The truth about covert narcissists and why they aren’t hopeless.


BPD and covert narcissism/covert NPD are often confused with each other, because on the surface, their symptoms can appear very similar.   Neither has a grandiose sense of self or displays much (or any) arrogance, which is the more typical picture of someone with NPD.   Like borderlines, covert narcissists can seem very sensitive, needy, or emotionally fragile (something grandiose narcissists are not usually noted for, except for their infamous outbursts of rage).

Because covert or “fragile” NPD is not a recognized psychiatric diagnosis (at least not in my country),  people  who are actually suffering from covert narcissism (or covert NPD for those higher on the spectrum) are usually diagnosed with something else — usually Borderline Personality Disorder, especially for females.   Covert narcissism is also frequently confused with  PTSD (which may actually be comorbid with it),  Avoidant Personality Disorder, Social Anxiety Disorder, or Asperger’s syndrome/high functioning autism.

Covert narcissists, unlike borderlines, do have a false self–but their false self, rather than being grandiose or arrogant, is usually a “nice guy or gal.”  They want to be seen as good people, not badasses.   Some covert narcissists present themselves as victims, or as altruistic or helpful.  But in all cases, their real motive is to obtain narcissistic supply in the form of admiration (the helpful, altruistic types) or sympathy or care (the victim or helpless/needy types).

Another way covert narcissists differ from borderlines is they have problems with entitlement and envy (which I talked about in yesterday’s post about my own envy), even though it’s hidden.   They also usually lack emotional empathy; while borderlines generally have less empathy than a non-disordered person, they have more than narcissists.  That being said,  I can think of at least two diagnosed covert NPDs who have very high levels of emotional (not just cognitive) empathy, so I don’t think this is always an accurate indicator.

Another difference between BPD and covert narcissism/NPD is their core fear.  Borderlines are terrified of abandonment (being left), while narcissists fear rejection, disapproval, or judgment (how they are seen by others).   Of course they fear abandonment too, but how they are seen by others is their highest priority.

A commenter on this blog made an interesting observation about me under another post.  He or she said that in reading my posts, I seem to express more fear of how I’m seen by others than of abandonment, which indicates I have covert/fragile narcissism rather than BPD.   I actually think I have both.   BPD is my core disorder, but as I explained in my post about envy from yesterday, I think I unconsciously developed a thin layer of narcissism over that as a protection from the lack of emotional control I felt as a pure borderline.    As I go deeper into therapy,  I’m finding as that layer of narcissism begins to melt away, my emotions are going haywire again, more like a borderline.   But it’s okay now, because mindfulness activities help me keep any emotional lability in check.    I’m also learning how to use my strong emotions to my advantage and learn to love them instead of reject them.   For these reasons, I no longer have to cover the BPD “cake” with narcissistic “icing.”  There’s no way I’d want to go back to that awful feeling of being so disconnected and dissociated from my truth.

Covert narcissists can be every bit as malignant as grandiose narcissists, and in fact they can be more dangerous because they don’t wear a neon sign announcing they’re narcissists.   They show fewer red flags and can seem so nice at first.   But they soon prove to be emotional vampires, draining your mental and emotional resources until you’re exhausted and feel like you’re going insane.    They seem to have a bottomless well of neediness that can never be satisfied, no matter how much attention or care you give them.   They just keep taking and never give anything back.

But it’s still better to be a covert narcissist than a grandiose one.  Covert narcissists, no matter how high on the spectrum they are, are more curable and better candidates for therapy than grandiose/classic narcissists, because their disorder is almost always ego-dystonic.   This is probably because covert or fragile narcissists tend to be lower functioning than the classic type.    Unlike classic narcissists, they don’t believe their narcissism has improved their lives or made them successful.  Many (though not all) of them become lifelong underachievers, living far beneath their potential. They see themselves as “failures” and can’t understand why they can’t maintain jobs or satisfying relationships.   Although they may go for years believing it’s the fault of everyone else that their lives are so miserable, since they tend to be depressed and anxious, they’re still likely to seek out therapy.  When and if they become aware of their disorder, they usually want to change.   Even if they don’t know what their real problem is, they still know something is wrong.  They only need to realize their problem lies within themselves and not because the world is persecuting them.

