When we hear of narcissism, the first image we associate in our minds may be that of a grandiose narcissist, someone who is successful, ambitious, and makes ruthless choices to achieve his or her goals at the expense of others. We might think of the Greek myth of Narcissus, who became obsessed with his own reflection. We associate this character's name with vanity and obsession with one's own image, keeping up one's reputation even if it means silencing victims of their hidden abuse. Abuse is often associated with narcissism, especially with those of us who've been raised by narcissistic parents or have been in relationships with narcissists. However, a narcissist will not always appear grandiose. Narcissism can be so subtle, it can fly under the radar in the form of introversion and low self-confidence. This is a form of covert narcissism known as vulnerable narcissism. These are the narcs who are so insecure, they'll put others down to feel better about themselves.
It may be difficult to distinguish between a vulnerable narcissist and your average introvert at first. Many people out there have experienced misfortune or trauma. On a first impression, the vulnerable narcissist may rub off as simply quiet, sensitive, and shy. This individual may be open about having a rough childhood or tragic past. Unlike the average narcissist, the vulnerable sort appear to have feelings and may even suffer from depression or anxiety. Normal survivors and normal introverts however, don't weaponize their wounds. Like all narcissists, a vulnerable narcissist will be attracted to those with empathy, are codependent, or highly sensitive. It is easy to wield fear or a guilt-trip on those of us who care. Vulnerable narcissists tell us their sad backstories and hook us by playing our heart strings. They want us to feel sorry for them. If you are highly compassionate, you know it works. As the relationship progresses, that's when you notice the guilt tripping. If this is a parent, the same applies only they'll play the filial loyalty-card. They'll use their trauma, disability, mental illness, etc. as leverage to have their way. If you refuse to give them attention, they insist you are selfish and cruel.
Like overt narcissists, they think the world owes them but the expression of entitlement it different. The grandiose narcissist puts his or herself out there, making any effort to gather support and popularity. The vulnerable narcissist, on the other hand, has low self-confidence. They don't have many friends. They are socially awkward and lack the charisma of the grandiose narcissist. However, in their own minds, they deserve recognition. Everyone is just too stupid to see their greatness. They won't try to fix whatever is holding them back because they don't see anything wrong with themselves. It's their partner's fault the relationship didn't work out. They didn't get that promotion because their boss is too blind to see their potential. It's because of bias or discrimination that their manuscript was rejected. In their minds, it wasn't because they were controlling, or their work ethic, or the many grammatical errors, that they failed. They will always be the victim. They glory in being nobody. Someone who was simply unfortunate would get up and try again. They would self-examine, make some changes so their next relationship works out. They'll work harder to earn the promotion or revise that manuscript to get it published. Notice also that the vulnerable narcissist often makes fun of the successful yet underachieve themselves. They put down others' goals and dreams as stupid while having none of their own. A successful friend or relative is a threat in their eyes, a threat to their own ego. Don't let anyone who has done nothing tell you how to do anything. Their egos tell them they're smarter and know so much better than you even when it's not so. They blur the lines between controlling and helpful and say we're too sensitive for resenting their condescending remarks.
Narcissists don't love you, they need you. This applies especially to the vulnerable narcissist. All narcs need their victims around for narcissistic supply (basically, an ego boost). Vulnerable narcs are looking for help, not love. A compassionate heart can easily be taken advantage of. They take while you give. Sure, they will give back, enough to convince you to stay around. Maybe they bombard you with their eternal gratitude but you are always the one sacrificing more. You go out of your way for them but they'll make you feel bad when you ask them to do the same. They're in too much physical pain, or they're too tired. These can be valid excuses, but are they understanding when you are tired or need to take a sick day? Do they help you in return? If your vulnerable narc actually has a disability or is sick, that's where it can get dicey. You don't want to be heartless or ask them to do more than they are capable of. They may rub it in or use it as leverage to keep you near because they know of your compassion. You'll wish to leave them for their verbal and emotional abuse, but they'll insist you're leaving them because of their disability. If this person has a history of mental illness or self-harm, they'll threaten to hurt themselves if you leave. They can't live without you. Guilt and obligation, as well as fear for their well-being, may result in the toxic relationship lasting longer than it should. There is no shame in helping someone in need, but if it comes at the expense of your own mental health, it's no good.
