If you’ve ever interacted with someone—like your boss, a friend, or a significant other—and they presented outwardly as kind and compassionate, but their behaviors suggested otherwise, it’s possible they’re a covert narcissist. Covert narcissists are experts at disguising themselves as normal people. While they come off as humble, considerate, and social, those around covert narcissists often sense a darker side. For example, the covert narcissist might make belittling comments, fish for compliments with self-deprecating remarks, or keep conversations focused on them.
Unless you know the subtle signs of covert narcissism, their manipulation tactics and false humility will keep you right where they want you. A person could even maintain a relationship with a covert narcissist much longer than an overt one because their narcissistic expressions are often masked. Dr. Ramani Durvasula, a licensed clinical psychologist and narcissism expert, describes a covert narcissist: “These are the victimized, vulnerable, anxious, socially less-skilled, sullen and resentful narcissists.”
Since covert narcissists are harder to spot, you may become entangled with one for more extended periods than an overt narcissist. This can lead to deep mental health issues and cause problems in your life. Fortunately, by learning the subtle clues of covert narcissism, a person can employ coping strategies that protect their mental health.
- There are five different types of narcissism.
- Narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) affects up to 5% of the population.
- Covert narcissists have low self-esteem, which mutes their overt narcissistic expression.
- Setting healthy boundaries is the only way to manage people with covert narcissism.
What Is a Covert Narcissist?
A covert narcissist—also referred to as a vulnerable narcissist—is one of the five types of narcissistic personality disorder (NPD). Unlike an overt narcissist, whose narcissistic personality traits tend to be obvious, covert narcissists are subtle in their mannerisms. Covert and overt narcissists have the same core traits and triggers, but low self-esteem subdues the expression of their narcissistic characteristics, making covert narcissists harder to spot.
The term “narcissist” is often used casually to describe people with overly self-serving qualities, making this personality disorder seem much more prevalent. However, according to the Cleveland Clinic, narcissism is a medically diagnosed condition affecting 5% or less of the population.
The Different Types of Narcissism
There are five subcategories of narcissistic personality within the umbrella of narcissism personality disorder. Understanding the traits and differences of each can help one to identify, cope with, and avoid these personalities more accurately.
The five types of narcissism:
- Overt narcissist: This is the classic understanding of narcissism. An overt narcissist tends to visibly display high self-esteem and self-regard with little empathy toward others.
- Covert narcissist: A covert narcissist, otherwise known as a vulnerable narcissist, possesses the same traits as an overt narcissist, but their low self-esteem mutes the expression of these traits.
- Antagonistic narcissist: An antagonistic narcissist is similar to a covert narcissist, except they are driven by competition and the desire to prove themselves right to others.
- Communal narcissist: Communal narcissists proclaim to have a strong concern for others and for society, yet their hypocritical interpersonal interactions suggest otherwise.
- Malignant narcissist: This is the extreme version of overt narcissism. It is characterized by sadism, paranoia, aggression, and even vindictiveness.
What Causes Narcissistic Personality Disorder
The exact causes of narcissism are complex and not fully understood. Yet, as Dr. Ramani explains: “Covert narcissists may also share tales of sadness, neglect, and even trauma, that go back to childhood. They may have families of origin characterized by psychological abuse, unfeeling parents, experience with significant abandonment, and trauma.”
Possible factors that cause narcissism, according to the Cleveland Clinic:
- Family history of narcissistic personality
- Childhood trauma (such as physical, verbal, or sexual abuse)
- Hypersensitivity to noise, light, or textures during childhood
- The makeup of early relationships with parents, relatives, and friends
8 Traits of a Covert Narcissist
People may possess certain traits that are similar to those of narcissists. For example, a friend of yours may be overly conscious about their physical appearance, or maybe they never return a compliment. These could be subtle signs of narcissism, but not always.
In a direct interview with Leaders Media, Katie Schubert, an LMHC with Cypress Wellness Center, shared, “If you get an adult who’s incredibly emotionally immature, a lot of the things they do will feel narcissistic, but it’s not narcissism, it’s just them being emotionally delayed or emotionally stunted in some way.”
However, you may be dealing with a covert narcissist if someone has all or most of these traits:
1. Shaming and Belittling
A covert narcissist won’t come out and say how important they think they are, like an overt narcissist might, but they will shame and belittle others to protect their inflated sense of self. They do this through passive comments designed to make themselves seem superior. Since covert narcissism is harder to spot, this trait may be difficult to identify.
What this might sound like: “That’s not how I would have done that. My idea would have been more effective.”
Why this is covert narcissism: An overt narcissist may say “Your idea is stupid and we should only stick with mine from now on,” while a covert narcissist will cushion the statement. In either case, the intention is to make you feel small about your idea.
2. Hidden Grandiose Superiority
Covert narcissists harbor a grandiose sense of superiority despite their introverted mannerisms and self-deprecating tendencies. They believe they are uniquely gifted, smarter, and more aware, but maintain their empathetic facade by limiting their engagement and connection with others. If a person doesn’t seem to have many friends, it’s likely because they feel none of them can live up to their expectations.
What this might sound like: “The party sounds fun, but I think I’ll stay home. I don’t really hang out with those kind of people. You guys enjoy.”
Why this is covert narcissism: This is a polite way of saying “Thanks, but no thanks” because the covert narcissist views themselves as superior to those who will be at the party.
3. Feelings of Disregard Toward Others
One of the critical attributes of people with covert narcissism is a strong need to be the focus of attention. Like overt narcissists, covert narcissists can easily disregard people who don’t contribute to their grandiose sense of self-importance. However, while an overt narcissist may be upfront about your irrelevance to them, a covert narcissist will communicate this more subtly, such as arriving late for a meeting, failing to show at all, or not acknowledging you entirely.
