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5 Signs of a Covert Vulnerable Narcissist

Unmasking hidden traits and destructive patterns.

Key points

  • Vulnerable narcissists exhibit a unique combination of fear and aggression.
  • Their need for attention, praise, and admiration may drive them to aggressive or passive-aggressive behaviors.
  • Understanding vulnerable narcissists while setting boundaries is essential in relationships.
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Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) is a mental condition characterized by an inflated sense of self-importance, a constant need for attention and admiration, troubled relationships, and a lack of empathy. While NPD is commonly associated with grandiosity and overt arrogance, research has shed light on a subtype known as vulnerable narcissism. Vulnerable narcissists exhibit a unique combination of fear and aggression, often displayed through chronic passive-aggression. Here are five signs of a covert vulnerable narcissist, with references from my book How to Successfully Handle Narcissists.

1. Need for Attention, Praise and Admiration

Similar to other narcissists, vulnerable narcissists have an insatiable craving for attention and admiration. They desire to be seen as special and unique. This constant need for approval may manifest in various aspects of their lives, including family, social, and professional settings. When deprived of attention and feelings of importance and (false) superiority, vulnerable narcissists may resort to aggressive or passive-aggressive behaviors to fulfill their narcissistic supply.

2. Covert Antagonism and Aggression

One of the most destructive aspects of vulnerable narcissism is the underlying envy, resentment, and antagonism they harbor towards others. These negative emotions tend to stay suppressed until specific incidents trigger their covert hostility. Vulnerable narcissists may engage in passive-aggressive tactics such as deliberate sabotage, calculated broken promise, intentional under-achievement, negative humor, sarcasm, and other behaviors that undermine and belittle their targets.

3. Fear of Rejection and Ridicule

Vulnerable narcissism is often distinguished by the dichotomy of an intense fear of rejection and ridicule, coupled with a tendency to reject and ridicule others. Often, the roots of narcissism can be traced back to early experiences of feeling unlovable, unacceptable, and worthless. Vulnerable narcissists develop a false external persona to mask their inner sense of inadequacy. The fear of rejection and ridicule acts as a trigger, harkening back to their early developmental wounds and leading to exaggerated reactions to real or perceived acts of rejection.

4. Reject and Ridicule of Others

“Some people try to be tall by cutting off the heads of others.”

— Paramahansa Yogananda

While vulnerable narcissists fear rejection and ridicule, some engage in constant rejection and ridicule of others as a means to validate their own fragile self-esteem. They derive a twisted sense of joy and satisfaction from judging, ridiculing, teasing, mocking, and negatively comparing others. Putting others down becomes a grim validation of their own unworthiness and low self-esteem. If they do not feel loved and worthy, they often seek to sabotage others from feeling the same.

While some vulnerable narcissists engage in a constant pathology of rejecting and ridiculing others, it is essential to recognize that this behavior stems from their own deep-seated feelings of unworthiness. Their need to put others down is a reflection of their own internal struggles rather than a true evaluation of others' worth.

5. Difficulty Forming Trusting and Loving Relationships

Vulnerable narcissists often struggle with forming trusting and loving relationships due to their deep-rooted feelings of inadequacy. Trust issues arise from their belief that others will not genuinely love and accept them for their wounded sense of self. Consequently, they become hyper-vigilant towards any signs of real or imagined rejection, simultaneously engaging in aggression and passive-aggression as a form of revenge, which often leads to many disruptive dramas.

Early experiences of feeling unlovable and inadequate often contribute to the vulnerable narcissist’s need to create a false external persona, intense fear of rejection, over and covert rejection of others, along with often challenging relationships filled with negative drama (crave for attention).

Understanding the fear of rejection and ridicule that underlies vulnerable narcissists may provide valuable insights into their behavioral patterns, while setting appropriate boundaries and can help establish healthier relationships. For tips on how to handle narcissists, and how narcissists can change for the better, see references below.

© 2023 by Preston C. Ni.


Ni, Preston. How to Successfully Handle Narcissists. PNCC. (2014)

Ni, Preston. A Practical Guide for Narcissists to Change Towards the Higher Self. PNCC. (2015)

Jauk, Emanuel., etc. The Relationship between Grandiose and Vulnerable (Hypersensitive) Narcissism. Front Psychol. (2017)

Rohmann, Elke., etc. Grandiose and Vulnerable Narcissism in Relation to Life Satisfaction, Self-Esteem, and Self-Construal. Journal of Individual Differences. (2019)

Rohmann, Elke., etc. Grandiose and Vulnerable Narcissism Self-Construal, Attachment, and Love in Romantic Relationships. European Psychologist. (2012)

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