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A covert narcissist, also known as a vulnerable or introverted narcissist, displays narcissistic traits less overtly than a grandiose or overt narcissist.
While typical types of narcissistic behaviors are described as more overt or extroverted, narcissism does not always present itself in an extroverted manner.
Covert narcissists have all the same goals as overt narcissists, such as craving attention and power over others, but their methods of doing this are more subtle, and they may be less obvious to others.
Covert narcissists typically are more introverted in personality and may come across as shy and withdrawn but are still able to manipulate others and meet the criteria for narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) despite their differences from the ‘classic’ NPD described in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5).
Signs of Covert Narcissism
Below are some of the key traits of those with covert narcissism. It is worth noting that having one of the below signs does not always mean that someone is a narcissist, and not every narcissist will have every sign. Likewise, the below categories are not a complete list of signs.
Inconsistent public and private lives
A key feature of covert narcissism is that there are often discrepancies between how they present themselves in public and how they present in private (Carter, 2022).
In public, the covert narcissist can appear really nice, kind, and supportive. They may present themselves as high in morality, accomplished, and calm. They may avoid confrontations because they want others to think they are in control of their emotions.
They are often skilled at making positive public impressions.
“They may actually end up becoming very attuned to you in the beginning of the relationship and a lot of people mistake that attunement as intense empathy and connection.”
Dr Ramani, Clinical Psychologist
In private, however, they may be dismissive, resentful, unkind, and have questionable morals.
The longer one is associated with the covert narcissist, it becomes apparent that the public self is very different from what they are in private. It may become evident that the narcissist lies or give half-truths in public so that they are seen in a positive light or as superior in some way.
“I used to hang out with my friend and her housemate and he (the housemate) was very approachable and could easily pick up on something that interests me and talk in-depth about it to me. But then my friend started telling me stories about how at home he was very possessive, always wanting to know where she was, which friends she was hanging out with, and demanding to know why he wasn’t included. It was hard to believe that the person I saw in public was a completely different person at home. “
Blaming and shaming
Those who are covert narcissists may be subtle in their ways of blaming others for things that are their own fault. They may approach this gently and explain why something is someone else’s fault and how they are not to blame.
Narcissists are so uncomfortable with deep emotions such as shame that they will transfer these emotions onto others to avoid feeling negative about themselves.
This way, they can make others feel bad so that they feel better and avoid any responsibility for their actions.
Covert narcissists often play the victim of the other person’s behavior and use emotional abuse to make the other person feel small.
‘He would never admit that “I never want to lose you” but I think he was so afraid of losing me that he turned into the victim just to keep me.’
Danielle – (Green & Charles, 2019).
Highly sensitive to criticism
Those with narcissism are usually insecure and have easily damaged self-esteem.
Thus, when someone criticizes the covert narcissist, they may make dismissive, sarcastic, and defensive comments to deflect the criticism.
Although most people do not like being criticized, covert narcissists will often respond in a way that most people would not. The criticism damages their idealized view of themselves, so they may take it much harder than others.
‘Bianca’ describes a time when she criticized her sister’s ex-boyfriend, who displayed signs of covert narcissism:
“He was sulking on the phone to my sister because she was out with me, and he wasn’t included. I was sat next to her so I could hear everything, and I snapped at him, saying that he was being ridiculous. He then hung up and messaged my sister that he didn’t trust or like me. She was never allowed to be alone with me again for months after that because he wouldn’t let her.”
Covert narcissists are more likely to seek reassurance from others than overtly narcissistic ones. They may use softer tactics, such as giving backhanded compliments to others.
They may also purposely play down their achievements so that others will give them reassurance and compliments.
Dr Ramani, who is a clinical psychologist, explains:
“Their validation seeking consists of a lot of sort of gloomy sharing what they believe their unseen gifts and skills and contributions are… they really walk around saying the world is against me.”
Procrastination and disregard
Narcissists tend to gravitate towards caring and compassionate people; therefore, these types of people present opportunities for covert narcissists.
