Part 1: Hypervigilant Narcissism Explained

Narcissism is the way a person’s personality is organized that attends to their need to have greater and more consistent self-esteem.

First, let’s be clear. While we may throw the word “narcissist” around in everyday language as a derogatory descriptor of someone who is self-absorbed and arrogant, that is NOT what I’m doing in this article. I am explaining narcissism as a psychiatric concept that is worthy of our understanding and perhaps even compassion. It is important to understand narcissism is not a mental illness. Narcissism is the way a person’s personality is organized that attends to their need to have greater and more consistent self-esteem.

I’m going to use the word narcissist throughout the article for simplicity’s sake. But it doesn’t sit well with me. It feels too damning and all-encompassing. Everyone’s personality is a complex interplay of many different parts. Not all parts are touched by narcissism. In my experience, people with a narcissistic personality are deeply loving and feeling people that long to be loved and accepted. At the same time, I do not mean to minimize the damage that a narcissist can do to others. It is significant and I will later dedicate an entire article to the topic.

Wide Spectrum

Think of narcissism as being on a continuum. On one end of that continuum, there’s grandiose oblivious narcissism (overt), which is probably the most recognizable and well-known. That’s where we see pomposity, arrogance, overly ambitious goals, a sense of entitlement and borderline sociopathic behaviors. It’s difficult to miss it when you interact with grandiose narcissists.

On the other end of the continuum, and where I want to focus, there’s another form of narcissism that is a bit more subtle and takes some time to recognize: hypervigilant narcissism (covert). People with hypervigilant narcissism tend to blame others for their problems and collect grievances. They’re empathic and, at first glance, self-sacrificing. However, just beneath the surface, there is an emphasis on how they’re being wronged. They long to be affirmed by adoration, but when it’s given, they will doubt and undermine it, skeptical of ulterior motives.

Universal Traits of Narcissism

  1. Manipulation – Common types include guilt-tripping, gaslighting, and playing the victim to control others

  2. Lack of Empathy – People with narcissistic traits cannot or will not understand or relate to others. If something conflicts with their own emotions, they will be dismissive or minimize.

  3. Passive-Aggressive – This shows up as the silent treatment, snide remarks, or withholding attention and affection.

  4. Projection – This one is tricky. The person with a narcissistic personality will put their flaws, insecurities, and negative emotions onto others in an attempt to make them feel guilty or responsible for stuff that’s not there’s. In other words, they accuse the other of the very thing they are thinking and feeling.

  5. Idealization & Devaluation – Ugh, this one is particularly hard to be on the receiving end of. People with narcissistic qualities will idealize someone when they are getting what they want and will very quickly devalue someone when they’re not getting what they want. Think: Love bomb then ghost.


Narcissists are in a consistent struggle to receive the response they need from others to maintain a sense of self-esteem. They do not have a sense of self that is strong and durable. They feel exceptionally empty. 


How A Hypervigilant Narcissist Relates to Others

  • He Loves Me. He Loves Me Not – In general, being close to someone may be difficult because if the other person has qualities they do not, it will cause intense shame. In friendships, there’s an initial charm followed by a loss of interest in the other person. Romantic relationships follow the same pattern. They usually start with a period of intense infatuation that comes to an abrupt end when the other person disappoints or criticizes. In short, they want the honeymoon, but not the marriage.

  • Hypervigilant Scrutiny of Others – They look for admiration, empathy and validation from others but scrutinize facial expressions and body language looking for an indication that they are not loved unconditionally. This is where it becomes a bit masochistic. Narcissists alienate the very people that actually do give unconditional admiration, empathy, validation and love.

  • Fake Self-Sufficiency – They cannot accept help from others. If they do not need anyone, they can’t be hurt by losing anyone. This leads to deeper isolation and loneliness. Narcissists tend to pick romantic partners that “complete” them.  They expect their partner to soothe them and fill the emptiness that they feel by telling them they are wonderful, etc.

  • Control Others – Controlling loved ones offers a level of protection to the narcissist’s anxiety that the person they love will leave them.  People in a relationship with a narcissist can feel controlled and are not allowed to be themselves. In order to have the narcissist’s attention, the other person has to be submissive with very limited needs and wants. This trait is pervasive across all types of relationships but can be more obvious in sex. 

  • Shame & Humiliation – They will feel intense shame and/or humiliation at the slightest reproachment. A lot of the hypervigilant narcissist’s behaviors will be to proactively protect themselves from being in a position where shame and humiliation are possible. And they see that potential everywhere.

  • Self Loathing – This can be used to distance themselves from real experiences, including their own.  It is also effective in denying somatic (body) experiences.

  • Denial of Emotional Pain or Conflict Avoidance – To protect themselves from the intense feelings of shame and humiliation, they will deny reality by ghosting, ignoring, talking at someone rather than talking to someone (that way there can be no disagreement), not make eye contact, and compulsively reframe bad situations into positive ones.

  • Always Comparing – Fueled by envy, there is an ongoing comparison between the narcissist and someone else. When the other has admirable qualities the narcissist does not, devaluation of the other person begins.

  • Idealizing Others – They want to create a mutual admiration society but are frequently dissatisfied because it’s hard to idealize someone with flaws. And everyone has flaws. Idealization can also look like being a groupie to someone who is esteemed. It can also be picking a romantic partner based on how they look. The narcissist gets their esteem from just being in the presence of someone who is adored.

  • Don’t Care – They may struggle to understand or even care about the internal experience of others. It may feel like they are almost sociopathic at times. If you are in a relationship with them, you may feel like you don’t matter. The lack of caring or understanding creates an inability to connect which feeds the isolation.

  • Me, Me, Me – The conversation is always about them and they do most of the talking. This gives the other person the opportunity to do little more than admire, empathize and validate. When the other person tries to take up space in the conversation/relationship/situation, the narcissist feels put-upon and may accuse you of being needy. Again, this tactic guards against any humiliation or shame.

  • Retreat From the World – They retreat from social situations to maintain the illusion of control and to avoid any unwanted emotional experiences, particularly lack of admiration and humiliation. Again, there are masochistic behaviors because they position themselves to be repeatedly harassed, misunderstood and taken advantage of but concurrently fear being a victim of agonizing mistreatment. They are hurt by how others do not understand the extent of their emotional pain or acknowledgment of their suffering. The pain and suffering are real. It is not made up. It may be of their own doing, it is still excruciating nonetheless.

  • Deceit – They will exaggerate, deceive or outright lie to win someone over. It can be coupled with flattery, charm and/or seduction.

We All Have Narcissistic Needs

It’s important to remember that all of us have narcissistic behaviors. We all do things to be admired, validated and feel others’ empathy. We all crave unconditional love. All of us. None of us want loved ones to leave us. We all are doing or have done most of the things listed above. The difference is that for a person with a hypervigilant narcissistic personality, these behaviors become a way of moving through the world and they can no longer see they are creating the very situation they are trying to prevent. Their intense fear of loss, shame and humiliation cannot be overstated. 

Coming Up: Part 2: How Does Narcissism Start?

If you think you’re in a relationship with a person with narcissistic traits or believe you have narcissistic traits and want help, please contact us. Our therapists are the best in their field and have immediate availability.

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