5 Types of Narcissism and How to Spot Them

No two narcissists are exactly alike. Learn how narcissism exists on a spectrum.

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A person who constantly seeks attention, is self-involved, and craves praise may be considered narcissistic. They may exhibit some behaviors of narcissistic personality disorder (NPD). However, having some narcissistic traits does not necessarily mean they are diagnosed with NPD. 

Narcissism is a personality trait that ranges along a spectrum. In this article, we explain the five types of narcissism, their signs, how to spot them, and the difference between narcissism and NPD.

Overt (Grandiose) Narcissism

Overt narcissism is probably what most people think of when they think of someone who is narcissistic. They are overbearing, extroverted, social, egotistic, and excessively competitive. 

Their narcissistic behavior is obvious. Some common signs of someone with overt narcissism include the following:

  • A deep desire for praise and compliments
  • Attention seeking
  • High self-esteem
  • Overestimates their capabilities, intelligence, and abilities
  • Interpersonal dominance
  • Inability to empathize with others
  • Insensitive to the needs of others
  • Arrogant and loud
  • The “big person” in the room
  • Entitled
  • Highly self-involved 

A person with overt narcissism may perceive themselves as more emotionally intelligent (EI) than their actual emotional intelligence. A study examined the association between overt narcissism and different conceptualizations of EI, using self-reported measures and ability-using performance measures. It showed that grandiose narcissism was more likely to have the trait EI but less likely to perform the ability for EI.

Covert (Vulnerable) Narcissism

Covert narcissism can be thought of as the opposite presentation of overt narcissism. Their behavior is much less obvious and more subtle. Covert narcissists don’t behave loudly, nor are they outgoing. They are still highly focused on themselves with a thirst for praise from others. Their need for admiration may manifest as giving backhanded compliments or talking down about themselves in an effort to gain reassurance from others. Other common signs of covert narcissism include the following:

  • Introverted
  • Difficulty taking criticism
  • Feeling and expressing they are not good enough
  • Often pretends to play the victim
  • Shames and blames others for their mistakes
  • Poor self-esteem
  • Insecure and low confidence

One of the key differences between overt and covert narcissism is how it affects self-esteem and self-efficacy. A study that looked at self-reported results of undergraduates found that covert narcissism was found to negatively predict self-esteem and self-efficacy beyond self-esteem; however, the results also showed that overt narcissism positively predicted both self-esteem and self-efficacy beyond self-esteem.

Communal Narcissism

A type of overt narcissism is communal narcissism. Communal narcissists will claim to have a strong moral code with a belief in fairness but will not behave according to their beliefs.

Other signs include of communal narcissism include:

  • High sensitivity to unfairness
  • Perceives themselves as generous, giving, and/or saintly
  • Expression of emotional outrage in response to unfair circumstances
  • Expression of altruistic values

However, their actions will not align with what they say, believe, or think. For instance, their concern for others is not authentic or genuine. Their intentions for expressing moral outrage are based on gaining social power or elevating self-importance. They are upset when others are treated unfairly but will not treat others fairly when they face a similar situation.

Antagonistic Narcissism

Another type of overt narcissism is antagonistic narcissism. This is a personality trait that contrasts communal narcissism. It is characterized by the following signs:

  • Highly competitive
  • Extreme focus on rivalry
  • Tendency to disagree and argue
  • Takes advantage of others
  • Difficulty or lack of forgiveness in others
  • Issues trusting others

Overt narcissists are social and outgoing and tend to make friends easily. However, someone with antagonistic narcissism may have trouble maintaining social connections with others as the personality trait is associated with a detrimental effect on peer relationships.

A longitudinal study looked at narcissism and popularity in the development of peer relationships over time. Using data collected from psychology first-year students in a complete peer network, the results showed that grandiose narcissism led to sustained popularity over time; however, among those with antagonistic behaviors, their popularity decreased in the long run.

Malignant Narcissism

The most severe type of narcissism is malignant narcissism. Some mental health researchers have considered this as a mixture of narcissism and antisocial personality disorder. A person with malignant narcissism displays symptoms of NPD. 

Malignant narcissism is considered a serious condition; however, in the current research, there is no standard interview or self-reported measures to assess malignant narcissism. This makes it difficult for clinicians to diagnose and treat, leading to negative impacts on the family, society, and community.

An exploratory study aimed at developing a dimensional measure of malignant narcissism. It looked at clinical changes in those with borderline personality disorder in relation to malignant narcissism. The results showed that those with malignant narcissism were more likely to have a slower rate of improvement in anxiety and global functioning.

Similar to overt narcissism, malignant narcissists constantly desire attention and praise; however, their behaviors to fulfill this need are extreme. Some common signs of malignant narcissism include the following:

  • Displays paranoia, specifically a fear of others making fun of them
  • Acts aggressively with others
  • Sadistic and takes pleasure in the pain of others
  • Vindictive 
  • Zero tolerance for criticism and lack of ability to handle criticism

Narcissism vs. Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD)

It is important to note that although there are various types of narcissism, there is only one diagnosis for NPD. Symptoms of NPD are similar to narcissism, such as a lack of empathy for others, a desire for attention and praise, and a sense of entitlement. However, someone with traits of narcissism may not be diagnosed with NPD. 

Mental health providers will use the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) to clinically diagnose someone with NPD. A diagnosis requires a qualified mental health professional to assess the person for personality dysfunction among multiple domains and the expression of specific personality traits.

NPD is a mental health disorder that negatively affects all areas of a person’s life, including their physical health, relationships, work, and family.

Narcissism can be a common trait during life stages such as adolescence; however, having this personality trait does not mean the person will develop NPD. 

Therefore, narcissism is a personality trait that exists on a spectrum and does not predict an NPD diagnosis. There are five types of narcissism, with malignant narcissism being the most extreme. Covert and overt narcissism contrast each other, but both are characterized by high self-involvement and a need for admiration and attention. Communal and antagonistic are types of overt narcissism.

10 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Katharine Chan, MSc, BSc, PMP
Katharine is the author of three books (How To Deal With Asian Parents, A Brutally Honest Dating Guide and A Straight Up Guide to a Happy and Healthy Marriage) and the creator of 60 Feelings To Feel: A Journal To Identify Your Emotions. She has over 15 years of experience working in British Columbia's healthcare system.