What this might sound like: “Sorry it took me so long to get back to you. I’m available in ten minutes. Let’s meet then.”
Why this is covert narcissism: This statement is classic covert narcissism. They seem apologetic, but they disregard the fact that you might not be available in ten minutes.
Manipulation is a common trait across all types of narcissism. This is because narcissists only use others to get what they want. They’ll go to all lengths to manipulate others, using tactics of coercion, lying, passive-aggression, guilt-tripping, and gaslighting—anything to get you to do what serves them.
What this might sound like: “Remember that time I helped you? I’m such a good friend to you. I think you owe me one.”
Why this is covert narcissism: Covert narcissists will use the relationship they have with you to get what they want. It sounds like they’re just asking for a favor, but what they say often has a guilt trip associated with it.
When someone’s words or actions make you question your own perception of things, that’s called gaslighting. Gaslighting is a common method narcissists use to control others, particularly those in romantic relationships. It’s characterized by belittling the other person and making them feel that what they’re experiencing isn’t reality. It creates doubt and reduces the other person’s confidence, making them easier to manipulate.
What this might sound like: “That’s not what I said. You’re remembering that wrong.”
Why this is covert narcissism: Similar to an overt narcissist, a covert narcissist will try to manipulate a situation in their favor by making you believe that you’re misremembering events or by flat-out lying about what happened.
6. Self-Deprecating Superiority
Do you know someone who “fishes” for compliments? Covert narcissists thrive on getting the sympathy of others, and they’ll even put themselves down to get it. Unlike overt narcissists, covert narcissists mask their superiority complex with false humility and self-deprecating comments. For example, an overt narcissist might say, “You’re lucky to have me in your life,” while a covert narcissist would say, “I’m sorry I’ve been such a bother to you.” They don’t really believe they’ve been a bother to you—they just want to hear you reassure them of that.
What this might sound like: “Gosh, my presentation today was the worst of all of them.”
Why this is covert narcissism: The low self-esteem of a covert narcissist beckons them to collect compliments anywhere they can. However, it’s covert because they disguise this tactic with passive self-deprecation to make the other person feel bad for them.
7. Emotionally Inaccessible to Others
At face value, a covert narcissist will appear friendly and kind. However, like dark empaths, covert narcissists are careful to keep their emotional distance from others. One reason for this is because they feel superior to others, and therefore view relationships as a waste of their time. Another reason is that they are envious of what others have and what they do not. These and other reasons result in general emotional unavailability. A covert narcissist will hear and see what you’re saying, but they won’t let you in.
What this might sound like: “I’m too busy to talk about this right now and you’re being too emotional. I’ll get back to you in a few days.”
Why this is covert narcissism: Covert narcissists will never prioritize emotional conversations. In fact, they may even buy themselves time by saying they’ll get back to you, and then never do so.
As composed as they may seem, covert narcissists are surprisingly sensitive and fragile. Their insecurities about themselves often cause their self-esteem to fluctuate, making them hypersensitive and enraged at anything threatening their current self-view. For example, if you need to give a covert narcissist constructive criticism, prepare yourself for an emotional reaction and try not to take it personally.
What this might sound like: “That’s absurd! I was the highest-performing member last quarter! I don’t deserve this.”
Why this is covert narcissism: While an overt narcissist will be very upfront about their damaged feelings, a covert narcissist will typically only express them in reactionary defense. This is covert narcissism if someone is typically very composed but overreacts when criticized.
Things That Trigger a Narcissist
As anyone who has ever criticized, confronted, or tried to converse with a narcissist knows, they don’t handle opposing viewpoints well. Schubert explains: “No narcissist likes to be criticized . . . again, they can do no wrong. If you’re criticizing a narcissist, it’s really something that you’re doing that they’re reacting to, so it’s ultimately your fault.”
To protect yourself against a covert narcissist’s toxic reactions, it’s a good idea to learn what triggers them.
Covert narcissists are triggered when:
- They feel ignored.
- They feel ashamed.
- The attention is not on them.
- They feel inferior to others.
- Their ego or sense of self is questioned.
- They have less of something than someone else.
Schubert further shares, “They don’t like the focus to be anybody else but themselves. If you’re having a conversation and you begin to talk about yourself, as the non-narcissist, they’ll find a way to pull it back to them.”
Techniques for Protecting Your Mental Health
Only by taking careful measures to adjust your perspective and employ healthy strategies can you be protected from the behaviors of a narcissist. People with covert narcissism will always use subtle techniques and passive comments to maintain control of you and your relationship. The key to managing this effectively to protect your mental health is learning to recognize it and taking steps to create social and emotional distance.
Tips for coping with a covert narcissist:
- Remember not to take anything they say or do personally.
- Consider what your values are and set boundaries to protect them.
- Create distance—socially, mentally, and even physically—from the narcissist.
- Speak with a mental health professional if the narcissist is your spouse.
- Become comfortable advocating for yourself.
- Read Should I Stay or Should Go? By Dr. Ramani Durvasula.
- Read Rethinking Narcissism: The Secret to Recognizing and Coping with Narcissists by Craig Malkin.
Continue learning about other toxic and manipulative personality disorders by reading “Machiavellianism Explained: Personality Traits + Dark Triad Signs.”
Leaders Media has established sourcing guidelines and relies on relevant, and credible sources for the data, facts, and expert insights and analysis we reference. You can learn more about our mission, ethics, and how we cite sources in our editorial policy.
- “COVERT Narcissists: Everything You Need to Know (Part 1/3).” YouTube, 17 May 2020, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mNFIQ46-s-A.
- “Narcissistic Personality Disorder: Traits, Tests, Treatment.” Cleveland Clinic, https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/diseases/9742-narcissistic-personality-disorder.