The Covert Narcissist: Identifying Characteristics and Effective Responses

covert narcissist showing his mask in therapy

Hidden in plain sight, they wear a mask that’s hard to decipher, a subtle disguise that’s often overlooked. They are the covert narcissists, subtly influencing and manipulating, leaving a trail of emotional turmoil in their wake.

This article aims to unmask this hidden form of narcissism, shedding light on its characteristics, causes, and how to deal with it effectively.

Demystifying Narcissism: An In-Depth Look

At its core, this type of narcissism is defined by an inflated sense of self-importance, a need for excessive attention and admiration, a lack of empathy, and often, a grandiose sense of entitlement. It’s a term that stems from the Greek myth of Narcissus, a character so enamored with his reflection that he drowned trying to embrace it.

This ancient story is an apt metaphor for modern narcissists, individuals so absorbed in their self-image that they often lose touch with reality.

Narcissism exists on a spectrum and manifests in various forms. A subset of this spectrum is narcissistic personality disorder (NPD), a mental health condition outlined in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5).

Not every narcissist has NPD, but those who do often exhibit a pervasive pattern of grandiosity, a need for admiration, and a disregard for others’ feelings and needs.

The Intricate Web of Covert Narcissism

Covert narcissism, also known as vulnerable narcissism, is a less obvious, more insidious form of narcissism. It may be more difficult to identify due to its subtler manifestations. Unlike their overt counterparts, covert narcissists often present themselves as introverts, hiding their narcissism behind a veil of false humility, self-deprecation, or a façade of victimhood.

Covert narcissists often experience feelings of inadequacy and hypersensitivity to criticism. They may exhibit passive-aggressive behaviors, such as silent treatment, or use manipulation tactics, such as gaslighting, to control others subtly.

Despite their outer shell of modesty or insecurity, they maintain an inflated sense of self-importance and entitlement, expecting others to cater to their needs and desires.

Despite these differences, both overt and covert narcissists share a common trait – a lack of empathy. They struggle to recognize and respect the feelings and needs of others, making healthy relationships challenging to maintain.

A Comparative Examination: Overt Narcissism vs. Covert Narcissism

To fully understand covert narcissism, it’s vital to draw a distinction between overt and covert narcissism, two different expressions of the same core narcissistic traits.

Overt narcissists are what most people picture when they think of a narcissist. They are extroverted, grandiose, and openly seek admiration and attention. They have an inflated sense of self, often boasting about their accomplishments, and have no qualms about exploiting others to meet their needs.

On the other hand, covert narcissists are often sneaky and more challenging to identify. They exhibit narcissistic traits subtly, often masquerading their self-importance with a facade of insecurity or humility.

They might play the victim or use subtle manipulation tactics, which makes their narcissistic behavior less obvious but equally damaging.

Exploring the Causes of Covert Narcissism

The causes of covert narcissism are complex and multifaceted, often rooted in early childhood experiences. While the exact cause is still unknown, psychologists believe it may develop as a response to neglect, abuse, or excessive criticism during childhood.

Children who grow up feeling unseen, unvalued, or unloved might develop covert narcissistic traits as a defense mechanism. The child learns to hide their feelings of inadequacy behind a wall of self-focus and self-importance. This coping strategy might serve them in their dysfunctional family environment, but it can lead to significant difficulties in adult relationships and interactions.

In addition to environmental influences, genetic factors, and personality traits may also contribute to the development of covert narcissism. Research shows that personality disorders, including narcissistic personality disorder (NPD), can run in families, as each generation of narcissists tends to pass their burdens down.

Signs of Covert Narcissism: Decoding the Subtle Indicators

Unmasking a covert narcissist isn’t easy as their narcissistic traits are often hidden beneath layers of feigned vulnerability and humility. While they lack the overt grandiosity of their extroverted counterparts, their manipulative tactics and lack of empathy are equally damaging.

Feelings of inadequacy are common signs of covert narcissism. These individuals often harbor a deep sense of inferiority, which they mask with a show of false humility. They might belittle their accomplishments or seek constant reassurance to feed their need for attention.

Covert narcissists also show hypersensitivity to criticism. They perceive even the mildest feedback as a personal attack and may react with anger or withdrawal. This overreaction is a protective mechanism to safeguard their inflated sense of self-importance.

Another notable characteristic is persistent envy. Covert narcissists often feel threatened by others’ success and may try to undermine them covertly. They struggle with feelings of inadequacy and believe they deserve more than they have.

Moreover, covert narcissists exhibit manipulative behavior. They might use gaslighting, a psychological manipulation tactic to make others question their reality, or give silent treatment as a form of punishment.

covert narcissism

Identifying Covert Narcissistic Traits in Relationships

The impact of a covert narcissist in relationships can be profound and unsettling. Whether as a romantic partner, a parent, or a friend, their manipulative tactics as they lack empathy can lead to considerable emotional distress.

In a romantic relationship, people with covert narcissism may initially appear caring and attentive. However, as the relationship progresses, their true narcissistic traits start to show. They might become emotionally neglectful, constantly seeking admiration while disregarding the feelings and needs of their partner.

Covert narcissistic parents, on the other hand, may use their children to fulfill their narcissistic needs. They might belittle their children’s achievements or exploit them for their gain, leading to an unhealthy parent-child dynamic.

Recognizing these signs of covert narcissism in relationships is the first step towards dealing with a covert narcissist effectively. But remember, the presence of one or two traits doesn’t necessarily indicate covert narcissism. Only a mental health professional can diagnose a personality disorder.

