How to Spot the Signs of a Covert Narcissist
A covert narcissist is a person who has symptoms of narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) but often hides the more obvious signs of the condition. While it can be more difficult to recognize, covert narcissism can be just as destructive as more overt narcissistic behaviors.
Overt narcissism is characterized by an overwhelming need for dominance with openly self-absorbed personality traits.
In many cases, it is easy to spot the narcissist in the room. They are the ones who are working the crowd, loudly sharing fabulous stories that convey a sense of importance and accomplishment so that they can feel admired. Someone behaving like this tends to send out a clear signal that they are not approachable or compassionate/empathetic.
Could there be other people in the room that have those same exaggerated motivations for admiration and importance but are harder to identify? Yes. In fact, there could be someone close to you who is a narcissist, but whose narcissism shows up in less obvious ways.
What Are Narcissistic Traits?
Common narcissistic traits include having a strong sense of self-importance, experiencing fantasies about fame or glory, exaggerating self-abilities, craving admiration, exploiting others, and lack empathy.
What Is Narcissism?
The word narcissist is a term regularly used in casual discussions to describe anyone who seems a bit self-involved. However, in terms of clinical mental health, someone needs to meet specific criteria in order to be diagnosed with narcissistic personality disorder.
In general, people with narcissistic personality disorder are preoccupied with their own success and have a grand sense of self-importance that influences their decision-making and interactions.
Narcissists find it difficult to build or maintain connections with others because of their manipulative tendencies and lack of empathy. They often feel entitled and lack compassion, yet crave attention and admiration.1
The following are some elements of narcissism:
- Having a sense of self-importance or grandiosity
- Experiencing fantasies about being influential, famous, or important
- Exaggerating their abilities, talents, and accomplishments
- Craving admiration and acknowledgment
- Being preoccupied with beauty, love, power, or success
- Having an exaggerated sense of being unique
- Believing that the world owes them something
- Exploiting others to get what they want (no matter how it impacts others)
- Lacking empathy toward others
What Is a Covert Narcissist?
In the field of psychology, behavior can be described as overt or covert. Overt behaviors are those that can be easily observed by others, such as those of the traditional narcissist described earlier. Covert behaviors, however, are those that are more subtle and a bit less obvious to others.
A covert narcissist is someone who craves admiration and importance and who lacks empathy toward others, but may act in a different way than an overt narcissist.
When considering the behavior of narcissists, it might be hard to imagine how someone could be a narcissist and be inhibited in their approach and behavior. A covert narcissist may be outwardly self-effacing or withdrawn in their approach, but the end goals are the same.1
Think of listening to your favorite song while blasting the volume, compared to listening to that same song on a low volume. The song itself hasn’t changed, just the volume at which you are listening.
Causes of Covert Narcissism
The exact causes of covert narcissism are not entirely understood, but it is likely that a number of factors contribute. Experts suggest that narcissistic personality disorder is linked to factors including:
- Childhood abuse and trauma
- Upbringing and relationships with caregivers
- Personality and temperament2
One study found that people with narcissistic personality disorder are more likely to have grown up with parents who were highly focused on status and achievements.3 Because they were often made to feel superior to other children, the belief that they are special and more valuable than others may persist into adulthood.
It is not clear, however, why narcissistic behavior is sometimes displayed in covert rather than overt ways.
Covert narcissism is characterized by the same behaviors of overt narcissism that are displayed in less obvious, more subtle ways. The exact causes for this are not known, but genetics and early relationships may play a role.
Overt vs. Covert Narcissism
Covert narcissists are only different from overt (more obvious) narcissists in that they tend to be more introverted. The overt narcissist is easily identified because they tend to be loud, arrogant, insensitive to the needs of others, and always thirsty for compliments.1
Their behaviors can be easily observed by others and tend to show up as “big” in a room. Overt narcissists demonstrate more extroverted behaviors in their interactions with others.
Researcher and author Craig Malkin, PhD, suggests that the term “covert” can be misleading. In his work, he states that the term covert is often used to suggest that the covert narcissist is sneaky or that their striving for importance is not as significant as an overt (more extroverted) narcissist. In fact, he reports, the traits of the overt narcissist and the covert narcissist are the same.
Both covert and overt narcissists navigate the world with a sense of self-importance and fantasizing about success and grandeur.
So do covert narcissists know what they are doing? While they may be aware on some level that their behaviors have a negative impact on other people, narcissists also tend to lack self-awareness and insight. Because they often believe they deserve the attention and accolades they seek, they may see nothing wrong with their behavior as long as it achieves the intended results.
