10 Frequently Missed Covert Narcissist Signs

Some narcissists are good at hiding their true traits: grandiosity, entitlement, and insensitivity. To help you unmask them, here are the often missed covert narcissist signs.

Covert narcissists are incredibly talented people who are often the top-performing experts in any field. While they might lack the social skills to instantly charm others, they are great at secretly manipulating people.

If you were to go on date with them, you’d find them attentive to your smallest needs and watchful of anyone who might offend you. But if you were to offend them in any way, even show them the mildest disrespect, they won’t react but will hold an unforgiving grudge against you.

Covert narcissists are covert in the sense that they do not readily reveal themselves as narcissists, unlike their more expressive counterparts—the grandiose narcissists. Instead, they appear to be highly sensitive, caring, and compassionate people, but discreetly abuse you emotionally.

In scientific parlance, they are known as vulnerable narcissists.

Who Is A Covert Narcissist

A covert narcissist is someone who has traits of Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) but does not exhibit a grandiose sense of self-importance. They artfully hide their unhealthy obsession with self-image, craving for authority, fragile ego, and lack of empathy. They are often shy or modest, but capable performers.

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5) classifies Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) as a mental health disorder. There are two types of narcissists: the grandiose narcissist and the covert narcissist.

A covert narcissist is like a hermit who keeps a small, closed group of confidantes, whereas the grandiose narcissist is like the leader of a pack.

signs of covert narcissists

10 Covert Narcissist Signs You May Not Be Aware Of

They appear to the outside world as socially anxious, hesitant, withdrawn, and forlorn people. But the covert narcissist still takes pleasure from negative attention, albeit in different ways than the overt narcissist.

Here are ten (often missed) signs of covert narcissism:

1. Creating dependency

A covert narcissist lives 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.

They lack trust in others and are plagued by feelings of insecurity and jealousy. So, they gradually make the other person desperately dependent on them.

First, these narcissists subtly and gradually isolate their victims from their friends and family. This makes their victims emotionally and financially dependent on them.

Then they frequently and repeatedly abuse their victims to condition them into Learned Helplessness, like Seligman’s dogs.

As a result, they become apprehensive to accomplish things on their own for fear of being criticized or even punished. This is particularly distressing when they have no one to turn to for support.

2. Lack of confidence

The covert narcissist believes that they are superior to others. So, they often question executive decisions but lack the confidence to push back any challenge to their 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, despite being quite intelligent, they can’t stand divergent opinions on their ideas or decisions.

As top leaders, their success often gets hampered by their fragile egos and lightning-fast virulent reaction to criticism.

As subordinates, they cannot handle a confrontation well. At any instance of a conflict or challenge, they divert the focus or sulk away.

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

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.”

— Brené Brown

3. Low self-esteem

A covert narcissist is essentially a person with low self-esteem. Deep down, they have a fragile sense of self-worth and believe they are not worthy of being appreciated or loved.

Many covert narcissists have a secret sense of shame, which they conceal from people around them and even from themselves.

Covert narcissism is seen by some experts as a defense mechanism. This idea was originally proposed and popularized by Sigmund Freud. Accordingly, the human mind designed narcissism to protect the person from feeling inferior or inadequate.

Covert narcissism helps a person handle their feelings of shame and unworthiness that originate from a deep-seated inferiority complex.

[Inferiority complex is defined as intense feelings of inadequacy originating from the belief that one is somehow less than others. Interestingly, the concept of inferiority complex was first proposed by Freud’s contemporary and rival, Alfred Adler.]

A key sign of the covert narcissist is their dislike for the public spotlight. Unlike a grandiose narcissist, who thrives on being in the public eye, the covert kind cringes at the thought of a swarm of fans around them.

They expertly avoid questions about their personal lives and divert the questioner’s attention to what appear to be other important issues. This avoidance of scrutiny may be because they fear being exposed as having irrational beliefs of superiority while actually harboring low self-esteem

“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

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.

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

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.

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 for 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.

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.

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 the abuser proving the victim’s words and thoughts as lies. The gaslighter makes it a point to tell you frequently, “You didn’t say that at all,” or “You are imagining the whole thing.”

When gaslighting goes on for long, it makes the victim starts to 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.

Their constant need for approval often leads 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.

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 are mostly socially awkward. They tend to avoid group meetings and team activities. They have derision for their superiors and often snap at them.

They have an exceptional ability to conceal their deception and manipulation. As a result, they may be able to mimic empathy and other softer emotions, but they cannot maintain it for long periods of time without becoming agitated or frustrated since those sentiments are not genuine.


What do covert narcissists do in relationships?

In a relationship, a covert narcissist often fidgets anxiously, lies and gaslights regularly, and seeks attention secretly. They trivialize the other person’s accomplishments. They typically drop hints about the other person being forgetful and delusional.

How do you outsmart a covert narcissist?

To outsmart a covert narcissist, take away their power. Here is how to do it:
1. Stick to your point when they say you are forgetting or imagining things.
2. Keep your focus on being calm when they try to trigger you into an outburst of anger or tears.
3. Challenge them to prove their views and defend their arguments.
4. Do not get swayed by their comments or opinions, and don’t cave in to their demands to make a fuss about how they feel hurt.
5. Tell them you are not responsible for their emotions, then end the conversation and leave the scene.
6. The best way to tackle them is to block them out and live a happy life without bothering about them.

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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Gaslighting In Relationships: Bonds of Power Imbalance?

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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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