The Vulnerable Narcissist is radically different from what we typically think of, when we hear the term ‘narcissist‘.
It’s commonly assumed that narcissism causes people to want to be the center of attention, be loud and self-centered and somewhat of a showboat. But vulnerable narcissism typically results in behaviors that are introverted and withdrawn.
What Is Vulnerable Narcissism?
Vulnerable narcissism is also known as ‘covert’ or ‘closet’ narcissism. It may present with the same narcissistic traits and symptoms as other narcissism types, only that some of these signs may be less intense or not openly displayed.
In addition to the formal symptoms of narcissistic personality disorder, other traits of covert narcissism may include:
- indications of low self-esteem
- symptoms of anxiety or depression
- shame and guilt
- introversion or social withdrawal
- a tendency to be passive aggressive and defensive
- avoidant behaviors
- tendency to feel or play the victim
- tendency to engage in vindictive behaviors
Someone with covert narcissism will still present signs of grandiosity and have low empathy, but probably act in a more subtle way than someone with overt narcissism.
In contrast to overt narcissism, typically characterized by arrogance, entitlement, and outward grandiosity, covert narcissism is also associated with:
- hypersensitivity to criticism: making dismissive, sarcastic or defensive comments in response.
- self-consciousness: simultaneously not wanting attention but believing that they are special and deserving.
- envy: often displayed as bitterness or resentment.
- passive self-importance: purposefully playing down their own achievements or giving backhanded compliments.
- procrastination & disregard: not showing up for meetings or honoring committments.
- introversion: not wanting to be in the limelight
It’s common for people living with this type of narcissism to struggle with depression and paranoia. They’re often envious of the people around them and tend to blame others for their lack of success.
Research suggests that female narcissists often exhibit characteristics associated with vulnerable or covert Narcissism. They are often more subtle in their ways of manipulation and quite comfortable assuming the victim persona.
Manipulative Behaviours of the Covert Narcissist
Although covert abuse can be hard to identify, there are signs to look out for. Often, covert narcissistic abuse involves emotional manipulation and psychological games.
Blaming and Shaming
Those who are covert narcissists may be subtle in their ways of blaming others for things which are their own fault. They may approach this gently and explain why something is someone else’s fault and how they are not to blame.
Narcissists are so uncomfortable with deep emotions such as shame that they will transfer these emotions onto others to avoid feeling negatively about themselves.
Gaslighting is when someone invalidates your experiences and memories and causes you to question your reality.
Someone who is gaslighting you might deny or trivialize something they’ve said or done, or they may misconstrue and change the subject.
Covert narcissists may often engage in gaslighting because it’s a subtle way of manipulating others without making it too obvious.
For example, when confronted with a wrong-doing, the covert narcissist will say “Are you sure that happened?” or “I never said that” or “I didn’t do that”.
Because of all the subtler tactics of covert narcissists, it is harder for others to notice that they are being manipulated.
Covert narcissists may cause others to question their perceptions and second guess themselves, sometimes believing they are in the wrong when they are not.
This leverage that the narcissist has on others helps to elevate themselves and hold power over others.
Often, people may be in long-term relationships with covert narcissists and not realize what they are experiencing is manipulation until emotional hurt is caused or the relationship ends.
This can ultimately cause potential damage to other people’s mental health and self-esteem if exposed to constant subtle manipulations.
The silent treatment
Someone living with narcissistic personality disorder may tend to resent when others don’t give them the status or importance they think they deserve. This may lead them to hold grudges for a long time.
One of the ways covert narcissists may express this resentment is by using silent treatment.
The silent treatment is a form of retaliation that involves ignoring someone else, not responding to direct communication, or not being emotionally or physically available.
For example, you arrive home from an evening out and your partner says nothing and is unresponsive to you.
Playing the victim
Although you might not think of someone with a narcissistic personality as a “victim,” some covert narcissists may play the role when they feel hurt or when trying to get you to do something for them. They are actually very adept at shifting the conversation back to how THEY are the victim in any situation.
Playing the victim may involve saying or acting like you’ve caused them harm and implying that you need to repair the damage. They simply don’t take responsibility for anything.
For example, you go shopping with a friend and upon returning home, the covert narcissist says “How could you be gone so long…I’ve had a hard day at the office and after all I’ve done for you I just wanted to see you when I got home”.
Passive aggression is done with the purpose of manipulating or hurting you, and is a persistent tactic of the covert narcissist.
Passive aggression refers to expressing criticism, judgment, or negative emotions in such a way that isn’t easy to pinpoint or describe by others. It’s an indirect and subtle way to be aggressive.
The silent treatment is an example of passive-aggressive behavior. Making a joke at your expense is another example.
