Is There a Covert Narcissist in Your Life? 18 Things Therapists Need You to Know
Recognizing a covert narcissist isn't easy. Here are the traits and phrases to watch for—plus expert tips for dealing with them.
The word narcissist likely brings up the image of someone kind of clueless—they put their feet up on your desk while talking about how great they are.
But there is actually another, lesser-known and tricky-to-recognize type of narcissism: Covert narcissism.
Here’s what you need to know about covert narcissists, including how to recognize them, what they might say, and how to deal with one in your life.
What is a covert narcissist?
The main distinction between types of narcissists is how they experience grandiosity, a core feature of narcissistic personality disorder.
A 1991 study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology described overt narcissists as people who scored high on a grandiosity-exhibitionism scale—they were more grandiose—while covert narcissists scored high on a vulnerability-sensitivity scale, indicating that they were more vulnerable.
Narcissists who are more overt, or grandiose, come across as feeling entitled and self-centered, according to psychologist Deidre Pereira, a fellow of the American Academy of Clinical Health Psychology.
These are the stereotypical narcissists.
On the other hand, covert narcissists are or present as more vulnerable.
“The covert narcissist has the broad narcissistic traits of being arrogant and self-involved while also being defensive, hostile, hypersensitive to criticism, anxious, and moody or bitter,” Pereira says. “Compared to the overt narcissist, they may come across as highly sensitive, introverted, anxious, depressed, envious, and/or lacking in confidence and self-esteem.”
Narcissists can be covert, overt, or both
Clinical psychologist and personality researcher Joshua Miller, a professor of psychology at the University of Georgia, notes that there are many different ways to be both overtly and covertly narcissistic.
People could have a narcissistic personality that is both grandiose and vulnerable. That’s why some experts don’t like to differentiate between different “types” or “categories” of narcissism.
Kenneth Levy, director of the Laboratory for Personality, Psychopathology, and Psychotherapy Research at The Pennsylvania State University, says overt and covert narcissists are two sides of the same coin.
“It’s important to recognize that all grandiose narcissists have vulnerable moments, and the vulnerable narcissists often have grandiose moments,” Levy says.
Although people can be predominately vulnerable or grandiose in their presentation, the other side lurks close behind.
Both overt and covert narcissists can meet the criteria for narcissistic personality disorder; they may just differ in how they manifest it, Pereira explains.
That’s why it’s important to know how to recognize a covert narcissist. Below, experts share some things covert narcissists say, plus other covert narcissist traits to recognize.
Covert narcissist traits
Covert narcissists are prone to experiencing shame and may respond to perceived slights by attacking and showing vindictiveness or passive-aggressiveness.
They are also especially preoccupied with feelings of inadequacy.
Ramani Durvasula, a licensed clinical psychologist in private practice in Santa Monica, California, whose work focuses on the impact of narcissism, adds that they may be sullen, resentful, and argumentative too.
(These are the signs you’re dating a narcissist.)
Eugenio Marongiu/Getty Images
How to recognize a covert narcissist
Miller doesn’t think there are easy ways to recognize a covert narcissist, especially because vulnerable narcissism is on the subtle side.
In fact, Levy says covert narcissists are probably harder to spot than grandiose narcissists because of their subtlety.
Although there is still a sense of entitlement and self-importance, it appears to a lesser degree and in a different way than it does in overt narcissists, Miller explains.
Covert narcissists may have other mental health issues
One thing that makes covert narcissists so much harder to spot than overt ones is the fact that this type of narcissism can overlap with other personality or mental health disorders.
“If you score high on vulnerable narcissism, you tend to endure psychopathology of every kind like anxiety, depression, panic, and substance abuse,” Miller says. “So it is going to be hard to recognize because it does, in fact, seem to be just this global tendency toward intense negative emotion.”
These negative mood states or depressive reactions occur mostly when life doesn’t go their way, which is often, according to Durvasula.
Covert narcissists have a “woe is me” mentality
One of the main things that every expert agrees on is that covert narcissists feel disproportionately mistreated and have an overexaggerated sense of suffering.
Their sense of self-importance comes from the idea that they deserve more, or special treatment, because of their distress or because of bad treatment from other people, Miller explains.
These feelings come from a place of lacking, Miller says.
Another way to think about it is as entitled victimization, Durvasula says.
“[It’s] feeling inadequate or feeling insufficient, and at the same time feeling sort of resentful toward others and feeling like you’re not getting your fair share or due in the world,” Miller says.
It’s always only about their suffering
Covert narcissists lack the recognition that lots of people have difficult times.
“There’s this sense that their situation is unique and special, despite the fact that, from an objective perspective, we might realize that [all] people experience difficult situations,” Levy says.
Covert narcissists believe people are out to get them
People who are vulnerable or covert narcissists have low-grade paranoia, according to Durvasula. They feel that people are out to get them and that everybody has bad motives or is trying to take advantage of them.
They even externalize blame, believing others are responsible for the situations they are in, Levy says.
It doesn’t help that they are also highly sensitive and reactive to what other people think.
They don’t have long-term relationships
Covert narcissists may have trouble forming long-term intimate reciprocal relations with others because of their own neediness.
That’s because the narcissist directs so many of their resources toward their own distress and their own need to feel better, according to Miller.
“They make it hard to also care sufficiently for others because they feel like they have not been cared for sufficiently,” he adds.
And it’s hard to form long-lasting relationships if your go-to move is to withdraw from people when angry, Levy explains.
