Recently, someone asked me to describe the greatest danger of "covert introverted" narcissism. To answer this question clearly, we’ll have to bust a few myths.
Calling someone a covert narcissist doesn’t—or at least shouldn't— imply that they’re any sneakier or more manipulative than the average narcissist. It also doesn’t have anything to do with hiding abusive behaviors (another widespread myth). There’s no evidence of any such pattern in clinical research (reports from mental health professionals) or social psychological research (the study of traits and personalities).
The term, covert narcissism (aka hypersensitive or vulnerable), was coined to capture the pattern in narcissists who aren’t loud, vain, chest-thumping braggarts but—as their partners discover soon enough—are just as arrogant and argumentative as people with the prouder, more outgoing brand of extraverted narcissism (aka overt or grandiose).
The “covert” in covert narcissism refers to the grandiosity inherent to all narcissists. Covert narcissists may be quiet or shy (and often are) but inside—in other words, covertly—they still harbor overblown visions of themselves and their future: dreams, for example, of one day being discovered for their remarkable creativity or intelligence or insight. What’s different about covert narcissists is that because they’re introverted, they don’t advertise their inflated egos. They agree with statements like I feel I’m temperamentally different from most people and Even when I’m in a group of friends, I often feel very alone and uneasy. Many researchers have complained that covert is a misleading label, and I agree. Narcissists can be open or quiet about their grandiosity and often vacillate between feeling happily inflated and abjectly deflated; covert and overt traits coexist in all narcissists to one degree or another.
For that reason, in Rethinking Narcissism, I introduced the term introverted narcissist instead. Covert narcissism is just another way of describing introverted, vulnerable, or hypersensitive narcissists.
To add to the confusion, neither ‘narcissism’ nor ‘narcissist’ are diagnoses or disorders. Narcissism is a trait; narcissists are people who score well above average on measures of that trait. They may or may not be disordered.
The easiest way to understand all narcissism is to think of it as the drive to feel special or stand out from the other seven billion people on the planet in some way. Narcissists, then, are people so addicted to feeling special that they become more and more willing (the higher they are in the trait) to do whatever it takes to get their “high,” including lie, steal and cheat (just like any severe substance abuser). This rethink helps explain the variety of narcissists, too.
Since there are many ways to feel special, narcissism comes in a multitude of forms. People can feel special by believing themselves to be the most intelligent or beautiful person in the room (extraverted), the most misunderstood or emotionally sensitive (introverted), or even the most helpful or caring person in the room (a new type, called communal narcissism).
The more addicted any narcissist is to feeling special, the more likely they are to become disordered, displaying the core of pathological narcissism, or Triple E, as I call it: exploitation—doing whatever it takes to feel special, regardless of the cost to those around them; entitlement—acting as if the world owes them and should bend to their will; and empathy impairments—becoming so fixated on the need to feel special that other people’s feelings cease to matter. At this end of the spectrum, we find narcissistic personality disorder (or NPD).
And herein lies the answer to the question. Built into the definition of NPD is manipulation (exploitation). The more severe the disorder, the more likely that exploitative style is to become abusive. That means anyone with NPD can become abusive over time. And abuse is dangerous.
Disordered narcissists (those with NPD) can be calculating about hiding their abusive side, whether they’re extraverted, introverted, or communal because all disordered narcissists are by definition manipulative.
Here, I explain the true danger of covert narcissism in greater depth.
a version of this article originally appeared at psychologytoday.com