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Covert Narcissist: What It Is, 42 Signs & How to See the Games They Play

A covert narcissist can hurt you just as badly as any narcissist, if not worse! Find out what it is, the deadly signs and symptoms, and what it feels like to be with one.

covert narcissist

Someone who has narcissistic tendencies can do so much damage to the psyche of those around them, seemingly without having any idea of what they’re doing. Masters of manipulation, it’s almost inspiring to see the way they do what they do so flawlessly. And a covert narcissist? They can hurt you so much more because you’d never see it coming!

Covert narcissism is one of the most extreme and damaging forms of narcissism that you can encounter. The thing that sets apart everyone with a narcissistic personality of this type is their highly defensive nature and being emotionally vulnerable, seemingly without any exterior trace of the planning and plotting in which they engage.

Unlike other forms, the covert narcissist is sneaky like a stealth bomb—they come without any warning!

[Read: 27 secret signs of narcissism people overlook until it’s too late]

What is covert narcissism?

Covert narcissism is also a personality disorder. It is characterized by shyness, sensitivity, and a need for approval.

Covert narcissists would often be perfectionists who set high standards for themselves and others. They may be highly critical of themselves and others, and they may have a difficult time taking criticism. Other symptoms of narcissism may also include withdrawing from social situations or becoming extremely passive in order to avoid conflict.

What you need to remember here is that covert narcissism is very different from overt narcissism, which is characterized by grandiose behavior, a sense of entitlement, and a lack of empathy.

To put it better, covert narcissism is a more “hidden” form of narcissism, but it can still be damaging to relationships and cause emotional distress!

The typical behavior and traits of a covert narcissist

A covert narcissist is someone who seems shy, sensitive, and introverted. But inside, they are actually vain, self-centered, and manipulative. They are often very good at appearing humble and modest, which allows them to take advantage of people who are more trusting or vulnerable.

A covert narcissist’s behavior is often passive-aggressive. They use people to get what they want, typically have low self-esteem, and may be hypersensitive to rejection. Although they appear to be shy or introverted, covert narcissists are actually quite charming.

It could be difficult to identify a covert narcissist as they lack the inflated sense of self-importance and entitlement that is characteristic of other narcissists. However, covert narcissists share many of the same narcissistic qualities that other people with Narcissistic Personality Disorders may have.

Like others with NPD, covert narcissists crave attention and approval more than anything else. They can be manipulative and charming when they want to be. And they often have a deep need for control.

The big differences between an overt narcissist and a covert narcissist

The typical narcissist and a covert narcissist are two different types of people. If you’re wondering just how different they are, here are a few stark signs to tell covert and overt narcissists apart.

1. An overt narcissist is someone who loves themselves and looks down on others as they have an inflated sense of self, while a covert narcissist is someone who loves themselves just like the overt narcissists but pretends to be modest and shy in front of others. 

2. Narcissists are usually extroverted and outgoing, but covert narcissists are introverted and shy.

3. Narcissists tend to show their grandiosity and superiority, while covert narcissists tend to be more sensitive and insecure. [Read: 20 signs of insecurity people can’t hide when they feel insecure]

4. People with overt narcissism are often skilled at manipulation and can use their charm to get what they want. A covert narcissist may not be as skilled at manipulation, but they still use their shyness or modesty to get what they want. 

5. The overt or the typical type of narcissism is more likely to be successful because of their confidence and ability to charm others, while covert narcissists may not be as successful because of their introversion and insecurity.

6. Overt narcissists may have more friends and followers than covert narcissists. However, both types of people can be equally annoying and difficult to deal with!

7. The typical narcissist is a braggart and openly aggressive. But covert narcissists are more likely to be introverted and passive-aggressive. They may also be more prone to anxiety and depression. [Read: How to deal with passive-aggressive people calmly and with class]

8. Those with overt narcissistic personalities want to be the center of attention. But covert narcissists may be less likely to seek out the limelight.

9. On the whole, covert narcissists may not be as outwardly confident as overt narcissists, but they still have a deep-seated need for admiration, attention, and control.

Covert narcissists are also more likely to feel threatened by criticism and may react angrily or passive-aggressively when their ego is bruised.

While both overt narcissists and covert narcissists share some common traits, understanding the key differences between them can help you better deal with them in your life.

After all, covert narcissism is a subset of narcissism, even if their narcissistic behavior and mannerisms may appear very unlike a narcissist at first sight.

