Have you ever known someone who seems really shy and self-deprecating at first but over time reveals a sense of entitlement and lack of empathy? They may be struggling with covert narcissism. While not always obvious, covert narcissists can be just as manipulative and damaging as their overt counterparts.
They appear humble and insecure on the surface but beneath lies the same exaggerated sense of self-importance and lack of compassion for others.
The covert narcissist flies under the radar with their subtle tactics but the end result is the same – they leave you questioning your own sanity and feeling worthless. Stick around as we explore the psychology behind this insidious personality disorder and how to spot the signs in those around you. Knowledge is power, and covert narcissists lose their grip once you can see through their actions.
Understanding Covert Narcissism
Covert narcissists are difficult to spot because they keep their self-absorption hidden beneath a veneer of charm and humility.
They come across as self-deprecating and overly apologetic, but it’s really just a ploy to get others to reassure them. They fish for compliments and validation about their looks, talents, or accomplishments.
Once you’re hooked, they manipulate you into becoming their cheerleader to feed their sense of importance. Their shy and helpless act is designed to make you feel needed and draw you in, but it’s all about them.
Covert narcissists lack empathy and see relationships as a means to an end. They rarely ask you how you’re doing or show interest in your life. Conversations always circle back to them.
They are passive aggressive and play the victim. Rather than assertively addressing issues, they sulk, give you the silent treatment, or make snide comments to make you feel guilty.
Spotting a covert narcissist isn’t easy. Pay close attention to how they treat you and if the relationship feels one-sided or draining. Set boundaries and don’t get pulled into their manipulations. The healthiest option may be limiting contact or cutting ties completely. You deserve relationships where your needs and feelings also matter.
Common Traits of the Covert Narcissist
If you know someone who exhibits these traits, they may be a covert narcissist.
Lack of Empathy
Covert narcissists typically show a lack of empathy for others. They may seem compassionate on the surface but lack the ability to understand other’s emotions or concerns. Their caring words are often empty platitudes meant to make themselves look good.
Sensitivity to Criticism
Covert narcissists have a fragile self-esteem and are extremely sensitive to any criticism, perceived or real. They may become angry, retaliate or play the victim if you criticize them. Any feedback is taken as a personal attack.
Covert narcissists are prone to passive-aggressive behavior like sulking, withholding affection, being obstructionist or sabotaging plans. Their aggression comes through in indirect and sneaky ways as they try to manipulate people or situations to their benefit.
Like all narcissists, covert ones crave admiration and praise from those around them. They want people to see them as special, accomplished and superior in some way. They may drop subtle hints about their achievements or make excuses to bring the conversation back to themselves.
With knowledge of these traits, you’ll be better equipped to identify and handle the covert narcissists in your own life. Set clear boundaries, don’t feed their ego and avoid manipulative behavior. The more you understand them, the less power they have over you.
Causes and Risk Factors for Developing Covert Narcissistic Personality
The causes and risk factors for developing covert narcissism are complex and multi-faceted. Some potential influences include:
Upbringing and environment. If you grew up with emotionally unavailable, neglectful or abusive parents, you may develop covert narcissistic traits as a way to protect yourself or gain validation. Lacking affection and nurturing as a child can fuel feelings of inadequacy and empty self-worth in adulthood.
Genetics. Some research suggests narcissism may have a genetic component. If you have close family members who display narcissistic qualities, you may be predisposed to developing similar tendencies.
Early experiences of shame, humiliation or rejection. Painful experiences that made you feel unloved or unworthy during formative years can shape the belief that you must hide your flaws and project an image of perfection to gain love and acceptance from others.
Lack of self-reflection. The inability or unwillingness to self-reflect in an honest and balanced way contributes to covert narcissism. Without insight into your own limitations, mistakes, and imperfections, you can’t develop a realistic and compassionate sense of self.
Social anxiety or low self-esteem. Feeling extremely anxious, insecure and inadequate in social situations or relationships may drive you to manipulate others to fulfill your needs in a covert fashion. You lack the courage to express yourself openly and directly.
The factors that contribute to covert narcissism are complex and deeply personal. Gaining insight into the root causes of your tendencies can be an important first step toward growth and change. With compassion and courage, you can overcome unhealthy patterns and build self-worth from the inside out.
How Covert Narcissists Differ From Overt Narcissists?
Covert narcissists differ from their overt counterparts in several key ways. While overt narcissists openly demand attention and praise, covert narcissists seek the same rewards in more subtle ways.
