Identifying and Coping With a Passive-Aggressive Narcissist

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A general definition of narcissism is excessive self-love. In psychology, a narcissistic personality disorder involves a person with an outsized sense of self-importance and entitlement, fantasies of power, inability to empathize with others, or indifference or rage when criticized, to name a few.

People with this personality disorder often need attention or admiration and have trouble with interpersonal relationships.

Many times, passive-aggressive behavior can go along with a narcissist. This is behavior that is indirectly aggressive. It can be falsely polite, with underlying hostility, or a seemingly neutral comment with a backhanded compliment. Some people who are passive-aggressive want to provoke the other person.

Passive aggression and narcissism can occur together and may not always be obvious. This article will discuss passive-aggressive narcissists, their signs, and how to cope.

Woman stressed by partner's passive-aggressive narcissism

Delmaine Donson / Getty Images

Signs of Passive-Aggressive Behavior in Narcissists

Passive-aggressive behavior can come in many forms, including:

  • Indirect hostility (backhanded compliments)
  • Silent treatment to purposely cause discomfort
  • Purposeful lack of communication
  • Sulking
  • Purposely showing up late to appointments or not at all
  • Not completing work

Many of these don’t seem initially outwardly aggressive, but when combined with covert narcissism, they can occur frequently and be a significant part of how someone functions. This puts a lot of stress on the relationship, whether it’s a friendship, romantic partnership, or work relationship.

What Is a Covert Narcissist?

While the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (5th Edition) defines narcissistic personality disorder, it doesn’t define covert narcissism, or quiet narcissism.

However, behavior can be either covert or overt, and clinical signs of a disorder can often be described this way. With covert behaviors or signs, they may not always be as obvious to others.

A person with covert narcissism can seem shy or sensitive, but they have the same sense of entitlement, insecure sense of self, and lack of empathy as someone with overt narcissism.

They are more likely to be introverted (more comfortable with interior thoughts than interacting with others) rather than extroverted (energized by social engagement) like many overt narcissists are. They may be very sensitive to the judgments or evaluations of other people, but also envious of others and very self-absorbed.

They may go back and forth between feeling better than everyone else and a fragile sense of self-esteem.

Causes of Passive-Aggressiveness and Narcissism

It is not known what causes passive-aggressiveness or narcissism, but there are some hypotheses. Contributing factors to narcissistic personality disorder can include:

  • Genetics
  • Childhood relationships and how they were raised
  • Various traits like the ability to regulate emotions or the level of tolerance to distress
  • Developmental experiences

The reasons behind the way narcissism is manifested, though, whether covert or overt, are not fully known and can be complex.

How to Cope with Passive-Aggressive Narcissists

Coping with a narcissist can be exhausting and challenging, especially if they show passive-aggressive or covert behavior that isn’t always immediately obvious to others. It’s important to take care of your mental health, and so there are things you can to do help cope with them. These things include:

  • Set boundaries: A narcissist will not respect anyone else’s boundaries or needs. In order to maintain your health, make sure you are clear (with both them and yourself) about what you are willing to put up with from them. This can get tricky with passive-aggressive behavior since the aggression isn’t always straightforward. Having firm boundaries can help you identify when to take a step back from them.
  • Realize it is not your problem to solve: You cannot fix their narcissism or stop their passive-aggressive behavior. It is a clinical disorder that requires professional help and treatment.
  • Get help and support for your own well-being: Talk with your healthcare provider about finding a therapist who specializes in narcissism. Talk with supportive friends who can provide accurate, objective viewpoints and feedback.
  • Recognize this is not on you: The narcissist wants to make you feel small, so they can feel big. That’s how they maintain the upper hand. You are not responsible for their behaviors.

How to Get Help

If you’re dealing with a passive-aggressive narcissist, talk to your healthcare provider. They can provide resources like local mental health professionals and counselors that can work with you.

Look for someone with experience dealing with and knowledge of narcissism. They can help you identify what is going on and help you understand your relationship and situation. They can also help you with boundaries and figure out ways to keep your mental health stable and strong.

If you are no longer dealing with a narcissist or living with them, you may still be experiencing the emotional fallout of your experience with them. A therapist can help you work through your experiences and help get you appropriate treatment.


Narcissism can impact relationships, even if it’s covert narcissism, which is more subtle. This person still shares many of the same personality traits as a “typical” narcissist, except how it manifests is not as obvious. They may act in passive-aggressive ways, which can be stressful and impact the mental health of others.

You don’t have to deal with this by yourself. If you’re in a relationship of any kind with a covert narcissist, there is help. A counselor specializing in narcissism can help you develop coping tools and help you work through any emotional impact the narcissist has had on you.

A Word From Verywell

Just because someone’s narcissism is covert, doesn’t mean it’s any less harmful. They may not even be fully aware of how it’s affecting other people. While that’s no excuse, it doesn’t mean that you don’t deserve help keeping yourself emotionally healthy.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Is silent treatment passive-aggressive?

    It can be, depending on who is doing it and the reasons behind it, as well as its aim. It really depends on the situation and the person. Many covert narcissists will use the silent treatment to purposely make others feel uncomfortable.

  • What happens when you stop reacting to a narcissist?

    They may become enraged (this is called narcissistic rage) and take it extremely personally. After all, they view everything from the lens that it’s all about them. They can become emotionally, verbally, and even physically abusive.

    It’s important to establish your own physical safety first, set clear boundaries, stay calm, and keep deflecting and defusing their anger. You can empathize with them, but you don't need to emotionally react.

  • What would a passive-aggressive person say?

    Passive-aggressive people can say a wide variety of things. They often include backhanded compliments or phrases with latent anger or derision. Phrases can include, “Fine, whatever,” or “Oh, I was only kidding, you’re so sensitive about things.” Another example is saying something rude or aggressive but prefacing it by saying, “I don’t mean to be rude, but…”



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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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