The common causes of covert narcissistic personality traits

Covert narcissists are often described as the “quiet” ones, and they tend to be more introverted than extroverted narcissists. But why do they behave the way they do? What causes this behavior in them?

Well, there is no one definitive answer to what causes covert narcissism, but there are a few possible combinations of factors why someone may turn out to be a covert narcissist, from childhood trauma to general personality and temperament.

a. Insecure attachments in their childhood

Insecure attachment in early childhood can be a big cause of covert narcissism. As a child, it’s possible that the covert narcissist did not have their emotional needs met by their primary caregivers and, as a result, became emotionally withdrawn.

Club this with a vain and self-centered personality, and chances are, they learned how to hide their manipulative personality while subtly tricking others to do their bidding for them. [Read: The four attachment styles and how they impact your relationship]

b. Parenting style

It’s also possible that covert narcissists are the product of overindulgent or helicopter parenting. In other words, covert narcissists were given too much attention and spoiled as children, leading them to develop a sense of entitlement that they carry all the way into their adulthood. [Read: Helicopter parents and 30 ways they ruin their children’s lives]

c. Childhood trauma

A covert narcissist may have experienced some form of abuse or neglect during their formative years, which left them feeling damaged and empty inside.

Usually, covert narcissists are created because they weren’t given enough attention or validation during their formative years in some manner.

As a result, they grew up feeling inferior and became obsessed with proving themselves *while making it less obvious that they want to prove themselves!*.

At the same time, they have a deep desire to control other people with subtlety and manipulation, which makes their character traits a scary combination!

The subtle signs of a covert narcissist hidden behind a veil of humility

A narcissist is someone who can take a toll on your sensibilities and your self-esteem, but a covert narcissist can take a toll on your sanity, too.

Many characteristics that are specific to people with covert narcissism may be more difficult to spot. But to maintain your self-esteem and your sanity, look for these signs that you’re in a relationship with someone who is keeping their covert narcissism under wraps.

Keep in mind, though, that only a mental health professional can diagnose people with narcissism.

1. They are overly critical

Because they have so many insecurities of their own, they have a tendency to be overly critical of those around them.

Projecting their own weaknesses onto those in their path, they can leave you feeling stupid, unwanted, or insignificant. [Read: Ways to stop negative people from sapping your energy]

2. Although charming, you only see it when they want something

Very charismatic when they want to be, the covert narcissist will use their charm only when they want something from you or the people around you.

Like a switch, they can turn it on and turn it off, but it’s always to get something from the person they’re schmoozing.

3. No matter what happens, you always feel at fault

As upset as you are with them, if you confront them or get into an argument with them, they manipulate the situation with such mastery that you end up feeling at fault and apologizing.

A covert narcissist knows exactly how to spin something to make you feel like everything you were thinking is wrong, even when your own common sense and logic tell you otherwise. This tactic can be so mind-manipulating that you can start to feel like you’re going insane. [Read: Gaslighting – What it is, how it works, and 22 signs to see it ASAP]

4. They leave you feeling empty in your relationship with them

No matter how long you’re with them, you can feel lonely. Regardless of the time you are together, the experiences that you share with them, and the closeness that you crave, it always feels as if something is missing or isn’t quite right.

5. They don’t care if they have to lie, steal, or cheat to get what they want

A covert narcissist sees everyone in relation to what they can do for them. Not really caring about anyone but themselves, everyone and everything is merely a tool to get what they want in life.

They are not above lying, cheating, or stealing in order to make themselves happier, more powerful, more admired, or wealthier. [Read: How to tell if someone is using you – 22 signs a user just can’t hide]

6. Stubborn and dogmatic, they will only concede if it gets them something

Getting an apology from a covert narcissist can only be accomplished if they want something from you or if it’s part of their end-game.

You can argue with them until you’re blue in the face, but even when you get an apology, it’s empty. They don’t mean they are sorry; they mean that they stand to gain something from the concession, not that they believe they’re wrong.

7. There’s something empty and uncaring about them that you can’t put your finger on

There’s no way to get close to them in a relationship. As if there is a protective layer to them that you can’t penetrate, things never seem quite right or real when you’re with a covert narcissist.

8. They lack empathy

It makes no difference if it’s you or someone in a third-world nation who is starving to death, one of the hallmark traits to look for is their lack of ability to empathize, so they never feel sorry for anyone. [Read: 20 signs of a lack of empathy that shows they don’t care what you think]

9. They want the good things in life and are envious if anyone else has them

Narcissists rarely want what they have; they are constantly in the market for what everyone else has that they deem important or worthy.

