.
Calling the person out publicly can incite their rage and lead to very uncomfortable situations. Instead, Dyer suggests the best approach is to learn to detect the signs of narcissism in others, and how to defend and rebuild yourself from blows to your selfworth when interacting with them.
“Distance yourself if you can,” says Dyer. “They can turn quite quickly when challenged and then you see the vicious side of a narcissist.”
When they push your buttons or rage at you, it can be extremely tempting to give them a taste of their own medicine, but this is actually giving them what they want — a reaction — rather than actually harming them or improving the situation. “If we try to flip it back or rise to the level of emotion they’re on, a narcissistic individual is really going to soak that up and throw it back at us times two and use it against us,” says Kennedy.
Even in a family situation, there may come a point where the best option is to withdraw from the relationship altogether. Cutting contact completely is a valid move, especially where continuing to be associated with this relative would harm your health.
“Tt takes years to come to terms with, especially if it’s your own mother or father who is the narcissist, and you’ve been running around after them all your life, and you’re still trying to be good enough,” says Dyer. “That takes quite a bit of healing of trauma before you’re going to be ready to break that link.”
Available treatments for the condition include psychodynamic therapy, relationship therapy and cognitive behavioural therapy. Medicine is not usually prescribed unless it is being used to treat other accompanying mental health issues such as depression or anxiety.
Getting a narcissist to agree to treatment in the first place is the initial hurdle, as a hallmark of the condition is believing the whole world is the problem, not them. Any agreement to attend therapy could be used as a limitless get-out-ofjail-free card to induce others to excuse their behaviour. Otherwise, they might regard it as a temporary measure to mend fences with targets of their affection who’ve threatened to end the relationship, or as a way to learn new methods of discerning what others want and manipulating them more effectively.
Sustained, meaningful change is possible, depending on the individual’s level of narcissism and their willingness to change, but the path will be a challenging one. Remembering that the person is usually coming from an insecure and traumatised place can assist us in remaining calm and disengaging. While it doesn’t excuse their behaviour, it can help us make some logical sense of it. “It may not be something that someone is actively consciously doing. It’s part of their personality — it is an illness in its own form, and so it’s important to not stigmatise personality disorders, and for people to know that they can get better and recover, even if it’s a difficult road,” says Kennedy.
In the meantime, he suggests focussing on what you can do to shield yourself from some of the ill effects of interacting with a narcissist. “That’s the best way to look after and protect yourself — acknowledge what’s going on and put some boundaries in place for yourself rather than trying to confront them or change them.”
Interacting with a person with narcissistic personality disorder can adversely affect your mental health. You can use several strategies to protect yourself, including:
- Spending time with other people who make you feel good about yourself.
- Engaginginsome hobbies and activities that you enjoy.
- Setting boundaries with the person and following through on the consequences you’ve stated will occur ifa boundary is crossed (eg “If you start sayinginsulting things about me or my partner, | willhang up the phone’). Backing down only encourages the other person to keep stepping over the line. « Limiting contact with the person to specific days or durations.
- Restricting the kinds of information you share with them. « Accepting you can’t fundamentally change this person. Youcan only control your reactions to them.
- Understanding and acknowledging that their behaviour comes from their insecurities andis not areflection on you.
- Seeking mental health treatment can also assist those dealing with narcissists to rebuild their self-esteem and adopt healthy coping strategies.
For fact sheets, online forums and advice and support in New Zealand: Lifeline lifeline.org.nz 0800 543 354 (0800 LIFELINE) or free text HELP (4357) Healthline
0800 611116 Samaritans samaritans.org.nz 0800 726666
In Australia: Beyond Blue beyondblue.org.au 1300 224636 (24 hours a day)
Lifeline lifeline.org.au 131114 (24 hours a day)