Covert narcissists, also called vulnerable narcissists, are self-absorbed, self-centered, and lack empathy and remorse. However, they differ from a more textbook narcissist, often called a grandiose narcissist, in that they tend to show more emotional depth when they are wounded and are very concerned with how others see them. They are thought to fear abandonment and perceive any mistake, criticism, rejection, or inferior treatment by others. They think of themselves as superior beings and often crumble when others don't believe the same. This crumbling reveals their vulnerability and often comes across as their appearing as a deeply-wounded child. Their inflated sense of self-worth and need to be acknowledged as superior is the most reasonable compensation for their low self-esteem. Their fear of abandonment is thought to be due to a lack of secure bonding with their parents when they were children.
When a vulnerable narcissist's wounding is visible, it can pull at a person's heartstrings. The target may watch with amazement as the narcissist emotionally transforms into a small child. They may cry, stay in bed, fall into a depression, or need a seemingly large amount of reassurance that they are okay or did a good job. A vulnerable narcissist's target may have difficulty distancing themselves from a person like this because they know how hard they take rejection. They may also think that because narcissists can be emotionally wounded, they can also be empathetic and remorseful. After all, these narcissists feel emotional pain, so you'd think that they'd be able to relate to the pain in others sincerely. As soon as they've had enough time to lick their wounds, they are back to their old selfish, insensitive and hurtful, self-absorbed, and entitled ways. Because vulnerable narcissists tend to need reassurance and approval, they also have a hard time being alone. Their partner may have a hard time leaving a vulnerable narcissist because, even despite the abuse they've gone through, they know how fragile the vulnerable narcissist is and how hard they will take the breakup. They may go back if the narcissist threatens to commit suicide or contacts them with repeated pleas for help, or begs them not to go.
Covert narcissists often use their vulnerabilities to lure targets in and keep them in the abuse cycle. They may claim they were abused by their ex or by a parent and are afraid to be hurt again. Or they may build up their target by telling them how wonderful, attractive, and special they are. The target may find themselves continually reassuring them that they are also fantastic, attractive, and special and that they would never hurt them.
Examples of a Covert Narcissist
Tina met Roger online. She liked that he was a teacher and worked with children. Roger was kind, compassionate, and very attentive, but seemingly very insecure. He would tell Tina that he'd never dated anyone like her before and that he was fortunate that she was interested in him. Tina was flattered that he thought so highly of her and would continually reassure him that she thought he was a great catch, too. Everything was great for the first few weeks, and then Susan noticed that Roger would say things about other women that she found odd. He began telling her about a coworker who dressed sexily and how he found it distracting. At first, Tina wondered why he was telling her this, but she brushed it off. A week or so later, he said that a woman bought him a drink when he was out with friends because she liked his beard. Again, Tina thought this was odd, but this time she asked him why he accepted the drink when they were dating. At this, Roger began yelling at her, accusing her of being jealous and controlling, and then gave her the silent treatment for a week. Tina was confused and devastated. When Roger reopened communication with her, she was relieved, and she apologized. Things went back to being great, and then a few weeks later, Roger's "Mr. Hyde" side came out. He began verbally abusing her after telling him she wasn't staying the night because she didn't feel well.
Trevor and his girlfriend Diane went downtown for a big New Year's Eve party. When they got back to their hotel, Trevor realized he'd lost his cell phone and began to cry. At first, Diane thought he was joking because his reaction was so disproportionate to the situation, mostly since he was usually somewhat arrogant and tough. When she realized he was serious, she tried to comfort him. She told him that she was sorry this happened and shared a time when she lost her phone. She went on to say that the good news was that he had insurance on it, and they could get a new one tomorrow. Diane tried to reassure him that these things sometimes happen and that it wasn't his fault, but Trevor wouldn't hear it. He told her that these things didn't happen to him, and he couldn't believe how stupid he was. He curled up under the covers for the rest of the night and refused any of Diane's attempts to console him. Diane was caught off guard by his behavior, as here was this tough, adult man who seemed to have changed into a small child. She had never seen Trevor, or any adult, act like this before.