The Covert Narcissist: What They Are and How to Deal with Them

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Covert narcissism is a topic that many people don’t fully understand, yet they frequently deal with it in their daily life. This article covers the red flags you’re dealing with someone who is a covert narcissist, and the steps you can take to cope with this kind of person whether it’s one of your family members, someone you’re in a relationship with, or a coworker. We’ll also explore how a covert narcissist varies from some other types of narcissists including the overt narcissist and the malignant narcissist.

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What is a Covert Narcissist?

A covert narcissist is sometimes described as having “vulnerable narcissism.”

Covert narcissism is as with other forms of narcissism, characterized primarily by being very self-centered yet also highly sensitive.  Covert narcissism is one of the most highly sensitive types of narcissism there are. Someone who has narcissistic traits may be described as having high self-esteem or a big ego, but with true narcissism in any form, the issues go far beyond these characteristics.

A covert narcissist has many of the same characteristics of the classic narcissists such as a sense of self-importance and delusions of grandeur, but they may keep these traits and their narcissistic behavior more hidden. Other terms sometimes used to describe a covert narcissist include:

  • A hypersensitive narcissist
  • Closet narcissist
  • Introverted narcissist

covert narcissist

Signs of a Covert Narcissist

The following are some of the primary signs of someone who has covert narcissism, many of which are very similar to overt narcissism:

Quiet Superiority

One of the defining characteristics of any kind of narcissist is having a sense of superiority over others, although it can be displayed in different ways. While an extroverted narcissist may make it obvious they feel they’re better than others, a covert narcissist will quietly show these feelings.

An introverted narcissist will often observe things with a judgmental sentiment. They will listen instead of speaking, but they’re not really hearing what another person is saying because they aren’t truly interested. An introverted narcissist will come off as detached and aloof.

Specific outward signs of an introverted narcissist include a lack of eye contact, eye-rolling, groans, boredom, and inattentiveness.

When the undercover narcissist does speak, they tend to be critical in what they’re saying, and the focus of what they say is on their own thoughts, feelings, and viewpoint.

An overarching sense of smugness is also something that a closet narcissist will frequently display.

Being Self-Absorbed

Self-absorption is a symptom of narcissism of all kinds, but it comes out in different ways with someone who is an introverted narcissist. Even though an undercover narcissist might appear as if they’re listening and involved with what you’re saying, they likely aren’t.

In many cases, they don’t even appear to be.

Quiet narcissists tend to find other people and interactions with them boring, and they check out of conversations easily. This particular kind of narcissist is very likely to assign the label of everything around them being boring or unworthy of their time and attention.

No Empathy for Others

A lack of empathy is a defining characteristic of all forms of narcissism.

Someone who doesn’t have empathy for others isn’t able to understand how other people feel, nor are they particularly interested in learning about the feelings or thoughts of others.

Passive-Aggressive Behaviors

While overt narcissists will use different tactics to try and control people and situations, someone who has covert narcissism will tend to try and control situations through passive-aggressiveness. They may pretend to see your point, or they may agree to do what you’ve asked, but ultimately they will still do things their own way.

An example of passive aggressive behaviors you might experience if you’re the narcissistic supply source is the silent treatment. On the other hand, if you’re in a relationship with a covert, the behaviors may be more apparently aggressive.

Extreme Sensitivity

A covert narcissist will have an extreme sense of sensitivity. If someone who is a narcissist of any kind is confronted with they see as a slight or insult, they will be reactive, and they won’t take it well.

With covert narcissism, the response to real or perceived criticism might include becoming more superior, or it could be withdrawing from the situation.

A Sense of Being Special and Unique

Someone who displays symptoms of introverted narcissism often things they’re more special and unique than other people, and as a result of that uniqueness, they’re misunderstood.

Someone with this type of narcissism believes above all else that they are superior and as a result of that superiority, entitled.

Problems in Relationships

Narcissists of any kind tend to experience extreme problems in their interpersonal relationships, and they can’t connect with other people often because they appear smug and aloof.

Introverted narcissists will often focus a lot of their time on things that allow them to avoid true human interactions such as on work, technology or games.

How Are Vulnerable (Covert) Narcissists Different from Other Types?

Some of the most specific ways a covert narcissist varies from other types of narcissists include their extreme hypersensitivity to real or perceived slights. If a vulnerable narcissist believes they have been slighted or hurt in some way, they will respond with an extreme and dramatic sense of low self-esteem or depression.

A vulnerable narcissist also tends to think everything that happens is personal to them because they view themselves as being more important in the world than they are.