Life For The Partner Of A Vulnerable Narcissist
For the partner of the vulnerable narcissist, life is challenging.
No one on the outside sees them the way you do. The covert narcissist helps others, volunteers, offers their time and is (to everyone on the outside) a really great person.
Those on the outside don’t know the gaslighting, passive-aggressive victim that you live with. When you bring an issue to the covert narcissist’s attention they fall into victim mode and ask how you could treat them like that. They get quiet, maybe give you the silent treatment and all of the attention goes to how hurt they are, and not the original issue at hand.
They are skillful at gaslighting and saying “I never said that” or “that never happened” and when you’ve hurt them, they will hold that grudge and absolutely bring payback.
Because of the Jeckyll and Hyde personality of the covert narcissist, no one will ever really know who they are, which makes ending the relationship particularly challenging for the partner of the vulnerable narcissist.
If you decide to leave the relationship, everyone will believe you crazy for doing so. Moreso, having never seen that side of the narcissist and only seen good deeds and helping, they most often will side with the narcissist, alienating the partner in the process.
Strategies For The Partner Of A Vulnerable Narcissist
If you’re experiencing covert narcissistic abuse in a relationship, you may want to consider some of the following ways to protect yourself.
Identifying the narcissistic behaviors
You may find it difficult to identify and accept abusive narcissistic behaviors that have been carried out subtly.
However, recognizing the signs of covert abuse is important for protecting yourself in the future.
You may want to start by determining which relationship behaviors you’re not willing to tolerate. Then, try to detect patterns of behaviors that make you feel uncomfortable or hurt.
For example, does your partner frequently dismiss your needs and opinions? Do they stop talking to you whenever you don’t do what they want? Do they go through cycles of loving you and then ghosting you?
These may all be red flags when it comes to covert abusive behaviors.
Setting and maintaining your boundaries
People with NPD may find it difficult to hold and respect healthy boundaries in relationships. Crossing or ignoring the boundaries you’ve set, or acting as if they know better, can be a sign of covert narcissistic abuse.
But setting and respecting boundaries are foundations for an emotionally secure relationship. If someone repeatedly ignores yours, it might be time to step away.
It’s natural and important to want to stand up for yourself when you feel someone isn’t behaving respectfully.
However, when protecting yourself from covert narcissistic abuse, you may want to skip direct confrontation. Try to calmly explain how you feel but if the other person isn’t receptive, you may want to end the conversation and consider how you want to proceed with the relationship.
Having a plan in place
When dealing with covert narcissistic abuse, or any form of abuse, a safety plan can help protect you if a harmful situation escalates.
A safety plan could include:
- having a paper list with phone numbers and addresses of trusted people
- keeping essential items secured with a relative or friend
- saving money in a secure place that you can access in an emergency
- having a safe place to go at any time of the day and night and knowing how to get there
The bottom line is, reach out. You don’t have to do this alone. The more supported you feel, the more empowered you will be to make choices that are in your own best interest. There are ways to manage these types of relationships, however setting reasonable expectations is mandatory.
If you’re looking for support in the topic discussed in this article or another challenge in your life, please reach out.
- Frontiers In Psychology – Emanuel Jauk, Elena Weigle, Konrad Lehmann, Mathias Benedek & Alijoscha C. Newbauer. “The Relationship Between Grandiose and Vulnerable (Hypersensitive) Narcissism” (https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyg.2017.01600/full ) Accessed 01/16/23
- HelpGuide.org. Narcissistic Personality Disorder. “Narcissistic Personality Disorder” (https://www.helpguide.org/articles/mental-disorders/narcissistic-personality-disorder.htm) Accessed 12/19/2022.
- ScienceDirect – William Hart, John Adams, K.Alex Burton & Gregory K. Tortoriello “Narcissism and Self-Presentation: Profiling Grandiose and Vulnerable Narcissists’ Self-presentation Tactic Use” (https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0191886916308121?via%3Dihub ) Accessed 01/16/23
- Pauline Poless, Linda Torstveit, Ricardo Lugo, Marita Andreassen & Stefan Sutterlin. “Guilt and Proneness to Shame: Unethical Behavior in Vulnerable and Grandiose Narcissism” (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5973515/ ) Accessed 01/16/23
- Stathis Grapsas, Eddie Brummelman, Mitja D. Back and Jaap J. A. Denissen. “The “Why” and “How” of Narcissism: A Process Model of Narcissistic Status Pursuit” (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6970445/) Accessed 12/19/22
Katrina Murphy is a Professional Intuitive Mindset and Confidence Coach in Ontario, Canada, serving clients across Canada and internationally. Katrina helps professionals to change the relationship that they have with themselves so they can reconnect both in their relationships and at work. She’s been featured in various publications and is the creator of the Power-Passion-Purpose Framework.