You see your attention-seeking coworker behaving like they’re the most important person in the room and you just know they’re a narcissist. A narcissist is someone who believes the entire world revolves around them, right? They’re arrogant, entitled…and pretty easy to spot in the wild.
But did you know there are two different types of narcissists? And one of them, called a covert narcissist, is quieter and more self-deprecating as they try to garner attention from others. Covert narcissists are much more likely to stay under the radar—though they are no less ego-fueled than the louder, more conspicuous brand.
What is a covert narcissist?
Someone with a covert narcissistic personality lacks many of the outward signs of narcissism, but don’t let that fool you. The term ‘covert’ is apt, as a covert narcissist isn’t so much the peacock-strutting overt narcissist but a subtle manipulator.
These types of narcissists still have the hallmark lack of empathy, self-importance and a need for admiration. But rather than showing this outwardly, they keep their self-importance as an internal belief.
Some people call covert narcissists “introverted narcissists” for this reason – and there is some evidence to show that covert narcissism correlates with introversion, while overt (textbook) narcissism correlates with extraversion. Outwardly, covert narcissists display low self-esteem and shyness. They often engage in passive-aggressive or self-deprecating behaviors as they try to manipulate others or set about getting revenge.
So how do you spot someone with a covert narcissistic personality? Here are some of the most common traits.
1. They play the victim
Covert narcissists use the victim card to gain sympathy from others. For example, they might exaggerate hardships or their sacrifices for others, when really they’re playing the martyr. The covert narcissist may make their child or spouse feel guilty for something the narcissist did by saying, “I wouldn't have done it if you hadn't made me so angry.” This allows the covert narcissist to shift blame and avoid taking responsibility for their actions.
Like overt narcissists, covert narcissists attract particular people. They often prey on those who are empathetic and compassionate as they know these individuals will be more likely to believe their victimhood and offer support.
2. They are quietly superior in their words and actions
A covert narcissist doesn’t explicitly say they think they’re superior, but it comes out in more subtle ways. Often, they’ll feign humility, which can confuse people around them. They might give back-handed compliments, at once praising someone and insulting them. They may also mention their frustration with being “too good” for a job or “the perfect choice” for a promotion.
If you hear someone starting their sentences with the words, “I know you probably won't understand this, but…,” or “It's not exactly rocket science…,” they may be a covert narcissist trying to establish their intellectual superiority.
3. They’re passive-aggressive
A covert narcissist will often act out in passive-aggressive ways to exact revenge or to make themselves appear superior. For example, they may frame insults as jokes, give the silent treatment, sabotage someone who has ‘wronged’ them, or express their displeasure through sulking, crying or other actions that cause others to feel sorry for them.
4. They are skilled at gaslighting
If someone has covert narcissism, they’re experts at shifting the blame, which means they love gaslighting. In relationships of any kind, a narcissist will make the people close to them second-guess their reality. They do this by altering the facts, denying events, and making others doubt their own thoughts, feelings or memories.
5. They project their insecurities and faults onto others
Covert narcissists are unable to recognize their own shortcomings, and this means they project their insecurities onto others. Belittling someone else makes them feel superior and helps them avoid responsibility for their own faults. They may constantly criticize their partner or coworker, blaming them for things that they themselves are guilty of.
6. They have a need for control
Control is at the core of a covert narcissist’s personality. They have high standards for their lives and the people in them, and they will go to great lengths to control their environment to meet those standards. This can manifest in:
- Manipulation to make others feel responsible for meeting the narcissist's needs.
- Keeping a tally of perceived slights and favors given, and being quick to call in repayment of a favor if the narcissists believes they made a past sacrifice.
- Restricting access to resources, such as finances or social events.
- Finding ways to be exempt from particular rules or laws.
7. They’re highly critical in a round-about way
Instead of telling it straight, a covert narcissist will wrap up criticism in a pretty bow. They’ll do this by expressing concern for someone or offering constructive feedback, which is fraught with a tone of superiority or disapproval ("I'm just worried you're not going to be able to handle it; that seems like a lot for you").
8. They either exaggerate their abilities or downplay them to appear humble
In the morning, a covert narcissist might hype their skills in a small group and, by mid-afternoon, become the most self-deprecating person in a public setting. Depending on the scenario, a covert narcissist will select particular skills to highlight and other skills to downgrade.
Exaggerating some skills keeps them feeling superior, while downgrading skills and highlighting their own insecurities (even though it may be fake) helps them receive the reassurance and validation from others they crave. You may feel like you have whiplash when dealing with these personalities.
9. They’re hypersensitive and defensive
Criticism is not a friend of the narcissist. Someone with a covert narcissistic personality might brush off constructive criticism or respond with sarcasm (“Looks like I'm the only one around here who can’t do anything right”).
When they’re defensive, it’s not uncommon for them to use gaslighting tactics and project their insecurities onto others in an attempt to protect their fragile self-esteem.
10. They lack empathy and have a disregard for other people
Covert narcissists lack empathy and won’t respect other people’s time, attention or sacrifices. No matter how close someone has gotten to the narcissist, the narcissist will always disregard that person’s importance – standing them up, waiting until the last minute to cancel plans, and showing up late to events.
11. They have a less active social life or tend to withdraw
As introverts, covert narcissists don’t have a large circle of friends. But at the same time they’re fragile, and their self-esteem depends on receiving praise. One reason they avoid close relationships is an inner fear of others seeing them as flawed – so they’ll only seek out connections with people who will feed their ego and, thus, benefit them.
12. They fish for compliments
Covert narcissists fish for compliments to get a self-esteem boost. They make self-deprecating remarks (“I’m so bad at this”), ask for opinions about their performance or decisions (“Do you think I messed up?”), or play dumb to avoid responsibility (“I don’t know what happened”). These tactics are designed to elicit the response they love – the reassurance of their greatness.
13. They struggle to form genuine relationships
The covert narcissist might nurture some bonds with others, but these bonds are self-serving. In a relationship, a covert narcissist will neglect their partner emotionally and engage in subtle manipulation. Because they fear true vulnerability, they rarely share in intimacy, making it difficult to maintain any relationship that isn’t surface-level.
14. They protect their public image
Covert narcissists have an intense need for validation, which means they want their public image to be spotless. It’s common for them to go above and beyond in public service, gift-giving and charity. They do so not to be helpful, but to receive compliments and praise.
15. They have grand fantasies about their importance
Where overt narcissists will talk about their importance, covert narcissists will fantasize more than chit-chat. Fantasizing is a way for covert narcissists to self-soothe and bolster their beliefs that they’re unique from others and superior. They may start to believe these fantasies as reality, such as believing they’re the best employee at work or the most giving person in their family.
How to deal with a covert narcissist
Calling out covert narcissism can be tricky, but it starts with paying attention to your instincts that something is “off.” You may want to keep a record of their behavior so you can start to spot the patterns. The covert narcissist won’t make this easy – they are skilled at explaining away their behavior so you’ll have to trust your gut and pay really close attention to incidents when the mask slips.
One way to deal with the abuse a covert narcissist is subtly subjecting you to is to set healthy boundaries and stick to them. You deserve to be heard, too, and it's important to stand up for yourself. If you find that hard, you may want to seek a trusted friend or therapist to learn some healthy coping skills.