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Covert Narcissist: Signs and How to Respond

By Olivia Guy-Evans, published Jan 27, 2022

by Saul Mcleod, PhD

Narcissistic-Personality-Disorder

What is narcissism?

Narcissism is the overinflated belief that one is superior to everyone else, with excessive interest in oneself and in appearance. Narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) is a type of complex personality disorder, often detected alongside other personality disorders.

This is a condition whereby individuals have an inflated sense of self-importance and entitlement, have a strong desire for attention and admirations, and lack empathy for others.

Often, narcissists can manipulate people in exploitative ways in order to get what they want. Some of the traits of NPD may be similar to those seen in confident people.

However, those with healthy confidence are usually humble whilst narcissists tend to perceive themselves as better than everyone else. Sometimes it can be easy to spot a typical narcissist by how they portray themselves.

They may present as the loudest person in the room, act in ways to gain attention, talk about themselves excessively and appear to not care about the feelings of others.

It is important to note that narcissism is not always overt, and sometimes narcissists can present as more introverted, thus they may have different ways of presenting their narcissistic behaviours.

Traits of narcissistic personality disorder

Some of the traits of narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) are internal feelings of high self-esteem and an overinflated sense of self-importance.

They may feel entitled, believing the world owes them something, as well as exaggerating their abilities and their sense of uniqueness. A large part of NPD is how they interact with others.

They may display manipulative behaviours in order to achieve what they want. They may always try to get their own way through exploiting others, with disregard for how their actions are affecting those around them.

They can also be demanding, talk a lot, and crave attention and admiration from others. Also, they may react poorly to criticism. Because of this, they may find it difficult to build or maintain relationships with friends, work colleagues, family, or romantic partners.

They may not be aware that they have done anything wrong and may blame others for failed relationships. Likewise, those with NPD might be more likely to engage in more impulsive behaviours such as taking drugs or gambling.

Thus, they may be more likely to experience issues with substances and finances.

In the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV), NPD is described as a pervasive pattern of grandiosity, need for admiration and lack of empathy, indicated by five or more of the following symptoms:

  1. A grandiose sense of self-importance
  2. Preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love
  3. Beliefs of being special or unique
  4. Requirements of excessive admiration
  5. A sense of entitlement
  6. Interpersonal exploitativeness
  7. Lack of empathy
  8. Envy of others
  9. Arrogant, haughty behaviours or attitudes

Signs of a Covert Narcissist

Whilst typical types of narcissistic behaviours are described as more overt, or extroverted, narcissism does not always present itself in an extroverted manner.

Covert narcissists are those who 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 that it 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 NPD despite their differences to the ‘classic’ NPD described in the DSM-IV.

Below are some of the key traits of those with covert narcissism:

Blaming and shaming

Those who are covert narcissists may be subtle in their ways of blaming others for things which 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 negatively about themselves.

This way, they can make others feel bad so that they themselves feel better and have avoided any responsibility for their actions.

Often, covert narcissists may play the victim of the other person’s behaviour and use emotional abuse with the goal to make the other person feel small.

Highly sensitive to criticism

Those with narcissism usually are insecure and have easily damaged self-esteem.

Thus, when someone criticises the covert narcissist, they may make dismissive or sarcastic and defensive comments to deflect the criticism.

Although most people do not like being criticised, those with NPD will often respond in a way that most people would not. The criticism damages their idealised view of themselves so they can take it a lot harder than others would.

Passive self-importance

Covert narcissists are more likely to seek reassurance from others than those who are overtly narcissistic. 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 reassurances and compliments.

Procrastination and disregard

Narcissists tend to gravitate towards those who are caring and compassionate people, therefore these types of people present as opportunities to 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 show 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 in order to achieve something.

They may perform an act of kindness such as comforting someone who is 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, with the intent of getting something else in return such as an equally expensive gift or to achieve socialisation with the waitress who receives the tip.

Envy

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.

Passive aggression

Although covert narcissists are not typically conveyors of outwardly aggressive behaviour, they can display subtler passive aggressive behaviours 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.

Creating confusion

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 realise 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.

Overt vs covert narcissism

The differences between overt and covert narcissism are that overt narcissists are primarily more extroverted whilst coverts are more introverted.

This can make overt narcissists easier to identify as they may be loud, arrogant, and insensitive to other’s feelings. With overt narcissists, manipulation may be a lot easier to see coming as the warning signs will be a lot more noticeable.

They may present behaviours such as explicitly putting others down, be rude, critical, and overly sarcastic with others. They may unload their shame with accusations and insults with no regard to other’s feelings.

