When people think about narcissism, they often imagine the grandiose behavior and outward attempts to be in the spotlight. The patterns are easily observable, and they can be frustrating for others to watch.
While some narcissistic behavior is obvious, not everyone with narcissism acts in such stereotypical ways. Covert narcissism is often far more insidious and challenging to understand. For those reasons, it’s often undetected. People experiencing covert narcissistic abuse may not understand the gravity of their situation.
Signs of Covert Narcissism
Narcissism exists on a large spectrum, and the DSM doesn’t delineate certain types of narcissism. But covert narcissism can best be described as having consistent patterns of hypersensitivity, feelings of entitlement, and limited empathy. These narcissists tend to present as more reserved, and they’re often mistaken for being insecure or socially anxious.
Here are some signs of covert narcissism:
Backhanded Compliments or Subtle Digs
Overt narcissism can look like blatant arrogance. Someone with more overt traits tends to be explicit in their confidence that they’re superior or look down on others. They may be bold in their statements, and they won’t mind causing a scene because negative attention beats receiving no attention.
Covert narcissism may not always look this obvious. People with covert traits have an exaggerated sense of self-importance, but it may come out as putting down other people.
For example, they might gossip often, give confusing/backhanded praise, or ask questions that insinuate a level of judgment (i.e. “Oh, where did you get that shirt? The thrift store again? I can never find anything that doesn’t look super cheap when I go thrifting.” Another example of backhanded praise might be, “It must be nice to go on vacation again and not care so much about your professional ambitions.”
People with narcissism disproportionately focus on their own needs and emotions. As a result, they’re less inclined to give for the sake of giving. However, they may be altruistic when it benefits them in other ways, such as being perceived positively.
For example, at dinner, they might give a large tip when they know that someone is watching them sign the bill. Or, they may donate to a fundraiser and then share the donation amount on social media. Sometimes they will give a lavish gift if they know the recipient will open it in front of others. In all of these gestures, the goal is to receive validation rather than give to a cause they care about.
Lack of Emotional Support
Someone with covert narcissism is far less likely to attune to the needs of others. This is often most apparent in intimate or familial relationships. They may appear to be compassionate and supportive, but that’s often only to the extent to which they personally benefit.
That said, the lack of support isn’t all or nothing. Sometimes people with narcissism appear quite supportive, especially at the beginning of a relationship, or when they suspect tension. This unpredictable nature can make things feel even more frustrating for loved ones. They can never truly rely on the relationship or trust that they are cared for.
Creating False Public Identities
It’s common for people with covert narcissism to look like they are living a “double life.” In public, the person is kind, competent, and generally put-together. They essentially fly under the radar, and nobody would suspect them of being narcissistic.
Social media can enhance this public identity effect. Online, people can curate unique and controlled identities for themselves, and it’s easy to get away with omission and blatant deceit. They can also solicit seemingly endless attention online, which can be highly self-serving.
But in their private life, the narcissistic traits are far more visible. This can leave loved ones feeling both upset and confused. They might wonder if they’re doing something wrong to cause variances in behavior.
Inability to Accept Feedback or Criticism
Someone with narcissism has a hard time acknowledging they’re wrong, even when it’s apparent. Someone with more overt traits may be hostile or combative when receiving feedback.
But someone with covert traits feels deeply concerned by how others perceive them. Criticism often feels like a personal attack, and it calls their moral character into question. As a result, they may be more critical or defensive. They might also become highly reactive by crying or blaming themselves for “always messing up,” as a way to solicit more empathy.
As a result, loved ones generally try to avoid any confrontations or criticisms. They simply don’t want to deal with the fallout. Even if they don’t exactly know why the person becomes so reactive, they’ve had enough experience dealing with the discomfort to know they’d like to avoid it. This creates a walking-on-eggshells effect where people feel afraid of “setting off” the narcissist.
Self-Loathing and Self-Criticism
While it may sound counterintuitive, some people with covert narcissism exhibit their narcissism through self-deprecating behavior. They might criticize themselves or poke fun at their flaws. This can be a way to maintain control and power. They’re essentially hurting themselves before somebody else can.
It can also act as a funnel for gaining approval. When someone puts themselves down, others naturally react by validating them. This process maintains a constant flow of reassurance, which can soothe fears of unlovability or unworthiness.
