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Covert Narcissism Vs. Borderline Personality Disorder: Understanding Subtle Differences

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Once you start learning more about the ins and outs of narcissism, all the terminology and information may seem overwhelming. This emotional whirlwind can affect anyone, and you’re certainly not alone if you feel confused, scared, or frustrated. 

On the one hand, having knowledge is empowering. It can give you a working language to understand the underpinnings of some of your toxic relationships. But, on the other hand, having this insight may feel discouraging. You now know the core problems of your situation- and now you’re left deciding what you want to do with all of it.

Covert narcissism can be especially confusing. Is this person just insecure and projecting their low self-esteem onto you? Are they more volatile than you even realized? Or are they struggling with something else entirely?

Let’s unpack some of the key differences between covert narcissism vs. borderline personality disorder.

Understanding Covert Narcissism Traits 

Most of us know the obnoxious personality of an overt, grandiose narcissist. After all, this is the person who loves attention and makes everything about them. They’re loud, proud, and often humiliating to be around. 

But covert narcissism is an entirely different breed. These narcissists often appear incredibly “normal” when you first meet them. If anything, they might present as shy, introverted, or depressed. They may be transparent about their struggles with low self-esteem or feelings of inferiority.

However, the more you get to know the covert narcissist, the more things just start feeling off. First, you’ll notice that you often feel like you’re walking on eggshells. You’re always trying to guess their needs.  And when you guess incorrectly (which is most of the time), you’re punished with passive aggression and gaslighting. 

The covert narcissist will make it seem like you’re the reason everything is wrong. But they might not tell you this outright or blame you directly. Instead, they’ll be subtle and sneaky, dropping odd comments here and there. This pattern of indirect behavior will only add to your confusion. 

The covert narcissist relies on putting other people down to feel good about themselves. But instead of being direct, they often gossip and pretend to like others when they think it’s important for their self-image. 

Understanding Borderline Personality Disorder Traits

Borderline personality disorder (BPD) is a mental health condition impacting about 1.4% of the population (although 75% of diagnosed people are women). Like narcissism, borderline traits are pervasive and chronic. 

At the core, people with BPD often feel a consistent sense of emptiness. They feel worried about rejection and may assume that people will inevitably hurt them. As a result, they tend to struggle in interpersonal relationships, and they often feel their emotions very deeply. 

People with BPD often struggle with impulsive behaviors. This condition coincides with issues like substance abuse, eating disorders, and other forms of self-harm. Unfortunately, the mortality rate is also a significant concern: a staggering 10% of this population dies by suicide. 

Narcissism Vs Borderline Personality Disorder: Can The Two Coincide?

It’s true that both narcissists and people with BPD often have complicated histories of trauma. This is a precursor in nearly every personality disorder. These traumas likely set a faulty foundation for fearing vulnerability and abandonment. 

In addition, both sets of people tend to display “hot and cold” behaviors. This means that one day, things seem great. The next, it can feel like everything is collapsing. And you may not even be sure what caused the massive change! 

However, narcissists exploit others to get what they want. They generally lack empathy (unless it’s cognitive empathy), and they often think they’re above the rules when it comes to meeting their needs.

People with BPD may exploit others, but their motives tend to be less nefarious. Their actions come from a desperate desire for connection. 

Where the narcissist fears being average, the person with BPD fears being hurt. Where the narcissist avoids intimacy because they want all the power and control, the person with BPD may avoid it because they want to feel safe and protected.

Finally, where the narcissist exaggerates their own perceptions of self-importance, the person with BPD just wants meaningful relationships. They aren’t as interested in furthering their own agenda; they truly value feeling like people care about them. 

It is, of course, possible for some people to have both borderline and narcissistic traits. But here’s the best way you can tell the difference. Life with a narcissist feels vindictive. You always feel like they’re trying to pull something on you. 

Do Narcissists and People With BPD Attract One Another? 

