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What Makes Someone a Covert Narcissist: What Are The Traits?

Covert narcissists are different from typical narcissists. Find out what their personality traits are like and some common things that they do.

By Kelly Santana Banks
Jun 1, 2023 6:00 PMAug 30, 2023 3:10 PM
Covert Narcissist
(Credit: VectorMine/Shutterstock)


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The portrayal of a narcissist is everywhere in movies, books and even crime documentaries. Some of these archetypes are compelling. If you try to poll people on the streets on how they define a narcissist, they may come up with a string of flowery names such as self-centered, egotistic, vain, cocky and so on.

In psychology, the term narcissism describes someone who has “an excessive love or admiration of oneself, often to the detriment of others,” says licensed psychotherapist Annie Wright — a notion that goes back to the Greek myth of Narcissus. And she adds, “that actions and behaviors resulting from narcissistic tendencies encompass an extensive spectrum — from overt, grandiose expressions to more covert, unobtrusive forms.”

Meaning, you may have dealt with a narcissist and didn’t even know. A person doesn't need to be loud, or overt, to be a narcissist. Instead, they can be shy or quiet like a covert narcissist. But since a covert narcissist isn’t easy to recognize, how do you know you are dealing with one?

What Is a Covert Narcissist?

A covert narcissist is a person with narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) who, at some point, did not develop self-esteem. As a result, they exhibit a high level of self-importance and lack empathy toward others. Covert narcissists differ from overt narcissists in that they are subtle in their approach. Also, overt narcissists are loud and extravagant.

But the fact that covert narcissists are subdued doesn't make them less harmful. Depending on the circumstances, it can very well be the opposite. Because the signs of covert narcissism (or vulnerable narcissism) are not as obvious, it may be hard to identify a covert narcissist in the room. Conversely, with overt narcissists, what you get is what you see.

Still, covert narcissists are so insecure and have such low self-esteem that they are afraid to be discovered, perhaps even humiliated. They like to fly under the radar using a passive-aggressive approach disguised as amiable communication.

Read More: Healthy, High-Quality Relationships Matter More Than We Think

Covert Narcissist Traits

Covert narcissist traits may come in numerous forms. And because they are so subdued and less obnoxious than their overt counterparts, you may find yourself scratching your head trying to figure out whether someone you know is a covert narcissist. Here are some weird things covert narcissists do:

Lack Empathy

Covert narcissists have poor emotional empathy and self-awareness. They usually fail to develop a healthy sense of self during childhood and are often self-absorbed.

People with covert narcissism may not realize it, but they have difficulty acknowledging other people’s feelings (or even their own). So don't be surprised to find someone who always prioritizes their needs and wants before anybody else.

Display Passive-Aggressive Behaviors

People with covert narcissism avoid the spotlight and prefer subdued tactics to manipulate people and get what they want.

They may give you the silent treatment when things don't go their way. They may be agreeable — or even all smiles while speaking with you — but behind your back, they may procrastinate on a task or make mistakes to resist acting or controlling you.


Gaslighting is another typical form of manipulation or abuse a covert narcissist uses to exert control over another person. They twist facts, downplay feelings, withhold information, or “forget” things, making you second-guess yourself and feel confused.

Play the Victim

Cover narcissists never do anything, or so they think. In contrast, they are always the victim.

They blame people and victimize themselves to grab people's attention and sympathy. For instance, it’s always someone’s fault that they are unsuccessful in their careers.

Avoid Responsibility

Covert narcissists always try to deflect attention from their own faults and will never take responsibility for their wrongdoings. Instead, they find a way to shift blame or come up with flimsy excuses for every situation. With that in mind, don’t expect a sincere apology from a covert narcissist.

Focus on People’s Issues and Misfortunes

Guess what? As someone who lacks empathy, a covert narcissist completely disregards other people’s feelings and uses their vulnerability to their own advantage.

They enlist stealthy tactics to exploit this vulnerability. Afterward, they want to be seen but “don't want to be seen.”

Hold an Entitlement Mentality

People with covert narcissism feel superior and above everybody else. Therefore, they have an excuse to bend the rules, break protocols or cross boundaries.

Since they are “special,” they are more deserving than others. In other words, they are the ones who should get a job promotion, a new position, be in charge, etc.

Resentful and Always Have Second Intentions

Covert narcissists are selfish and don't genuinely care about you. There is always a hidden agenda behind their intentions.

When they give you a gift is not from the bottom of the heart or necessarily because they love you. Instead, they want to garner more admiration and people’s approval.

In the long run, if their good deeds are not reciprocated or recognized, they may feel resentful. You will notice their resentment through their backhanded comments or subtle actions.

Use Self-Deprecating Tactics

Among many other things covert narcissists do, a hallmark of their eccentricity is using false humility or self-deprecating comments to garner people’s attention and seek validation.

They trivialize their skills and accomplishments, so people reassure them or shower them with praise.

Obsess About Their Reputation

Covert narcissists worry about themselves and themselves only. How people view them is most important, even more so because it’s a way to mask their insecurities.

They will use any necessary tactic to preserve a perfect image, even if it means deceiving, lying, manipulating, deliberately forgetting, belittling, etc.

Are Sensitive to Criticism

Covert narcissists don’t receive criticism well, even if it’s constructive insights. As they feel superior and know better than everyone else, they usually see criticism as an attack on their persona.

Yet, when they feel threatened, this also gives them permission to interrupt you to control the situation and show their superiority.

Read More: What Keeps Us in Bad Relationships?

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