As a personality trait, narcissism can be overt, covert, antagonistic, communal, or malignant. As a mental health condition, there’s only one diagnosis.
When you look at narcissism as a trait in terms of how it affects your day-to-day life and ability to form relationships, there are two types of narcissism:
- adaptive (helpful)
- maladaptive (unhelpful)
You might then imagine that the different types of narcissism fit somewhere along that spectrum.
In general, narcissism is closely tied to:
- extreme self-focus
- an inflated sense of self
- a strong desire for recognition and praise
Learning about these and other narcissistic traits and narcissism types may also help you understand more about the thought processes, emotions, and behavioral patterns that tend to show up with narcissism.
Narcissism as a personality trait vs. personality disorder
When people talk about narcissism, they might be referring to it either as a part of someone’s personality or as narcissistic personality disorder (NPD).
Narcissistic personality disorder is a formal mental health diagnosis, and there’s only one type. This condition is usually diagnosed when narcissism extends beyond a personality trait and persistently affects many areas of your life. There are 9 symptoms of narcissistic personality.
But, researchers and other experts on narcissism have found multiple ways narcissism can show up as part of someone’s personality, including those with the formal diagnosis, and that’s what we’ll be talking about here.
Some research draws a line between two types of narcissism: 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. For example, entitlement, aggression, and the tendency to take advantage of others. This would be associated with symptoms of narcissistic personality disorder.
When most people talk about narcissism, they usually refer to the types of narcissism under the maladaptive umbrella.
Researchers and experts typically work around five types of narcissism:
- overt narcissism
- covert narcissism
- antagonistic narcissism
- communal narcissism
- malignant narcissism
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:
- having an exaggerated self-image
- needing to be praised and admired
- lacking empathy
Some research connects overt narcissism with the Big Five personality traits of 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
- insecurity or low confidence
- 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.
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:
- 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
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:
- 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 use disorder.
In a small study involving people with borderline personality disorder (BPD), those with malignant narcissism had a harder time reducing anxiety and gaining a better ability to function in day-to-day life.
Experts work with five main types of narcissism: overt, covert, communal, antagonistic, and malignant narcissism. They can all 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 causes 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.