As a personality trait, narcissism can come in many forms and levels of severity. As a mental health condition, there’s only one diagnosis.

You might be wondering, “What does it actually mean to be narcissistic?” Are we using this label too broadly, or are there different types of narcissism?

In fact, you may have noticed terms like “narcissist” and “narcissism” are becoming increasingly popular. There are even a few lists of “famous narcissists” going around.

It seems everyone knows someone — whether it’s a family member, coworker, or frenemy — who fits this label. But these terms are also loaded and highly stigmatized.

This is why it’s important to understand what they really mean and how they manifest.

As a mental health diagnosis, there’s only one. But it can manifest in different ways, as does the personality trait.

On a general level, narcissism is closely tied to:

  • extreme self-focus
  • an inflated sense of self
  • a strong desire for recognition and praise

But if you talk about types of narcissism, researchers have broken down the narcissistic personality trait into:

  • overt narcissism
  • covert narcissism
  • antagonistic narcissism
  • communal narcissism
  • malignant narcissism

It’s also possible to look at narcissism in terms of how it affects your day-to-day life and ability to form relationships.

In this context, narcissism can be either adaptive (helpful) or maladaptive (unhelpful).

The point of using categories is not necessarily to label someone you think might have narcissistic qualities.

In fact, some research suggests it could be more accurate to view narcissism as on a spectrum from less to more severe. You might then imagine that the different “types” of narcissism fit somewhere along that spectrum.

Instead, taking a closer look at the different types of narcissistic personality traits can help us understand more about the thought processes, emotions, and behavioral patterns that tend to show up with narcissism.

Some research draws a line between adaptive and maladaptive narcissism. This helps to show the difference between productive and unproductive aspects of narcissism.

  • Adaptive narcissism refers to aspects of narcissism that can actually be helpful, like high self-confidence, self-reliance, and the ability to celebrate yourself.
  • Maladaptive narcissism is connected to traits that don’t serve you and can negatively impact how you relate to yourself and others. Entitlement, aggression, and the tendency to take advantage of others fit under the umbrella of maladaptive narcissism. This would be associated with symptoms of narcissistic personality disorder.

When most people talk about narcissism, it’s the maladaptive kind they’re referring to.

Unlike adaptive narcissism, maladaptive narcissism is connected to:

  • self-consciousness
  • low self-esteem
  • higher chances of experiencing unpleasant emotions
  • lower empathy

Research has found that while maladaptive narcissism tends to decrease the older we get, adaptive narcissism doesn’t decline as much over time.

In addition, both adaptive and maladaptive narcissism can be passed on through genes and influenced by your childhood upbringing.

Overt narcissism is also known by several other names, including grandiose narcissism and agentic narcissism.

This type of narcissism is what most people associate with a narcissistic personality.

Someone with overt narcissism might come across as:

  • outgoing
  • arrogant
  • entitled
  • overbearing
  • having an exaggerated self-image
  • needing to be praised and admired
  • exploitative
  • lacking empathy

Some research connects overt narcissism with the Big Five personality traits extraversion and openness.

It also suggests people with overt narcissism are more likely to feel good about themselves and less likely to experience uncomfortable emotions like sadness, worry, or loneliness.

People with overt narcissism may also tend to overestimate their own abilities and intelligence.

One study published in 2018 also suggests overt narcissism might cause someone to overestimate their own emotional intelligence.

Also known as vulnerable narcissism and closet narcissism, covert narcissism is the contrast to overt narcissism.

While many people think of narcissism as a loud and overbearing trait, people with covert narcissism don’t fit this pattern.

Instead, some common traits of someone with covert narcissism include:

  • expressions of low self-esteem
  • higher likelihood of experiencing anxiety, depression, and shame
  • introversion
  • insecurity or low confidence
  • defensiveness
  • avoidance
  • tendency to feel or play the victim

While someone with covert narcissism will still be very self-focused, this is likely to conflict with a deep fear or sense of not being enough.

A study on personality and covert narcissism published in 2017 found that it was most strongly linked to high neuroticism (tendency to experience unpleasant emotions) and disagreeableness.

Someone with covert narcissism is likely to have a hard time accepting criticism. But unlike a person with overt narcissism, someone with covert narcissism may be more likely to internalize or take in the criticism more harshly than it was intended.

Research suggests the categories of covert and overt narcissism aren’t always mutually exclusive. In other words, someone with overt narcissism might go through a period where they show more signs of covert narcissism, for example.

According to some research, antagonistic narcissism is a subtype of overt narcissism. With this aspect of narcissism, the focus is on rivalry and competition.

Some features of antagonistic narcissism include:

  • arrogance
  • tendency to take advantage of others
  • tendency to compete with others
  • disagreeability or proneness to arguing

According to research from 2017 about facets of narcissism and forgiveness, those with antagonistic narcissism reported they were less likely to forgive others than people with other types of narcissism.

People with antagonistic narcissism may also have lower levels of trust in others, according to a 2019 study.

Communal narcissism is another type of overt narcissism, and it’s usually seen as the opposite of antagonistic narcissism.

Someone with communal narcissism values fairness and is likely to see themselves as altruistic, but research published in 2018 suggests there’s a gap between these beliefs and the person’s behavior.

People with communal narcissism might:

  • become easily morally outraged
  • describe themselves as empathetic and generous
  • react strongly to things they see as unfair

So what makes communal narcissism different from genuine concern for the well-being of others? The key difference is that for people with communal narcissism, social power and self-importance are playing major roles.

For example, while communal narcissism might cause you to say (and believe) you have a strong moral code or care for others, you might not realize the way you treat others doesn’t match up with your beliefs.

Narcissism can exist at different levels of severity, and malignant narcissism is a more severe form. It can also cause more problems for the person living with it.

Malignant narcissism is more closely connected to overt than covert narcissism.

Someone with malignant narcissism may have many common traits of narcissism, like a strong need for praise and to be elevated above others. But in addition, malignant narcissism can show up as:

  • vindictiveness
  • sadism, or getting enjoyment from the pain of others
  • aggression when interacting with other people
  • paranoia, or heightened worry about potential threats

Someone with malignant narcissism may also share some traits with antisocial personality disorder. This means someone with malignant narcissism could be more likely to experience legal trouble or substance misuse.

In a small study involving people with borderline personality disorder (BPD), those with malignant narcissism had a harder time reducing anxiety and gaining better ability to function in day-to-day life.

Narcissism — whether it’s a personality trait or personality disorder — can make relationships more challenging. Different types of narcissism, whether overt, covert, communal, antagonistic, or malignant, can also affect how you see yourself and interact with others.

When it comes to treatment, narcissism can be tricky because many people living with it don’t necessarily feel the need to change. But living with narcissism does pose its own mental health effects, including anxiety, depression, and substance use — and sometimes the impact of these effects cause the person to reach out for help.

When someone living with narcissism seeks professional support, there’s a lot of potential for growth and improved mental health.

If mental health care for narcissism sounds like something that could be helpful for you, you can learn more about your options here.