What are the telltale signs of a vulnerable narcissist?

cfhh - vulnerable narcissist

We’ve all heard of the classic narcissist, that person who appears boastful, arrogant, and possesses a profound sense of self-importance.

Narcissists are often discussed, particularly in popular culture, where the term “narcissism” has gotten thrown around countless times on social media, articles, and magazine interviews.

Meet the overt narcissist

Classic or “overt narcissists” are often at the forefront of many discussions; it’s relatively easy to spot an overt narcissist.

According to mental health professionals, people diagnosed with narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) typically present with the following behaviours:

  • Exaggerated achievements and talents
  • Being preoccupied with fantasies about power, wealth, attractiveness, brilliance, and having the perfect partner
  • Being envious of others and believing that others are jealous of them
  • Having a sense of entitlement and assuming they are above or superior to everyone else
  • Having a profound sense of self-importance and constantly seeking admiration and attention from others
  • A severe lack of empathy for others
  • Behaving arrogantly or haughtily where the narcissist may come across as pretentious, boastful, and arrogant

Meet the vulnerable (covert) narcissist

Often referred to as “covert narcissists,” the vulnerable narcissist (like the overt narcissist) has a narcissistic personality disorder.

However, vulnerable narcissists hide their narcissistic traits from the world, and unlike their overt counterparts, covert or vulnerable narcissists usually appear to be shy, reserved, and modest individuals.

People with covert narcissism

Despite the mask they present to the world, vulnerable narcissists are chronically envious of others, have difficulty handling criticism, and lack empathy toward others.

Woman with borderline personality disorder

Covert narcissist

The covert narcissist is extremely sensitive to any slights in criticism and constantly compares themselves to family, friends, and co-workers.

People with covert narcissism usually prefer to be alone, mainly because of their hypersensitivity to other people’s judgments or perceived criticisms.

What is the definition of narcissism?

Research states that although there are specific personality traits and behavioural patterns that all narcissists exhibit, there are significant differences in people with this disorder.

Traits of narcissism

People diagnosed with a narcissistic personality disorder do not always think, feel or act the same way – there are distinct personality features that set narcissists apart.

Broadly, let’s look at the typical narcissist. 

You’ll find that the narcissist in your life often discusses outlandish plans for the future, has unlimited amounts of energy, and uses exaggerated language and movements when speaking to others.

The many faces of a narcissist

The many faces that narcissists tend to show the world can vary; however, they appear to be self-assured, psychologically healthy, and confident individuals on the surface.

The above is the mask that narcissists present to the world, yet people with NPD are profoundly insecure, jealous, and emotionally vulnerable.


Narcissistic traits often get projected onto others, where the narcissist believes that others are envious of them or that those around them are insecure or weak.

What is the definition of a covert narcissist?

Vulnerable narcissism may show up in various ways. 

For example, covert or vulnerable narcissists tend to be extremely sensitive to criticism and are emotionally fragile, unlike overt narcissists.

Signs of covert narcissism

People with covert narcissism constantly judge and compare themselves to other people in terms of what others have that they do not.

Covert narcissists may compare their happiness to others; sometimes, such comparisons may be shallow.

For example, the covert narcissist may compare their achievements or possessions such as education, work achievements, houses, or cars to other peoples’.

Personal relationships

Covert narcissists tend to mask their narcissistic tendencies in their relationships too.

The covert narcissist may seem humble, shy, and self-deprecating. 

However, compared to the classic narcissist, the covert narcissist hides their disturbing thoughts, behaviours, and feelings well from those close to them.

Overt Vs. Covert narcissism

There are marked differences in all forms of narcissism.

The overt narcissistic personality

The overt narcissist outwardly seeks attention, cannot get enough of external praise and admiration from others, and constantly presents themselves as unique, entitled, and superior to the world.

The needs and desires of the overt narcissist must get met. 

Those who do not meet the narcissists’ standards are likely to be punished and reprimanded in the form of angry revenge, smear campaigns, and narcissistic abuse.

Such abuse may involve:

  • Gossiping or spreading lies about their victims
  • Sabotaging a person’s work or relationships
  • Threatening behaviours, i.e., physical, verbal, or emotional
  • The silent treatment and engaging in gaslighting techniques

The vulnerable (or covert) narcissistic personality

On the other hand, the covert narcissist is more challenging to identify.