Covert narcissists are master manipulators. They play the victim to gain sympathy and control over others. They use emotional blackmail, guilt trips, and gaslighting to get what they want while making you feel like you’re the problem. Overt narcissists, on the other hand, tend to be more openly aggressive and domineering in their manipulation tactics.
Covert narcissists seem very sensitive and insecure, but it’s just an act. They feel entitled to constant praise and special treatment, but they express this in self-pitying ways. Overt narcissists truly believe they are superior to others and have no problem openly demanding admiration.
Covert narcissists express their narcissism through passive-aggressive behavior like sulking, procrastinating, and obstructing. They make excuses, dodge responsibility, and blame others for their failures while acting like they have good intentions. Overt narcissists typically display more direct aggression and open defiance when their ego is threatened.
In the end, while the expressions differ, the driving motivations are the same for all narcissists—a constant need for validation, control, and self-importance at the expense of others. The covert tactics can in some ways be more damaging, as their manipulations are often harder to detect. But by understanding the signs, you can protect yourself from narcissistic abuse, no matter what form it takes.
Impacts of Covert Narcissism on Relationships
Covert narcissism can take a major toll on your relationships. Since covert narcissists lack empathy and are hypersensitive to criticism, their connections with others often suffer.
Difficulty with intimacy
Covert narcissists struggle to achieve true intimacy and vulnerability in relationships. They tend to see partners as extensions of themselves rather than as separate individuals. As a result, they have trouble listening to others’ needs and desires. Their self-absorption and lack of empathy make emotional intimacy challenging.
Manipulation and control
Covert narcissists frequently employ manipulation tactics and passive-aggressive behaviors to control their partners. They may give the silent treatment, make veiled insults, or play the victim to get what they want. Their controlling nature stems from a deep need to protect their fragile self-esteem.
Lack of trust
A lifetime of hiding their true selves makes it hard for covert narcissists to trust others. They worry incessantly about being exposed as flawed or inadequate. This lack of trust often leads to suspicion, jealousy, and paranoia within relationships.
Partners of covert narcissists may feel lonely, frustrated, and unheard. But with awareness of the behaviors, you can establish proper boundaries, express your needs clearly, and decide whether the relationship is right for you. The choice is ultimately up to you.
Detecting Covert Narcissism in Others
Detecting covert narcissism in others can be challenging since these individuals are adept at masking their true selves. Some signs to look for:
- Lack of empathy. Covert narcissists have difficulty seeing things from other people’s perspectives. They tend to be judgmental and critical of others.
- Exaggerated sense of self-importance. Although not as openly boastful as overt narcissists, covert narcissists believe they are special or privileged in some way. They feel they deserve special treatment and admiration.
- Hypersensitivity to criticism. Covert narcissists cannot handle criticism well and see it as a threat. They are quick to become defensive and react angrily or passive-aggressively.
- Lack of personal responsibility. Covert narcissists tend to blame external factors for their own failures, shortcomings, and mistakes. They have a hard time sincerely apologizing.
- Craves constant praise and admiration. Covert narcissists need frequent compliments and gestures of affection to boost their self-esteem. They expect people to worship and praise them.
- Manipulative behavior. Covert narcissists are adept at manipulating people to get their needs met. They use charm, flattery, guilt trips, and playing the victim to control others.
- Secret feelings of insecurity. Underneath the exaggerated self-confidence, covert narcissists feel inadequate and insecure. They need constant validation from others to prop up their fragile egos.
Spotting covert narcissism requires keen observation of the person’s behaviors, attitudes, and interpersonal relationships. But with time and experience, their true narcissistic tendencies will emerge from behind the mask.
They Feel Inadequate but Hide Behind a Humble Façade
To compensate, they hide their true selves behind a mask of modesty and self-effacement. On the surface, they appear compassionate, charming, and concerned about others. But inside, they harbor feelings of emptiness, envy, and entitlement.
Their outward humility acts as a shield to protect their fragile self-esteem and sense of inner deficiency. Covert narcissists want to be seen as virtuous and morally superior to gain validation from those around them. They tend to be judgemental of others who they perceive as selfish or arrogant.
Ironically, their concealed arrogance and need for admiration are the very traits they outwardly criticize. Deep down, they believe they are more special and deserving than others. But they are unable to healthily integrate this into their sense of self, so they resort to more covert means to feel important and admired.
This conflict between their overt modesty and underlying grandiosity creates constant inner turmoil. The result is a brittle self-esteem that requires frequent validation and praise from those around them to feel intact. Without this external admiration, their self-worth crumbles, and feelings of inadequacy emerge from the shadows.