Quite a few covert narcissists I know from the NPD forums seem entirely capable of accepting culpability once their narcissism or NPD is pointed out to them (and some discover it on their own). From there, getting better is just a matter of not expecting miracles overnight and a willingness to do a lot of hard emotional work.   Classic narcissists almost never think they have a problem or are willing to make any changes or enter therapy, even if they become aware of their narcissism.  They usually believe their narcissism has been of benefit to them.


10 thoughts on “The truth about covert narcissists and why they aren’t hopeless.

  1. My understanding of closet NPD from reading the literature is that it has exactly the same traits and symptoms as classic NPD, just they’re expressed differently. Elsa Ronningstam, a modern expert on NPD, has said that covert NPD is simply NPD + Avoidant and Masochistic traits. I’m honestly not sure where the confusion with BPD comes in, but I’m guessing the masochistic traits since BPD has a lot of overlap with the supposed Masochistic PD.

    There is a grandiose self with covert NPD, but it is covered up because as a child, they were shamed for displaying grandiosity. This can also happen with “classic” narcissists later in life when receiving enough narcissistic injury. Just so happens with the so-called covert subtype, it happened repeatedly as a child. Think of a narcissistic, yet religious, household.

    I respectfully disagree that a narcissist, no matter what “type” can have emotional empathy. A profound lack of empathy is part and parcel with NPD. And the cognitive empathy they do have, is highly dysfunctional. Soimetimes they can “understand” where you’re coming from on an intellectual level, other times they can misread you in a way that is completely bizarre.

    As for you Lucky, a lot of what you describe sounds like it’s from the HSP temperament to be honest. If you haven’t already, I suggest reading “Psychotherapy for the Highly Sensitive Person” by Elaine Aron, the psychologist who formulated the HSP concept. Being sensitive to criticism or judgment doesn’t automatically make one a narcissist. First thing that comes to mind is someone who has received a lot of criticism and is afraid of feeling that pain again.

    Anyway, I digress. That book was a life-saver for me, made me feel completely understood. I know you’ll enjoy it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I read Elaine Aron’s book about HSPs (and I in fact am one) but I didn’t know she had one about psychotherapy for HSPs also.
      Another one to add to my reading list. I also appreciate your thoughts here, thanks!


      1. Narcissists are “Hypersensitive” to critical feedback
        Borderlines are a “Highly Sensitive” to critical feedback

        Chances are if their first reaction is to lash out back. They are “Hypersensitive”.

        An “Ego Systonic” Borderline would “lash out with abuse” back most likely because they cant handle being less than “perfect” or “criticism”.

        If they take the critical feedback without “lashing out back” or “responding in a really negative manner” (i.e. like Trump on his Twitter) but are really hurt by it, then its more likely they are just “Highly Sensitive” if they are a Borderline.

        If the borderlines reaction is a bit of both then maybe they have a bit of both.

        Narcissists have huge problems with self-reflection. If you can look at your own behavior and say I did A, B and C and this is how I can correct it ! Its unlikely that you are a Narcissist. Possibly Narcissistic traits but doubtful a full blown Narcissist although there is the odd Narcissist that seemingly has the ability to self reflect according to them.

        Like Sam Vaknin or HG Tudor who are “Malignant” Unprincipled Narcissists.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Excellent comparison Lauren. I am happy for you thag you get recovered of the thin layer of NPD and BPD more and more. Do you also do therapy for APD?


    1. thag? Is APD Avoidant PD? I imagine my therapist is treating me for any symptoms and some may be part of these disorders, he refuses to give me a real dx though, which is fine with me. Thanks for asking, though.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s