They can manipulate others in non-explicit ways, such as not showing up for meetups, waiting until the last minute to return phone calls or text messages, or showing up late.
If someone is purposely behaving in this way, they are subtly showing the other person that they are not important to them without having to express this outwardly.
Purposeful giving and self-serving empathy
Although covert narcissists cannot feel empathy, they can purposefully show empathy to achieve something.
They may act kind, such as comforting someone upset, but with the expectation of receiving something else in return.
Likewise, they may present themselves as givers, such as giving someone an expensive birthday present or giving a large tip at a restaurant, intending to get something else in return, such as an equally expensive gift, or to achieve socialization with the waitress who receives the tip.
People with covert narcissism often feel envy of others who have things that they feel they are entitled to themselves.
They may not outwardly express their envy but may show bitterness or resentment towards others.
Similarly, they believe that other people envy them because of the belief that they are special.
“They are hyper jealous of other people and envious in a bitter way… it’s like, ‘I want it, and I don’t want them to have it. I don’t want them to have everything’.”
Barbara Heffernan, Life Coach.
Although covert narcissists are not typically conveyors of outwardly aggressive behavior, they can display subtler passive-aggressive behaviors to convey their frustrations or to make themselves look superior.
This could come about as a desire to get back at someone who has either wronged them or had more success than them.
They could achieve this by sabotaging others’ relationships, giving the silent treatment, or using subtle blame-shifting to achieve their goals.
Because of all the subtler tactics of covert narcissists, it is harder for others to notice that they are being manipulated.
Covert narcissists may cause others to question their perceptions and second guess themselves, sometimes believing they are in the wrong when they are not.
This leverage that the narcissist has on others helps to elevate themselves and hold power over others.
Often, people may be in long-term relationships with covert narcissists and not realize what they are experiencing is manipulation until emotional hurt is caused or the relationship ends.
This can ultimately cause potential damage to other people’s mental health and self-esteem if exposed to constant subtle manipulations.
‘He would tell me what the reality was and he justified it so well and he was so convinced in his arguments that I would sort of accept his reality as my own . . . I felt like I was part of his reality to the point where I didn’t even have my own thoughts anymore.’
Elizabeth – (Green & Charles, 2019).
Early Warning Signs of Covert Narcissism
Christina, who is a narcissistic abuse recovery coach, outlined 6 ways in which you can identify a covert narcissist early on:
- Beware if they act like they know you incredibly well after just meeting. This could be a sign they are forcing a connection and love-bombing you.
- Pay attention to how they treat service staff like waiters or cashiers. If they are pushy, entitled or rude, it is a major red flag for narcissism.
- Notice if their friendly behavior hides a focus mostly on themselves. For example, they may steer conversations back to themselves or brag after complimenting you.
- Question if their claims of being caring and empathetic match their actual behavior. Subtle signs of callousness or lack of compassion could indicate a lack of empathy.
- Watch for evasiveness about their past or shifts in storytelling. Actively avoiding details that make them look bad could mean they are hiding the truth.
- Look for glimpses of contempt, either on their face or in their words. Since contempt reveals their true feelings, any traces of it could expose their narcissism even during the initial love-bombing.
Overt vs. Covert Narcissism
Below are some of the differences between covert and overt narcissists:
- A key difference between overt and covert narcissism is that overt narcissists are primarily more extroverted while coverts are more introverted.
- Overt narcissists are easier to identify as they may be loud, arrogant, and outwardly insensitive to others’ feelings, whereas covert narcissists are likely to be quieter.
- With overt narcissists, manipulation may be a lot easier to see coming, as the warning signs will be a lot more noticeable than in covert narcissists.
- Overt narcissists may present behaviors such as explicitly putting others down, being rude, critical, and being overly sarcastic with others. Covert narcissists are more likely to be passive-aggressive and be more subtle in their criticisms of others.
- Overt narcissists are not likely to apologize for their behavior, having little regard for others’ feelings. Covert narcissists are more able to give fake apologies to earn others’ affection.
