10 Signs You May Be Dealing With A Covert Narcissist

Covert narcissists are the ultimate charmers; the quintessential “wolf in sheep’s clothing.” Click To Tweet

A covert narcissist is covert in that they appear to be highly sensitive, caring, and compassionate when in reality they are not. They are able to work in ways that cannot be easily detected by others around them, unlike grandiose narcissists.

Even though covert narcissists appear shy and unassuming, friendly and charming, these people exude a general sense of power and superiority. They may be your friend or your partner, but you can’t ignore their sense of authority.

They often begin their careers as leaders or entertainers before rising to positions of power. It is then that people begin to notice the oddities in their behavior. For example, they can’t stand divergent opinions on their decisions.

They may be quite intelligent, but their success as top leaders often gets hampered by their fragile egos, especially their lightning-fast virulent reaction to criticism.

Scientists refer to covert narcissists as vulnerable narcissists.

Who Is A Covert Narcissist

A covert narcissist is a person with narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) who does not display the grandiose sense of self-importance, but rather appears shy or modest. Still, they have an unhealthy obsession with their self-image.

A key sign of the covert narcissist is their disdain for the public spotlight. A covert narcissist does not crave the presence of a swarm of fans like an overt narcissist who thrives on being in the public eye. They are skilled at dodging questions about their personal lives and diverting them to ostensibly more crucial matters.

They may do this to appear modest, but the covert narcissist still takes pleasure from negative attention, albeit in different ways than the overt narcissist. The fear of being exposed, particularly their self-belief of extreme superiority over others, drives them to evade the questioning audience.

However, their constant need for approval can lead them to viciously attack those who try to challenge or criticize them. In many cases, the covert narcissist is more frightening merely because of their sheer contempt for other achievers.

Covert narcissism can also be a defense mechanism designed to protect an individual from feeling inferior or inadequate. Originally popularized by Sigmund Freud, covert narcissism helps a person deal with the feelings of shame and unworthiness that originate from a deep-seated sense of inferiority.

signs of covert narcissists

10 Frequently Missed Signs of A Covert Narcissist

“Narcissists have poor self-esteem, but they are typically very successful. They feel entitled; they’re self-important; they crave admiration and lack empathy. They are also exploitative and envious. The malignant types never forget a slight. They may kill you ten years later for cutting them off in traffic. But they act perfectly normal while plotting their revenge.”
— Janet M. Tavakoli

Here are some of the tell-tale signs of a covert narcissist:

1. Low self-esteem

A covert narcissist is a person with a fragile sense of self-worth. They often believe they are not worthy of being loved.

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Many narcissists have a secret sense of shame, which they conceal from people around them. They also have a lack of confidence, which they conceal from themselves.

2. Lack of confidence

The covert narcissist believes that he or she is superior to others, but lacks the confidence to face any challenge to their authority.

They tend to have a fragile ego. This could be because of a deep-seated sense of insignificance and inferiority.

Brené Brown feels narcissists suffer from the shame of ordinariness. To shield their insecurity, they react with apathy and disdain for others.

She says, “When I look at narcissism through the vulnerability lens, I see the shame-based fear of being ordinary. I see the fear of never feeling extraordinary enough to be noticed, to be lovable, to belong, or to cultivate a sense of purpose.”

3. Creating dependency

A covert narcissist lacks trust in others and is plagued by feelings of insecurity and jealously. They live in constant fear that everything and everyone they own will be taken away from them one day. So, they try to make the persons who love them, depend solely on them.

These narcissists subtly and gradually isolate their victims from their friends and family. This makes the victims emotionally and financially dependent on them.

They condition their victims, like Pavlov’s dogs, to be apprehensive of doing things on their own out of fear of being criticized or even punished and having no one to turn to for support.

4. Need for control

At the heart of covert narcissism is the need to control and manipulate others.

Covert narcissists will often go to external sources to find validation, which can lead to an addiction. They may use people for emotional support, but at the expense of their own emotional well-being.

Lack of emotional empathy in people with covert narcissism can be seen through their need for control.

Covert narcissists are constantly looking for ways to control others.

5. Lack of compassion

Covert narcissists oftentimes do not appear as overtly self-centered and self-absorbed. It’s because they usually do not lack the ability to put themselves in another person’s shoes and understand what that person might be feeling.

They will “Oh!” and “Aah!” at your stories, but they won’t do much about easing your pain.

They can understand your pain, often better than others in your circle, but they will look past it. This lack of emotional empathy allows them to easily ignore other people’s misery and force them to do things their way.

Covert narcissists suffer from an utter lack of compassion, which is a facet of their devious nature. This is characterized by their oversight and even scorn for other people’s feelings and an inability to help them.

They make up their lack of compassion with their charm to get what they want from others, without giving anything pro bono, or even in return unless explicitly coerced to.

Covert narcissism is more of an issue in the workplace than overt narcissism. There are many employees who work for covert narcissistic bosses and suffer immensely at the hands of their bosses because of this lack of empathy and compassion.