They could be the richest person in the world, and yet they’d still envy others for having something more than what they have.

10. Their emotional intelligence is very low

Like talking to a brick wall, they just don’t seem to “get” what you’re saying. Not being able to feel empathy, they’re very low on emotional intelligence, which makes it difficult to talk to them on a deeper level.

11. They have an inability to feel remorseful for what they do

Always blaming others, covert narcissists have an inability to feel sorry for what they have done.

12. They will play the victim often and well

A covert narcissist will make you feel sorry for them, no matter what the truth of the matter is. Everything is someone else’s fault, and they are always merely an innocent bystander. [Read: Why playing a victim only makes your life much worse]

13. They will blame everyone for their mistakes and misfortune

They seemingly have no control over anything they do or anything that is done to them. Common covert narcissists believe all of their misfortune is someone else’s fault because they bear no responsibility for their actions.

14. No matter what you do, you can’t get close to them

Because of their low emotional intelligence, you just can’t seem to feel close to them no matter what you do. That will leave you feeling empty and alone. [Read: Clear giveaways of an emotionally unavailable man]

15. Whatever they’re feeling, they will project it onto you

Covert narcissists are experts at projecting any negative feelings they have onto the people in their lives. By making you feel bad, they make themselves feel better.

16. Only one person exists in their universe, and it isn’t you

Another sign of covert narcissism may include being highly selfish. They have an elevated sense of self and appear to be the only ones in their universe. The only time they care about something that has to do with you is when it really has something to do with them. [Read: How to stop selfish people from hurting you]

17. They are highly sensitive and over-reactive to criticism of any type

If you criticize them, they will overreact, and their anger is quick. Always needing praise and admiration, if you challenge them, they will attack to regain their dominance.

18. They will engage in high-risk activities to get attention

Covert narcissists believe they deserve all the attention, and they will achieve that at any cost. They may be more likely to do something dangerous or engage in risky behavior, as the result is always greater than the danger of the act. There is nothing they won’t do to get the attention they crave.

19. They see people as objects to get what they want

You can spot a covert narcissist in your life when you notice that they are incapable of forming bonds with people. They see those in their lives as tools to get what they want and need. [Read: 12 subtle signs you’re being manipulated by your lover]

20. They usually target those weaker than them

Part of covert narcissistic abuse is targeting anyone they think they can manipulate, whether they are strong or weak. But weakness is easier to dominate, so they very often choose highly sensitive or insecure people to be with.

21. Although not empathetic, they know what you need and will play it against you

One of their biggest strengths is knowing what someone needs and holding that over them to get what. After all, this is one of their favorite manipulation games.

22. They’re very jealous of others whom they admire

We are all jealous at times of successful people in our lives, but the covert narcissist is consumed by envy and jealousy. Not being able to see what they have, they are always searching to get something more. [Read: 25 signs to tell if someone is jealous of you and doesn’t wish you well]

23. They will make you look bad to make themselves feel and look better

Working behind the scenes, covert narcissists will often talk badly about the person they are closest to. Having to paint themselves as the martyr, the only way they can make themselves look good is by making everyone else look bad. That makes them the victor. [Read: How to recognize the signs of the Martyr Syndrome in someone]

24. Passive aggression is their weapon of choice

If you feel like you’re going insane, you are probably with a covert narcissist. They will plant seeds of self-doubt and let them grow.

Making tiny suggestions about who you are or what you have done, covert narcissists will give you the silent treatment, then leave it to rest and fester in you until you believe it to be true. [Read: How to deal with passive-aggressive people and not lose your mind]

25. They need constant attention

The covert narcissist is not happy unless all eyes are on them. That makes those in a relationship with them feel as if they are only an accessory.

A narcissist will charm everyone in their path and often ignore those who are the closest to them, knowing that they have gotten the attention they need from you already.

What covert narcissists may be afraid of?

Now that you know how to recognize a covert narcissist let’s talk about what they’re afraid of most. Covert narcissists are afraid of many things! Being exposed, being rejected, and losing control are just some of their constant worries. They’re also afraid of intimacy, of being alone, and of not being perfect.

But perhaps the most crippling fear for covert narcissists is the fear of being seen as ordinary *even when they project themself as humble and subservient in front of others*.

