Narcissism commonly manifests as an inflated sense of self-importance and a profound need for admiration, which are personality traits that are relatively easy to identify. But there is a subtler form of narcissistic personality disorder, known as covert narcissism. This type of narcissism is more difficult to spot because covert narcissists initially comes across as shy or modest. In this post we will discuss 10 signs that you might be dealing with a covert narcissist.
What is Covert Narcissism?
Covert narcissism, also referred to as vulnerable or closet narcissism, is a less conspicuous variant of narcissism.
It’s a complex and often misunderstood personality disorder that can be challenging to identify due to its subtle characteristics and manifestations.
Unlike their overt counterparts who are typically outgoing, boisterous, and crave the limelight, covert narcissists are more introverted. They may appear sensitive, reserved, or even self-effacing.
However, beneath this quiet exterior lies the same fundamental narcissistic trait: an inflated sense of self-importance.
While overt narcissists brazenly display their sense of superiority and entitlement, covert narcissists express their narcissism in more understated ways.
They often harbor feelings of being misunderstood, overlooked, or unappreciated.
They may project an image of humility or insecurity, but these expressions often serve to mask their deep-seated belief in their own superiority.
Covert narcissists can exhibit passive-aggressive behavior, holding onto grudges and becoming easily slighted or offended.
Their reactions are often disproportionate to the perceived offense, and they will not hesitate to resort to manipulation to get what they want.
This duality, appearing vulnerable on the surface while fostering grandiose self-perceptions, makes understanding and identifying covert narcissism particularly challenging.
Covert Narcissist Signs (1) Hidden Grandiosity
Overt narcissists are known for their blatant displays of superiority and grandiosity, but covert narcissists operate differently.
They cloak their sense of supremacy under a veil of modesty or self-deprecation.
However, this doesn’t mean their grandiosity is non-existent. It’s just more subtly expressed.
Covert narcissists often allude to their exceptional abilities or accomplishments in an understated manner.
They may weave tales of their supposed greatness into casual conversations, discreetly ensuring that others are aware of their achievements, yet doing so in a way that appears humble or even dismissive of their own successes.
This hidden grandiosity can manifest in various ways.
For instance, a covert narcissist might casually mention how they were ‘forced’ into a leadership role because no one else was capable, subtly boasting about their superior skills while feigning reluctance.
The key here is the duality in their behavior. On the surface, they might seem modest, even self-effacing. But beneath this façade, their grandiose self-perception simmers, revealed only through subtle cues and indirect boasts.
Covert Narcissist Signs (2) Victim Mentality
Covert narcissists are not only adept at playing the victim but are also masters at turning this role into a powerful tool for emotional manipulation.
Possessing an uncanny ability to portray themselves as victims, covert narcissists expertly weave tales of their supposed or exaggerated hardships.
They have a knack for twisting situations in such a way that they always appear as the innocent party who is unjustly wronged or misunderstood.
They artfully dodge responsibility and manage to cast blame on others, thereby maintaining their victim status.
A covert narcissist will then use these stories to manipulate the feelings of those around them, eliciting guilt or sympathy.
This is one of the most telling signs that you have come up against a covert narcissist.
Covert Narcissist Signs (3) Passive Aggression
One of the most significant and effective manipulation techniques used by covert narcissists is their use of passive-aggression. Unlike overt narcissists, who are typically direct and confrontational, covert narcissists operate on a more insidious level.
Instead of engaging in open conflict, covert narcissists deploy an array of passive-aggressive strategies to undermine and destabilize their targets.
Their actions may seem benign on the surface, but they’re designed to subtly erode your confidence and self-esteem without you even realizing it.
The Silent Treatment
Covert narcissists are masters of the art of freezing people out and giving them the silent treatment.
This tactic involves ignoring or avoiding you, thereby creating a sense of uncertainty and discomfort.
While it might seem like a simple lack of communication, it’s actually a calculated move to make you question your worth in the relationship.
Snide remarks are another hallmark of covert narcissistic behavior.
Covert narcissists excel at making veiled insults or sarcastic comments that can leave you feeling belittled and confused.
These remarks are often disguised as jokes or offhand comments, making it difficult for you to confront them directly about their behavior without appearing overly sensitive.
Undermining Your Confidence
The covert narcissist will try to subtly undermine your confidence.
They will downplay your accomplishments, question your abilities, or plant seeds of doubt in your mind about your decisions.
This strategy is particularly effective because it’s done so subtly that you may start to believe their criticisms and doubt your own worth.
Covert Narcissist Signs (4) Hypersensitivity to Criticism
One of the signs that typically stands out is the hypersensitivity of a covert narcissist to criticism. Even the most minor critique can trigger a disproportionate reaction from a covert narcissist.
Understanding this sensitivity and how they respond can provide valuable insight into their mindset and behavior.
Covert narcissists perceive even the gentlest feedback as a personal attack, leading them to react with intense anger or defensiveness.
This extreme reaction is a direct result of their fragile self-esteem, which relies heavily on external validation.
However, unlike overt narcissists who might openly express their rage, covert narcissists are more likely to suppress their anger, letting it simmer beneath the surface.
