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.