A covert narcissist is just as damaging as an overt narcissist but they are clever at disguising their disorder. Instead of overt behaviour, they will ignore you, be passive-aggressive or disengage and replace you without any discussion. Their actions will have the same damaging result but they will act in more subtle ways. Sometimes this subtype is called a covert narcissist, a fragile narcissist, or a vulnerable narcissist.
People with the closet narcissistic variation may appear quite normal at first glance. In order to recognize that someone is a closet narcissist, you will need to spend a lot of time with the person and also understand the general characteristics of narcissistic personality disorder quite well.
Similarities between overt and covert narcissists:
- Unstable self-esteem.
- Preoccupation with status.
- Lack of whole object relations.
- Lack of object constancy.
- Lack of emotional empathy.
- Easily triggered by small slights that most people would overlook.
- Envy of other people’s successes, belongings, and self-confidence.
- Fear of being publicly exposed as inadequate.
Main Issue: Afraid of the Spotlight
According to Masterson, closet narcissistic disorder differs from the exhibitionist subtype in that people with this NPD variation are afraid to be directly in the spotlight. While exhibitionists will elbow you aside to become the center of admiring attention, people with CNPD are afraid to openly seek admiration. They are too concerned that if people were to take a close look at them, they would be exposed as inadequate fakes.
The Closet Narcissistic Dilemma
Most people with this variation were taught in early childhood that if they exhibited themselves for attention or openly acted “special,” they would be harshly punished or devalued. So, their basic dilemma is, “How do I get to feel special and prop up my shaky self-esteem without being open about my agenda?”
Solution 1: Get Indirect Attention. One of the common ways that people with closet narcissistic disorder deal with their conflict about wanting to be special is by attaching themselves to people, groups, and objects that they idealize as special. Then, instead of saying, “Admire me!” as the exhibitionist does, they say, “Admire this!” Then, they feel special by association.
Example: Paul wanted to feel important, so he joined a religious group that did missionary work. He was not comfortable saying “I am special,” but he felt that it was perfectly okay to tell strangers that “My religion is special. You should worship God the way we do. We have the one true religion that will save you from going to Hell.”
Solution 2: Work Extra Hard. Many people with CNPD work extra hard to please the people whom they admire. They live for the bit of attention and approval that they get from whomever they idealize.
Example: My client Sara idealized her boss. She would stay late at work to finish any project that he assigned her. Sometimes she came into the office on weekends because she wanted his approval so badly.
Solution 3: Be Manipulative. Instead of asking directly for what they want, people with CNPD may try and manipulate the situation so that the other person feels obligated to them or sorry for them. Some of this is simply due to the closet narcissist’s shaky self-esteem. Many believe that if they just ask for what they want, no one will care. They have to prepay with favors and then the person will owe them.
Example: Jennifer did big favors for her friends that they did not ask for. Once she offered her new work friend Jane the use of her cabin in the mountains for a weekend. Jane accepted and was grateful. But not grateful enough.
When Jennifer was not chosen to be a bridesmaid at Jane’s wedding, she felt cheated. She complained, “Jane owes me big time! How could she leave me out of her bridal party after what I did for her?” In Jennifer’s mind, everything was transactional. She could not understand that Jane simply took her gift of the weekend as a lovely generous gesture—not an obligation.
Solution 4: Gossiping. Most people with CNPD are not comfortable directly confronting people. Instead, they usually gossip to third parties about their grievances.
Example: Jennifer told everyone in her office about how badly Jane had treated her. When she had the opportunity, she made sure to “accidentally” let their boss know that Jane had been fired from her last job. This was something she had been told in confidence by Jane and had promised to keep a secret.
Solution 5: The Cold Shoulder. Unlike people with the exhibitionist subtype of NPD, people with CNPD are unlikely to pick a screaming fight with you in public when they are triggered. Instead, in addition to spreading malicious gossip about you behind your back, they may conspicuously ignore you. If you happen to meet in public, they may refuse to acknowledge you in any way. This extends to not responding to your texts, emails, or phone calls.