It does appear that these two sets of people often end up in relationships with one another. At first, the dynamic may seem confusing. But here’s why it can happen.

Someone with BPD often presents as vulnerable. They may lack healthy boundaries and cling onto any relationship that initially feels safe.

Unfortunately, this energy can draw a narcissist right in. The narcissist, after all, is always seeking to fulfill their narcissistic supply. They tend to gravitate towards people who will submit or worship them- and the person with BPD may very well give those unconscious signals. 

And so, the narcissist will respond by love-bombing this new partner. They will do everything in their power to make them feel special and appreciated. At first, everything will seem amazing: both partners may truly feel like they have discovered a genuine, once-in-a-lifetime love.

Unfortunately, the crash often happens quickly. The person with BPD needs that love-bombing. It’s a sign of security, a way they can maintain their need for intimacy and connection. They value being as close as possible.

But the narcissist starts pulling away. In a sense, they already have what they want, so it’s already starting to lose its appeal. At this point, they tend to become more aloof. They might begin scanning for new supply. Once they have it, they might discard the relationship altogether.

Can These Relationships Work?

Most of the time, no.

It goes without saying that it’s very challenging to be in a healthy relationship with a narcissist. For them, relationships aren’t a source of connection and intimacy. Instead, they’re a way to satisfy their egos. So they find (and use) people who will meet their needs.

In addition, most narcissists aren’t willing to work on themselves. They may make promises to change or show some halfhearted attempts, but real growth tends to be very limited or nonexistent. They don’t see themselves as having a problem- they want others to contort and adapt to their expectations.

And so, both partners end up feeling frustrated, hurt, and alone. The person with BPD often experiences a familiar pattern of humiliation and rejection. The narcissist has no bandwidth to actually cope with those emotions or validate how their partner might feel.

As a result, these relationships often become very destructive and volatile. The person with BPD continues to feel like their needs don’t matter. And the narcissist doesn’t care. 

Are Narcissists Codependent? 

When you think of someone who’s codependent, what comes to mind? Someone who’s needy and insecure? Someone who can’t set limits with others? Someone who tolerates abuse?

It can be all of the above, but it can also be more.  

And although we often think of narcissism and codependency as two separate issues, that isn’t always the case. In fact, the root of narcissism is codependency: the narcissist needs approval, devotion, and adoration from others to feel secure about themselves.

Paradoxically, this pattern tends to be most apparent in covert narcissists. This is because they’re more open about their insecurities, and they sometimes even flaunt them as a way to solicit attention from others. 

If you identify with being an empath, you probably know what it feels like to be “called” to rescue others. You don’t want to see people in pain. And so, you might find yourself in repetitive cycles with wounded partners. You want to make them feel loved and unique, even if that means putting their needs ahead of your own.   

Remember that all narcissists are codependent in their own way. They lack a core sense of identity. They don’t readily identify their feelings or communicate their needs appropriately. They also lack boundaries- both for themselves and others.

Final Thoughts

Narcissism is a complex subject, and different types of narcissists come with different kinds of behavior. So it’s okay if you don’t understand it all right now. What’s more important is that you know (and validate) your feelings. 

Understanding the main differences between narcissism vs. borderline personality disorder can be helpful when you’re trying to understand your particular situation. In addition, recognizing what’s going on is beneficial because having that knowledge gives you a working roadmap for what to do next.

That said, if you’re in a toxic relationship, the best solution is to make a plan to get out of it as quickly as possible. In most cases, this means committing to end the dynamic by going no-contact. Cutting all ties is the only way to truly release yourself from such agony and embrace a path towards freedom.

If you’re ready to go deeper and change your life right now, I offer a wide range of effective resources and techniques to protect against toxic people – in my bestselling program, The Break Free Program.

I’m excited to share with you the psychological tools I and thousands of others have used to heal from narcissistic abuse.

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1 comment
Jenny M. says March 31, 2022

Thank you for this article. It is a source of understanding, a building block, on my particular path to healing.

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