How to Spot Covert Narcissists

Covert Narcissists

Some narcissists are relatively easy to spot. But others, like covert narcissists, are not. What makes the difference? Some narcissists are also extroverted and unabashed. And such folks seek praise and admiration quite openly. Folks like this not only like to connect, but also know how to connect. They can even make you feel it’s about you. But it’s really all about them. And they can make fairly grand entrances – exhibit a histrionic flair. They make obvious bids for attention. And they can be really entertaining at times. But they can also wear you out. Still, at least you know what they’re after. But not all narcissists are this way.

All narcissists have much in common. They’re all self-centered. And they harbor a sense of superiority and entitlement. They want your admiration and praise. But some some narcissists are not so obvious about all  this. And depending upon whether their narcissism is of the more vulnerable vs. grandiose type, how they come across can really differ, too. (See also: Two Main Varieties of Narcissists.)

At the outset of a relationship, covert narcissists can seem quite harmless. And they can be quite charming, too. Their narcissistic behaviors present in subtle, hard to detect ways. That’s why it’s so important to know the signs of covert narcissism.

Signs of Covert Narcissism

As mentioned earlier, covert narcissists display all the traits and behaviors common to any type of narcissist. But the manner in which they display them is more subtle. What follows is a short list of core narcissistic traits and behaviors along with examples of how covert  narcissists are likely to display them:

  • Sense of superiority – This is sometimes expressed by a quiet confidence. It can even come across as mild smugness. The covert narcissist doesn’t brashly tell you they know better. But they subtly imply they do. They pontificate, just like all narcissists. But they do so softly. And they don’t openly degrade you. But they can act in mildly condescending ways, dismissing most of what you have to offer. And their judgmental nature has an edge to it. They don’t openly demean you. But they almost always invite you to feel like you’re not as good as them.

Covert narcissists can even express their exceptionality in subtly negative ways. They might complain that nobody understands them. They might lament that others misread their actions and intentions. At the same time, however, they’re necessarily implying that they’re not like everyone else. They’re also implying they don’t have to play by the same rules others more readily accept.

  • Self-focus – Covert narcissists are naturally self-absorbed. But this can be really hard to see. They may appear simply aloof or detached. They may even come across as somewhat shy. But as narcissists, they’re just not interested – in you or what you or what you might have to say or offer. You simply don’t merit their attention or emotional investment.
  • Entitlement – Overt narcissists do things that hurt you without compunction. That’s because they lack empathy, and in their superiority feel entitled to. And when you complain they’ll make you feel like you’re crazy for feeling wronged. This has been commonly called gaslighting. (See: Gaslighting Victims Question Their Sanity.) Covert narcissists are much more subtle about this kind of thing. You may tell them you’ve had a hard day. But they may gently remind you that you promised to fix dinner. Or they may say or do something that really bruises your feelings. And when you call them on it they may imply they didn’t mean any harm and that you’re being overly sensitive.
Relationship Difficulties

Relationships with covert narcissists are inherently problematic. And they’re problematic for many of the same reasons manipulators are. Just like covertly aggressive personalities, covert narcissists don’t reveal themselves at the outset of a relationship. Instead, they gradually become known to you as you witness more and more of their behavior. As I say in In Sheep’s Clothing, dealing with covert folks is like getting whiplash. You know what’s really happened after the damage is already done. Heightening your awareness is the key to avoiding victimization. You have to learn to recognize the subtle signs of callousness, felt superiority and entitlement. Doing so can help you avoid learning the hard way who your relationship partner really is.

11 thoughts on “How to Spot Covert Narcissists

  1. As far as damages go, aren’t we all talking about the same thing? Narcs, abusers, bullies. It’s all the same — evil people who will do you great harm and damage your life, health, well-being, sanity, etc.

    Perhaps it is the medicalization of this all that makes for distinctive categories. But in the end, it’s bad people. I believe such people are children of the devil, as they surely cannot be children of God. Their fruits tell you who they are. Either you are for God or you are against God and for the devil. It really is that simple.

    Wolves. Predators. Bullies. Abusers. Narcs.

    For victims, it really doesn’t matter which classification fits the best. The only thing that matters is they are rescued, that they escape.

    The medicalization of things bothers me. Just like bullying. Kids who are being tormented, harassed, bullied, and victimized in school are then pathologized as having mental health problems. Kids who are bullied to death in school are then said to have suffered from mental illness, have had depression, and thus, due to their mental health problems, they suicided. Rubbish! They are bullied to death and thus basically murdered. Driving someone to suicide should be seen as murder.

