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What is a reverse narcissist?

A reverse narcissist is someone who appears humble and selfless on the surface but underneath exhibits covert narcissistic traits. Unlike traditional narcissists who openly seek attention and approval, reverse narcissists tend to be codependent and passive-aggressive in relationships. They derive a sense of pride from being needed and sacrificing their own needs for others.

What are the characteristics of a reverse narcissist?

Some common characteristics of reverse narcissists include:

  • Appearing selfless, modest, and martyr-like
  • Deriving a sense of pride and superiority from being needed and sacrificing for others
  • Covertly seeking praise and recognition for their sacrifices
  • Prone to guilt-tripping, shaming, and passive-aggressive behavior when feeling unappreciated
  • Difficulty maintaining healthy boundaries in relationships
  • Tendency to attract and form relationships with traditional narcissists
  • Inability to recognize their own needs and desires
  • Chronic feelings of emptiness and dissatisfaction despite outward humility

At their core, reverse narcissists struggle with deep-seated feelings of unworthiness and shame. They cope with these feelings by deriving their sense of esteem externally through relationships of codependency.

What causes someone to become a reverse narcissist?

There are several potential causes or risk factors for developing reverse narcissistic tendencies:

  • Childhood emotional neglect – Growing up lacking adequate nurturing and support for their self-esteem and identity.
  • Over-critical or controlling parents – Having parents who criticised them or tried to control them excessively.
  • Role as the parental child – Assuming the role of caregiver to parents or siblings early in childhood.
  • Childhood trauma – Experiencing abuse, family dysfunction, or emotional invalidation.
  • Genetics – Having a biological predisposition for narcissistic or codependent personality traits.
  • Pursuit of perfection – Striving excessively for flawlessness and meeting unrealistically high standards.

These kinds of childhood experiences can impair the development of a healthy sense of self, self-esteem and identity, leading to codependent behaviors later in life.

How do reverse narcissists differ from co-dependents?

There is a lot of overlap between reverse narcissism and codependency. However, some key differences include:

  • Sense of superiority – Reverse narcissists derive a sense of pride and superiority from being needed, while codependents lack inner arrogance.
  • Grandiosity – Reverse narcissists possess underlying grandiose fantasies about themselves and feel entitled to praise.
  • Egocentrism – Reverse narcissists’ selflessness has a hidden egocentric agenda to fulfill a need for validation.
  • Manipulation – More prone to guilt-tripping and shaming others to get their needs met.
  • Passive-aggression – More likely to exhibit passive-aggressive behavior when feeling unappreciated.

Codependents express their low self-worth more through compulsive giving without strings attached or a need for something in return.

Do reverse narcissists have a personality disorder?

Reverse narcissism or covert narcissism exists on a spectrum. In its milder form, it can be viewed simply as a problematic personality style or type. However, in its most extreme manifestations, it overlaps significantly with narcissistic personality disorder.

Key diagnostic criteria for narcissistic personality disorder from the DSM-5 include:

  • Grandiose sense of self-importance and entitlement
  • Preoccupation with unlimited success, beauty, brilliance, or ideal love
  • Belief in being special and unique
  • Need for excessive admiration
  • Sense of entitlement and expectation of special treatment
  • Willingness to exploit others to achieve personal goals
  • Lack of empathy

Reverse narcissists exhibit many of these same traits but do so in a hidden, passive-aggressive manner. Their grandiosity, need for validation, sense of entitlement, and willingness to manipulate are concealed under a guise of modesty and martyrdom.

What are some examples of reverse narcissistic behavior in relationships?

Some examples of how reverse narcissism may show up in romantic or family relationships include:

  • Making excessive personal sacrifices for partners and children
  • Using guilt and shame to coerce family members into doing what they want
  • Having covert expectations of praise and appreciation when doing things for others
  • Making snide comments and sulking when they don’t get the recognition they feel entitled to
  • Struggling to identify or express their own needs and desires
  • Using emotional blackmail like threats of abandonment to cling to rocky relationships
  • Deriving feelings of superiority from being “needed” by an impaired partner or child
  • Feeling competitive with and resentful toward family members who become independent

These behaviors reflect the reverse narcissist’s underlying insecurity and sense of pride derived from being indispensable to others.

What are the effects of being in a relationship with a reverse narcissist?