Social media is also a unique situation when it comes to cover narcissism. A covert or vulnerable narcissist tends to be more comfortable in online relationships as opposed to in-person. With social media and the online world, a vulnerable narcissist has the freedom to create the world as they see it and to carefully control how others perceive them via their social media profiles.

Am I an Introverted Narcissist?

Thinking that you could be a narcissist may be trouble. The following are some questions therapists will often ask people to evaluate about themselves to determine if they are narcissists of any kind:

  • Can you become completely absorbed in things related to yourself including your life, your health, what you care about or your relations to other people?
  • Are you very sensitive and do you get your feelings easily hurt by others?
  • Do you go into a room and feel self-conscious and as if everyone is looking at you?
  • Do you feel that you are different from others?
  • Do you tend to take things that people say to you personally?
  • Do you get so wrapped up in your interests that you forget about other people altogether?
  • Do you dislike being in a group of people unless you feel appreciated by the members of said group?
  • Are you jealous of people that are good looking?
  • Do you feel humiliated or deeply distressed when someone criticizes you?
  • Do you have a sense that other people don’t appreciate you enough?
  • Do you see people in black and white terms as either great or terrible?
  • Are your problems things that you feel others can’t understand?
  • Do you go above and beyond to avoid rejection?
  • Is there a sense of resentment you experience when you see people that you perceive as having something you don’t?

Keep in mind if you answered yes to a few things that doesn’t mean you have covert narcissism. Many people have a few narcissistic traits or qualities. However the more you can answer yes to on the list, the more likely it is that you are an introverted narcissist.

Diagnostic Criteria for Narcissistic Personality Disorder

Narcissistic personality disorder is one of 10 diagnosable personality disorders. Someone can have traits of narcissism without having narcissistic personality disorder, but the symptoms used to make an NPD diagnosis include:

  • Grandiose self-importance
  • A preoccupation with success, intelligence, beauty or the ideal relationship
  • A belief of being special or unique to the point that most “normal” people won’t understand him
  • The need for admiration
  • A sense of entitlement or an expectation of special treatment
  • Using others for one’s own needs or wants
  • A lack of empathy
  • Being envious or holding the belief that others are envious of him
  • Arrogance

How is a Covert Narcissist Different from a Malignant Narcissist?

While there are many similarities between the covert and malignant narcissist, what about the differences?

Most mental health professionals will agree that malignant narcissists are the most damaging and destructive of all the types. A malignant narcissist goes beyond thinking only about themselves—they tend to have antisocial traits as well.

For example, they may be sadistic as well as lacking empathy. Many malignant narcissists also have a sense of paranoia, and there is no concern for who is hurt along the way as long as they achieve what they want.

A malignant narcissist often sees no grey in the world—everything is instead black and white.

How to Deal with a Covert Narcissist

People often wonder how to deal with a covert narcissist. For example, it’s common to have questions on how to deal with a covert narcissist husband or spouse, co-worker, or parent or in-law.

covert narcissist

Set Boundaries

The best thing you can do if you identify someone who is a narcissist in your life is to try and avoid them. That’s not always possible, however, so you should work to create defined boundaries. Your goal should be protecting yourself above all else in these situations.

If you work with someone who has narcissistic traits, you shouldn’t tell them personal things about yourself, and you should be guarded in your interactions with them. They are master manipulators and will try to use what you say against you.

Most narcissists don’t understand boundaries, and if they do recognize them, they don’t necessarily respect them. It’s up to you to defend and enforce your boundaries.

Don’t Fight Every Battle

The saying goes that you have to choose your battles, and this is true if you’re dealing with someone who has traits of covert narcissism and they’re someone you can’t avoid, or you aren’t willing to end your relationship with.

Someone with covert narcissism is going to want everything their way, and unless it goes against your boundaries or it will create a problem for them, don’t it into a fight.

Don’t Take It Personally

It’s difficult not to take something personally, but sometimes with a narcissist, you have to know that it’s not about you. Narcissists don’t have empathy, and they don’t even realize they’re hurtful more than likely. The more you can prepare yourself for the inevitable, the better off you’ll be.

A lot of times a narcissist of any kind can’t see gray areas. They see someone as great or terrible, and this includes in a marriage. You may have started your relationship with the narcissist worshiping you. Now, they may constantly focus on your imperfections.

Neither of these views have anything to do with you—it’s about the narcissist’s view of people and the world.

