Signs You’re Dealing With a Covert Narcissist

People with covert narcissism have narcissistic personality disorder (NPD), but their symptoms don't match the stereotypical presentation of narcissism. The biggest difference may be that covert narcissists don't demonstrate overt grandiosity (superiority), attention-seeking, arrogance, and entitlement. Because they do not exhibit these grand displays, people with covert narcissism may be hard to diagnose.

What Is Narcissistic Personality Disorder?

Narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) is a condition in which someone expresses an inflated sense of self-importance (grandiose self-perception), arrogance, and vanity, and lacks empathy and self-awareness. Although estimates vary, up to 5% of people have narcissistic personality disorder.

Aspects of covert narcissism are common to people with other mental health illness diagnoses, such as:

These co-occurring mental health illnesses can make it particularly challenging for clinicians, let alone friends and family, to pinpoint where the problems are stemming from.

This article discusses covert narcissism and the difference between covert and overt (apparent or obvious) narcissism. It also covers signs and symptoms to watch for and what to do if you think you or a loved one may be showing signs of covert narcissism. 

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What Is Covert Narcissism?

Covert narcissism, also called vulnerable narcissism or quiet narcissism, is lesser-known than narcissistic personality disorder (NPD), as defined in the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5). People with covert narcissism have an excessive need for admiration and entitlement. They tend to lack empathy and have difficulties developing and maintaining relationships. 

Covert narcissists lack a stable sense of self, self-esteem, and healthy confidence. This is one reason they seek attention and validation. This means, for example, like the overt narcissist, covert narcissists may engage in manipulation, gaslighting, or other toxic behaviors to get their way and get the desired external reassurance (feedback that supports their positive self-image). 

What Is Gaslighting?

Gaslighting is a covert type of emotional abuse where the abuser misleads their victim, creating a false narrative and making them question their judgments and reality.

Covert narcissism may be challenging to clearly diagnose, as its symptoms are so opposite to the typical “narcissist,” or person with overt narcissism.

Narcissistic personality disorder itself is clinically challenging to diagnose because people with narcissism don't typically see their traits as symptoms. People with NPD also may be highly functioning, which would mislead those around them from thinking they have a disorder.

If you know someone with NPD, keep in mind that symptoms of personality disorders exist on spectrums. This means no two people with covert narcissism will have the exact same symptoms, (i.e., NPD has high clinical variability in presentation and severity). 

In Relationships

People with covert narcissism can come across as cold, callous, or uncaring. These are three challenging behaviors. Needing constant validation to manage self-esteem can be draining on both people in a relationship. 

Relationships, then, may be unstable and unhealthy for people with narcissistic personality disorder and the people in their lives. For the person with NPD, recognizing there is a problem in themselves is the first step towards recovering. If they can recognize the problem and they have a willingness to change, there is psychotherapy, including individual, couples, and group therapy.

The National Domestic Violence Hotline explains that while narcissism is one of the more common terms associated with domestic violence or abuse, NPD is not a cause of or an excuse for abuse.

Helpline

If you or someone you love is a danger to themselves or others, please dial 911. If you fear the other person, you can reach out to the National Domestic Abuse Hotline at 800-799-7233, which provides 24/7 access to service providers and shelters across the United States.

Overt vs. Covert

The difference between these two types of narcissism is in the expressions of their feelings. The overt narcissist may be thought of as the extroverted narcissist or the one who outwardly and directly displays their narcissistic behaviors. The covert is the introverted “closet narcissist” or the shy, hypersensitive, and socially isolated narcissist. Overt narcissists may go back and forth between types (overt to covert and back).

People with overt narcissism can be loud and larger than life, the center of attention, fun and outgoing, generous, charismatic, charming, and not so subtle in their ways of manipulating people for their own purposes. Overt narcissists may name-call, bully, or use fear tactics to get their way. They may become outwardly aggressive.

Unlike in people with overt narcissism, though, people with covert narcissism may mainly have more internalized symptom, including depressive symptoms.

Signs and Symptoms

Manifestations of narcissistic personality can overlap with certain other mental health illnesses. For example, feelings of grandiosity, self-importance, and an unrealistic sense of your abilities and capabilities are also signs of mania in bipolar disorder. As with other mental illnesses, there isn’t a clear-cut test for narcissistic personality disorder, nor any of its subtypes.