Due to covert narcissism’s nature, the person’s family and friends may take longer to spot the signs.

However, although they may express themselves differently, the covert narcissist experiences the same thoughts and feelings as the overt narcissist, though such traits will not be obvious, at least not at first.

Vulnerable narcissism manifests differently

Covert narcissism involves fewer outward signs and symptoms than classic narcissism.

Diagnostic and statistical manual

However, those with covert narcissism meet the criteria for a diagnosis despite having traits that do not typically get observed in narcissism.

The following six signs of covert narcissism should give you a clearer perspective on the key differences that feature within this disorder:

1. Passive aggression

We’ve likely all displayed passive-aggressive behaviours, even if done unconsciously. 

However, covert narcissists display passive-aggressive behaviour to make themselves look superior to others or convey hurt or frustration.

In covert narcissism, passive-aggressive behaviour usually involves:

  • Mocking or teasing remarks concealed as jokes
  • Sabotaging another person’s work, career, or friendships
  • Blame – shifting to make other people feel guilty or question their reality, this form of manipulation often gets done subtly
  • Silent treatment

2. Having a shy or reserved nature

Since people with covert narcissism or NPD generally fear having their insecurities, failures, or flaws exposed, they tend to avoid or limit social interactions.

Such avoidance can minimise their risk of exposure – as having their inner thoughts and feelings revealed would likely threaten the “apparent” superiority they believe they have over others.

Compared to other types of narcissism, covert narcissism is associated with introversion.

Studies show that dealing with the distress of narcissistic personality disorder can be draining to those with the condition, meaning that diagnosed individuals have limited energy to cultivate meaningful relationships.

3. Being constantly stressed and angry

One of the predominant features of covert narcissism is the mood swings that come with the disorder.

Since covert narcissists are sensitive to even the slightest criticism, they often feel intensely stressed and anxious as they await another negative critique or comment. 

Covert narcissists tend to build anger over time, and any negative comments or feedback could result in an angry explosion where they take their frustrations out on other people or engage in self-harm.

displeased woman and small woman

4. Coming across as aimless

Another classic trait of covert narcissism is aimlessness.

Research shows that since covert narcissists are motivated by envy and going after other peoples’ success and achievements, they may appear inconsistent and aimless.

For example, if the narcissist completes a significant project, they don’t usually celebrate their success for long, as they are too busy searching for a new challenge or conquest.

Others might find that every goal the narcissist has will be different from the next, and to onlookers, it may seem as though the narcissist swings from one project to the other without a clear, definitive plan.

Covert narcissists are never satisfied with their achievements, and you may feel that something is off or too good to be true when discussing their accomplishments with you.

5. Private grandiosity

Externally, covert narcissists appear humble, shy, and reserved.

However, they secretly possess a profound sense of superiority over others, believing they are better than anyone they encounter.

Unlike the classic narcissist who engages with everyone, the covert narcissist prefers to be alone as they feel that nobody can match their high standards or expectations.

6. Feelings of anxiety and depression

Research shows that covert narcissism involves a higher risk of mental health disorders like anxiety and depression than other narcissistic types.

The literature states two reasons why the prevalence rates for anxiety and depression are higher in covert narcissism. 

They include:

  • The narcissist’s frustration regarding idealised expectations that do not match up with reality, and an incapacity to be needed or appreciated by others, such feelings may trigger emptiness, anxiety, and depression.
  • Covert narcissists frequently feel anxious about getting their fears or failures exposed by others, leading to depression and anxiety.

Getting in touch

If you think you may have any of the symptoms mentioned in this article, our specialist team at Centres for Health and Healing can help.

We specialise in treating mental health disorders such as anxiety, depression, substance abuse, and personality disorders, including narcissistic personality disorder.

Don’t hesitate to contact our team today to find out more.

Lisa Davies - Program Director of Vaughan Recovery and Kirby Estate

About Lisa Davies

Lisa is the Program Director at Centres for Health and Healing. She lived for most of her life in the Durham region, before moving to Peel five years ago.

Lisa is a Master Hypnotist and is certified in Hypnotherapy (2008), Self-Hypnosis and in 5-phase Advanced Therapeutic Healing. As a Member of National Guild of Hypnotists, she is also specialized in hypnosis training in pediatrics, pain management, neuro-linguistic and stage programming.

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