Understand the Limitations

If you have chosen to be in a relationship with someone you view as having narcissistic traits or tendencies, you have to know the limitations of that relationship. Narcissists aren’t going to accept blame for things because to do so can send them spiraling to the depths of worthlessness. You’re also not likely to get an apology even if a narcissist recognizes their wrong-doing.

What a narcissist will do is try and make gestures to show that they are sorry, without ever actually offering an apology. For example, they might get you a gift to try and make up for something they’ve said or done.

If you want to continue a relationship with a narcissist, you have to accept that you’re not likely to get an apology.

Another limitation that many narcissists have is the ability to talk about past problems or disagreements. You may want to talk through something as a way to improve your future situation, but a narcissist sees this as you continuing to point out their wrongdoings.

Don’t Escalate Situations

A lot of the above tips for dealing with a narcissist lead you to this point: don’t escalate a situation with a narcissist.

A narcissist can become blinded by different things ranging from their perception of right and wrong to their wants and needs. There are situations where someone who is a narcissist or has narcissistic traits can lash out, and there’s no benefit to continuing to try and argue or even talk it out with the person.

It’s best to avoid de-escalation and leave the situation.

No matter how angry you are, becoming defensive, threatening or insulting is the worst thing you can do with an introverted narcissist because they react so poorly to the idea of criticism or being embarrassed.

Get Therapy

Even if the narcissist in your life is unwilling to seek help or doesn’t see a problem with themselves, you may benefit from going to therapy on your own. Therapy can help you learn more about setting healthy boundaries and emotionally protecting yourself.

Working with a therapist can also help you understand why you might be drawn to an introverted narcissist and guide you toward making positive changes in your life, or at a minimum helping you create and stick to your boundaries.

How Can I Stop Being a Covert Narcissist?

What if you recognize the signs of narcissism not in someone else, but yourself? It can be unsettling whether you recognize the signs on your own, or a medical professional diagnoses with you with some form of narcissism or narcissistic personality disorder.

The following are some things to consider if you want to stop your own narcissistic tendencies:

  • First and foremost, work on having a better understanding of other people. It can take work and practice to break outside of your typical patterns of doing things and develop empathy, but it’s possible. Be open to listening and making personal connections.
  • Listen as much as you talk.
  • Respect people’s privacy and personal space—let other people come to you with certain things they’d like to share.
  • Don’t make empty promises or plans you know you won’t keep. Be honest—if someone wants you to do something and you know it’s not going to happen, let the other person know.
  • Start practicing mindfulness. Be present when you’re interacting with other people, and try to feel what they might feel.

Also, get help from a therapist. Talk therapy such as cognitive-behavioral therapy can be extremely helpful, and it’s possible to overcome some or all of your narcissistic personality traits.

covert narcissist, covert narcissm, malignant narcissm
Image Source: Pixabay

Summing Up

Dealing with a covert narcissist can be just as challenging as dealing with any other kind of narcissist. It can be emotionally painful, and it’s often a one-sided relationship with no empathy, boundaries or consideration on the part of the narcissist.

Covert narcissists can be even tougher to spot than other types of narcissists because they are more introverted, and they tend to avoid close relationships with people because of their fragile sense of self-worth, but their damage is no less significant.

Unless the narcissist is willing to accept there is an issue and get help, the best option is often to end the relationship. If ending the relationship isn’t an option or you aren’t willing to do that, learning coping strategies can help you protect yourself. However, if physical abuse is an issue you should leave the situation immediately no matter what and seek the appropriate outside intervention.


Sources

Lancer, Darlene, JD MFT. “What is a Covert Narcissist?” Psych Central. January 15, 2019. Accessed March 12, 2019.

Depression Alliance. “Vulnerable Narcissism: Understanding Its Role in Today’s Society.” Accessed March 12, 2019.

Ni, Preston M.S. B.A. “7 Signs of a Covert Introvert Narcissist.” Psychology Today. January 10, 2016. Accessed March 12, 2019.

Scott, Elizabeth MS. “How to Identify a Malignant Narcissist.” Verywell Mind. November 8, 2018. Accessed March 12, 2019.

Ni, Preston M.S. B.A. “6 Keys for Narcissists to Change Toward the Higher Self.” Psychology Today. October 12, 2014. Accessed March 12, 2019.

Greenberg, Elinor PhD. “The Survival Guide for Living with a Narcissist.” Psychology Today. October 23, 2017. Accessed March 12, 2019.

Zingarpoli, Julie. “How to Stop Being a narcissist in 5 Simple Steps.” Mindcology. November 10, 2017. Accessed March 12, 2019.

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