10 (Frequently Missed) Covert Narcissist Signs

Some narcissists are good at hiding their true traits: pretentiousness, entitlement, and insensitivity. Unmask these covert narcissist signs to expose them.

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 a date with them, you’d find them attentive to your smallest needs and watchful of anyone who might offend 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 who discreetly abuse you.

In scientific parlance, people with covert narcissistic personality disorder are known as vulnerable narcissists.

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.

signs of covert narcissists

10 Covert Narcissist Signs You May Not Be Aware Of

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

Signs your friend is a covert narcissist: they appear to the outside world as socially anxious, hesitant, withdrawn, and forlorn people, but you know how cruelly selfish & exploitative they can be.

But they still take pleasure from negative attention, albeit in different ways than the overt narcissist.

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

1. Creating dependency

Covert narcissists often live in constant fear that everything and everyone they own will be taken away from them one day. So, they try to make the people 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

Covert narcissists believe 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 in life often gets hampered by their fragile egos and lightning-fast virulent reactions 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. In comparison, grandiose narcissists have high self-esteem.

Covert narcissists may appear confident and self-assured on the outside, but they are often insecure and fragile on the inside. They may use their narcissistic grandiosity and praise from others to compensate for their low self-esteem.

  • Self-esteem is a person’s overall evaluation of their own worth. It is typically measured on a scale from low to high.
  • Narcissistic grandiosity is a personality trait characterized by an inflated sense of self-importance and a belief in one’s own superiority.
  • The Narcissistic Grandiosity Scale (NGS) is a 16-item self-report scale that asks participants to rate how well they agree with statements such as “I am a natural leader” and “I deserve to be treated better than most people.” The NGS is a valid and reliable measure of narcissistic grandiosity (The Narcissistic Grandiosity Scale, Rosenthal & Hooley, 2019).

They may be very sensitive to criticism and may take it very personally. They may be envious of others who they perceive as being more successful or talented.

They may be very critical of themselves and may have a negative self-image, often believing they are not worthy of being appreciated or loved.

Many covert narcissists have a secret sense of shame, which they keep hidden from the 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 = intense feelings of inadequacy from the belief that one is somehow less than others. Interestingly, the concept of the 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.

Their lack of emotional empathy can be seen in their strong need to control situations and relationships.

Covert narcissists are constantly looking for ways to control others.

Even though they 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 will often go to external sources to find validation, which can become an addiction.

They use people for emotional support, and may quickly become addicted to it at the cost of neglecting their emotional self-care.

5. Lack of compassion

Covert narcissists often do not appear as overtly self-centered and self-absorbed.

First, they hide it well, since they know people do not take self-centered behavior positively.

Second, they usually have some ability to understand the other person’s thoughts and feelings.

So, they will do “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.

Many employees work for covert narcissistic bosses and suffer immensely at their hands 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.

They have a deeply entrenched insecurity of being left with no one to praise them or listen to their stories of how important they are.

Their self-worth is quite low, so they have to constantly seek validation to make themselves feel better about themselves.

So, when someone gets better than the narcissist or becomes less dependable for validation, it can trigger abandonment anxiety.

It’s important to remember that it’s not just covert narcissists who have this fear of abandonment.

To be fair, 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 rank disrespect of other people’s psychological boundaries is a key trait of a covert narcissist.

When it comes to fulfilling their objectives, they violate people’s boundaries and personal space with no regret or concern.

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 can call you at 3 AM to ask for a favor and then refuse to return it when you really need their help sometime later, during the daytime.

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.

They are often intelligent, charming, popular, and frequently successful in their careers.

They usually have good relationships with family members and friends, and it is rare to find them 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.

One of the tell-tale signs of a covert narcissist is that they are experts at gaslighting—since they are often not as openly dominant or authoritative as the grandiose narcissists.

Gaslighting is a covert form of psychological abuse, in which the gaslighter twists the victim’s ideas and memories to make them doubt their own thoughts and words, ultimately making them feel like they are going insane.

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 a 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 of 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 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 so the issue does not escalate.

Then distance yourself from them.