To them, ordinariness is a death sentence; it’s a sign that they’re not special, unique, or worthy of attention. That’s why covert narcissists go to such great lengths to create an image of humble perfection. [Read: How to recognize a fake best friend before you get betrayed or hurt]

They want the world to see them as humble yet superior beings who are above the mundane and the ordinary.

But the truth is, covert narcissists are just as human as everyone else. They have the same hopes and fears, the same weaknesses and strengths. The only difference is that they’re terrified of being seen as anything less than perfect.

Because of their deep fear of being exposed as inadequate or inferior, covert narcissists are often very skilled at hiding their true selves from the world, and they may even fool themselves into believing that they are above average and better than the others around them!

To make sure they hold on to a position of power over others, they may subtly try to control those around them by behaving like a martyr.

They avoid the limelight of social situations directly *to avoid being put to some kind of test publicly*, and they are afraid of change because change is an opportunity to be vulnerable and learn something new. And they hate appearing vulnerable or looking foolish in front of others!

This can make covert narcissists very inflexible people who are resistant to change, even when it would be beneficial for them. [Read: Controlling relationship – 42 signs and ways to love someone without bullying them]

All said and done, covert narcissists are afraid of anything that could disrupt their carefully constructed facade. They are afraid of being seen for who they really are or being exposed as the frauds they are.

What is it like to deal with a covert narcissist?

If you’re dating a covert narcissist, there’s a good chance you’re unaware of the extent of their narcissism. Covert narcissists are often quiet and withdrawn, which can make them seem shy or introverted.

However, beneath their surface lurks a deep need for admiration and attention. They long to be the center of attention, but they’re often afraid to seek it out directly.

Instead, they’ll often try to control you subtly by pretending to be devoted and subservient to you. They may also play games or engage in manipulative behavior in order to get what they want. [Read: How to beat a narcissist easily and win over their manipulation]

As their partner, you may find yourself feeling drained by their constant need for validation. You may also start to feel like you’re walking on eggshells, never quite sure what will set them off.

If you’re dealing with a narcissist of this type, it’s important to be patient and understanding. However, you also need to set clear boundaries as a way to protect yourself first and foremost. Otherwise, you’ll likely end up feeling used and unimportant.

What do covert narcissists need in a relationship?

If you’re in a personal relationship with a covert narcissist, you may have noticed that they tend to have very specific expectations and needs. Here are some of the things that covert narcissists typically want in a relationship:

1. They need to be in control

Covert narcissists need to feel like they are in charge of the relationship. They may demand complete control over decision-making, finances, and even your social life.

2. They need to be the center of attention

Covert narcissists need constant validation and attention. They may become jealous if you give too much attention to someone else or if you spend time on activities that don’t involve them. [Read: 19 wily signs she only wants your attention and not a relationship]

3. They need you to meet their needs first

Although covert narcissists may seem needy and dependent, in reality, they only care about their own needs. They may expect you to drop everything for them, even if it means neglecting your own needs.

4. They need things to be their way

A typical covert narcissist often has very specific ideas about how things should be done, and they expect others to follow their lead. This can make compromise difficult, as they may see any deviation from their way as a personal insult. [Read: 17 ways to compromise in a relationship and give without feeling like you’re losing]

5. They need to be right all the time

Covert narcissists need to feel like they’re always right, even if they’re not. They may get defensive or even aggressive when confronted with the truth, and they may refuse to admit that they’re ever wrong.

Are covert narcissists bad people?

Are covert narcissists bad people? Here’s where it gets tricky! On the one hand, covert narcissists can be manipulative and deceptive. They may use people to get what they want and then discard them when they are no longer useful. They may also be very unkind and hurtful in their words and actions.

On the other hand, covert narcissists may simply be people who are very insecure and need constant validation from others. They may not actually be aware of the pain they are causing others. Instead, they may feel like they are the ones who are constantly misunderstood or underappreciated. [Read: How to make a narcissist miserable and burn with rage]

So, while covert narcissists may not be “bad” in the traditional sense of the word, their behavior can certainly cause pain and damage to those around them.

[Read: Narcissistic rage – How to handle the angry backlash of a narcissist when you upset them]

With all that said and done, a covert narcissist is still a narcissist. And that means they only care about themselves. They don’t love you or care for you, and you’ll always be just another pawn in their game of life. If you’re okay with that, stay on. But if you’d rather be with someone who loves you for you and not what you can give them, move on for good.

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The editorial team of LovePanky comprises relationship experts and real-life experts that share their experiences and life lessons. If you want the best love ad...