This suppressed anger then manifests in passive-aggressive behaviors or malicious manipulation.
When criticized, covert narcissists will immediately try to deflect blame onto others.
Or they might twist the situation, placing the fault on you for being overly critical or insensitive, thereby avoiding any responsibility for their actions.
Moreover, this hypersensitivity to criticism often leads to an avoidance of situations where they might be critiqued. This avoidance further reinforces their victim mentality, as they perceive themselves as being continually misunderstood or unfairly judged.
Covert Narcissist Signs (5) Lack of Empathy
A lack of empathy is a universal trait among narcissists, and covert narcissists are no exception.
This inability or unwillingness to understand or share the feelings of others is one of the most defining covert narcissist signs.
It forms a fundamental part of their personality and significantly influences their interactions with others.
Covert narcissists struggle to empathize with others, not because they can’t comprehend the emotions involved, but because they are primarily focused on their own needs and desires.
Their world revolves around themselves, and they view others mainly in terms of how they can be useful to them. This self-centered perspective makes it difficult for them to genuinely connect with others on an emotional level.
Moreover, covert narcissists are notorious for their inability to offer genuine comfort or support.
If you’re going through a tough time, they may either trivialize your problems or turn the focus back onto themselves.
Their lack of empathy is especially apparent in such situations, as they struggle to provide the emotional support that a friend or partner should provide.
Covert Narcissist Signs (6) Neglectful
Covert narcissists are often neglectful in their relationships, demonstrating a consistent pattern of ignoring the needs and feelings of others while focusing exclusively on their own desires.
This neglect can manifest in various ways, subtly eroding the quality of the relationship over time.
One of the primary ways is through emotional neglect.
Covert narcissists are typically inept at building and nurturing emotional bonds with others. They fail to offer comfort, support, or understanding when their partner is going through tough times.
Instead, they might dismiss their partner’s feelings as irrelevant or unimportant, particularly if they don’t align with their own needs and perspectives.
Another aspect of this neglect is their propensity for withholding affection.
Covert narcissists often withdraw emotionally or physically from their partners, depriving them of the love, warmth, and connection that are integral to a healthy relationship.
This emotional withdrawal is usually a manipulative tactic designed to assert control and keep their partner off balance.
Lack of Consideration
Covert narcissists also exhibit neglect through their lack of consideration for their partner’s needs.
They are likely to ignore their partner’s requests or disregard their preferences. This disregard usually extends to all aspects of the relationship, from minor daily choices to major life decisions.
No Respect for Boundaries
Moreover, this neglect often extends to a lack of respect for their partner’s boundaries.
Covert narcissists will invade their partner’s privacy, dismiss their opinions, or belittle their accomplishments. They often do so subtly, under the guise of concern or interest, making it difficult for their partner to call out their behavior without seeming unreasonable.
Covert Narcissist Signs (7) Gaslighting
Gaslighting is a prevalent tactic employed by narcissists, including covert ones.
This manipulative strategy involves causing others to question their own reality, memory, or sanity through persistent denial, distortion of facts, and misrepresentation of the truth.
Understanding how gaslighting works can provide valuable insight into the behavioral patterns of narcissists.
At its core, gaslighting is a psychological warfare tool that narcissists use to gain control and power in relationships.
It’s a form of emotional abuse designed to create doubt, confusion, and insecurity, ultimately making the victim dependent on the narcissist for defining what’s real or true.
One common gaslighting technique used by narcissists is outright denial.
They might deny ever having said or done something, even when confronted with solid evidence. This persistent denial can cause the victim to question their memory and perception of events.
Another gaslighting strategy involves twisting or distorting the truth.
Covert narcissists will reinterpret events or conversations to fit their narrative, downplaying their wrongdoings and exaggerating others’ faults.
Over time, this constant distortion of reality can lead the victim to doubt their judgement and believe the narcissist’s version of events.
Narcissists also use gaslighting to deflect blame and avoid accountability.
If they’re criticized or confronted, they might turn the tables and accuse the other person of being overly sensitive, misunderstanding, or even causing the problem.
This deflection shifts the focus away from the narcissist’s actions and onto the victim’s supposed shortcomings.
Moreover, narcissists may resort to trivializing their victim’s feelings or experiences as part of their gaslighting tactics.
By dismissing their emotions as irrational or overblown, they undermine their victim’s self-confidence and self-worth.
Covert Narcissist Signs (8) Difficulty with Intimacy
Covert narcissists often have difficulty with intimacy.
Their difficulty with emotional closeness can manifest in various ways, influencing their interactions with others and shaping the dynamics of their relationships.
Fear of Vulnerability
One of the primary reasons covert narcissists struggle with intimacy is their fear of vulnerability.
Deep down, many narcissists harbor insecurities and fears of inadequacy, which they mask with a façade of superiority and self-sufficiency.
Allowing someone close enough to see these vulnerabilities terrifies them, causing them to avoid genuine emotional closeness.
As a result, they keep their partners at arm’s length, never fully opening up or letting their guard down.
This fear of vulnerability also means that covert narcissists rarely trust others.
