Narcissist­ic personalit­y disorder can take various forms. Could you have a narcissist in your life without knowing it?


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 selfimport­ance. We expect them to be grandiose, charming, and attentions­eeking. 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.

“It 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.”


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 self-worth 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.

“It 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-of-jail-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.”

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