- While covert and overt narcissists have a fragile sense of self, overt narcissists will often demand admiration and attention compared to covert narcissists.
- Overt narcissists are likely to brag about their accomplishments, making sure everyone knows they are superior. Covert narcissists are more likely to come across as insecure and not assertive. They are likely to victimize themselves and complain about being undervalued or underappreciated.
Dealing With a Covert Narcissist
It can be incredibly difficult to manage if you suspect someone in your life is a covert narcissist.
The person with narcissism could be a parent or other family member, a friend, a co-worker, or a romantic partner.
Although you may not be able to control the narcissist’s actions in your life, you can control how to deal with and communicate with them so that you are not negatively affected by their actions.
What is most important when dealing with a covert narcissist is to keep yourself safe, not to provoke them or do anything that could put you in a vulnerable position.
It can be really difficult not to feel upset when you know you are being manipulated by a covert narcissist.
However, it is important to remember that their actions are nothing personal against you and are instead a reflection of their own insecurities and deep-rooted issues.
Try not to react if they attempt to start a fight or gaslight you. Narcissists want you to take their attacks personally and want a reaction as a way to maintain power over you. If this reaction is taken away, they may eventually realize they cannot hold leverage over you.
Maintain healthy boundaries
As covert narcissists have no issue with exploiting others, they do not have healthy boundaries. Thus, the people in their lives need to put boundaries in for them.
Boundaries are a good way of letting people know your values and that you are conveying to the narcissist that their tactics are not working.
It may be helpful to remind yourself of why you have set boundaries so that you can keep focused when a narcissist attempts to cross those boundaries.
“Evaluate the relationship and boundaries: is this a relationship for you to continue? Is this a hurtful relationship?”
Dr Daniel Fox, Licensed Psychologist
Create a support system
When dealing with someone who has covert narcissism, it is important to have a support system outside of the relationship.
As narcissists may emotionally manipulate and cause confusion, it is useful to talk things through with people outside of the relationship who can give a more realistic insight into what the truth is.
This can help with any self-doubt you may have due to being manipulated.
‘As I became more independent, going to work, making more friends, I started to distance a bit more from him and see that not everyone hated me, and actually, some people thought I was good company, so my self-esteem started to build a little more.’
Educating yourself on NPD can help you understand the covert narcissists’ strengths and weaknesses, so you can learn to manage the relationship better.
You can learn to understand the goals of covert narcissists so you can notice the tactics they are using to achieve this goal from you (e.g., such as maintaining control) and ensure they are not using you as a power source.
‘Research about abuse and narcissism helped me learn that this situation would never change. When you realize and education yourself, you start to accept the situation for what it is and learn the only way to be happy is to leave.’
The grey rock method
This is a technique where you deliberately act disengaged so that a narcissist loses interest in you.
The more you give attention to a narcissist (e.g., arguing with them), the more they thrive. Grey rock means that you cut off that supply the narcissists want.
“Grey rock is an incredibly unsettling experience for them (narcissists). Many people believe that to overpower a narcissist, you should call them out on their stuff, you should call them names, you should fight as hard and as dirty as them. Nothing could be farther from the truth.”
Dr Ramani, Clinical Psychologist.
It can be useful to point out to a narcissist when they have done something rude or unkind. This should be done delicately so as not to expect a backlash of aggression.
You could attempt to convey empathy when appropriate and gently point out when they have done something rude or arrogant.
Likewise, you can praise them if they display healthy behaviors and acknowledge when they are disappointed about something.
If the narcissist does not realize their behaviors are causing problems, they will be less motivated to seek help. Even if they do not want to seek help or see the problem with their actions, being called out could cause them to self-regulate their behavior in your presence.
Create a healthy distance
Depending on who the covert narcissist is can make it difficult to separate yourself from them. However, it can be important to have some distance if the opportunity presents itself.
For instance, if the narcissist is a work colleague, you could request that you work in a different location from them. If the narcissist is a parent who you live with, you could spend the night at a friend’s house for some space.
