The term narcissist is generously thrown around. This name is usually used as an umbrella term for people who have one or more traits of a narcissistic personality disorder (NPD). In reality, however, narcissism is a broad spectrum with different subtypes. One of the most destructive forms is covert narcissism. The emotional abuse of a covert narcissist is very subtle and shrewd and can leave the victim completely burned out.

What is narcissism?

Self-centered, arrogant, and attention-hungry… do those characteristics remind you of someone you know? Then that person probably has a few narcissistic traits. The word narcissism comes from an ancient Greek myth that tells the story of Narcissus, a boy who fell in love with his mirror image.

People who suffer from narcissistic personality disorder feel that everything revolves around them. They have an inflated sense of self-worth and are unable to sympathize with others. They have a delusory sense of grandeur and a strong desire to be revered. Arrogant, self-centered, manipulative, and demanding are common characteristics of people with this disorder.

To varying degrees, narcissists think they are more beautiful, smarter, more important than others, and deserve special treatment.

Overt versus covert narcissism

The ‘classic’ narcissist will mask their feelings of emptiness, loneliness, and unworthiness through an arrogant and empathetic attitude towards others, a great need for admiration and affirmation, manipulation, and aggression. They are also charming and extroverted towards the outside world, making it easier to recognize a classic or overt narcissist.

Covert narcissists, however, exhibit fewer outward characteristics of narcissism and are more subtle. They operate from the same feelings of inferiority as a classic narcissist but often exhibit behaviors associated mostly with an introverted personality: they are rather shy, anxious, insecure, and hypersensitive.

Ten characteristics of covert narcissists

1.   Sensitive to criticism

Due to their great insecurity and damaged self-esteem, covert narcissists are extremely sensitive to criticism. They take the smallest critical remark as a personal attack and often erupt in anger. Paradoxically, they themselves will often criticize others – usually unjustified – as a projection of their own shortcomings.

In a relationship, the covert narcissist will initially place you on a pedestal and then adopt a critical attitude. As the relationship progresses, the criticisms swell and the narcissist creates unrealistic expectations. In this way, they divert attention from their own low self-esteem and weakness.

2.   Seek admiration by devalueing themselves

The covert narcissist craves admiration as much as the overt narcissist but does so by minimizing their own performance in the hope that others will emphasize it. In this regard, they might give someone a compliment in the hope of getting one back. The reason for this is that their delusion of grandeur is suppressed by low self-esteem. They feel special but misunderstood by others.

This attitude often also triggers feelings of hatred, envy, and resentment towards people who hinder them or stand above them on the social ladder.

3.   Capable of showing empathy

A major misconception is that people with NPD are not empathetic. That’s not true for covert narcissists. Indeed, covert narcissists appear to be capable of empathy. They can be vulnerable and relate normally to what a loved one needs, but do so to bind people to themselves and gain praise. In this way, they provide themselves with ‘narcissistic nutrition’ in the form of attention and affirmation to maintain their own vulnerable ego.

4.   Play the victim

They will also effortlessly wallow in a victim role. Even during your first time meeting them, a covert narcissist will use pathetic stories to evoke empathy from their interlocutor. Empathetic and emotionally accessible people are therefore more likely to have a narcissistic partner.

5.   Passive aggressive

Passive aggression always occurs in a covert narcissist. This behavior can be very frustrating for you as a target. You may experience feelings of doubt and powerlessness in the passive-aggressive statements, mocking comments, or silent treatment until you eventually lose your self-control and react emotionally. This is what the covert narcissist craves.

6.   Make you feel guilty

When you confront a covert narcissist with his unseemly behavior or when a conflict arises, they will manipulate the situation in such a convincing way that you ultimately end up feeling guilty. In this way, the covert narcissist achieves their goal: to make you feel smaller so that they can feel bigger.

7.   Gentle and caring to the outside world

The covert narcissist will be gentle and caring to the outside world. Yet he only conforms to social norms when there are others. One on one with his victims he shows his aggression.

8.   Belittle others

Covert narcissists like to make you feel like you’re not important. But instead of openly pushing you aside, as a classic narcissist would, the covert narcissist is going to use a subcutaneous tactic: they will leave you seated for a date, wait until the last minute to answer your messages, or don’t want to confirm any plans. This way your time seems of secondary importance and you get the feeling of being irrelevant.

9.   Unable to maintain real emotional relationships

Covert narcissists cannot enter into and maintain real emotional relationships. There is little room for the needs of their partners, as they are always busy with themselves. You can try endlessly to help and comfort the narcissist, but you will never be able to fill their void. A narcissist will continue to take without giving anything back, eventually leaving exhausted.

10.   Constantly avoiding attachment

In many narcissists, their behavior stems from an upbringing trauma, as a result of which they have developed a commitment-avoiding attachment style, characterized by a bipolar love: feelings of loneliness and emptiness drive them closer to their partner, but by the continuous feeling of falling short, they also push the other away at the same time. Covert narcissists will therefore continuously attract and repel their partners.

How to deal with a covert narcissit

1.   First, recognize the signs of covert narcissism

In order to be able to defend yourself against the attacks of a covert narcissist, you must first recognize it. Contrary to an overt narcissist who seems very charismatic and fascinating, the covert narcissist will be a bit shy and lowkey. Despite this, they also show little humility and do not accept criticism. At the same time, however, they will fiercely criticize others and use manipulative strategies to keep others by their side.

2.   Remember this is a very sensitive person

Behind the feeling of grandeur and inflated self-worth hides an extremely sensitive and fragile person with very low self-esteem. It is for this reason, as a defense mechanism, that they seek to control and manipulate others. However, when it comes to making a criticism, it is best for you to try to make it clear that you are not questioning the person but their actions.

3.   Avoid being manipulated

Quite often narcissists have excellent manipulative skills. They are able to strongly influence the behavior and decisions of other people and lead them to believe that they have extraordinary charisma. At the same time, however, they tend to behave with superiority, trample on the self-esteem of others, and act domineering in order to feel better about themselves.

4.   Help them if you can

If you care about that person a lot, you don’t need to challenge them or get them to shut up. By relying on your self-esteem, talk to them kindly, pointing out that their behavior is causing you pain. Remind them that you appreciate them as a person, but there are limits that you cannot exceed.

5.   Know when to cut the cords

Dealing with a narcissistic person can be an exhausting situation. While you might want to help them and keep your relationship with them healthy, it might just be impossible. You should not keep someone around at the expense of your own happiness and well-being, especially if you feel like you are being manipulated.

Final Words

Narcissism is a type of personality disorder. This word is often used lightly to refer to people with a big ego, but it is a real psychological problem. Although the fundamental issues are the same, a covert narcissist will exhibit, on the surface, a different personality than the conventional narcissist. They will be more subtle and harder to detect. If someone you know shows a majority of the signs mentioned above, they might indeed be a narcissist.

Jenny Zhang

Jenny holds a Master's degree in psychiatry from the University of Illinois and Bachelors's degree from the University of Texas in nutritional sciences. She works as a dietician for Austin Oaks Hospital in Austin, Texas. Jenney writes content on nutrition and mental health for the Scientific Origin.