    So, in the end, does it matter which particular form of predator one is dealing with? For victims, I’d argue, not really. Once medical classifications and diagnostic labels are slapped on, then things become pathological, a medical problem, instead of being seen as some evil person who is destined for hell, but until that blessed day when the predator dies, they’ll hunt others and make prey out of others who have the grave misfortune of being targeted and victimized.

    I just really get sick of hearing how the targeted victim who was bullied to death was suffering from mental illness, was said to be plagued with mental health problems. Nope. I don’t buy it. I think it’s normal and to be expected for someone being actively tortured, torment, harassed, stalked, victimized, and bullied to feel sad, to suffer from self-doubt, to have a self-esteem that is in the gutter, with no self-confidence left. It’s to be expected. Cause and effect. Nobody is immune. When tormented severely and relentlessly and viciously enough, anyone will be damaged (unless it’s another evil narc/abuser/psychopath).

    Same thing happens to adults. Workplace bullying. Mobbing. Battered women being smeared by their abusers, isolated, dehumanized, destroyed, and kept in such an entrapped, victimized position that suicide seems to be the only way out. For some battered women, whose abusers will stop at nothing to ruin them, it’s an accurate, very realistic assessment.

    This is a rant. Kind of off-topic. Kind of not. But I just read about another kid who suicided, who had been bullied to death and again, the article talked about the kid’s “mental health” and said nothing about the turds who killed him (and I believe when you bully someone to death, you should be seen as a murderer).

    Same thing happened to a 13 (or so) year old girl. She was relentlessly bullied by these other girls. They drove her to suicide. She jumped from a tower or an abandoned building. Dr. Phil had the two bullies on his show. They, and their parents, kept talking about how the victim suicided because she had mental health problems, because she was mentally ill. Rubbish! Same thing when Dr. Phil had them go to the site where the girl died. The kids were like, ‘maybe she slipped’. And the parents were obviously, ‘don’t you dare pin this on my daughter, my darling little girl.’

    I’m tired of all the bullies, abusers, narcissists, psychopaths, and predators of this world. So many sadists. So many violent, dangerous, predatory wolves.

    All the odds are stacked against victims. All the harms are cumulative. And then people pathologize victims, endlessly talking about their mental health problems, their mental illness, as though such suddenly appeared out of nowhere, with no cause and effect, no nothing. It’s crazymaking. It’s blaming. It’s like people refuse to acknowledge the evil of abusers, bullies, narcs, etc. and the damage they inflict on victims.

    1. Not to say that I don’t learn a lot from this blog, because I do. Just feeling really bad and the damage is done and I don’t know that anything will help heal. I hoped that by learning about narcs and psychopaths I’d be better off, but I’m still damaged. Wish I’d learned this all decades ago.

      Thanks, Dr. Simon, for your website, and for your books. In Sheep’s Clothing is good. Wolves lurking, pretending to be good, appearing harmless, yet ravenous wolves all the same.

      1. Actually, I’d say it does help to learn the terms, as then a victim can begin to somehow convey what has been done to her and who her victimizer(s) really are.

        Anyhow, hope everyone who has been made into prey of a narc/CD/psychopath/abuser/predator has a good Thanksgiving. Just a nice day, although it’s probably next to impossible for most victims, as they either still have a predator in their life or they are reeling from the damage one has done to one’s life. At any rate, happy day to you victims out there. 🙂

        1. Reba,

          Thank you for sharing your thoughts and feelings. They are all so understandable and it’s important to healing to express them in a safe environment/forum like this.

          It can be a incredibly challenging to deal with all of the feelings that come up during and in the aftermath of a relationship with an abuser (general term for all of the above listed predators), but also very healing. Healing is possible, Reba. As you read through the articles and the comments, you will learn what Dr. Simon suggests for healing as well as what others have found that works for them.

          I wish you a happy and peaceful Thanksgiving.

    2. Reba —— I have the same EXACT thoughts and feelings that you have.

      I’ve read the comments to your comment and like clockwork – they resonate with the “coined” response of “healing”… as does ALL the current “blogs/books”…..

      So …. What does one need to do to get “healing” ?

      PSA – “Coping/Managing” isn’t the same as being “healed/cured”….

      Psychologists convinced me in the 80’s that I was “dysfunctional” … aka – mentally fractured…. I then “raised” my daughter (now 32) based upon their psychological “theories/tenets” at that time…. ONLY to now be told by these same “experts” that I’ve created a “narcissist”…. AND these same “experts” are simultaneously telling my daughter that her mother is a “narcissist”….. and NOW all they want to do is to prescribe expensive mind altering drugs to BOTH of us…..