Whilst both covert and overt narcissists have a fragile sense of self, overt narcissists will often demand admiration and attention compared to covert narcissists.

Both covert and overt narcissists have deficits in their capacity to regulate their self-esteem and both need to meet the criteria for NPD to achieve a diagnosis.

It is not known what causes NPD, but as with other personality disorders and mental health disorders in general, the cause is likely to be complex.

A possible cause could be the environment, specifically during child development. Those who develop NPD may have had a non-typical upbringing.

The parenting styles from caregivers may have been either overprotective with lots of adoration, or neglectful with excessive criticism.

Likewise, another cause could be genetics, so if a parent has NPD or another mental health disorder, the child may be more likely to develop NPD.

NPD also tends to be more common in males than females, often beginning to show symptoms in teens or early adulthood.

How to Deal With a Covert Narcissist

It can be incredibly difficult to manage if someone in your life is suspected to have covert narcissism.

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 actions of the narcissist in your life, you can control how to deal and communicate with them so that you are not negatively affected by their actions.

Stay Calm

It can be really difficult to not 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 it personally and react so they can maintain power over you, so if this reaction is taken away, they may eventually realise 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, it is important for the people in their lives to put in boundaries for them.

Boundaries are a good way of letting people know what your values are 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.

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 is the truth.

This can help with any self-doubt you may have as a result of being manipulated.

Educate yourself

Educating yourself on NPD can help with understanding the covert narcissists’ strengths and weaknesses so you can learn to handle them 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 getting this unhealthy goal from you.

Healthy communication

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 behaviours and acknowledge when they are disappointed about something.

If the narcissist does not realise their behaviours are causing problems, they will be less motivated to seek help. Even if they do not want to seek help or see the problem of their actions, being called out could cause them to self-regulate their behaviour 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.

When dealing with a covert narcissist it is also important to not behave in a way which 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 pushbacks 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.

FAQs:

What is the difference between confidence and narcissism?

Whilst people may be over-confident, this should not be confused with someone being a narcissist. Being a confident, self-assured person is not necessarily something which is 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. 

Whilst narcissists are self-focused, confident people can be considerate of the wellbeing of others. Narcissists also constantly crave attention and affirmation, whilst confident people don’t usually seek to prove themselves to others.

Narcissists will usually exploit and manipulate others for their own gain whilst confident people can strive to lift others up. Also, narcissists cannot and will not admit when they are at fault, whilst confident people can 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 not take responsibility.

They may use gaslighting tactics such as denying doing any wrongdoing or shift 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. 

What does a narcissist do when you leave them?

As a narcissist does not like to lose, they will often resist against 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 with explanations of why they behaved the way they did and how they were wronged, all ways to victimise themselves.

If this happens, it may be advisable to cut off all possible contact so that they cannot fall for their tactics again. 

Can a narcissist be faithful?

Whilst not all narcissists are unfaithful, a lot 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 have a need to be admired.

Therefore, they could get their needs met by flirting with many potential sexual or romantic partners. Since they also lack empathy, they may have little concern with 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. 

Do narcissists get worse with age? 

It could be possible that narcissists get worse with age as their looks, connection, and influence fades over time. As this happens, they may experience a sense of diminished control over people and may become more bitter.

They may view getting old as a defeat that they struggle against with denial and resentment. They may feel more victimised by life and may blame others for their disappointments. Their grandiose delusions may bring out bigotry and assertions of superiority over others, especially those younger or more influential than them. 

Despite this, self-reported ratings of narcissistic personality have been found to be significantly lower in the elderly than in middle-aged people (Carter & Douglas, 2018).

Likewise, researchers have suggested that younger generations are more narcissistic compared to older generations (Twenge & Campbell, 2008), although this may be confused with younger people being more confident and having higher self-esteem.

 

If you need to talk to someone...

USA

If you or a loved one are a victim of domestic violence, contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline for confidential assistance from trained advocates.

1-800-799-7233

UK

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 the national charity working to end domestic abuse against women and children. We are a federation of over 180 organisations providing just under 300 lifesaving services to women and children across England 1-800-799-7233

About the Author

Olivia Guy-Evans obtained her undergraduate degree in Educational Psychology at Edge Hill University in 2015. She then received her master’s degree in Psychology of Education from the University of Bristol in 2019. Olivia has been working as a support worker for adults with learning disabilities in Bristol for the last four years.

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How to reference this article:

Guy-Evens, O (2022, Jan 27). Covert Narcissist: Signs and How to Respond. Simply Psychology. www.simplypsychology.org/covert-narcissism.html

Further Information
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