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Signs of Covert Narcissism: 9 Traits To Watch Out For

So, your partner seems sensitive, anxious, and withdrawn. Your sibling makes self-deprecating remarks but gets defensive at the slightest criticism. Your friend acts shy in public but has fantasies of fame and fortune. What gives?

You may be dealing with a covert narcissist.

Unlike the loud, arrogant, me-first narcissist of famous depiction, covert narcissist tends to keep their sense of self-importance on the inside. But don’t let their introverted nature fool you–covert narcissism can be just as damaging to relationships as the overt type.

Covert narcissists are masters of disguise–expert critics and manipulators who conceal their self-absorption behind a facade of shyness and insecurity. Beneath the surface lies the same excessive need for validation, lack of empathy, and sense of entitlement as their flashier counterparts.

While an overt narcissist may loudly dominate conversations, a covert narcissist tends to sulk or withdraw if they’re not the center of attention. Have you ever felt inexplicably guilty after hanging with a particular friend or family member? That’s your first red flag🚩.

Signs, Behaviours and 9 Traits

In our superficial social media world, attention-seeking behaviours get rewarded left and right. But for the covert narcissist, attracting notice doesn’t come so quickly.

Lacking the brash confidence of their overt counterparts, covert narcissists rely on subtle tactics to fulfill their cravings for validation. Their manipulations often fly under the radar, leaving partners and friends feeling confused, guilty, and obligated to appease them.

Here are a few key traits of the covert narcissist in your life:

  • Hypersensitive to criticism – They take feedback extremely personally, even when it’s meant constructively. Watch how they react to not getting their way.
  • Passive-aggressive behaviour – They may sabotage others subtly through procrastination, sarcasm, or emotional manipulation. It’s their way of feeling in control.
  • Withdrawn in groups – They feel awkward and inferior around others yet harbour fantasies of stardom. Their social anxiety comes from a place of insecurity.
  • Depression/anxiety – Prone to emotional roller coasters. They rely on others for stability. Your attention validates their fragile self-image.
  • Self-pitying – They fish endlessly for compliments with poor-me remarks. Don’t take the bait!
  • Master manipulators – They exploit emotions brilliantly. Set boundaries!

The covert narcissist’s quiet cruelty can be hard to spot but takes a toll on relationships and mental health. Learn the signs, protect your self-esteem, and don’t get drawn into their web. Knowledge is power!

Insecurity and Fragile Self-Esteem

Unlike the cocksure braggart, the covert narcissist doubts themselves intensely. They’re hypersensitive to failures or criticisms that may confirm their negative self-image. After a perceived slight, they quickly shift from self-loathing to rage.

Extreme Reactions to Criticism

The covert narcissist may appear meek but don’t dare criticize them. Any feedback gets internalized as an attack on their dignity. Rather than listen with an open mind, they immediately strike back or make excuses.

  • They may dismiss your concerns as unimportant or irrational.
  • They’re quick to counterattack with personalized criticism.
  • They bring up past mistakes you’ve made to justify their behaviour.

It’s best not to critique the covert narcissist at all. Offer polite suggestions instead of using “I” statements.

Passive-Aggressive Behaviours

When covert narcissists feel wronged, they’re too insecure for confrontation. But they can’t resist the urge for payback.

Their vengeance comes packaged in “plausible deniability.” For example:

  • Making quippy, sarcastic remarks under the guise of joking.
  • Dragging their feet on tasks that don’t center them.
  • “Forgetting” plans that no longer interest them.
  • Withholding intimacy after a disagreement.

Seeking Validation through Self-Deprecation

The covert narcissist fishes endlessly for positive feedback, often by putting themselves down. Their shy, humble act invites reassuring compliments.

  • “I’m so disorganized; I’ll never reach your level.”
  • “I don’t know why you hang out with someone as awkward as me.”
  • “I wish I was as smart/attractive/successful as you.”

Don’t give in! The covert narcissist knows precisely what they’re doing. Giving them compliments fuels the validation-seeking.

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Addiction to Fantasies of Grandeur

Despite their timid exterior, covert narcissists nurture grandiose visions of themselves in private. They imagine accolades and achievements far beyond their real-life circumstances.

These fantasies bring needed esteem but ultimately increase feelings of emptiness. The covert narcissist becomes moody when reality fails to match their inner illusions.

