A covert narcissist displays more subtle signs of narcissism, like hypersensitivity to criticism, chronic envy or jealousy, gaslighting, lack of empathy, and feelings of superiority. Unlike most narcissists, who can be grandiose and outgoing, covert narcissists are often introverted and better at hiding feelings of self-importance. This can make it easier for a person to fall victim to their problematic behaviors.
What Is Narcissism?
Narcissists may appear with high energy, discuss wild plans for their future successes, and speak in embellished terms with exaggerated movements. They may believe that other people are failures because they do not live up to their expectations of jobs, money, cars, or houses. On the outside, they will seem confident, self-assured, and mentally healthy.1 Researchers and clinicians note significant differences in people with this disorder, which means not everyone with a narcissistic personality disorder diagnosis will act, think, or feel the same way.1,2
What Is a Covert Narcissist?
Covert narcissists, or vulnerable narcissists as they are sometimes called, are emotionally fragile and sensitive to even limited amounts of perceived criticism. They appear highly stressed and worried about numerous concerns.2 In terms of interpersonal relationships, the covert narcissist will seem shy, reserved, and self-deprecating. They will compare and judge themselves against what other people have in terms of happiness, possessions, and relationships constantly.2
Overt vs. Covert Narcissism
Where a covert narcissist does well to hide their problematic behaviors, thoughts, and feelings, overt narcissists boldly display the typical narcissistic qualities. They will be grandiose, demeaning, and demanding. The overt or grandiose narcissists always present themselves as special, important, and entitled, regardless of another person’s needs and wants. Their arrogance and self-importance will be evident within moments of starting a conversation with them.1 The covert narcissist will experience most of the same thoughts and feelings, but they will be less obvious with their expression of uniqueness. It may take friends and coworkers longer to notice the traits.
8 Signs of a Covert Narcissist
Covert narcissists will not present in ways stereotypical of standard narcissists, so you have to look deeper to know what and who you are dealing with. Some narcissists make it clear from first contact that they have narcissistic traits, making them easier to spot. Being aware of the signs of a covert narcissist can help you know how to respond accordingly.
Here are eight signs of a covert narcissist:1,2
1. Sense of Inferiority
Whereas other narcissists seem to hit people over the head with their grandiosity and confidence, the covert narcissist has a presentation of uncertainty and self-doubt. They may let other people make the important choices for them because they report being indecisive and fear making a mistake.
Since they constantly compare themselves to others, they may feel like they don’t stack up to friends (it’s incredibly difficult to stay friends with a narcissist), family, or coworkers in specific areas. A narcissist in the workplace may need constant reassurance and validation. They may be quick to compliment others for their successes, but instead of feeling happy for the person, they only feel bad for themselves.
2. Hypersensitive to Criticism
Due to an unstable self-esteem, people with covert narcissism are incredibly fragile and sensitive. If someone criticizes their work, family, or personality, the covert narcissist will respond with an extreme emotional reaction. They could be overly sad and despondent from even a minor comment.
The opposite may be true as well, with the narcissist experiencing a drastic positive mood change from an insignificant compliment. This comment could reinforce their desirable qualities or merely neutralize the latest perceived slight.
3. Highly Stressed & Angry
The mood changes that come with being a covert narcissist will create a great deal of discomfort. With so much weight being assigned to each critique, the person will begin feeling very stressed and anxious as they stand by for the next comment.
For them, stress commonly builds towards narcissistic rage and aggression as negative feedback could enrage them. They may explode and take their anger out on others or harm themselves.
4. Chronically Envious
The outward sense of inferiority experienced by a covert narcissist will lead to a powerful and chronic envy of others. The narcissist will always focus on what other people have that they do not.
If the covert narcissist has a four-bedroom house, they will want a five-bedroom house. When they get the bigger house, they will still be envious because someone will have a pool, a movie theater, or a bowling alley in their basement. No matter the area of envy, the covert narcissist will never be able to appreciate what they have. The focus will only be on what they are lacking.
Covert narcissists can be jealous or envious of almost anything, including:
- Physical attributes including height, weight, hair and skin quality, and strength
- Wealth measured by house, cars, clothes, and jewelry
- Family status, including marriage or children
- Power measured by employment or community involvement
Because they are so driven by jealousy and trying to chase after others’ achievements, the covert narcissist will appear aimless and misguided. Once they achieve something, they will not stop to celebrate their success; they will only look for a new conquest. Often, the new goal will be disconnected from the previous one. To the outside observer, the covert narcissist is simply bouncing from one project or fixation to another with no clear path or plan. All the while, they never feel satisfied or assured in their direction.
Whether covert or overt, the person with narcissistic personality disorder will be self-absorbed. They will only consider what is good for them and how they can get what they want. This self-centeredness leads to two outcomes, emotional manipulation and a lack of empathy.
Because they are so focused on completing whatever their current goal is, a covert narcissist will do anything to achieve it, including emotionally manipulating others. With guilt, threats of violence, and other forms of coercion, they will use these people for their personal gain. Furthermore, a narcissist will never experience empathy. Empathy is the ability to understand another person’s perspective and feelings, and a narcissist is not interested in walking a mile in another’s shoes. They won’t care about others – only what others can do for them.