Relationships involving reverse narcissists can be challenging for several reasons:

  • Walking on eggshells – Partners frequently feel like they have to tiptoe around the reverse narcissist’s ever-shifting emotions and outbursts.
  • Emotional turmoil – The passive-aggression and manipulation lead to constant tension and arguments, infusing relationships with drama.
  • Feeling unappreciated – Despite giving endlessly, partners feel unappreciated because the reverse narcissist always expects more.
  • Self-neglect – The reverse narcissist’s all-consuming focus on others may lead their partners to neglect their own needs and well-being.
  • Loss of identity – Partners struggle to stay grounded in their own identity and values, slowly losing themselves to accommodate the reverse narcissist.
  • Guilt and confusion – Partners suffer frequent guilt, self-blame, and bewilderment from the manipulations of the reverse narcissist.

If not managed well, these relationships become mentally and emotionally exhausting, damaging partners’ self-esteem and depleting their emotional resources.

What are some signs you are in a relationship with a reverse narcissist?

Here are some telltale signs your partner may be a reverse narcissist:

  • They shame or guilt trip you when you don’t conform to their expectations.
  • They tout their sacrifices for you but undermine your independence.
  • They sulk and make snide comments when you don’t acknowledge their efforts.
  • They struggle to identify or communicate their own preferences and needs.
  • They feel entitled to support, praise, and being taken care of.
  • They take advantage of your empathy and dodge accountability for their actions.
  • They become irrationally anxious or jealous when you spend time with others.
  • Conversations become solely about their emotional needs and feelings.
  • They frequently play the victim to elicit sympathy and avoid self-reflection.

Pay close attention to any tendencies to make you feel guilty, beholden, or responsible for their happiness and well-being.

What are effective strategies for coping with a reverse narcissist partner?

Some tips for those in relationships with reverse narcissists include:

  • Set firm boundaries – Make your needs and limitations clear. Stick to them.
  • Seek validation internally – Stay grounded in your values so you don’t get hooked by their manipulations.
  • Speak up assertively – Communicate your grievances tactfully but directly. Don’t let mistreatment slide.
  • Withhold reaction – Don’t reward guilt trips, silent treatments or outbursts with attention.
  • Spend time separately – Maintain your outside friendships, interests and independence.
  • Enforce consequences– Follow through if boundaries are crossed repeatedly.
  • Therapy – Seek counseling to build self-esteem and set healthy patterns.
  • Consider leaving – Accept relationship may need to end if partner is unwilling to change.

The key is to reconcile their need for validation with your own need for respect, space and autonomy. This takes insight, courage and diligence.

When is it time to leave a reverse narcissist?

It’s reasonable to end a relationship with a reverse narcissist partner if:

  • They consistently cross established boundaries.
  • Communication has completely broken down.
  • Efforts to improve the relationship have failed repeatedly.
  • The dysfunction is negatively impacting your mental health.
  • You have sought counseling but your partner refuses to engage.
  • You have lost your sense of identity and self-worth.
  • You are being subjected to forms of abuse – emotional, verbal, financial, sexual etc.
  • You feel trapped, invalidated, and chronically unhappy.

At a certain point, it’s necessary to prioritize your own health and happiness if the reverse narcissist continues to damage you through their behaviors.

What are some healthy traits to look for in a partner if you’ve been with a reverse narcissist?

After being with a reverse narcissist, it’s important to vet future partners for these green flags:

  • Self-awareness and accountability – They possess insight into their own flaws and take responsibility for themselves.
  • Respect for boundaries – They don’t guilt or coerce you if you say no.
  • Emotional stability – They self-soothe their own emotions rather than demanding constant reassurance.
  • Reciprocity – They give as much as they take in the relationship; it’s relatively equal.
  • Compromise – They are willing to negotiate conflicts fairly and find win-win solutions.
  • Encouragement of autonomy – They support you having outside interests/friendships.
  • Direct communication – They share their feelings/needs openly versus expecting you to read their mind.

A healthy partner will help restore your sense of identity outside the relationship and won’t demand you center your world around them.


In summary, reverse narcissists are codependents who covertly seek validation, pride, and feelings of superiority through self-sacrifice. Their outward persona of modesty and humility masks underlying self-absorption, entitlement, and manipulation of relationships. Partners of reverse narcissists frequently suffer from chronic guilt, self-blame, and a loss of identity. However, by establishing firm boundaries, seeking counseling, and building self-esteem independently, it’s possible to mitigate the damage. If the unhealthy dynamics persist despite best efforts, leaving the relationship may become the healthiest option.