The four faces of narcissism: The Closet Narcissist

BY Supriya McKenna

20th Sep 2023 Lifestyle

4 min read

The four faces of narcissism: The Closet Narcissist
Spotting the behaviours of a closet narcissist isn’t always easy but there are some classic tells, as exemplified by the life of Lina and her family
Many people with narcissistic personality disorder are not vain, charismatic and full of bravado, like the “exhibitionist” stereotype we all recognise.
In fact, three of the four types outwardly present very differently indeed, and are much harder to spot. Expert Dr Supriya McKenna introduces the most covert type of all—the closet narcissist. 

Lina’s story of closet narcissism

Closet narcissist comforting
Lina is 42 years old, but her rigorous skincare routine means she easily passes for 32. She speaks the King’s English in a soft voice, which belies her working class roots, and she tilts her head downwards, and looks up at people shyly.
She’s self-effacing and demure, and her quiet, easy manner and occasional child-like giggle are rather endearing. She’s never been one to stand in the spotlight. 
"She’s never been one to stand in the spotlight"
Lina grew up in the flat above her hard-working parents' shop, but is now married to Raj, a handsome dentist with his own surgery.
The couple met when Raj was heartbroken from a previous relationship. He’d opened up to Lina, who was kind, compassionate and an excellent cook, and they'd quickly started to spend every evening together, talking, late into the night, about what they wanted from life.
Lina told Raj that fate had sent her to heal him of his pain and, after just six months, they married. Lina had finally secured the status that she secretly felt entitled to. 

Children and negative change

When the two children, Arun and Laila, came along, Lina outwardly relished her role of perfect mother and housewife. She’d buy the children and Raj expensive clothes from Harrods, and the pushchair, with all its attachments, cost nearly as much a secondhand car.
But if Raj ever mentioned her spending, Lina would point out that she only wore modestly priced clothes, bought from sales racks or the supermarket—and this was true.  
Nowadays (unless she has an audience) Lina is lazy, messy and rarely cooks. Both spare rooms are piled high with unsuitable clothes that she can’t be bothered to return. The kitchen bins are overflowing and the dishwasher is never loaded. Magazines are strewn about, and the doorbell constantly rings with deliveries of things they don’t need.
Raj has taken on all the housework. He’s exhausted, but Lina won’t let him hire a cleaner, because she “has her pride”. If he asks for help, she sulks. “Nobody appreciates me” she’ll sniff, tearfully. 

Arun and Laila

Closet narcissist and child
Their son, Arun, is the apple of her eye, but where Arun can do no wrong, Laila can do no right, and Lina has always shamed, ridiculed and criticised her.
"Arun was reading fluently at your age” she told Laila, aged just four. “I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised that you didn’t win”, she sighed, when Laila came second in the egg and spoon race.
"Where Arun can do no wrong, Laila can do no right"
Even Arun’s drawings would take pride of place on the fridge, whereas Laila’s would be tossed into the recycling, with barely a glance. 
Today, Laila is 15 and suffers from anxiety, depression and anorexia nervosa, but Lina refuses to believe these diagnoses.
“Happiness is a choice—you should just snap out of this nonsense.” “Stop pushing your food around on your plate and just eat. Do you know how long it took to make? I have toiled all your life, just giving, giving, giving, and this is how you repay me?” 

Attention seeking

But while Lina is intolerant of anyone else’s problems, her own are a different matter. She groans and sighs with every minor movement, in constant pain (although the doctors haven’t been able to find the cause). “I am an enigma” she says, shrugging with a hopeless air.
Pescatarian Lina also refuses to consume wheat, dairy, and caffeine, for unspecified reasons. 
"She has hundreds of Facebook friends—but real friends are conspicuously absent"
Lina had been “too ill” to organise Raj’s 40th birthday party, and made her entrance late, bravely hobbling in on crutches. That night, she moved into the spare room, once again (it transpired that Raj should not have danced “in that way” with his receptionist).
But Lina still posted the party pictures on Facebook, as if she had organised it, and the “likes” came flooding in. She has hundreds of Facebook friends—but real friends are conspicuously absent. 

Guilt tripping and controlling

Lina is a master guilt-tripper. “What did I do wrong? I have sacrificed so much for this family. You would all be better off without me. Will you be sorry when I am dead?” she sobs, so that everyone jumps to console her, ashamed that they have hurt her, proffering tissues, tears and hugs.
Raj still chastises himself for not being able to make her happy. She just needs more attention and sympathy, he tells himself.
"Lina is a master guilt-tripper"
Lina rings and messages the family several times a day to check on their whereabouts, expecting immediate responses. She also controls what they wear, putting their clothes out the night before.
Raj has stopped arguing, but rebel Laila has not. She once even got her hair chopped into a pixie crop, against Lina’s wishes (who was predictably apoplectic with rage). 

Feigning empathy

But Lina sees herself as the model of empathy and generosity. If someone she barely knows dies, she will comfort the widowed person with zeal, taking them meals and insisting on helping with the funeral arrangements, unaware of how over-the-top she seems. 

Signs of a closet narcissist

The closet narcissist—the put-upon victim, struggling on through adversity. 
  • Secretly needing to feel special, but afraid to openly seek attention, so avoiding the limelight. 
  • Basking in the glow of another’s status and specialness instead, often through social-climbing. 
  • Disguising control as “worry”. 
  • Constantly seeking attention in covert ways, such as through mystery illnesses, shopping and dietary fads. 
  • Concerned with appearance—portraying an image of the perfect family, but intolerant of the children’s “imperfections”. 
  • Favouring a “golden child”. 
  • Jealous. 
  • Selfish. 
  • Entitled and exploitative, taking credit for other's effort. 
  • Lacking true empathy, but feigning it. 
  • Manipulativeness disguised as “rescuing”. 
  • An inability to maintain true friendships. 
Keep up with the top stories from Reader's Digest by subscribing to our weekly newsletter