They Crave Recognition But Play the Underdog
Covert narcissists desire praise and admiration as much as their overt counterparts, but go about obtaining it in indirect ways. They frequently play the role of a victim or underdog to elicit sympathy and support from others.
Rather than openly bragging about their achievements or qualities, covert narcissists will make self-deprecating comments, express insecurity, or talk about their misfortunes and bad luck in life to get people to reassure and compliment them. They want you to perceive them as disadvantaged or an underdog so you will admire them for overcoming difficulties.
Covert narcissists also often drop subtle hints about their accomplishments or talents to get you to ask follow up questions. That way they can share the information under the guise of simply responding to your interest. For example, a covert narcissist may casually mention working on an important project at their job to bait you into inquiring about the details so they have an opportunity to boast. However, they will do so in a way that makes them seem humble or like they are just being helpful by answering your questions.
In short, covert narcissists crave external approval and praise but employ more discreet tactics for obtaining their narcissistic supply than overt narcissists. They want to be the underdog you cheer on or the humble high achiever you admire, rather than the boastful braggart. But underneath the facade, their motivation is the same – to fulfill their insatiable need for recognition, validation and esteem.
They Lack Classic Narcissistic Grandiosity
Unlike the stereotypical narcissist, covert narcissists lack the outward grandiosity and exhibitionism. They don’t openly brag about their achievements or expect constant praise and admiration. However, beneath the surface, they harbor an exaggerated sense of self-importance.
They See Themselves as Unique or Special
Covert narcissists believe they are unique or special in some way. They feel entitled to special treatment and expect others to recognize their superiority. When their unrealistic expectations aren’t met, they become angry and resentful. They may express this through passive-aggressive behavior and subtle criticisms of others.
While overt narcissists demand to be the center of attention, covert narcissists feel like outsiders and that no one really understands them. They fantasize about accomplishing great things and believe they have unique talents, insights, or destinies that make them stand out. In reality, they have not achieved anything noteworthy or accomplished more than an average person. They just believe they are cut from a different cloth.
Their sense of being special also makes them overly sensitive to perceived slights and criticism. Any perceived insult or imperfection is a threat to their fragile self-concept. They can become defensive, antagonistic and even vengeful towards those who do not share their inflated view of themselves. Overall, the covert narcissist’s arrogance and feelings of superiority are more implicit and privately held rather than openly expressed like their overt counterpart.
They Often Have Childhoods Marked By Emotional Neglect
Those with covert narcissism often experienced emotional neglect or lack of affection in childhood. They may have had parents or caregivers who were emotionally unavailable, dismissive or critical.
As children, their emotional needs weren’t met. They learned that displaying vulnerability or seeking affection and praise was pointless or even shameful. So they developed an outward shell of self-sufficiency while secretly craving affection and validation.
This childhood dynamic set the stage for the covert narcissist’s modus operandi. They outwardly act as if they don’t care what others think while obsessively seeking approval and admiration. They hide their neediness behind a facade of indifference and self-reliance. But beneath the surface lies a fragile self-esteem that relies on the opinions and praise of others.
The covert narcissist’s childhood of emotional neglect or deprivation instilled in them a belief that their needs didn’t matter and a fear of emotional intimacy. It shaped their tendency to seek validation and affection in hidden, manipulative ways rather than through direct and genuine emotional connections with others. Recognizing this sad root cause can help in understanding and empathizing with their plight, though not excusing their harmful behaviors.
They Feel Internally Entitled But Outwardly Self-Effacing
Covert narcissists outwardly seem self-effacing but internally feel very entitled.
While overt narcissists openly demand admiration and praise, covert narcissists secretly feel they deserve special treatment and appreciation. They see themselves as uniquely talented and intelligent but are reluctant to openly admit it. Instead, they play the role of the humble and self-deprecating person.
Their modesty is false. Underneath the act, covert narcissists believe they are superior to others in unseen ways. They feel resentful and unappreciated when others don’t recognize their hidden talents or accomplishments. Over time, this can build up feelings of bitterness, anger, and depression.
To get their needs for admiration and praise met in secret, covert narcissists may engage in manipulative behavior. They frequently drop subtle hints about their achievements or make self-deprecating comments with the hope that others will reassure them. When interacting with a covert narcissist, be on the lookout for manipulative tactics meant to draw out compliments and praise. The healthiest approach is to avoid feeding their sense of entitlement and instead, set clear boundaries.
They Over-Apologize and Devalue Themselves For Sympathy
Covert narcissists tend to over-apologize and devalue themselves to gain sympathy and compassion from others. They may frequently say things like:
- “I’m so stupid.”
