12 Signs You’re Dealing With a Covert Narcissist

Traits of a covert narcissist are similar to those of someone with narcissistic personality disorder (NPD). The main difference is covert narcissists don't demonstrate the same sense of superiority, arrogance, or entitlement.

Instead, people with covert narcissism suffer from feelings of inadequacy, are often shy and withdrawn, and have a tendency to put themselves down. 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), according to the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5). It is sometimes referred to as quiet narcissism or vulnerable narcissism.

Narcissistic personality disorder 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 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 However, instead of acting self-important and better than others, covert narcissists are often shy and withdrawn.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 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.

Signs of Covert Narcissism

There isn’t a clear-cut test for narcissistic personality disorder. Diagnosis is based on common traits of the condition as outlined in the DSM-5. Common covert narcissist traits 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 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 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. 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 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 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.

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). 

Causes

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

  • genetics (family history)
  • early childhood trauma (verbal, physical, or sexual abuse)
  • Early relationships with parents, friends, and relatives

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 illnesses 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.

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.

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.

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 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, and 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 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 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.

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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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.