Covert Narcissist

(or Vulnerable Narcissist)

By Dana Morningstar

Vulnerable narcissists are also self-absorbed, self-centered, and have a lack of empathy and remorse. Where they differ from a more textbook narcissist (often called a “grandiose” narcissist) is that vulnerable narcissists 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 type of mistake, criticism, rejection, or “inferior” treatment by others as such. They think of themselves as superior beings and often crumble when others don’t think 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 most likely a compensation for their low self-esteem. And their fear of abandonment is thought to be due to a lack of secure bonding with their parents when they were a child.


When a vulnerable narcissist’s wounding is visible, it can really 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 that they did a good job. And a target of a vulnerable narcissist may have a hard time distancing themselves from a person like this, because they know how hard they take rejection. They may also think that because the narcissist is capable of being emotionally wounded, they are also capable of empathy and remorse—after all, these narcissists feel emotional pain, so you’d think that they’d be able to sincerely relate to the pain in others (but this is not the case). 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 are going to 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 to keep them in the cycle of abuse. They may claim that they were abused by their ex, or by a parent—and that they 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 wonderful, attractive, and special and that they would never hurt them.


Example: Tina met Roger online. She really 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 incredibly lucky 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 sexy and how he found it distracting. At first Tina wondered why he was telling her this, but she brushed it off. Then a week or so later, he told her 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, and he began verbally abusing her after she told him she wasn’t staying the night because she didn’t feel well.


Example: 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 really hard. At first, Diane thought he was joking because his reaction was so disproportionate to the situation, especially since he was normally somewhat of an arrogant tough guy. 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 really 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.

Dana Morningstar is a former psychiatric nurse turned domestic violence educator who specializes in abuse awareness and prevention. Her passion is working with survivors of abuse to reclaim and rebuild their self-esteem, boundaries, confidence, and identity. She is an author of multiple books on the subject, and also has a blog, podcast, and YouTube channel, as well as several online support groups, all of which you can find under the name “Thrive After Abuse.”

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