- “I’m sorry, I’m not good at anything.”
- “No one cares about me.”
This self-deprecating behavior makes them appear vulnerable and humble, but in reality, it’s a tactic used to manipulate people into reassuring and complimenting them. Don’t fall for this ploy. Their apologies and self-devaluation are not genuine.
While it can be difficult, try not to lavish them with sympathy and praise when they put themselves down. Doing so only feeds their need for attention and validation. Instead, encourage them to develop self-confidence from their own accomplishments and talents. Let them know their worth isn’t defined by what others think of them.
This tactic, like others used by covert narcissists, is meant to keep you in a cycle where you feel obligated to boost their ego. The healthiest thing you can do is avoid playing into their manipulations. Focus on surrounding yourself with people who treat you with sincerity and respect.
They Feel Envious of Others’ Success But Won’t Admit It
Covert narcissists often feel envious of others’ success and accomplishments but won’t openly admit it. Their fragile self-esteem prevents them from acknowledging others may be more talented or skilled in certain areas.
They downplay other people’s achievements.
Rather than congratulating someone on their success, the covert narcissist will make excuses for why that person achieved their goals or dismiss their accomplishments as unimportant or undeserved. They may claim the other person just got lucky or had connections to help them succeed. The covert narcissist needs to believe they are inherently more talented or skilled than others to protect their own ego.
They feel resentful of successful people.
Seeing friends, family members or coworkers achieve goals and gain recognition causes covert narcissists to feel resentful, even if they don’t show it openly. Their fragile self-worth depends on believing they should have the most success and praise. The achievements of others threaten this belief, causing feelings of bitterness, anger or inadequacy which the covert narcissist then projects onto that successful person.
They avoid associating with successful people.
Rather than support and learn from the success of others, covert narcissists choose to distance themselves from high-achievers. They surround themselves with people who make them feel superior to avoid facing their own feelings of envy and inadequacy. The covert narcissist’s ego remains fragile as long as they measure their self-worth through competition with others. True confidence comes from within, not at the expense of those around you.
They Manipulate Through Guilt Trips and Gaslighting
Covert narcissists are skilled at making you feel guilty or like you owe them something. They may bring up things they’ve done for you in the past and claim you need to repay them, even if there was no agreement to do so. They are quick to point out your flaws and mistakes to make you feel like you have let them down in some way. These guilt trips are a way for them to gain control over you and your emotions.
Gaslighting is a form of psychological manipulation where the covert narcissist makes you question your own sanity or perception of events. They may deny things they’ve said or done, blame you for their own actions, or twist facts to suit their narrative. The end goal is to destabilize you and make you more dependent on them. Don’t fall for these manipulative tactics. Trust your own recollections and stand up for yourself. Let the covert narcissist know their behavior is unacceptable and you won’t engage with them when they act this way.
The covert narcissist in your life may use other forms of manipulation as well, so be on the lookout for their subtle, damaging actions and set clear boundaries to protect yourself. You don’t deserve to be treated this way or made to feel bad for things that are not your fault. Stay confident in yourself and don’t let them shake your reality.
They Take Advantage by Appearing Helpless and Needy
Covert narcissists are adept at manipulating others through appearing helpless and needy. Their vulnerable demeanor makes you want to help them, but be wary.
They play the victim.
Covert narcissists portray themselves as victims of circumstance to gain sympathy and favors from others. They spin tales of woe and hardship to make you feel sorry for them. Don’t fall for the act – their sob stories are exaggerated or fabricated.
Offer a sympathetic ear but be cautious of requests for money, gifts or extreme sacrifices of your time or resources. Helping covert narcissists in moderation is fine, but don’t let them take advantage of your goodwill. Say no when you need to, and don’t feel guilty about establishing boundaries. Their demands will only increase if given in to, so stand firm while still being compassionate.
Covert narcissists may use emotional blackmail like crying, threats of self-harm or claiming you don’t care about them to manipulate you into compliance. Don’t give in – instead, suggest they see a counselor or call emergency services. You can show you care through encouraging healthy behavior and independence rather than enabling their manipulation.
With covert narcissists, empathy and support should be given judiciously. While their distress may seem real, their motivation is exploiting others rather than genuinely needing help. Be willing to assist in small ways but avoid being taken advantage of through maintaining your own emotional and financial limits. The covert narcissist’s needs are bottomless, so establish boundaries to protect yourself even as you aim to be kind.
