Something introverts really like to do, it seems, is read and talk about their own introversion. A commenter on a recent Science of Us post on the four kinds of introversion summed matters up quite nicely: “Gosh, introverts are just so FASCINATING! — Introverts.” This tendency, you could argue, may arise simply because introverts like spending a lot of time in deep reflection, getting lost in their own thoughts — and some of those thoughts, naturally, are going to be about themselves.
But at what point does self-reflection cross the line into self-preoccupation? As it turns out, there are some striking similarities between the popular understanding of introversion and a psychological characteristic called covert narcissism: It’s all the entitlement and grandiosity most people associate with narcissism, minus the bluster. Maybe you know someone like this: They tend to believe they’re being underestimated or overlooked, like their amazing qualities are forever going unnoticed by everyone else. They often take things too personally, especially criticism, and sometimes feel a little resentful when other people bother them with their problems.
Take a look at some of the items on a scale to measure covert narcissism, designed by psychologist Jonathan Cheek:
- I easily become wrapped up in my own interests and forget the existence of others.
- I feel that I am temperamentally different from most people.
- When I enter a room, I often become self-conscious and feel that the eyes of others are upon me.
Of that last one, Cheek quipped to me: “Who are you, who everybody’s looking at you? That’s a narcissistic fantasy. It’s assuming that the world is paying a lot of attention to you.” (Scroll down to the bottom of this post, by the way, if you’d like to see how you rank on Cheek’s quiz.) Taken together, many of the items on Cheek’s scale sound an awful lot like the way most people understand introversion, and that’s no coincidence. Covert narcissism correlates strongly with introversion, Cheek explained — if you have one, you’re more likely to have the other, though there are plenty of introverts who don’t also have narcissistic tendencies. “Covert narcissism is sort of a dark side of introversion,” he said. “Just like overt narcissism is kind of a dark side of extroversion.” Put another way: Not all introverts are covert narcissists — but covert narcissists are almost certainly introverts.
Covert narcissism is called many names in the scientific literature: closet narcissism, hypersensitive narcissism, and vulnerable narcissism, to name a few. Here, I’ll mostly be using the term covert narcissism, and its opposite — overt narcissism, which is the usual way we think of narcissism: that is to say, as Trump-ish. But whatever you want to call it, it’s not by any means a new insight into human behavior, even though it’s still not very widely known outside of academia. As far back as the late 1930s, researchers published their observations of this quieter form of narcissism, according to the psychologist Scott Barry Kaufman, who once wrote about the subject for Scientific American. The University of California, Berkeley, psychologist Paul Wink addressed the “two faces of narcissism” again in the early 1990s, and later that decade, Cheek published the first version of his scale.
But covert narcissism is understudied in comparison to its louder sibling, mostly because the trait is a tricky one to observe in human nature, let alone in a laboratory setting, explained W. Keith Campbell, a psychologist at the University of Georgia. “It’s not somebody with a big personality,” Campbell said. “It’s somebody who’s a little paranoid, who thinks they’re not being treated fairly. They’re a little suspicious, entitled.” (When he does presentations on the subject, the pop-culture figure who often pops up on his slides to illustrate the vulnerable narcissist is George Costanza.)
Because the trait is so closely associated with introversion, there are few outward signs of this version of narcissism — instead of bragging aloud, for example, covert narcissists mostly keep their sky-high opinions of themselves locked inside their own heads, leaving them feeling misunderstood and overlooked. Zooey Deschanel, for example may or may not be an introvert and she may or may not be a narcissist, but back in 2012 she gave an interview to Allure that includes a quote about her college experience, and it’s a pretty great articulation of this state of mind. “I went to Northwestern because I had gone to a really nontraditional high school. I was like, It’d be cool to have a traditional college experience,” she told the magazine. “Then I was like, Oh, but none of these people understand what’s cool about me. My specialness is not appreciated in this place.”
Some psychologists, however, argue that all narcissists are, in reality, quite vulnerable or even needy, despite their outward boastfulness. “There are covert narcissist aspects to any kind of narcissist,” said Craig Malkin, author of the new book Rethinking Narcissism: The Bad — and Surprising Good — About Feeling Special. “It’s just a mess with all these different terms. At the common core, these are people who are addicted to feeling special. It’s just that there are a lot of ways to do it.” Others say that covert narcissism might not really be narcissism at all, but instead a form of neuroticism. (And in either case, by the way, we’re talking here about trait narcissism, which is different from the personality disorder listed in the DSM-V. Many people’s personalities would rate somewhere on the narcissistic spectrum; it’s when the narcissism begins to intrude negatively into their lives, causing serious problems at work or home, that it starts to stray into disorder territory.)
Cheek, incidentally, recently completed some new research on the “common core” that unites both forms of the trait, which he presented earlier this year at the annual meeting of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology. In a study of more than 600 people, he found that both introverted and extroverted narcissists have two things in common: A sense of entitlement and fantasies of their own grandiosity. “You have to have a pretty grand sense of yourself, but you also have to feel like you are entitled to have that recognized by other people,” Cheek said. “If you’re overt, you’re out there fighting for that recognition. But if you’re covert, you’re left in this kind of strange, introverted state, where you’re having these thoughts like, I wonder why people aren’t more appreciative of my good qualities. Nobody else seems to understand me.”
Overt narcissism carries with it some good qualities — these sorts of people, for example, tend to make excellent leaders. On the other hand, “I can’t see a lot of upsides to vulnerable narcissism,” Campbell said. If you’re seeing some of yourself in the definition of this kind of undercover egotism (and you would, you narcissist), there are some ways to tamp down the tendencies. “Practice caring and compassion for others,” Campbell said. “Do things you are passionate about rather than make you look good, and take responsibility for your actions. Basically, practices that minimize the ego and increase connection with the world.” Bonus: If you’re the type of introvert who is prone to social anxiety, turning your attention outside of yourself has been shown to reduce those jittery feelings. Life gets easier — for any personality type — when you remind yourself every once in a while that it’s not all about you.
Below, you can take our quiz, adapted with permission from Cheek’s ten-item scale, to see whether or not you are a covert narcissist.