Narcissists are experts at turning the argument and making you feel like you are the one who is wrong. Find out how to correctly argue with a narcissist.

Build up your self-esteem, so you can confidently distance yourself from these people because, actually, you don’t need them in your life.

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 use their physical charms and mannerisms to manipulate you.

They may exploit even their close confidants, for personal gain, or just to find out how they react to the hurt.

Covert narcissists often are socially awkward but tend to be very intelligent.

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.

They can often mimic empathy and other softer emotions, but cannot maintain it for long periods of time without becoming agitated or frustrated since those sentiments are not genuine.


  1. 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.

  2. Are covert narcissists happy?

    Covert narcissists may appear happy on the surface, but their happiness is often superficial and short-lived. Like other narcissists, their need for constant validation, admiration, and control can make it difficult for them to form deep and meaningful connections with others. Furthermore, their fragile self-esteem and sensitivity to criticism make them vulnerable to negative emotions, which can ultimately hinder their long-term happiness and well-being.

  3. What are the 10 signs of vulnerable narcissistic abuse?

    These are the 10 possible signs that you are facing vulnerable narcissistic abuse:
    1. Gaslighting: They will manipulate reality, causing confusion.
    2. Guilt-tripping: They can use make you feel guilty to control you.
    3. Victim mentality: They will always portray themselves as victims.
    4. Silent treatment: They often withhold communication as punishment.
    5. Jealousy and envy: They will resent other people’s success and achievements.
    6. Sensitive to criticism: They overreact to even creative and good feedback.
    7. Excessive self-doubt: They doubt their own abilities and ask you to validate them.
    8. Fear of abandonment: They have fears of being abandoned by their close people.
    9. Emotional manipulation: They will always try to control others emotionally.
    10. Passive-aggressive behavior: They will express anger indirectly.

  4. 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 when they 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 them.

  5. How does a covert narcissist female friend behave?

    A covert narcissist female friend, like any covert narcissist, can be challenging to deal with due to their hidden manipulative behaviors. Here are some specific aspects you may notice:
    1. Emotional manipulation: They may use emotional tactics, such as guilt-tripping or playing the victim, to control and manipulate you.
    2. Excessive envy: They may be envious of your accomplishments and relationships, which can result in them trying to undermine your success or create tension between you and others.
    3. Sensitivity to criticism: They may be overly sensitive to any perceived criticism and may react negatively or defensively when confronted.
    4. Passive-aggressive behavior: Instead of expressing their feelings directly, they may engage in passive-aggressive actions, such as giving you the silent treatment, making snide remarks, or subtly sabotaging your efforts.
    5. Fear of abandonment: Covert narcissist female friends may be insecure in relationships and exhibit a fear of abandonment, causing them to cling to you or demand excessive reassurance.

  6. Why do covert narcissists hide your personal things?

    Covert narcissists may hide your personal things as a means of control and manipulation. By doing so, they can create confusion, make you question your memory or sanity (gaslighting), and establish dominance in the relationship. This behavior feeds their need for power and validates their sense of superiority over you.

  7. Is there a highly intelligent covert narcissist?

    Yes, highly intelligent covert narcissists exist, although not all covert narcissists are intelligent. Their intelligence can make their manipulative tactics even more subtle and effective, making it harder for others to recognize their narcissistic behaviors. These people may be skilled at masking their true intentions and adapting to various social situations.

  8. Do covert narcissists have friends?

    Covert narcissists can have friends, but their friendships are often superficial and based on manipulation or fulfilling their own needs, rather than genuine connections and mutual support. They may struggle to maintain long-lasting, meaningful friendships due to their hidden narcissistic tendencies.

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

Both grandiose and vulnerable narcissists use the core narcissistic features of self-importance and entitlement. Their two more traits are Envy and Vindictiveness.

Your covert narcissist friend just cannot feel happy at your successes, and will and will react negatively to them, and plan to outdo you.

But they hide this dark side well as they know it could lower their social attractiveness and reach.

Narcissism is widespread in our society, making it difficult to imagine someone without the typical grandiose traits of a narcissist. However, shy and modest covert narcissists also exist among us.

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Stay vigilant of the weird things covert narcissists do.

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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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