Depression and Anxiety

The covert narcissist’s inability to obtain the glory they feel entitled to leads to emotional turmoil. Their social anxiety also isolates them from meaningful connections.

The covert narcissist can frequently play the victim due to turbulent emotions. But don’t rush to their rescue–your sympathy only fuels their ego.

Hot and Cold Behaviour

The covert narcissist craves closeness, but only on their terms. They vie for your attention, then suddenly become cold. This happens when:

  • They’re not the star of the show.
  • Conversations center around you, not them.
  • You have a conflicting opinion.
  • You offer constructive feedback.

Manipulative People-Pleasing

The covert narcissist is highly skilled at emotional manipulation despite seeming shy and unassuming. Their timid kindness pulls at people’s heartstrings.

Beware of their people-pleasing gestures, like:

  • Over-the-top favours meant to obligate you.
  • Guilt trips about how much they’ve done for you.
  • Sob stories to portray themselves as victims.

It’s all carefully calculated to make you compliant with their unspoken demands.

Resentment of High-Achievers

The covert narcissist begrudges those who get the success and admiration they feel entitled to. Peers, coworkers, friends–no one is exempt from their envy.

Rather than earn achievements themselves, they tear overachievers down through:

  • Sarcastic remarks & jokes.
  • Undermining comments.
  • Downplaying others’ accomplishments.

Don’t take the covert narcissist’s projections personally. Their resentment stems from insecurity, not genuine shortcomings on your part.

Overt vs. Covert Narcissists

AspectCovert NarcissistOvert Narcissist
Self-ImageOften see themselves as misunderstood or victimHas an inflated sense of self-importance and superiority
Attention SeekingPrefers subtle forms of attention and validationCraves overt admiration and validation
Social BehaviourTends to be introverted and reservedUsually extroverted and outgoing
ManipulationUses guilt and passive-aggressive tacticsUses more direct and obvious forms of manipulation
EmpathyLimited empathy, but may feign concern to appear compassionateLimited empathy and less likely to feign concern
VulnerabilityMore likely to express feelings of inadequacy or insecurityLess likely to show any form of vulnerability
RelationshipsMay maintain longer relationships but with emotional abuseOften has short-lived, superficial relationships
Reaction to CriticismHighly sensitive to criticism, may become withdrawnReacts with anger or disdain, may belittle the critic
GrandiosityInternalized sense of superiority, but not openly displayedOpenly displays arrogance and a sense of entitlement
Achievement OrientationMay procrastinate or avoid situations where they aren’t the center of attentionDriven to achieve success and recognition, often at the expense of others

Causes & Triggers

Why does covert narcissist develop their manipulative defence mechanisms? The roots of this personality disorder are complex.

While more research is still needed, these factors are believed to shape the covert narcissist:


Genetic links may be associated with narcissism, passed from parents to children. The characteristic lack of empathy found in narcissists could be inherited.

Childhood Experiences

Covert narcissism often originates from insecure attachment in childhood. A fragile sense of self develops if parents fail to attune to a child’s emotional needs.

Other impactful experiences may include:

  • Harsh criticism or neglect from caregivers.
  • Trauma or abuse.
  • Parental overindulgence.
  • Being placed on a pedestal above siblings.


Children with sensitive temperaments are more prone to covert narcissism. Introversion, anxiety, and emotional reactivity feed their insecure egos.

As adults, minor frustrations trigger their rage when they don’t get their way.


The very traits of narcissism set the stage for the covert variant:

  • Arrogance
  • A sense of entitlement
  • Lack of empathy
  • Obsession with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty or ideal love

With the covert narcissist, these core traits are buried under a facade of modesty.


Covert narcissist forms their manipulative habits as defences against threats to their inflated but fragile self-image. Their extreme sensitivity leads them to lash out or withdraw when they experience:

  • Criticism or disapproval
  • Failure or perceived inadequacy
  • Rejection socially or romantically
  • Being ignored or overlooked

The covert narcissist’s secrecy and manipulations serve to prop up their ego against these threats. Their quiet, insecure ego can’t handle authentic interaction.

The More You Know…

Understanding the roots of this personality disorder fosters compassion. The covert narcissist didn’t choose their maladaptive traits more than someone chooses anxiety or depression.

