The Secret Narcissist
The secret narcissist. You might also hear them called "covert" or "vulnerable" narcissists. This is the narcissist that you don't see coming. Far from seeming arrogant or overconfident, this narcissist seems insecure and hurt. They can be clingy and seem very fragile. They portray themselves as helpless victims and control through guilt and neediness. More people may fall victim to this type of narcissist because they don't seem like the popular examples of narcissists that society believes in. Because of that, I believe they are more dangerous. People don't recognize them for what they are, and they are often able to do a lot more damage because of that. Despite what you may have heard, covert narcissists do not come across as unfeeling, devious psychopaths who try to hide the abuse they are inflicting. On the contrary, they come across as almost exactly opposite of that. That doesn't meant they can't be devious; some definitely are. But they usually don't come across that way. That's one reason they are so hard to see.
For example, let's say you have a friend who is very sensitive. Their feelings get hurt very easily. They take offense often and feel attacked by many things most others probably wouldn't feel attacked by. They seem paralyzed by their insecurities and need a lot of your time, otherwise their feelings are hurt. They may be suicidal often and it seems like they have a lot of bad things happen to them. Nothing ever seems to go right for them and they are constantly being victimized by people. You feel very sorry for this person, and you do everything you can to try and help them pull themselves back together. Only, it never seems to be quite enough.
After a while you start to realize that your relationship has been very one-sided. All it's about is you taking care of this person and helping them through the many crises in their life. You see that every time the conversation veers away from them, they either bring it back to themselves immediately or become hurt and may start sulking. You notice that when you need them, they are never there for you. If you attempt to get support from them, you are either ignored or they become angry that you dared to think your problems are important. Every conversation ends up being about them and their feelings and their problems. They are not interested in you at all. You start to realize this person exagerrates things and makes up problems to have something to be angry or upset about. You feel drained after dealing with this person and you feel that they resent you for being happy when they are not. They make unreasonable demands of your time and take you for granted, often insulting or disregarding you when they don't need you. They can be shockingly insensitive, and every time something doesn't go their way, there is a breakdown. Over time, you see that what you thought was insecurity is really selfishness. It isn't that they need so much support because they are insecure and incompetant. It's that if they don't matter more than anything to everybody, they are unhappy and resentful. You notice that this person can be absolutely vicious and heartless to people who don't do what they want. You finally notice how narcissistic and self-centered this person really is. And when you try to disengage from what you finally see is a toxic relationship, this person shows their true face - attacking and devaluing you, accusing you of victimizing them and of never caring.
This is the covert narcissist. The word "covert" means hidden. That is what they are. They don't seem aggressive and vicious at first. They don't come across as vain and confident. They come across as weak and needy. They are every bit as controlling, manipulative and abusive as overt narcissists. They just go about it in different ways. This is likely due to differences in each person's individual personalities, as well as whatever behaviors they have learned work for them. Narcissists - and most people in general - take the path of least resistance. An overt narcissist may have learned that they can get their needs most quickly met by being a bully, or by being charming and a smooth talker. A covert narcissist may have learned that they can get their needs most quickly served by coming across as pitiful, weak or as a victim.
Both are trying to serve the same basic needs. Both use manipulation, hoovering, smear campaigns, gaslighting and all manner of other tactics to manipulate and abuse others. Both are utterly selfish and care nothing for anyone but themselves. The only real difference between covert narcissists and classic or overt narcissists is the way their needs manifest themselves in terms of some of their behaviors. To put it simply: Overt narcissists seem arrogant and confident. Covert narcissists seem insecure and needy. Everything else is the same.
This is why they are so dangerous. Covert narcissists often don't come across as narcissists at all - at first. It may take some time before you realize that is what you're dealing with - especially because many people believe narcissists have no feelings at all. Once you see it though, it all falls into place and you realize how totally selfish this person really is. Every time they don't like something or can't have something, there's a breakdown. Every time they are upset, everyone else has to drop what they are doing and tend to this person because their feelings have to be more important than anything else. They are no different than the classic or overt narcissist in this way. But whereas the overt narcissist may seem to be affected by nothing, the covert narcissist is affected, offended and hurt by everything. They use constantly hurt feelings as a weapon against other people, making it impossible for others to ever say or do anything right. They control through guilt and neediness. "Where are you going? What are you doing? Drop what you're doing, I need you." And if you don't give them the attention they want or can't be there for them, there is another breakdown, maybe even suicidal threats. Their entire life is just one tragedy after another.
They are often hostile and paranoid, and many times they have totally unrealistic ideas about their own importance or things they are going to do. Unlike many overt narcissists, though, they lack the necessary drive to actually do any of these things, and they are often very bitter about that. Conversations with these people may swing between talking about all of their unrealistic goals and a litany of complaints about how everyone is dragging them down. They are professional victims and are unable to relate to people any other way. As with many other narcissists, either you're saving them or you're victimizing them. There is no in-between, and certainly no room for you to be a human being with your own feelings or needs.
The key to recognizing covert narcissists is the same as recognizing classic or overt narcissists: does this person seem able to care about others or not? Don't listen to what they say. Watch what they do. Narcissists in general may talk a good game but if you watch their behavior, it does not match what they are saying. They are unable to put their feelings aside and they are unable to focus on anything else.
Even when it seems like they are talking about you, they aren't. Narcissists of any kind don't bother to relate to other people and they generally can't focus on anything other than themselves and their own feelings. Consider an argument between a covert narcissist and their spouse. The spouse was attempting to discuss a problem with the narcissist rationally and the narcissist was trying to claim that the spouse hated them. The spouse asked the narcissist "Can we ever talk about the actual problem I'm having? Can you for once stop talking about your own feelings?" The narcissist said, "I am talking about you." The spouse said, "No, you are talking about your own feelings and how you believe I hate you." The narcissist replied, "Right. You." Covert narcissists - like all narcissists - twist everything to be about them. They will sidetrack and derail the conversation at every turn until it is turned back to them. This is because that is the only thing that matters to them. If you ain't talking about them, you ain't talking about nothing.
Covert narcissists can be very tricky to identify. As a case in point, the author of this article did a series of video interviews a few months ago with a guy we called Joe. Joe is a covert narcissist. He has been diagnosed with NPD by 3 different doctors. Some of the things he has done to his family would probably shock people if they knew. The point was not to shame him, though so they were not mentioned. But there are still so many people who can't see it. That interview was split into two sections, one called CHILDHOOD and one called RELATIONSHIPS. There are so many comments on the CHILDHOOD portion of the interview that say they don't think Joe is a narcissist - even though he has been diagnosed by multiple doctors and even though he clearly identified himself as one. In the end, perhaps it's a testament to just how manipulative and covert these personalities really are, when someone can tell people point blank that they are a narcissist but is so convincing as a victim that they don't believe it.