6. Fear of abandonment

The fear of being abandoned is a fear that is often associated with covert narcissism. This is because these narcissists have entrenched insecurity.

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They are constantly seeking validation to make themselves feel better about themselves.

So, when the other person starts to make them less reliant on them for validation, or they feel they are getting better than the other person, it can trigger abandonment anxiety.

It’s important to remember that it’s not just covert narcissists who have this fear of abandonment. It can happen for any type of personality disorder, if you have an intense fear of being abandoned, then there may be an underlying cause that should be identified and addressed through therapy or self-reflection.

7. Lack of a sense of boundaries

Even though covert narcissists may be shy or modest, they are persons with a weak sense of relationship boundaries.

A covert narcissist can be someone who is socially competent and friendly, but at the same time ruthlessly exploitive and obsessed with their own sense of superiority.

The lack of psychological boundaries is a key trait for a covert narcissist. They abuse people and things with no remorse and do not care what they do to achieve their goals.

A covert narcissist can be someone who is socially competent and friendly, but at the same time ruthlessly exploitive and obsessed with their own sense of superiority. They lack a sense of psychological boundaries as they abuse people and things with no remorse.

8. Being a pathological liar

Covert narcissists can be difficult to identify at first. So, they also go by other names, like closet narcissists or hidden narcissists.


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Covert narcissists are often intelligent, charming, and popular. They are frequently successful in their careers, They usually have good relationships with family members and friends, and are rarely the subject of gossip or criticism.

Those facets of their personality are what make them masters of deception.

When you find out a covert narcissist’s lie and tell others about it, they find it unbelievable. People who know these narcissists typically hold them in such high regard that they find it nearly impossible to believe any criticism leveled at them.

Since they are mostly pathological liars, they lie to everyone about something. They are also quite good at remembering which deceptive version of a fact they told to which specific person.

9. Manipulation & Gaslighting

A covert narcissist can be manipulative and controlling. They are experts at gaslighting—a form of psychological abuse.

Gaslighting is an insidious behavior that revolves around proving your words and thoughts as lies. The gaslighting person makes it a point to tell you frequently, “You didn’t say that at all,” or “You are imagining the whole thing.” When it goes on for long, it makes the victim doubt their sense of reality.

The goal is to methodically undermine the victim’s mental sanity, identity, and self-esteem. It makes the victim doubt their actions and thoughts, so much so that they become incapable of taking any decision independently. The abuser withholds facts from the victim, substituting them with false information.

10. Intolerance to criticism

Narcissists are hypersensitive to threats to their authority. This is true for both the covert and the overt types.

They are usually difficult people is to have in your life. They want total control over any situation that involves them. Since they are frequently unable to express their thoughts or needs, they react to suggestions, ideas, and opinions that scrutinize their judgments.

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If a covert narcissist were to attack a close friend, they would likely do so in a very hostile manner, especially if they were stressed, angry, or sad.

Narcissists are known for being proud, vain, and selfish. Narcissistic individuals can also be abusive both emotionally and physically to their loved ones.

Many people who exhibit these traits may not realize they are narcissists because it is not overt like the more obvious form of narcissism which is grandiose.

How to deal with a covert narcissist

The best way to deal with a covert narcissist is not to confront them, but instead, defuse their anger by agreeing with them in order for the issue not to escalate. You should build up your self-esteem, so you can be able to distance yourself from these people so you don’t need them in your life anymore.

If you suspect being gaslighted, make it a point to write or record things. Leave a paper trail, as they do in professional situations. Tell them, “I’m recording this, so I can recall it exactly” or “I’m messaging you what I just said, so I remember.”

The covert narcissist is the type of person that appears to be a highly sensitive, kind-hearted person. But they are actually selfishly driven, often being their own worst critic.

This type of person needs to feel superior in order to validate themselves. They are very charismatic and manipulative. They will often use their charm to exploit others, either for personal gain or simply for the sake of hurting them.

Covert narcissists tend to be very intelligent but do not have many skills or talents outside of manipulation and deceitfulness. As a result, they may be able to mimic empathy and other emotions, but they cannot maintain it for long periods of time without becoming agitated or frustrated because these feelings are not genuine.

Final Words

“Relationships with narcissists are held in place by hope of a ‘someday better,’ with little evidence to support it will ever arrive.”
— Ramani Durvasula

The term covert narcissist is used to refer to people who are usually very manipulative and often lack empathy. They can be charming, but they are also likely to be envious and vindictive.

They tend to have a dark side that they hide because it’s self-defeating in their social environment.

Narcissism is so prevalent in our society that it is hard for people to believe someone could lack the characteristic grandiosity of a narcissist. But the shy and the modest covert narcissists are also people living among us.

Watch out for them!

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Author Bio: Written and reviewed by Sandip Roy—a medical doctor, psychology writer, and happiness researcher. Founder and Chief Editor of The Happiness Blog. Writes popular science articles on happiness, positive psychology, and related topics.


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