Still, your well-being needs to recognize their behaviours and set boundaries. Knowledge of their triggers helps you avoid enabling their manipulation.


Dealing with a covert narcissist can leave you feeling frustrated and drained. Their manipulations often fly under the radar, making their impact hard to detect.

To provide a more human perspective, I spoke with two people who shared their experiences coping with covert narcissism in their relationships.

Example 1 – A 32-year-old woman, Sarah, opened up about her covertly narcissistic mother. “My mom was a master at playing the victim. She’d sabotage family events with complaints about her health to draw attention. If I accomplished something, she’d say, ‘Must be nice!’ in a bitter tone,” Sarah revealed.

She recalls her mother’s “forgetting” Sarah’s teenage milestones, like cheer competitions, often leaving Sarah alone at school for hours. “Her subtle cruelty left a lifelong mark on my self-esteem,” Sarah admitted.

Example 2 – James, a 29-year-old new father, described his covertly narcissistic partner’s tendency to undermine him and kill his joy during moments of celebration: “When our son was born, she became moody and withdrew affection unless the focus was on her. If relatives asked about me, she’d joke, ‘Oh, he’s just the sperm donor!’”

According to James, living with her involves “walking on eggshells” and “tiptoeing around her emotional landmines” to avoid triggering outbursts. “Her jealousy sabotages any career success I have. She belittles my achievements behind a sweet facade,” he revealed.

These first-hand stories humanize the real anguish caused by the mind games of a covert narcissist. Their manipulation erodes a person’s spirit and self-worth, leaving deep scars. Knowledge and vigilance are key to mitigating a covert narcissist’s capacity to harm.

Conclusion and Key Takeaways

Dealing with a covert narcissist leaves many feeling frustrated, obligated, and doubting their sanity. But knowledge is power.

Here are some key takeaways:

  • Look beyond their shy exterior – The covert narcissist’s crippling insecurity drives their manipulation. Their ego remains overinflated.
  • Don’t take mistreatment personally – Their behaviours stem from self-loathing, not your worthiness.
  • Establish firm boundaries – Limit the covert narcissist’s access to you on your terms. Refuse to engage in guilt trips, gaslighting, or other tactics.
  • Center your own needs – Reduce contact if required for your well-being. Seek support through counselling.
  • Have compassion from a distance – Understanding their psychological wounds fosters empathy while still mitigating harm.
  • Focus on the present – Accept that the covert narcissist likely won’t change. Work around their dysfunction as best you can.

While covert narcissism presents distinct challenges, maintaining integrity and self-care can make relationships tolerable, if not ideal. Prioritize your mental health over the covert narcissist’s demands.

You deserve to feel secure in your worth and sanity. Don’t relinquish that gift to please someone else.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

  • Fishing for compliments by putting themselves down
  • Sulking and withdrawing when not the center of attention
  • Making sarcastic, passive-aggressive remarks
  • Blaming others for their own mistakes or shortcomings
  • Feeling secretly resentful of other people's success
  • Overpromising favours with unstated expectations attached

By portraying themselves as victims, covert narcissists elicit sympathy and reassurance from others, which helps prop up their fragile self-esteem. Their "poor me" act also often makes people hesitate to criticize them, fearing further hurting their feelings.

Yes, covert narcissists struggle with empathy just like their overt counterparts. They have difficulty truly understanding other people's perspectives and emotional experiences. Their focus remains on their own needs. However, covert narcissists may be more adept at faking empathy when it benefits them.

  • Set clear boundaries around unacceptable behaviour
  • Avoid taking their criticisms personally
  • Limit time spent engaging in drama
  • Refuse to apologize to pacify them
  • Repeat your expectations calmly and consistently
  • Seek support through counselling
Picture of Pareen Sehat MC, RCC

Pareen Sehat MC, RCC

Pareen’s career began in Behaviour Therapy, this is where she developed a passion for Cognitive Behavioural Therapy approaches. Following a Bachelor of Arts with a major in Psychology she pursued a Master of Counselling. Pareen is a Registered Clinical Counsellor (RCC) with the BC Association of Clinical Counsellors. She specializes in CBT and Lifespan Integrations approaches to anxiety and trauma. She has been published on major online publications such as - Yahoo, MSN, AskMen, PsychCentral, Best Life Online, and more.

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