Covert narcissism can go hand-in-hand with depression. People with covert narcissism may be generally more sensitive, which makes them prone to the shame, guilt, and anhedonia associated with depression. They might also be more likely to engage in maladaptive coping strategies like self-harm or disordered eating to cope with their intense feelings.
High Levels of Introversion
Covert narcissism can look similar to introversion or even shyness. While an overt narcissist might love to meet people or make friends, this isn’t true for someone with more covert traits. They may actually prefer to be alone- or spend time with just a few select people.
Strong Grandiose Fantasies
Despite the quiet or timid demeanor, someone with covert narcissism innately feels superior and entitled. They may engage in maladaptive daydreaming or turn down relationships or opportunities they deem to be beneath them. This can reinforce feelings of anxiety or depression, particularly if life doesn’t unfold in the ways they believe they deserve.
Impulsive and Unexpected Anger
Covert narcissism can feel like hot-and-cold behavior. At one moment, things may seem smooth and unsuspecting. But a slight trigger can cause an extreme reaction, which may result in hostility, aggression, threats, or emotional breakdowns.
Many people with narcissism have problematic relationships with money. On one end of the extreme, they may appear as frivolous. Sometimes they buy expensive material goods to satisfy unmet emotional needs or present an image to the outside world. Other times, they may be more controlling of money, particularly when it comes to how their partners or families spend it.
Covert narcissism often shines its light when it comes to jealousy. Someone with covert narcissism tends to fixate on what other people have, whether it’s relationships, status symbols, jobs, or fame. They measure themselves to others and rarely feel like they have enough.
With that, it can also be challenging for them to feel happy about other people’s successes. Those positive moments may remind them of their own fears or failures.
Emotional neglect comes in many different forms, but it comes down to consistently failing to meet someone’s emotional needs. It’s often spoken about in parent-child dynamics, but it can also occur in other relationships.
People with narcissism struggle to attune to other people’s needs when those needs supersede their own. They also find it hard to empathize with others, particularly when they don’t agree with their emotions or choices. Over time, this feels like a consistent rejection. The recipient feels they are not understood or cared for. However, the covert narcissist genuinely feels they are doing a great job and will often fixate on what they’re doing well (i.e. providing shelter, offering financial stability, being physically present).
Someone with covert narcissism is often highly critical of others. But when the other person achieves some level of success, they’re often the first to take credit.
A covert narcissist also may be at a greater risk of exploiting relationships for personal gain. This is often seen with parents who place their children in the “golden child” role. They use their child as a way to channel their own perceived talents and goodness.
Gaslighting is a common tool people with narcissism use to control others. Gaslighting can range from being subtle to being incredibly obvious. The more important the relationship, the more likely someone with covert narcissism will engage in gaslighting.
Gaslighting can include projection, exaggeration, denial, and outright lying. This behavior is intended to make someone feel bad and question their reality. Some examples of gaslighting phrases include:
- “I have no idea what you’re even talking about.”
- “Why are you so upset/angry/worried about that? It’s not a big deal.”
- “You never pay attention to what I need!”
- “You’re lucky that I’m so supportive and loyal to you.”
- “I only did it because I was trying to protect/help you.”
- “You’re acting like a crazy person.”
- “You’re being paranoid.”
- “I was just kidding.”
- “I could talk about all the things you do wrong, too.”
- “I think you need to talk about that with a therapist.”
Someone with narcissism generally won’t respond well to being accused of gaslighting. Instead of acknowledging their problematic behavior, they might double down on their defensiveness. Or they might continue accusing the other person of being too sensitive or critical.
Feeling Deeply Misunderstood
Many people with covert narcissism will candidly share their problems. They’re eager to talk about their emotions and fears, which makes them different from people with more overt traits. They desire closeness but don’t know how to absorb or receive it.
Many people assume that narcissists don’t seek treatment. But people with covert narcissism are certainly prone to going to therapy. They’ll often seek therapy to work on other co-occurring issues or gain support for relationship problems. A skilled therapist can recognize the presence of narcissistic traits and how they affect both the process and content of therapy.
Someone with covert narcissism often feels that others don’t get them. They also believe their pain is extraordinarily special and unique from others. As a result, the idea of being ordinary feels threatening. It may even seem devastating.
Covert narcissism can be difficult to understand or even recognize. It also often coincides with other issues like depression, anxiety, and substance use disorders. But it can result in perpetual feelings of frustration or disconnection in relationships. Change is possible, but it requires ongoing effort, diligence, and personal accountability.