7 Signs of a Covert Narcissist & How to Deal with Them

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How old were you when you first realized someone close to you was a narcissist? You know what I mean. It’s that person you always trusted and looked up to, but they had a dark motive they kept hidden from those around them. The bleak truth was that this person manipulated others into making them feel great. 

Whether it’s a parent or sibling or friend, you have probably (like me) realized that this person is a narcissist who is intent on being great and feeling good at the expense of those around them.

Sometimes, you can easily see that they are running their mouths or putting others down, all the while climbing the ladder of their own over-inflated sense of achievement. 

For me, it was a sibling. Realizing that my brother was systematically destroying me so he could satisfy his needs was a soul-destroying trauma that I took a long time to begin healing from. Worst of all, he didn’t trumpet out his delusions and manipulations but hid it behind fake care and pretend compassion since he is a covert narcissist. 

I learned there are signs to look out for that even a covert narcissist can’t hide, and in healing, I learned to deal with my covert narcissist relative’s manipulations and save my sanity. You can too.  

What Is Narcissism?

Narcissism is a clinical diagnosis that has its origin in the fable of Narcissus who was so self-obsessed that he couldn’t look away from his own reflection. Like the fabled Narcissus who believed his reflection to be perfect, narcissists believe they are perfect and have grandiose accomplishments. They will use and manipulate people to achieve their self-vision. 

Lacking any understanding of the needs or suffering of others, narcissists only work for their own purposes, with no regard for how that purpose influences or harms others. Often, a narcissist can’t even see they are harming others and being selfish.

Instead, they always see that perfect image in their minds, like Narcissus staring at his perfect reflection in the pond. 

My brother has a self-importance that over-rules familial loyalty and basic human decency. He has delusions of being better than everyone else, believes he’s the smartest person in the room, and chases after the admiration of others.

By causing others to fail, he makes himself feel better—like someone who shoots their friend in the knee to escape an attacking bear. 

His favorite saying is that his job on earth is to make everyone else happy. Bringing happiness to others is a tall order, and one that he falls quite short of.

His actions cause misery to those around him, yet he makes people hope and believe his lies until they know better (if they ever learn). Ironically, like other narcissists, he brings pain (not joy) to those around him. 

Why Does Someone Become a Narcissist?

The irony is that my brother wasn't an all-out narcissist when he was a kid. He had a genuine compassion for others back then. When he went to university, he suffered emotional trauma, and failing in his studies, he never graduated. Being unable to live up to the image he’d created, he began manipulating people around him.

His first taste of true narcissist power was when he met and married a disabled woman. She made him feel like he was a demi-god, and the result was that he began acting like one (smiting people to make himself feel more important than he is). 

Other reasons that your own narcissist person may have become a selfish manipulator could include:

  • Genetics 

A narcissist may have developed genetic markers that lead to selfish behavior and delusional fantasies. 

  • Abuse During Childhood 

Narcissists may have been shamed and abused during childhood, but later life can also lead to abusive situations where the idea of who they are becomes twisted. Actually, feeling worthless, they fool the world and themselves into believing they are hugely successful. 

  • Relationship Experience

If you are exposed to real and healthy relationships, you will develop compassion and empathy. However, if someone is exposed to harmful relationships and interactions with other narcissists, they may learn to adopt narcissistic behavior traits. 

  • Temperamental Nature

Temperament is a combination of genetics and experience, and narcissists may become as they are due to having a temperament that’s not very forgiving of others. When the narcissist’s grasp on reality is also twisted, they will begin to see themselves as either heroes or victims—either of these can feed into their delusions. 

What Is a Covert Narcissist?

A covert narcissist is a narcissist who doesn’t shout out their characteristics. Where an overt narcissist may be loud, flaunts their supposed gifts, and tells everyone how fabulous they are, a covert narcissist may downplay things a lot more. 

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A narcissist is inconsiderate and rude to others when it suits them.

Covert narcissists don’t like to stick out in a crowd, yet they also believe they are better than anyone else. They think they’re the smartest person in the room, but they don’t tell others they are.

Covert narcissists tend to be somewhat introverted; therefore, they hide their inability to make themselves feel good about themselves behind a quiet exterior.  

Overt Narcissism Vs Covert Narcissism

Whether someone is a covert or an overt narcissist, they will share one characteristic—their inability to see how their actions to reach personal fame harms other people. In the mind of a narcissist, their actions (no matter how harmful or manipulative) are justified because it helps them rise to the top. 

A covert narcissist may enter a relationship and leave their partner with an overwhelming sense of absence of commitment and reciprocity. The result of either overt or covert narcissism is that the victim suffers deep emotional pain. 

Key differences between covert and overt narcissists are:

  • Overt narcissists seek attention, while covert narcissists are passive-aggressive to get pity instead of attention.
  • Overt narcissists charm with false intentions, while covert narcissists may withhold praise and rather act in a self-pitying way to get sympathy. 
  • Overt narcissists attack vulnerable people, but covert narcissists look for caring people they can control and manipulate.  

Being able to spot a narcissist is essential to avoiding emotional pain and heartache. Seeing a covert narcissist is more difficult since they don’t wave a flag like an overt narcissist does. 