The Subtleness of Covert Narcissistic Abuse: Signs and Red Flags

A covert narcissist’s abuse can be likened to a slow, silent poison that seeps into the victim’s life, often unnoticed until it’s too late.

This subtle type of narcissism is characterized by manipulative tactics that often leave the victims questioning their own sanity. Unlike overt narcissists who openly belittle or demean their victims, covert narcissists are more likely to engage in underhanded forms of abuse such as:

Silent Treatment

One common form of covert narcissistic abuse is silent treatment. The narcissist uses silence as a weapon, ignoring the victim’s presence, thoughts, and feelings. This punishment creates a sense of anxiety, uncertainty, and self-doubt in the victim, leading them to question their worth.


Gaslighting is another tool in the covert narcissist’s arsenal. This psychological manipulation technique involves denying facts or twisting the truth to make the victim doubt their reality. It’s a potent form of emotional abuse that can significantly damage a person’s mental health.

Neglect and Disregard

Covert narcissists often neglect the emotional needs of their victims. They show a lack of empathy and disregard the victim’s feelings. This behavior can lead to feelings of isolation, loneliness, and emotional abandonment in the victim.

Passive-Aggressive Behavior

Covert narcissists may also exhibit passive-aggressive behavior. They express their aggression indirectly, often through sarcasm, stubbornness, or intentional failure. This behavior can be confusing and frustrating for the victim, as it’s a subtle form of hostility.

Subtle Criticism and Undermining

A covert narcissist may constantly criticize or undermine the victim. They may belittle the victim’s accomplishments or constantly point out their flaws, often in a subtle, indirect way. This constant criticism can erode the victim’s self-esteem over time.

Recognizing these signs of covert narcissistic abuse is the first step toward dealing with it. Understanding that the abuse is not your fault and seeking help from mental health professionals are crucial steps in overcoming the damage caused by this subtle form of narcissism.

Dealing with a Covert Narcissist: Practical Strategies

Navigating relationships with a covert narcissist can be a challenging and draining experience. However, understanding their behavior and having effective coping strategies can make a significant difference. Strategies to Navigate Relationships with a Covert Narcissist may consist of:

Having a relationship with a covert narcissist can be challenging, but there are strategies that can help manage these interactions effectively.

Not Personalizing their Behavior: An Important Step

A critical strategy when dealing with a covert narcissist is not to take their behavior personally. Their actions and reactions are often more about their insecurities and less about you. By not internalizing their behavior, you can maintain your self-esteem and emotional balance.

Asserting Boundaries: A Crucial Defense

Setting clear and firm boundaries is another essential strategy. Covert narcissists often disregard others’ needs and boundaries. By asserting your limits, you can protect yourself from their manipulation and control.

Self-Advocacy: The Importance of Standing Up for Yourself

Standing up for yourself is an essential part of navigating relationships with covert narcissists. Asserting your needs and rights can help counter their manipulative tactics and promote healthier interaction.

Maintaining a Safe Emotional Distance: A Protective Measure

Maintaining a safe emotional distance can be a protective measure when dealing with a covert narcissist. While it may not always be possible, keeping your emotional investment in check can help you protect your mental and emotional health.

Recognizing When Professional Help is Needed

If you or someone you know is in a relationship with a covert narcissist, it’s essential to know when to seek professional help. Dealing with a narcissist can lead to mental health conditions such as anxiety, depression, or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Consider seeking help if you find yourself constantly second-guessing your reality, a common effect of gaslighting. Feelings of worthlessness, hopelessness, or thoughts of self-harm are also serious signs that require immediate attention.

Professional help can be beneficial not just for the victim, but for the narcissist as well. Therapies like cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) can help narcissists become more aware of their behavior and develop healthier coping mechanisms.

Remember, there is no shame in seeking help. Mental health professionals are equipped with the skills and knowledge to support you through this challenging time.

Conclusion: Identifying Covert Narcissism and Planning the Next Steps

In conclusion, recognizing the signs of a covert narcissist is the first step in acknowledging the complex problem you may be facing. This silent, subtle form of narcissism can be particularly damaging due to its hidden nature.

It’s essential to understand that these covert narcissistic behaviors while challenging to identify, are not a reflection of your self-worth.

If you identify these red flags in someone close to you, it may be time to reconsider your relationship with them. Remember, it’s okay to prioritize your well-being and mental health. Escaping from the influence of a covert narcissist can be a difficult journey, often requiring careful planning and a strong support system.

Please don’t feel you have to face this challenging situation alone. Help is available. If you need guidance in navigating these rough waters, consider reaching out to a professional like Coach Vishnu Ra.

With a wealth of experience in this area, Coach Vishnu Ra can provide you with the tools, strategies, and emotional support you need to break free from the damaging effects of covert narcissism and start the healing process.

Remember, it’s never too late to seek help and begin the journey toward reclaiming your mental health and emotional well-being. You are not alone, and with the right support, you can overcome this challenge and rebuild your life.

Embodiment Coach Vishnu Ra
Vishnu Ra

Master Embodiment Coach |

Vishnu Ra is a Reiki Master & meditation coach with an impressive background in deep meditation. He has spent countless hours delving into the mysteries of human consciousness, and he is passionate about sharing his wisdom with others. Vishnu is also an entrepreneur and truth seeker, always on the lookout for new opportunities to explore. When he’s not sitting in meditation or teaching workshops on mindfulness, Vishnu loves being by the ocean!