12 Signs You’re Dealing With a Covert Narcissist

Although the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders Fifth Edition (DSM-5) describes narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) as a relatively homogeneous syndrome of overt grandiosity, need for admiration, and lack of empathy, there is research that supports the fact that there are different subtypes and presentations of NPD.

Instead, people with covert narcissism may present as inhibited, distressed, and suffer from feelings of inadequacy. They are often shy and withdrawn, and have a tendency to put themselves down while harboring secret grandiosity and self-absorption. Though they are less obvious to spot than classic narcissists, covert narcissists can be frustrating to deal with and cause you to question your own mental health.

This article discusses covert narcissist traits and how to handle someone who has them. It also explains the difference between covert and overt (apparent or obvious) narcissism and what to do if you suspect you are involved with a covert narcissist.

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What Is Covert Narcissism?

Covert narcissism is a lesser-known form of narcissistic personality disorder (NPD). It is sometimes referred to as quiet narcissism or vulnerable narcissism.

Narcissistic personality disorder is a condition in which someone harbors an inflated sense of self-importance (grandiose self), is filled with fantasies of success, power, brilliance and beauty, requires excessive admiration, harbors a sense of entitlement, envy, and lacks empathy. Although estimates vary, up to 5% of people have a narcissistic personality disorder.

Narcissists have an excessive need for attention and use manipulation tactics to get it. They also tend to lack empathy. As a result, they have difficulties developing and maintaining relationships. 

People with covert narcissism share many of these traits. However, instead of acting arrogant, self-important, and better than others, covert narcissists are often shy and withdrawn. They tend to be thin-skinned, inhibited, and distressed.

Covert narcissists are "hypersensitive to the evaluations of others while chronically envious and evaluating themselves in relation to others," according to research published in the American Journal of Psychiatry. They are "often shy, outwardly self-effacing, and hypersensitive to slights while harboring secret grandiosity."

Covert narcissists seek attention and validation because they lack a stable sense of self, self-esteem, and healthy confidence. Like overt narcissists, 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 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.

Signs of Covert Narcissism

There isn’t a clear-cut test for narcissistic personality disorder. Diagnosis overt NPDis based on evidencing the behaviors and traits of the condition as outlined in the DSM-5. Traits that might indicate covert narcissism include:

  • Highly sensitive to criticism
  • Shy or withdrawn
  • Passive-aggressive behaviors
  • Difficulty developing and maintaining relationships
  • Experiences depression or anxiety
  • Manipulates others and projects blame onto them
  • A tendency to hold grudges 
  • Envious or jealous of others
  • Feelings of inadequacy
  • Self-serving empathy
  • A tendency to put themselves down
  • Grandiose fantasies

These can occur alongside classic overt narcissistic traits, but do not always. General signs of narcissism 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

Overt vs. Covert Narcissism

The difference between these two types of narcissism is in the expressions of their underlying feelings. The overt narcissist may be thought of as the extroverted narcissist or the one who outwardly and directly displays narcissistic behaviors.

The covert is the introverted “closet narcissist” or the shy, hypersensitive, and socially isolated narcissist. Some narcissists may go back and forth between overt and covert presentations.

People with overt narcissism can be loud and larger than life, the center of attention, fun and outgoing, 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 symptoms, including depressive symptoms.

It is not uncommon for people with a narcissistic personality disorder to fluctuate between periods of overt narcissism and covert narcissism.

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

Also, 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). 


Exactly what causes narcissistic personality disorder is not fully understood. It is likely a combination of factors that influence mental health conditions in general. These include:

  • Genetics (family history)
  • Early childhood trauma (verbal, physical, or sexual abuse)
  • Challenging early relationships

Research shows narcissism is more common among some personality types and an individual's innate temperament may be a factor in their susceptibility to developing narcissism. In addition, some studies suggest a childhood hypersensitivity to textures, noise, or light is common among people who develop covert narcissism.

Common Co-Occurring Conditions

Manifestations of covert narcissistic personality can overlap with certain other mental health illnesses. Common mental health illness diagnoses that can co-occur with covert narcissism include:

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

For example, feelings of self-importance and an unrealistic sense of your abilities and capabilities are also signs of mania in bipolar disorder, although in mania these traits tend to be restricted to the manic episode and not more persistent as they are in NPD.

Covert Narcissism 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 the willingness to change, there is psychotherapy, including individual, couple, 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.


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.

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:

  • Set clear boundaries: Since the person with NPD may not be capable of true reciprocity and recognize your needs, you may have to set clear boundaries and set realistic limitations and expectations on relationship participation and activity. 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, and explain the positives in the other person. While mental illness conditions are not 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 from 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. 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.


Covert narcissism is a more subtle type of narcissism. An overt narcissist wears their need for admiration, validation, and sense of self-importance on their sleeve. The expression of these needs and vulnerability in a covert narcissist is more hidden and internal.

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 the classic or overt narcissist.
    • Malignant narcissism is the type who will stop at nothing to get what they want, including aggression.
    • Covert narcissism is the quiet or vulnerable type of narcissism and is more subtle.
    • 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.

7 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  3. Sweet PL. The sociology of gaslightingAm Sociol Rev. 2019;84(5):851-875. doi:10.1177/0003122419874843

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By Michelle Pugle
Michelle Pugle, BA, MA, is an expert health writer with nearly a decade of contributing accurate and accessible health news and information to authority websites and print magazines. Her work focuses on lifestyle management, chronic illness, and mental health. Michelle is the author of Ana, Mia & Me: A Memoir From an Anorexic Teen Mind.