7. Grandiose Fantasies
On the outside, a person with covert narcissism will seem quiet, meek, and self-deprecating. On the inside, though, they feel an intense sense they are superior to others. Despite all of the jealousy, envy, overreaction to negative comments, and apparent shyness, the covert narcissist will feel deep down that they are better than other people. Instead of engaging with people like the overt narcissist, the covert narcissist will choose to be alone because no one can live up to their high expectations.
8. Frequent Suicidality
With the mood changes, fluctuations between feeling superior and being jealous, never feeling satisfied, and being unable to rely on other people, the condition can result in despair and suicidal ideation. Covert narcissists will experience more depression, anxiety, non-suicidal self-injury, and suicide attempts than other people with narcissism.
Signs of a Covert Narcissist Husband
Being married to a covert narcissist can be a trial. Identifying their condition could be tricky. Once you do, it could result in the relationship making more sense.
Some of the most telling signs of a covert narcissist husband include:1
- Being inattentive and distracted: The covert narcissist is self-absorbed, so there is little time and attention given to others.
- Jealousy and paranoia: The covert narcissist will constantly want the house, cars, and jobs of friends and neighbors.
- Inability to understand his wife’s point of view: With a lack of empathy, he will be unwilling and unable to consider differences of opinions. He will always be right.
- Unexpected angry outbursts: Covert narcissists are fragile and overly sensitive, so he could become angry and violent quickly or break down in tears.
- Frequently changing jobs: Since he thinks he knows best, the covert narcissist will have conflict with bosses. They may move from job to job to avoid being fired.
- Impulsive purchases: In an attempt to fulfill emotional voids, the covert narcissist will buy expensive items like cars, property, jewelry, or electronics
- Issues bonding with children: Again, without a strong sense of empathy, covert narcissists struggle to bond and connect with children at any age.
- Legal issues: A covert narcissist thinks that the rules and laws do not apply to them, so they will often engage in illegal activities.
- Substance abuse: With covert narcissism, the person may justify their intense substance abuse as a way of coping with “incompetent people.”
Signs of a Covert Narcissist Mother or Father
Having a narcissistic mother or father is a trying experience. Since the covert narcissist is sneaky, the usual signs of narcissism may not be present.
Instead, the covert narcissist parent may display signs like:1
- Constant disappointment: If the parent expresses consistent disappointment, no matter the child’s achievements, they could be a covert narcissist.
- Physical absence: A covert narcissist may not be interested in being physically present with their child. Birthdays, holidays, and graduations may not seem important.
- Emotional absence: If they are physically present, they may not be emotionally. They could often ignore their child and limit communication.
- Comparing the child to others: When a parent is routinely stating that the child lacks worth because they are not as successful, smart, strong, athletic, or wealthy as others, they could be a covert narcissist.
- Anger when children need attention: With the enduring self-centeredness, a covert narcissist will become annoyed or irritated when their child needs time and attention, even for serious medical matters.
- Exploiting their children for personal gain: A covert narcissist will find ways to benefit from their child, whether financially, at work, or in relationships. Their child becomes a bargaining tool.
Things Covert Narcissists Say
When the behaviors do not help you identify a covert narcissist, you can look elsewhere. At times, the things covert narcissists say will make their status quite clear.
Here are common things a covert narcissist may say:
- I don’t know what you’re talking about.
- You’re being too sensitive and too dramatic.
- You’re lucky I’m so kind and patient with you.
- Can’t you bother someone else with this?
- I’m doing important things and can’t be bothered with your thoughts and feelings.
- You probably forgot.
- You always misunderstand what I say.
- Why aren’t you paying more attention to me?
How to Deal With a Covert Narcissist
Dealing with a narcissist can seem like an impossible task, as the qualities that make someone a good friend, family member, or romantic partner are not often present. For the best success, you may have to use strong boundaries, ultimatums, and avoidance with the covert narcissist.
Here are seven tips for how to deal with a covert narcissist:1
- Study the diagnosis: Narcissism, like other personality disorders, may be obvious in many situations. Other times, the condition and the effects can sneak up on you slowly, especially when it is covert.
- Confirm with others: Ask around and gather information from others who know the person. If they all agree with your perspective, you can rest assured that your opinion is not flawed or biased.
- Communicate your concerns: There are countless ways to talk to someone about your concerns that they have covert narcissism, but only a handful will be productive. The person deserves to hear your honest and direct feedback.
- Encourage treatment: Covert narcissists often resist the idea that they need help because their symptoms are not as bold. However, you must encourage professional assistance. If they are unwilling, the relationship is in great jeopardy.
- Point out your concerns: When you see the person behaving in ways linked to covert narcissism, point it out and bring their attention to it. They may deny it, but at least you’ll know that you did what you could.
- Check in with your reactions and responses: Working with, communicating with, or living with a narcissist is an extremely stressful and draining experience. Consider spending some time with yourself or a trusted ally to assess how you are handling the relationship and if progress is happening,
- Prepare to end the relationship: Even with the best treatment, logical interventions, clear boundaries, and consistent repercussions, the narcissist could remain unchanged or obstinate and angry. Sometimes, in these situations, the best course of action is to leave the relationship. If it’s a romantic relationship, it’s probably time to break up with your narcissistic partner.