They tend to be suspicious or paranoid, interpreting innocent actions as threats or betrayals.
This lack of trust further hinders their ability to form deep, meaningful connections with others.
Intimacy as a Weapon
Moreover, covert narcissists may use intimacy as a weapon to manipulate their partners.
They might offer or withhold affection as a means of control, using their partner’s desire for closeness against them.
For instance, they may become emotionally distant to punish their partner or give affection when they want something in return.
In addition, covert narcissists often struggle to empathize with their partners, which is a critical component of intimacy.
They typically focus on their own needs and desires, ignoring or dismissing their partner’s feelings. This lack of empathy makes it difficult for them to connect on a deeper emotional level.
Power and Control
Lastly, covert narcissists often view relationships in terms of power and control rather than love and mutual respect.
They see emotional closeness as a threat to their autonomy, causing them to resist intimacy and maintain emotional distance.
Covert Narcissist Signs (9) Superiority Complex
Covert narcissists, despite their outwardly modest demeanor, harbor a quiet but firm belief in their superiority.
This belief is not always immediately perceptible due to their subtler approach to self-aggrandizement, but it significantly influences their attitudes and behaviors.
At the heart of a covert narcissist’s mindset is an unwavering belief in their uniqueness. They perceive themselves as exceptionally different from others, misunderstood by those around them.
This perception of being distinct can lead to feelings of isolation or alienation, but it also feeds their sense of superiority. They may view others as incapable of comprehending their complexity or depth, reinforcing their belief in their exceptional nature.
Covert narcissists also tend to believe that they are entitled to special treatment.
Despite their seemingly humble exterior, they often expect others to cater to their needs, preferences, and desires.
This sense of entitlement can manifest in various ways, from expecting preferential treatment in everyday situations, to demanding excessive admiration and attention from others.
However, this belief in their superiority and entitlement remains hidden behind a façade of humility or modesty.
Covert narcissists are masters of disguise, adept at concealing their grandiose beliefs beneath a veneer of shyness or self-deprecation.
They may present themselves as humble, selfless, or altruistic, while subtly asserting their superiority through insinuations or indirect comments.
Covert Narcissist Signs (10) Control Issues
Covert narcissists crave control. They exert this control subtly, manipulating situations and people to serve their interests.
Their tactics, however, are usually not as overt as those of more classic, overt narcissists, and they frequently operate under the radar, making them particularly difficult to identify.
One way covert narcissists exercise control is by manipulating situations to their advantage. They are adept at twisting circumstances to fit their narrative or to place themselves in a favorable light.
This manipulation might involve playing the victim, creating drama, or turning people against each other. Regardless of the method, the goal remains the same: to gain control and maintain their inflated self-image.
They will also employ tactics such as guilt-tripping, or playing on others’ sympathies.
These strategies allow them to sway others’ actions and decisions subtly, bending them to their will without appearing forceful or domineering.
Interestingly, covert narcissists often cloak their manipulative behaviors under the guise of being helpful or caring.
They might offer unsolicited advice, help with tasks that weren’t asked for, or insert themselves into situations where they are not needed, all in an effort to control outcomes and people.
On the surface, these actions may appear altruistic, but their underlying motive is to gain influence and maintain control.
Final Thoughts: Recognizing the Signs of a Covert Narcissist
Covert narcissists are masters at presenting themselves in a positive light. They are adept at masking their narcissistic tendencies behind a façade of humility, modesty, or altruism. So, it’s essential to look beyond surface-level impressions and consider the underlying motives and patterns of behavior.
Recognizing the signs that you may be dealing with a covert narcissist is just the first step. If you are struggling in the relationship, it may be beneficial to seek professional advice to navigate the situation. Your top priority should be safeguarding you own emotional wellbeing.
Frequently Asked Questions About The Signs Of A Covert Narcissist
A covert narcissist is a person who has narcissistic personality traits but doesn’t display the overt grandiosity typically associated with narcissism. They often portray a humble or modest demeanor while harboring a strong sense of superiority and entitlement.
Recognizing a covert narcissist can be challenging due to their subtle behavior. Key signs include a quiet sense of superiority, manipulation of people and situations under the guise of helpfulness, lack of genuine emotional intimacy, and presenting themselves in a positive light while dismissing or rationalizing criticism.
Covert narcissists often struggle with criticism. They may dismiss it, rationalize it away, or turn it around to play the victim. This is because any critique is seen as a threat to their self-image and sense of superiority.
Posts about Covert Narcissists
Carla Corelli is an author, advocate, and survivor of narcissistic abuse. Having grown up with a narcissistic father, Carla experienced firsthand the profound impact of psychological and emotional abuse. Fueled by her personal journey, she pursued a degree in psychology and has dedicated herself to shedding light on the complexities of narcissistic abuse.
With over fifteen years of experience in writing and advocating for survivors, Carla is deeply committed to providing support, education, and empowerment to those who have endured similar trauma. Through her articles, Carla aims to offer a compassionate space for healing and growth, while advocating for greater awareness and understanding of narcissistic abuse.
More info about Carla
Our editorial policy