Both overt and covert narcissists need to meet the same clinical criteria to be diagnosed with narcissistic personality disorder, whether they are extroverted or introverted. Both have deficits in their capacity to regulate their self-esteem.4
Many people have fallen victim to the manipulative behaviors of a covert narcissist without realizing what has happened until they are already in emotional pain. It might be more accurate to suggest that the extroverted (overt) narcissist would be a lot easier to see coming than the introverted (covert) narcissist.
It is not unusual for people to find themselves in long-term relationships with covert narcissists only to be hurt by a sense of a lack of partnership or reciprocity in the relationship.
Signs of a Covert Narcissist
How can you tell if someone is a narcissist? Although there are clinical criteria that need to be met in order for someone to be diagnosed with narcissistic personality disorder, there are some general traits and patterns to look for in everyday interactions if you suspect you might be dealing with a covert narcissist, such as poor empathy and disregard for others.
In addition to looking for the red flags of a narcissist, it is also important to be able to recognize the more subtle behaviors of a covert narcissist. Being aware of these traits can help empower you, helping you to recognize and better navigate potentially unhealthy relationships and interactions.
Where the more overt, extroverted narcissist will be obvious in their elevated sense of self and their arrogance when interacting with others, the covert narcissist may be less obvious.
The covert narcissist certainly craves importance and thirsts for admiration but it can look different to those around them. They might give back-handed compliments, or purposefully minimize their accomplishments or talents so that people will offer them reassurance of how talented they are.
The reality for both the overt and covert narcissist is that they have a fragile sense of self.
The overt narcissist will demand admiration and attention, where the covert narcissist will use softer tactics to meet those same goals. The covert narcissist will be much more likely to constantly seek reassurance about their talents, skills, and accomplishments, looking for others to feed that same need for self-importance.
Blaming and Shaming
Shaming is a tactic that narcissists may use to secure their sense of an elevated position in relation to others. The overt (extroverted) narcissist might be more obvious in their approach to gaining leverage, such as explicitly putting you down, being rude, criticizing you, and being sarcastic.5
The introverted, covert narcissist may have a more gentle approach to explain why something is your fault and they are not to blame. They might even pretend to be a victim of your behavior or engage in emotional abuse to put themselves in a position to receive reassurance and praise from you.6 Whether overt or covert, the goal is to make the other person feel small.
Although they are not always sneaky, some covert narcissists can take joy in creating confusion. They may not engage in blaming or shaming, but instead, causing people to question their perceptions and second-guess themselves.
This is another way to create leverage between them and another person. A covert narcissist needs to use tactics like this to elevate themselves and maintain power in the interaction. If they can get you to question your perceptions, it allows them the opportunity to manipulate and exploit you more.
Procrastination and Disregard
Because their need for self-importance reigns supreme, covert narcissists will do whatever they need to do in order to keep the focus on themselves. So, where an extroverted narcissist will blatantly push you aside or manipulate you to accomplish their goal, the covert narcissist is a professional at not acknowledging you at all.
It is not a coincidence that narcissists, in general, tend to gravitate toward interacting with caring and compassionate people. The covert narcissist recognizes those opportunities for manipulation as well.
They have no problem letting you know that you are not important.
Rather than explicitly telling you that you’re not important, they might stand you up on a date, wait until the last minute to respond to texts or emails, always show up late, or never make confirmed plans at all. There is no regard for your time or interests, leaving you feeling small, unimportant, and irrelevant.
Giving With a Goal
In general, narcissists are not givers. They find it difficult to put energy into anything that doesn’t serve them in some way.1 A covert narcissist might present themselves in a way that looks like they are giving, but their giving behavior always has the intent of getting something in return.
A simple, everyday example could be something like putting a tip in the jar at your local coffee shop. A covert narcissist would be much more likely to put their tip in the jar when they know the barista is looking, in order to help facilitate some kind of interaction that allows them to be praised for giving.
The intent of giving for a covert narcissist is always more about them and less about those to whom they are giving.
Narcissists are inept at building and nurturing emotional bonds with others. The covert narcissist is no different. So, although they may appear kinder and less obnoxious than their extroverted counterpart, they are not emotionally accessible or responsive either.
You will likely not receive many compliments from a covert narcissist. They are always focused on staying elevated to maintain their sense of self-importance, so it is easy to understand how a covert narcissist would find it difficult to compliment you. There is usually little regard for your talents or abilities.
Just as with an overt narcissist, you will likely find yourself doing most of the heavy emotional lifting in a relationship with a covert narcissist. Although the covert narcissist is more likely to appear emotionally accessible, it tends to be a performance and is usually done with intent to exploit or eventually leave the other person feeling small through disregard, blaming, or shaming.