They Give Backhanded Compliments Mixed With Critiques
They give backhanded compliments mixed with critiques. Covert narcissists are adept at disguising insults as praise. Their compliments often feel like thinly-veiled judgments or come across as condescending. For example, a covert narcissist may say something like:
- “You look so nice today, that dress really hides your flaws well.”
- “You did a great job on that project, I’m impressed you managed to pull it off.”
These kinds of backhanded compliments are meant to make you feel uncertain and keep you seeking their approval. At the same time, the covert narcissist will freely offer unsolicited advice and criticism under the guise of trying to “help” you improve. Their critiques frequently come across as patronizing or imply there is something wrong with you that needs fixing.
Don’t be fooled by their mixed messages. Recognize backhanded compliments and uncalled for criticism for what they are – subtle tactics used to manipulate and control. You do not need a covert narcissist’s validation or approval. Their judgment says more about them than it does about you. Surround yourself instead with people who offer genuine kindness, empathy and support.
Coping With and Responding to Covertly Narcissistic Behavior
Dealing with someone who exhibits covert narcissistic behavior can be frustrating and upsetting. Here are some tips to help you cope:
When they manipulate or gaslight you, stay calm and trust your own perception of events. Do not engage or argue – remain detached and objective. Say something like “I see things differently” and leave it at that.
Set clear boundaries and enforce them consistently. Be specific about what is and isn’t okay, and follow through with consequences when lines are crossed. You may have to limit contact if they continue to disrespect your limits.
Do not expect them to change or meet your emotional needs. Covert narcissists lack empathy and are unwilling to change their behavior. Accept them as they are or distance yourself.
Find your own sources of validation and support. Do not rely on the covert narcissist’s approval or praise. Connect with others who appreciate you for who you are.
Limit what information you share with them. Be wary of telling them personal details they could use against you later. Keep interactions superficial.
Take a step back and observe the relationship objectively. How do they really treat you? Are they adding value to your life? It may help to speak to a therapist.
Ultimately, you cannot control a covert narcissist, you can only control your reactions and response. Focus on surrounding yourself with people who love and respect you. Do not let their manipulations define your self-worth.
Treatment Options for Covert Narcissism
Treatment for covert narcissism typically involves long-term psychotherapy. Some options include:
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)
CBT helps identify negative thoughts and behaviors and replace them with healthier ones. For covert narcissists, CBT can help address feelings of inadequacy and hypersensitivity to criticism. Therapy may focus on building self-esteem, setting boundaries, and learning to accept imperfections in themselves and others.
Interpersonal Therapy (IPT)
IPT aims to improve communication and relationships. It helps covert narcissists better understand how their behavior impacts others and develop empathy. A therapist can facilitate discussions around relationship conflicts and coach clients on constructive ways to interact with friends and family.
Practices like mindfulness meditation, yoga, and deep breathing help covert narcissists strengthen self-awareness and emotional regulation. By learning to slow down reactionary impulses and observe their thoughts and feelings with non-judgment, narcissists can gain a more balanced perspective of themselves and others.
No matter the approach, the primary goals of treatment are building a strong sense of self, improving self-esteem, enhancing empathy and social skills, setting healthy boundaries, and learning to accept criticism in a constructive way. Progress will require motivation and a willingness to honestly self-reflect – challenging tasks for the covert narcissist, but with professional support and commitment to the process, change is possible.
What Are Some Subtle Signs of Covert Narcissism to Look Out For?
When dealing with covert narcissism, it’s crucial to know how to identify narcissists early on. Subtle signs may include excessive need for approval, a constant desire to be the center of attention, frequent lack of empathy, and manipulation tactics. Recognizing these indicators can help protect yourself from potential emotional harm. Stay vigilant and trust your instincts.
What are some common red flags of covert narcissism?
Recognizing covert narcissism requires vigilance, as certain signs can be easily missed. Some overlooked red flags of narcissism include a constant need for validation, manipulative behavior, excessive self-focus, inability to handle criticism, and a tendency to play the victim. Awareness of these subtle indicators can help uncover covert narcissism and protect oneself from its detrimental effects.
The signs were there all along, you just didn’t recognize them. But now that you know the traits of a covert narcissist, you’ll be better equipped to spot them in the future. Don’t blame yourself for not seeing through their act sooner.
These manipulators are skilled at hiding their true selves while making you feel like the problem. But you can break free from their control and reclaim your life. Set clear boundaries, spend less time with them, and work on building your confidence from the inside out.
You deserve to surround yourself with people who love and support you unconditionally. The covert narcissist in your life isn’t one of them, but now you have the power to do something about it. Stay strong, trust your instincts, and choose freedom over control. You’ve got this!