If the narcissist is someone who you do not have to see regularly or at all, you can try to limit interactions with them as much as possible or simply cut off all contact in a safe way.
When dealing with a covert narcissist, it is also important not to behave in a way that can create more tension making the situation worse.
For instance, it is generally not helpful to argue or confront the individual, expect them to see your point of view, or expect meaningful communication.
There may be a lot of pushback expected from the narcissists, as well as them being upset that they are not getting what they want.
However, it is important to remember that it is not your job to control that person’s emotions; you can only control how you deal with them.
Frequently Asked Questions
What is the difference between confidence and narcissism?
While people may be over-confident, this should not be confused with someone being a narcissist. Being a confident, self-assured person is not necessarily considered negative.
Although narcissists are confident in themselves and believe they deserve the world, it is only when the confidence is extreme and over-inflated that it may become narcissistic.
While narcissists are self-focused, confident people can be considerate of the well-being of others. Narcissists also constantly crave attention and affirmation, while confident people don’t usually seek to prove themselves to others.
Narcissists will usually exploit and manipulate others for their own gain, while confident people can strive to lift others up. Also, it is rare for narcissists to admit when they are at fault, while confident people are more likely to take responsibility and admit when they are wrong.
What happens when a covert narcissist is exposed?
When a covert narcissist is exposed, for instance, for lying or being abusive, they can become explosive. They are very sensitive to criticism, so if they feel their ego is being attacked, they will likely not take responsibility.
They may use gaslighting tactics such as denying doing any wrongdoing or shifting the blame onto others. They might call the other person hurtful words such as ‘crazy’ or become emotionally hostile.
The covert narcissist will often play the victim or pretend to forget situations when confronted about something they have done wrong.
What type of person attracts narcissists?
Often, narcissists want to target people who have high levels of empathy. Empaths are people who are givers and very forgiving. They may be easier for narcissists to take advantage of because of their kind nature.
The empath may even believe they may be able to change the narcissist or save them. Because of this, they may be more likely to be in long-term relationships with a narcissist.
Likewise, people who are more vulnerable to abuse or may struggle to understand certain social situations, such as those with Autism, may find themselves in relationships with narcissists.
What does a narcissist do when you leave them?
As narcissists do not like to lose, they often resist letting someone leave them. They may promise to change their ways or attempt to guilt people into staying with them.
They may turn the blame onto the other person or say things such as ‘You will be lost without me’ or ‘You’ll never find someone like me again.’
Even when someone leaves a narcissist, they may find that the narcissist cannot move on. They may demand attention, such as sending loads of text messages or emails, often explaining why they behaved the way they did and how they were wronged, all ways to victimize themselves.
If this happens, it may be advisable to cut off all possible contact so they cannot fall for their tactics again.
Can a narcissist be faithful?
While not all narcissists are unfaithful, many of their traits can make it more likely that they will be unfaithful compared to someone who is not a narcissist. Narcissists tend to need a lot of validation from those around them, and they need to be admired.
Therefore, they could meet their needs by flirting with many potential sexual or romantic partners. Since they also lack empathy, they may have little concern about how their partner will feel.
Likewise, they may be unable to find true love with someone if they lack a caring nature. Thus, a need for attention plus a lack of empathy may not make narcissists the most faithful partners.
If you need to talk to someone…
If you or a loved one are a victim of domestic violence, contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline for confidential assistance from trained advocates.
If you want to access support over the phone, you can call:
National Domestic Abuse Helpline 0808 2000 247 – www.nationaldahelpline.org.uk/ (run by Refuge)
The Men’s Advice Line, for male domestic abuse survivors 0808 801 0327 (run by Respect )
The Mix, free information and support for under 25s in the UK 0808 808 4994
National LGBT+ Domestic Abuse Helpline 0800 999 5428 (run by Galop)
Women’s Aid is a national charity working to end domestic abuse against women and children. We are a federation of over 180 organizations providing just under 300 lifesaving services to women and children across England 1-800-799-7233
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