How can you recognize a person with a closet narcissistic personality disorder?
What Is Closet Narcissistic Personality Disorder? You could be living with a narcissist and not know it.
Written by Dr Elinor Greenberg
When most people think of a narcissist, they picture an arrogant, domineering person who loves to be the center of admiring attention. However, this description only fits one of the major narcissistic subtypes, the exhibitionist narcissist.
There is another narcissistic subtype that hides in plain sight because they do not fit our pictures of how someone with narcissistic personality disorder acts. Sometimes this subtype is called a covert narcissist, a fragile narcissist, or a vulnerable narcissist.
I find these terms a bit too imprecise and prefer the term “closet narcissistic disorder of the self” that James F. Masterson, the personality disorder theorist, uses in his work and describes very clearly.
Closet narcissistic personality disorder (CNPD) is one of the three major subtypes of narcissistic personality disorder identified by Masterson (1926–2010). The other two are exhibitionist and devaluing (also called malignant). Masterson’s groundbreaking book, The Emerging Self (1993), is devoted to describing the diagnosis and treatment of the CNPD subtype in great detail.
People with the closet narcissistic variation may appear quite normal at first glance. Many people with the closet narcissistic subtype just seem warm, a bit insecure and needy, and somewhat neurotic. They find indirect ways to get attention.
In order to recognize that someone has CNPD, you will need to spend a lot of time with the person and also understand the general characteristics of narcissistic personality disorder quite well. Despite their somewhat meek and harmless self-presentation, when you look closely at someone with CNPD, you will realize that he or she shares all the main characteristics associated with NPD:
- 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.
Note: In this post, I am using the terms narcissist, narcissistic, and NPD as shorthand ways of referring to people who qualify for a diagnosis of narcissistic personality disorder.
Main Issue: Afraid of the Spotlight
According to Masterson, closet narcissistic personality 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.”