7 Signs Someone Is a Covert Narcissist

The signs of narcissism may be harder to spot with a covert narcissist. However, if you keep your eyes open and are self-aware enough to read your own emotional radar, you will see them coming.  

1. Self-Importance

“Aw, I’m not great at anything. Really!” Instead of being a statement of self-effacing modesty, a covert narcissist may say something like this to get sympathy and the preconditioned response from people, which is to praise them

If someone runs themselves down, we’re instantly drawn to reassure them of their goodness because we are mostly empathetic beings and want to alleviate pain where we find it. 

Narcissists are known to have low self-esteem, but while an overt narcissist will pretend to be great, a covert one will exaggerate how “bad” they are so they will receive admiration and praise. They play the victim card to get the attention they seek.   

How to Respond: When you suspect someone is a covert narcissist, you can try to avoid falling into the pity-party trap. Instead of praising them or dolling out assurances, you can point to something the person really does well, but don’t overdo the praise

2. Blame Game

Covert narcissists are excellent at transferring blame in an insidious way, so you end up feeling guilty for something they did. Your boss may make you feel guilty because they worked overtime to finish a task that you had apparently not finished or completed correctly. 

They may use insinuation to hint at being upset that you didn’t finish the task. However, on reflection, you may realize they hadn’t asked you to finish the work, and the work may even have been their responsibility in the first place.  

Pretending to care, a covert narcissist may ask how your day has been, then twist it so you feel guilty for not asking about their day. 

How to Respond: Avoid falling into the blame trap by thinking carefully before you respond to the veiled accusations. Watch out for narcissists who make others feel small in little ways. Question yourself whether you have anything to apologize for, focusing on finding the truth about who’s been in error. 

3. Confusion and Gaslighting 

Another sign to look out for with a covert narcissist is the use of manipulation strategies such as gaslighting and causing confusion to tear down those around them.

When everyone else is feeling down, the narcissist feels better about themselves, and they may even use the confusion to rush to the “rescue” and cheer others up. 

How to Respond: When you start to doubt yourself and suspect a narcissist may be involved, start keeping a journal and record events as they happen. Then you can remain objective and keep track of events and not become turned around by a technique like gaslighting. 

4. Disregard of Others

Plainly put, a narcissist is inconsiderate and rude to others when it suits them. They seek power and want to feel in charge. An example of this would be to agree to meet for drinks after work and have them not show up at all or show up as you’re about to leave.  

How to Respond: When you are being stood up by someone who has no regard for your feelings, don’t hang around to be embarrassed. Flimsy excuses also don’t cut it. If he tries to tell you that he was stuck in traffic, choose yourself over someone who is clearly out to embarrass you. 

If he wanted to meet you, he’d have been on time. Don’t give a narcissist (or anyone) power over you by believing lies and giving your time to them. 

5. Gift Manipulations

A covert narcissist will hide their real agenda. Unlike an overt narcissist who will simply hurt your feelings up front, a covert narcissist is often more devious and may even pretend to be nice by giving you gifts and tokens. However, there’s a cost to that. 

They won’t let you forget they helped you, gave you a gift, or somehow inconvenienced themselves to spoil you. These are not gifts at all but rather clever manipulations. 

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A covert narcissist will exaggerate how “bad” they are so they will receive admiration and praise.

How to Respond: Remember, a gift is given freely. When you suspect a gift is given with strings attached, it’s up to you to refuse acceptance of it. Don’t accept it because it may seem rude if you don’t. Listen to your gut and take care when someone suddenly gives you a gift. 

6. Deceptive Behavior and Gossiping

Realizing the narcissist is deceiving you with lies and manipulations can be a shaming and personal blaming experience.

They may act in a dishonest way to ensure they remain in control. In addition to deception, the narcissist may also blame others (who aren’t responsible) for failures. 

To further boost confidence in them, they may tell their victims stories about others, using recrimination to fuel their imagination. Gossiping is about causing harm to the one being gossiped about. Narcissists love the power of gossip.

How to Respond: Don’t listen to gossip, and if you’re the topic of discussion, step up and address the narcissist. Rumors are best fought with facts. 

7. Neglecting Emotional Connection

In a relationship, you will notice your covert narcissist partner is absent-minded, and they may also lack any emotional connection to you.

When challenged about it, they may say they are busy working and earning their income and don’t have time to be all “touchy-feely” with you. 

How to Respond: Successful connection is needed for a relationship to thrive, so a narcissist may intentionally withhold their emotions, making you guess what is needed to fix your relationship. Respond with clear communication and consider couples therapy to help the narcissist work on their lack of emotional connection. 

Final Thoughts on Covert Narcissism

Narcissism is a devious and quite evil way to interact with people. Whether to gain control of people, or simply get a thrill when they become confused, narcissists manipulate people and get off on the power to make them do what they like. 

Seeing a covert narcissist targeting you is harder to do, but you can see when trouble is near if you trust your instinct and keep these seven signs in mind. You can also read more about the lack of empathy that narcissists may experience in our article on 11 lack of empathy warning signs.

Finally, if you want to identify YOUR personality type, then take one of these 11 personality tests to better understand what makes you tick.

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