Covert Narcissist – How to Identify (Definition + Examples)

Think of a narcissist. 

Maybe you think of Ted Bundy. Or Kanye West. Or your boss. The “narcissist” label tends to be given to evil characters. It also tends to be given to big personalities and charismatic individuals. But this tends to paint an inaccurate picture of the typical narcissist and their behaviors. 

But there is a different type of narcissist: a covert narcissist.

What Is a Covert Narcissist? 

Covert narcissists are not so easy to spot. You may not be able to identify this person as a narcissist when you first meet them. It may take a few interactions to confirm your suspicions. But this person is still a narcissist, and may take advantage of you if you are not careful.

Narcissism Definition

Before diving into the details of covert narcissism, I want to just review the general definition of a narcissist. 

A narcissist has an inflated sense of self-importance. They think that they are more special and deserving compared to those around them, and require ample amounts of admiration to confirm these beliefs. Narcissism is also identified by a lack of empathy for others. It can be dangerous or it can just be annoying. 

Sometimes, someone can be accused of being a narcissist because they are confident in themselves or passionate about their goals. Be careful when using the “narcissist” label. There is a difference between having confidence in your abilities and believing that you deserve special treatment. 

Narcissism exists on a spectrum like other disorders or identities. There are also different types of narcissism, including malignant narcissism and overt narcissism. Covert narcissism is typically more subtle. 

Overt vs. Covert Narcissist 

An overt narcissist is easy to spot because they display grandiose behaviors related to narcissism. You might hear them loudly arguing with someone at a party or displaying their wealth in a way so that they can get attention and admiration. These larger-than-life personalities may attract a lot of people, but may quickly turn off others who can identify their behavior as narcissism quickly. 

The grand gestures of an overt narcissist is driven by the idea that they are special, superior, and deserving of constant praise. You don’t have to be an extrovert or big personality to hold those beliefs. 

A covert narcissist will display behaviors that reflect the beliefs of a narcissist, but in a more subtle way. This can make them more successful and manipulative, because it is harder for victims or people around them to identify them as a narcissist.

Covert Narcissist Examples and Signs

Passive-aggression and a quiet sense of superiority are common in covert narcissists. If someone consistently displays these traits or the following behaviors, you may be dealing with a covert narcissist. 

Poor Listening Skills 

A covert narcissist may not do a lot of talking, but they certainly don’t do a lot of listening. They do not have empathy for others and are not concerned with anyone’s goals but their own. A covert narcissist may simply disregard the pleas or needs of others because they don’t think they are valid or worthy of their time. 

Fishing For Compliments 

While a covert narcissist should be listening, they may be thinking of ways to earn praise and attention. There are many ways that a covert narcissist can do this, including fishing for compliments. A covert narcissist may appear to have low self-confidence because they put themselves down constantly. But these behaviors do not actually come from low self-esteem. They are simply just looking for praise and attention from others. 

Bad at Taking Criticism

If a narcissist fishes for compliments and are instead met with criticism or suggestions for improvement, they won’t be satisfied. Narcissists typically do not take criticism well, but they may respond to it in different ways. An overt narcissist may go into “fight” mode, while a covert narcissist may go into “flight” mode. They may ask sullen, aloof, or withdrawn. 

Gaslighting and Shaming

A narcissist may also respond to criticism by turning the blame or shame onto the other person. “Gaslighting” is a process in which someone makes another person question their judgement or perception of a situation. They may use different manipulation tactics to make the person believe that they are in the wrong, even though the person initially believed that they were right. 

Discussion of Their Special Position

A covert narcissist is not a mime. Your conversation with a narcissist may give some insight into their personality and true motives. Often, a covert narcissist will try to paint themselves as a person separate from (and on a higher level than) others. 

It might sound like this:

  • I just understand the world in a deeper way.
  • I’ve always felt that I was special. 
  • People just don’t understand my talents.

Can Covert Narcissists Have Empathy? 

Covert narcissists are rarely empathetic toward others in their actions, but they may use words or even small gestures to appear as though they have empathy and aren’t a narcissist. What’s what makes covert narcissists so tricky.

On the NarcissisticAbuse subreddit, a user asked former victims of narcissists how narcissists fake empathy. Here are some of the responses: 

  • “Show empathy in public and are the exact opposite when you’re alone.”
  • “My N’s actions wouldn’t mirror his words. He would ask me what was wrong, and say he was sorry to hear If I was struggling etc, but it always felt flat. It was as if he was regurgitating phrases he’d heard other people say, or lines from films. There was no intention behind his words because he never actively did anything practically to offer support. Where other friends would dive in and take action to help me when there was nothing in it for them, he would vanish if a thankless good deed was in order. He only ever offered ‘empathy’ if there was something in it for him, like getting my attention back after a discard, getting sex, or getting back in my good books after going too far.”
  • “Always acted like she wanted to know so much about me: ‘I really don’t know that much about you, and when I ask you don’t tell me anything.’ When I would talk, she would interrupt and if I wasn’t very talkative, which started happening after a while, I was told I was boring. So why would I tell you more about me?!”

Online forums like this can be a great resource if you are dealing with a narcissist in your life.

How To Treat Covert Narcissists When They Display Hurtful Behaviors

Are covert narcissists evil? Not necessarily , but their behaviors can be extremely frustrating, especially if you are spending extra time and effort to be empathetic and hold space for others. Even if you do try to communicate openly with a narcissist, it’s unlikely that your concerns will be heard or that your opinion will be regarded. If you have tried to communicate with someone and your message has gone one ear and out the other, you might be dealing with a narcissist. 

If you find this to be the case, you don’t have to run for the hills immediately. Yes, it’s important to maintain a healthy distance and set hard boundaries with someone who could be harmful. And do not take their behavior personally – stay above gaslighting and their inability to listen. If you find that a close friend or family member displays these behaviors, you may want to assist them with seeking help.

Can Covert Narcissists Change? 

NPD is often present alongside anxiety, depression, and other ​mental health conditions or personality disorders. With talk therapy or other treatments, the person can start to be more empathetic and have more productive and loving relationships with others.

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Theodore T.

Theodore is a professional psychology educator with over 10 years of experience creating educational content on the internet. PracticalPsychology started as a helpful collection of psychological articles to help other students, which has expanded to a Youtube channel with over 2,000,000 subscribers and an online website with 500+ posts.