Most importantly, a vulnerable narcissist will deny they are narcissists. All narcs deny, lie, and avoid taking responsibility for their actions but the vulnerable narc has the best cover. Some are talented actors who can make convincing exaggerations. Maybe they don't even realize what they do is narcissistic. Like most people, their idea of a narcissist is someone ambitious, ruthless, popular, and vain. They lack those grandiose qualities, being the exact opposite with their shyness, lack of ambition, and outward show of humility. What makes a narcissist, overt or covert, a narcissist is their lack of empathy, desire to control others, and failure to find any fault in themselves. In their minds, they are always right. They may not care so much about their image like the pristine and powerful grandiose narc, but they are inwardly self-righteous and judgmental. They're the underdog, but everyone, regardless of their position or net worth, is beneath them.
So how to distinguish between the average introvert and a vulnerable narcissist? There are several tell-tale signs. The first is consistency. If this individual gave you a sob story about his or her past, do the details make any sense? Is there matching evidence? Say your friend claimed he had a mental health emergency but you don't see a scar from the alleged attempt. If you ask the people who called for help, do they tell a different story? What is the reaction if you confront him about the inconsistency? Will he villify the witnesses? Call them liars? Bring up some ad hominem as to why you can't trust a word they say? How angry does he get when questioned? Furthermore, is your friend effective, insightful, or willing to help others who are going through a hard time? You'd think someone who allegedly suffers from panic attacks or depression to be more helpful than to stand there and shout, "get over it!" when it's someone else. Another tell-tale sign is self-improvement, or the lack thereof. Vulnerable narcissists, unlike survivors, have little interest in healing. They might even deny having a problem. They don't care to get back up and work on their people-skills, like a normal introvert. In the narc's mind, the world must adapt to their needs, not the other way around. Anyone who tells them to learn the skills and integrate is a fool.
Ask yourself why does this individual have few friends? Is it their shyness and awkwardness? Do they try to strenghten interpersonal relationships? Is it because the world is cruel that they can't make friends or are they selfish and exhausting to be around? Did their old friends leave because they were bad friends, or was it the narc's toxicity that made them walk away and block his number? Maybe there is a valid reason why (s)he has so few friends. Notice how this person speaks of others and themselves. A narcissist will put others down to boost his ego. The vulnerable narcissist, unlike the grandiose narc, won't boast. When talking about themselves, these people often say self-depricating things to get compliments. Remember, vulnerable narcs are always the victim or martyr and the world is out to get them. They can do no wrong, it was everyone else who wronged them. Do they ever have good things to say about their colleagues or their family? Are all their exes "crazy"? Do they ever own up to their mistakes, or was it someone else's fault? Is everyone stupid in their eyes? Do they think they're morally superior or more "woke"? Do they think they know better than those with more experience or knowledge in a field? Are they willing to learn, or do they think they know everything?
Is there a covert or vulnerable narcissist in your life? Have you been played like a toy guitar? Are you wondering if it was your fault all along? Did you go no-contact only to second-guess the decision? A narcissist can mess with your mind by their blame-shifting and projecting. Look past the helpless and quiet exterior. Their attitude and actions tend to blow their cover. They'll say they love you more than anything and that they can't live without you only to discard you once you're done with their nonsense. The truth is, we can't unsee the iron fist once the velvet glove has come off. Once it's clear we won't run back like we used to, the narcissist will cut us off. A final discard. Remember, those who love you accept you for who you are. They don't try to put out your fire. Those who love you fight for you. They ask what they can do to keep you. They don't play on your sympathy. They accept it when it's time to let go, even if it hurts. Don't let this discourage your compassion. Don't turn your back on love, but be more careful with who you lend your heart to.