Covert narcissists manipulate relationships
It’s extremely stressful to be in a relationship with someone affected by any form of narcissism, according to Pereira. Especially because they are prone to gaslighting.
“With a covert narcissist, you may end up feeling devalued, manipulated, ‘less than,’ angry, sad, and anxious,” she says. “These are signs that it may be helpful for you to talk to a licensed mental health provider to find ways of managing these feelings and learning ways of setting healthy limits and boundaries.”
Another trademark: pushing for pity and guilt. You may even feel compelled to help them. But people often find that no matter how they try to help, it’s never enough, says Durvasula.
Things covert narcissists say
Here are some examples of things a covert narcissist may say, according to the experts.
- “Must be nice that your daddy paid for your tuition. If someone did all of that for me, I would be making millions of dollars.”
- “I am too smart for this place. I can’t believe I have to be slumming like this.”
- “Being in a relationship just leaves you open to manipulation. I’m glad I am single.”
- “I know I deserve all good things, and I am going to manifest it. Even though everybody is out to stop me, I will show them.”
- “Nobody appreciates me. I do so much for everyone, and when it’s my turn, everybody lets me down.”
- “I deserve a lot because I haven’t gotten my share in the past.”
- “No one has suffered as much as I have.”
- “I could have been one of the great ones, but nobody ever had my back.”
How to deal with covert narcissists
It’s not easy dealing with any kind of narcissist, including a covert narcissist. But there are some things you can do if you have any kind of relationship with someone who exhibits these traits.
Evaluate the relationship
Pereira recommends asking yourself some questions to evaluate the relationship. Consider:
- What are my priorities?
- What are the current power dynamics in the relationship?
- How important is this relationship to me?
- What are the other person’s current interpersonal skills and capabilities?
- What are my short- and long-term goals in this relationship?
“The answers to these questions will help you decide how to address any conflicts or issues with the person affected by covert narcissism,” Pereira says.
For instance, if the covert narcissist is your employee versus your employer, your approach will be different.
Accept the reality
Durvasula offers the same advice for anyone managing any kind of narcissistic personality in their lives: set realistic expectations.
“They are not going to be empathic or nice or accommodating, so be ready for that,” she says.
And with realistic expectations must come radical acceptance too. “This pattern is rigid and resistant to change, so recognize it is not going to change,” Durvasula says.
(Find out: can a narcissist change?)
Establish and stick to boundaries
Be prepared that anything you do will not be reciprocated and will likely be criticized.
“And if you give an inch, they will take a victimized mile,” Durvasula says. “So set [boundaries] and stick to them.”
(Also, beware of the signs of narcissistic abuse.)
Consider saving your breath
“Don’t defend yourself when you talk to them, because they aren’t listening and don’t really care about what you are saying,” Durvasula says.
Stick to simple responses, and don’t overexplain yourself. “It will just devolve into a maddening and manipulative conversation,” she says.
Interacting with a narcissist is a tough line to walk for the average person as well as therapists, according to Levy.
“You want to empathize with their perspective at some level, but you don’t want to do it to a degree where you are actually reinforcing distortions in their perspective,” he says.
The covert narcissist may find the sympathy or empathy they receive insufficient. And even if you sympathize, there’s often a part of them that doesn’t believe you really mean it, Levy says.
Try these strategies for communication
If you attempt to engage with a covert narcissist, consider Pereira’s strategies for effective communication. She calls the first the DEAR MAN strategy.
- Describe the situation factually.
- Express your feelings and perceptions about the situation.
- Assert yourself by asking for what you want or by saying no.
- Reinforce or reward by explaining the positive effects of getting what you want or need and the negative effects of not getting what you want or need.
- Stay mindful. Focus on your goals. Ignore distractions, including threats or attacks.
- Appear confident and effective.
- Negotiate and offer alternatives.
Pereira suggests using the GIVE strategies when you need to maintain a difficult relationship:
- Be gentle and courteous.
- Act interested and really listen to the other person.
- Validate where the other person is coming from.
- Use an easy manner when you communicate. Smile and use humor.
Limiting your exposure to the narcissist is ideal, according to Miller.
“The best thing is to protect yourself to some degree, even if you have empathy for grandiose, vulnerable, or people who have shades of both [narcissism],” he says. “Protect yourself first before you try to help someone else and judge if you’re in the position to do so.”
You have to make sure that you are in a place to interact with the covert narcissist. You don’t want to be vulnerable to being harmed or hurt emotionally.
Encouraging therapy and treatment for the covert narcissist is also a good idea. It may help reduce their negative emotions and improve their sense of well-being so some of that intense self-focus may go away, Miller says.
“Getting treatment for those issues may well bring some relief to the person but also to those in their circle,” he says.
Next, read these narcissist quotes, which can help you deal with a narcissist in your life.
- Ramani Durvasula, PhD, licensed clinical psychologist in private practice in Santa Monica, California, whose work focuses on the impact of narcissism
- Deidre Pereira, PhD, ABPP, a fellow of the American Academy of Clinical Health Psychology and an associate professor in the Department of Clinical and Health Psychology at the University of Florida
- Joshua Miller, PhD, clinical psychologist, personality researcher, and professor of psychology at the University of Georgia
- Kenneth Levy, PhD, director of the Laboratory for Personality, Psychopathology, and Psychotherapy Research at The Pennsylvania State University
- Journal of Personality and Social Psychology: "Two faces of narcissism"