What are signs of a covert narcissist

7 signs of a covert narcissist

What are the signs of covert narcissism and what makes it different from overt narcissism and narcissistic personality disorder?


The term narcissism is used a little loosely nowadays and, especially in the context of partnerships and love relationships, an industry of its own seems to be developing from YouTube channels, advice pages and books that teach you how to deal with a supposedly covert narcissist.

This development is a little worrying. An industry is developing here that usually makes remote diagnoses of other people without any technical background and ultimately turns them into mentally ill devils in human form. Most of the people declared by this industry to be covert narcissists are not mentally ill; rather, to put it casually, they are just assholes.

But back to the covert narcissist. What is that?

The difference between narcissism and narcissistic personality disorder

For one, understand that with a covert narcissist, we are not talking about the narcissistic personality disorder. Narcissistic personality disorder, or NPS for short, is an official diagnosis in the ICD-10 and DSM-5 diagnostic guides.

The ICD-10 is somewhat silent about the criteria for this personality disorder, but the DSM-5 is relatively clear about the symptoms:

  • Self-importance and an exaggerated sense of self-importance
  • Excessive fantasies of unlimited success, power, ingenuity, beauty, or ideal love
  • The belief that you are special or unique, and that only equally special people can understand you or should be close to you
  • A strong need for admiration
  • Strong aspiration
  • Exploitative, manipulative behavior in dealing with other people
  • Lack of empathy
  • Frequent envy of others or the belief that others are jealous of themselves
  • Frequent display of arrogant and haughty behaviors or attitudes

These properties coincide relatively well with those of so-called pathological narcissism, especially grandiose narcissism. The difference is that for a narcissistic personality disorder the general criteria of a personality disorder have to be fulfilled: A pattern in behavior, thinking and judgment that is relatively stable over time, which develops at a young age and remains rigid and inflexible even over years and decades. It is also not the result of substance abuse or physical injury or illness.

A narcissist doesn't necessarily have to have a narcissistic personality disorder.

Definition of a covert narcissist

In the realm of pathological narcissism, there are two broad groups:

  • The grandiose or open narcissist
  • The vulnerable or covert narcissist

As mentioned before, the characteristics of a grandiose or open narcissist more or less coincide with those of the narcissistic personality disorder, only that a grandiose narcissist does not necessarily have to reach the extent of a personality disorder in his behavior and thinking.

A covert narcissist, on the other hand, can appear quite introverted and shy, and even appear nice, reserved and polite to the outside world. In a strange way, he is at the same time a deeply insecure person who is nevertheless deeply convinced of his own special position. He doesn't take center stage. In an absurd way he is someone who hides in some corner at a party and then feels offended that no one notices him.

Typical characteristics of a covert narcissist are:

  • insecure
  • self-centered
  • resentful
  • shy
  • capricious
  • suspicious
  • manipulative

The covert narcissist is easily offended, sees devaluation or rejection everywhere. Even in the clearest cases of his own misconduct, he still manages to see himself as the victim. He seldom takes responsibility for his own behavior and he tends not to keep promises made.

Since he rarely goes out of himself, but at the same time the narcissistic rage simmers in him and he is resentful and plagued by a thirst for revenge, he tends to passive-aggressive behavior and hidden manipulation techniques such as gaslighting (see below).

Causes of Covert Narcissism

The feelings typical of the covert narcissist of being neglected, ignored, exploited or degraded do not stem from a specific traumatic experience. Very often a covert narcissist's past is a neglect or emotional abuse of childhood. Often there is also a narcissist, a narcissistic mother or a narcissistic father in the immediate family environment. Continued bullying experienced at a young age also appears to be a factor that can encourage development into a narcissistic personality.

Contrary to popular belief, narcissism in general and covert narcissism in particular are not a phenomenon that is limited to men. Women can be narcissists as well as men. The fact that narcissism is mostly identified as a male problem in public discussion is more likely to be a cultural phenomenon.

How do you recognize a covert narcissist?

As mentioned at the beginning, covert narcissism is not a clinical diagnosis. It is essentially a form of personality, a pattern of character traits, the tendency to act, think and judge in a certain way.

Everyone has narcissistic traits to some extent, but most people find it to manifest itself in a healthy way and can be beneficial to their lives. The transition between healthy self-confidence and excessive self-importance is a fluid one. In the case of a covert narcissist, the extent of his distorted behavior, feeling and thought patterns is so pronounced that they become a problem for him and his environment.

So when we investigate the question of how to recognize a covert narcissist, then we cannot fall back on a checklist of clear symptoms, because we are not talking about an illness, but a personality type.

There are some strong signs that can indicate covert narcissism:

1 The constant feeling of being misunderstood

In all self-doubts, the covert narcissist carries a deep conviction that he is a special person. Unlike the open, grandiose narcissist, he does not openly market this conviction, but claims that the people around him will discover how special he is by themselves.

He often feels misunderstood, wrongly treated and disadvantaged. If he behaves wrongly, hurts or insults someone, then he does not take responsibility for it, but rather takes the position that he is the real victim and that he is just not understood.

A typical example of this thought pattern is the so-called nice guy (who can also be a woman), a person who, when wooing a potential romantic partner, initially appears extremely courteous and charming, but falls into an outburst when rejected and demeans the other person to say that one would never seriously do anything in life with such an inferior person and that it was all just fun or an experiment.

2 Constant envy and pejorative behavior

The covert narcissist is not the type to excite and motivate other people. Instead, he has a habit of belittling the achievements of other people and finding a fly in the ointment, only to stylize it as the all-defining feature.