Signs (what is observable) and symptoms (what is experienced) are starting points to make a diagnosis. 

General signs and symptoms of narcissistic traits include:

  • High level of self-importance or grandiosity
  • Fantasizing about being influential, famous, or important
  • Exaggerating their abilities, talents, and accomplishments
  • Desiring ongoing admiration, acknowledgment and recognition 
  • Being preoccupied with beauty, love, power, or success
  • An exaggerated sense of being special, unique, or chosen
  • Believing the world owes them something
  • Exploiting or manipulating others to get what they want (no matter how it impacts others)
  • Lacking empathy toward others

Causes


The cause of overt narcissistic personality disorder is multifaceted and likely due to a complex combination of factors that influence mental health illness in general including genetics (family history), early childhood trauma (verbal, physical, or sexual abuse), and early relationships with parents, friends, and relatives. Researchers are working to determine more specific causes.

Hypersensitivity to textures, noise or light in childhood, and general personality and temperament have been noted as possible causes of NPD.

How to Deal With a Narcissist

Dealing with someone with narcissistic behaviors or narcissistic personality disorder can be challenging. Whether it’s a coworker, friend, spouse, parent, or child, narcissistic personality disorder may get in the way of having a healthy relationship. These are some ways to help develop a healthier relationship dynamic, including:

  • Set clear boundaries: Since the person with NPD will typically have very loose boundaries, you may need to reinforce yours. Having healthy boundaries includes setting realistic limitations and expectations on relationship participation and activity. For example, you may decide for your own well-being that you need to put more space between you and this person. 
  • Avoid making excuses: If you’re emotionally close to the person with NPD, it can be difficult if you feel as though you need to defend their actions, explain the positives in the other person. While mental illness is never a choice, it doesn’t excuse poor or harmful behavior. Please keep in mind this person’s behavior is not a reflection of you.
  • Don't try to fix them: A person with a personality disorder isn’t broken, and you can’t fix them. Trying to change something you can’t is a recipe for disaster. Only the person with narcissistic behaviors is the person who can ultimately change.
  • Seek some support: The closer you are to a narcissist, the more difficult it can be to see things as they really are. Surround yourself with healthy people and avoid isolating yourself with someone with narcissism. Having others around can help give you a different perspective when you’re being gaslit or manipulated.
  • Learn more about personality disorders: The media tend to give us a narrow view of narcissism, but personality disorders are complex mental health illnesses. Learning about NPD can help raise awareness about what to watch for and can help you decide when to seek help or when it may be time to exit a relationship with a narcissist.

Summary

Covert narcissism is a more subtle type of narcissism. A covert narcissist lives with the need for admiration and validation, an unstable sense of self and self-importance, and emotional fragility. Their expression of these needs and vulnerability is more introverted and passive-aggressive than the typical or overt narcissist.

Being in a relationship when you have NPD or with someone with NPD can be particularly difficult, but not impossible. If both people want to work on changing, progress is possible.

A Word From Verywell

Covert narcissists may not be aware of their toxic behaviors or they may not know their behavior is stemming from a personality disorder. This isn’t an excuse for acting in hurtful ways, but it is something to keep in mind when dealing with a narcissist. If you are feeling overwhelmed, confused, or unsure about your relationship with a narcissist, please consider talking to someone for support.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What are the four types of narcissism?

    Some clinicians divide narcissism into four types.

    • Grandiose narcissism is a classic or overt narcissist who is vain, attention-seeking, and insecure.
    • Malignant narcissism is the type who will stop at nothing to get what they want.
    • Covert narcissism is quiet or vulnerable narcissism and is more subtle, marked by passive aggression and depression.
    • Communal narcissism is when someone deals with their narcissistic vulnerabilities by wanting to be seen as the "most" helpful, supportive, or giving person.
  • How do you overcome narcissism?

    The first step to overcoming narcissism is to recognize its signs and symptoms. Only a narcissist can overcome their insecurities and change their behaviors. This takes self-awareness, willingness to seek mental health treatment, and ongoing efforts to create lasting changes.

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7 Sources
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