Since one of the hallmark traits of narcissistic personality disorder is lack of empathy, the covert narcissist is not going to be emotionally responsive to their partner in a healthy way.4
Covert narcissists often behave in passive-aggressive ways. They disregard others while exaggerating their own importance. They also blame, shame, and ignore the feelings and needs of others.
Examples of Narcissistic Behavior
To spot the signs of a covert narcissist, it can be helpful to look at how narcissistic traits may emerge in different settings.
In the workplace, covert narcissism may look like:
- Treating colleagues with superiority and condescension
- Creating a public image that is completely different than private behaviors
- Making unreasonable demands on co-workers and subordinates
- Belittling and blaming others for mistakes
- Gossiping about others in the workplace
- Expressing rage and then denying their anger
In other relationships, such as those with partners, parents, siblings, or other family members, covert narcissism might look like:
- A lack of empathy for the feelings, thoughts, and needs of others
- Using guilt trips and shame to control others
- Expecting others to care for them or solve their problems
- Gaslighting behaviors, such as being critical but making it sound like it is coming from a place of concern
- Taking advantage of other people’s vulnerabilities
- Dismissing or denying other people’s feelings, emotions, or experiences
- Responding to others with passive-aggressive behaviors
How to Deal With a Covert Narcissist
You may currently be in a personal relationship with a covert narcissist, whether it be a family member, co-worker, or significant other. Although you cannot control what a narcissist does, you can control how you behave and interact with them. There are steps that you can take to protect yourself from covert narcissistic abuse.
Avoid Taking It Personally
When dealing with a narcissist, whether covert or overt, their manipulative behavior can feel very personal. The lack of regard, sense of entitlement, patterns of manipulation, and deceptive behaviors can feel very personal when on the receiving end.
No matter how painful the behaviors might feel in the moment, it’s important to remember that they have nothing to do with you.
A narcissist behaves in negative ways because of something unhealthy within them—not because there is something unhealthy about you.
It is OK to look at the situation and the interactions in regard to how you contribute to them. However, it is very important when dealing with a narcissist that you let them “own” their part.
Narcissists want you to take it personally because that is how they maintain leverage. Remember, a narcissist feels small, so they have to make themselves “big” somehow.
Narcissists do not have healthy boundaries.7 Because covert narcissists lack empathy, have a strong sense of entitlement, and exploit others, boundaries are something that gets in the way of their goals. The more you can practice setting boundaries with a narcissist, the more consistently you are conveying to them that their tactics are not working.
Setting boundaries can be very difficult, particularly with a narcissist. Remember that boundaries are just a way for you to let someone else know what your values are. Consider what is important to you, what your values are, and work to create boundaries to support them.
Understanding why you are setting particular boundaries can help you have more confidence in establishing them and can keep you on track if someone attempts to violate or disregard your boundaries.
Advocate for Yourself
When interacting with a covert narcissist, it can be easy to lose your voice. Because the patterns of interaction are so manipulative, it may take time for you to realize that you’re not advocating for yourself.
Take time to tune back in with yourself, who you are, and what you are about. Take stock of your values, your goals, and your talents. Strengthening your relationship with yourself is key in being able to speak up during interactions with a narcissist.
When advocating for yourself, the narcissist gets a chance to meet the part of you that is aware and knowledgeable of their tactics, making it less appealing for them to keep trying those things with you.
Create a Healthy Distance
Being in a relationship with a covert narcissist can feel frustrating and overwhelming. There are times when it can be difficult to create distance between you and that person, such as with a family member or co-worker.
Limiting personal interactions, asking to be moved to a different location in your office, taking breaks at a different time, or simply cutting off contact might be what is necessary if you are being hurt by someone’s narcissism. The goal of creating distance is not to hurt the other person; the goal is to protect yourself and create space for you to heal.
When to Seek Help
If someone you know shows signs of covert narcissism that are creating distress or affecting areas of your life, encourage them to talk to their healthcare provider. A doctor or therapist can recommend treatments that can help address these symptoms and improve their ability to cope.
There are also resources available for people who are in a relationship with a covert or overt narcissist. Consider visiting the Narcissist Abuse Support organization to find information and resources.
A covert narcissist is someone who has the symptoms of narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) but displays these behaviors in more subtle ways. Symptoms include a lack of empathy and a need for admiration.
While they may lack the obvious grandiosity and self-importance that people with overt NPD exhibit, their behavior can still be harmful to others. If you know someone who is a covert narcissistic, your relationship with them may be challenging, but there are ways to protect your well-being.