If you are a partner of such a person you will find yourself after a certain period of living together in a world in which it seems impossible to please him. The longer you are with him, the rarer the loving moments become and the more mean and frequent the derogatory comments and opinions that he utters.

If, on the other hand, he succeeds in something, he not only expects praise and admiration, but is also often of the opinion that other people are jealous of him, especially when this admiration is denied him.

Outwardly, he will often be of the opinion that he hate gossip, but in private he can be the most vile gossip base and behind the backs of other people the smallest detail of their lives and substantiate it with derogatory comments. This, too, is an expression of his obsession with envy

3 Strong contradiction between shyness and arrogance

As mentioned before, the covert narcissist appears shy, reserved, even polite and courteous in public spaces. He can be extremely helpful, or at least claim to do this or that good deed, to share this or that altruistic belief in order to gain approval and admiration.

In stark contrast to this is the personality that you see when you get closer to him and have been accepted into his private circle as a friend or partner. Then he shows his expectations and his arrogant, self-centered behavior, which shows little consideration for other people.

What distinguishes the hidden narcissist in this respect is not that he acts in this way in public and that way in private, but the blatant contradiction is the characteristic element.

4 Inability to deal with criticism

For the covert narcissist, any form of criticism, however justified, is a direct attack and an insult. He is so allergic and highly sensitive to any form of criticism that when dealing with him (or her) one often finds oneself in situations in which he perceives a harmless utterance or general criticism as a direct attack on him.

In addition, he is an extremely resentful person and will memorize every criticism and alleged disparagement in order to bring it up even years later in a seemingly appropriate moment as evidence of how unfairly he is being treated.

5 Lack of compassion and empathy

A general lack of empathy for other people is typical of a narcissist. He has a tendency not to listen, to ignore nuances and to devalue other people's needs or to simplify and reinterpret them in a way that is negative.

A typical experience is, for example, that he makes derogatory comments to a person and, when the person refuses to do so, admonishes them that it was all just joking and that they just didn't understand.

6 Projection, Gaslighting, and Shifting Blame

The term projection has a long history and goes back to the beginnings of psychoanalysis. In the context of narcissism, it describes a very conspicuous behavior in which you suddenly find yourself in a dispute with the undercover narcissist in a situation in which the narcissist accuses you of all the bad things and all the wrongdoings that he himself is committing.

It is not uncommon for the undercover narcissist to accuse you of constantly talking badly about everything, that you are unreliable, have no compassion, and and and. The things he owes so much to himself. One possible explanation for this behavior pattern is that the narcissist rejects his own socially inappropriate behavior out of shame and projects it onto another person. Not he is the monster, but the other person. He shifts the blame for his behavior from himself to others. Because as I said, he does not take responsibility for his behavior and in his world he is the misunderstood victim.

Related to this is the so-called gas lighting (freely translated: gas lights). This term does not yet have a good German translation. Gaslighting is a manipulation technique in which doubts are sown in the victim of the manipulation over a long period of time as to whether it is not the perpetrator themselves, whether they themselves have a psychological problem, whether they do not perceive reality as it actually is. A victim of gaslighting will at some point ask himself who is the crazy here, who is the monster here, whether all the wickedness and the emotional abuse suffered are only imaginary and in reality it does this injustice even to the narcissist.

Gaslighting can involve many different behaviors. That can be blatant lying. But this is more often a strange, selective, subjective form of remembering. The undercover narcissist denies that an event took place or that he said something when it was detrimental to him. On the other hand, he will remember events and what has been said with conviction if it fits his story. It doesn't matter if there is any evidence. He always finds a reason why they're invalid.

Gaslighting is a process that takes a long time. It's in a way an attrition tactic. A typical element is a certain fickleness, that what is said today will no longer apply tomorrow, that behavior shown today will be reversed tomorrow. Today he praises you and shows himself lovingly, only to hold against you tomorrow that you are not good for anything and would only take advantage of him.

It is also not uncommon for outsiders to be involved in this process. More or less subtle comments are made to acquaintances, family members, friends and work colleagues, which should also sow doubts about the sincerity, moral attitude or mental health of the victim.

7 Childish behavior

Basically, dealing with a covert narcissist often gives you the feeling that you are interacting with a toddler. In itself, this is not a strong signal, because childish behavior is typical of many disorders and, in the clinical field, typical of true personality disorders.

Childish behavior includes things like self-centeredness, the overestimation of one's own needs over the needs of other people. It is the inability to deal with criticism. It is stubbornness, the display of stubbornness, for example when a narcissist withdraws for days or weeks in response to an alleged defiance and no longer speaks a word to the alleged perpetrator. It is a polarized black and white thinking in which there are no subtleties and another person can only be either an ideally good person or an absolutely bad person. They are childish-looking outbursts of anger when something does not go as desired.

Can Narcissism Be Cured?

The question is often asked but is incorrect in itself. Covert narcissism is, at least for the moment, not a disease. So there is nothing to cure. It is not a personality disorder, but a personality type, more or less character traits.

So can a covert narcissist change? The answer to that question is probably yes. But it is not an easy undertaking. It takes time, insight, and the will on the part of the narcissist to seek therapy. It also requires a lot of patience, mental strength and support from those close to you or from your life partner. This process can take years.

Usually by the time the narcissist decides to make a change, the damage is so great, the emotional bond so destroyed, the trust so ruined that you are friends or your partner; harsh as it sounds; should rather suggest not to accompany the narcissist on this path and to break off contact in order to maintain one's own mental health.

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