      Lest I not mention my recent discovery of an article that outlined the negative psychological impact that letting your child “cry themselves to sleep” has…

      These “experts” previously encouraged and widely advocated the practice of letting your child “cry themselves to sleep” … but here they were … NOW publishing articles that detailed the adverse “mental health” consequences of doing what “they” previously instructed us “commoners” to do…..

      I personally don’t believe that it’s possible to be “healed/cured” from abuse… If anything – abuse victims suffer further systemic and cultural abuse….

      1. I know of that so-called expert advice to let kids cry themselves to sleep. It was thought to spoil them if you picked them up or comforted them, and that they needed to be left alone in order to learn self-soothing skills. Well, studies show that it doesn’t make brats out of kids or spoils kids to pick up babies and attend to them when they cry. It was very popular, supposed “expert” childrearing advice.

        Psychotropics are regularly prescribed to battered women when there depression is actually a reactive depression and is very healthy considering what hell they are being put through by an abuser. Who wouldn’t be sad?

        Almost all of the SSRIs and various other psychotropics are extremely experimental. They have no studies on what long-term use does. They are based off theories and speculation of what supposed ‘chemical imbalance’ is happening in the brain. The ‘chemical imbalance theory’ has been proven to be one of the biggest frauds in medicine, but they still promote it, because it makes patients much more likely to not only take medications, but to not stop taking such, for fear of their supposed ‘chemical imbalance’ coming back. Big Pharma makes lots of money from convincing people they are sick, naturally ‘chemically imbalanced’ and then making lifelong patients/customers out of them. Profits, profits, profits.

        You are right to be wary of messing with your brain chemistry and taking mind-altering drugs that have been shown to produce long term changes in patient’s brains. They are still experimental and any clinician who doesn’t tell you that truth isn’t a trustworthy medical provider.

        And in case anyone is inclined to think I’m just needlessly poo-pooing the medical establishment and that doctors, especially psychiatrists, are to be trusted …. remember ECT? Electroconvulsive therapy for supposed treatment of a host of maladies? Most often women were told they needed such ‘therapeutic treatment’ in order to be more mentally healthy. Lots of battered women were involuntarily hospitalized into psych wards because their wifebeater husbands wanted a more docile, compliant, obedient, punching bag/sex slave/unpaid maid. So, what did those doctors in white coats do? They conspired with the wifebeater husbands and would ‘prescribe’ rounds of ECT to be administered, despite it being against the woman’s will, with the wifebeater’s signature being all that was needed and those women walked away with permanent brain damage.

        They didn’t hide this, either, but wrote up articles about the ‘efficacy’ of such ECT treatments and how the battered housewives suddenly seemed more ‘content’ in mindlessly waiting on their wifebeater husbands, no longer complaining of their dreary, loveless, fear-filled lives, having been taken down some 20 or so points in IQ.

        Don’t trust the medical establishment.

        They used to (and still do) prescribe tranquilizers to battered women, “for her nerves” which tells you something. Who wouldn’t be nervous, afraid, and anxious if they lived with a domestic terrorist who may beat her one day, shoot the family dog the next, rape her at night, and any number of other things. Threats work marvelously and most abusers don’t have to resort to actual physical violence because the intimidation and threats suffice just fine. Then the woman is prescribed tranquilizers and charted up as being “anxious” “paranoid” “agitated” and seen as pathological/disturbed/crazy because she cannot say she’s being actively beaten at home, but the same emotional terrorism, the threat of violence, etc. achieves results, too, and makes it that much harder for her to be taken seriously by others because it wasn’t like he shot her or anything, right?

        I don’t think it’s possible to be healed or cured either. And furthermore, I think it does a grave disservice to those who aren’t able to ‘bounce back’ and ‘heal/be cured/recover’ because the damages have been so severe.

        Kind of like the awful directives to ‘forgive and move on’ as though we victims are sitting around and stewing and not seeking to move on as it is. Nobody I know wants to be a victim, let alone badly damaged and ruined. And to suggest that it merely necessitates an outsider’s directive of ‘forgive — for you, not the abuser — and move on’ for recovery to take effect and that the victim couldn’t think up the whole ‘move on’ part on her own…. is really something.

        As for healing/recovery, I think it’s hogwash and it also sets victims up for more criticism and judgment from others because people then come along and critique how ‘recovered/healed’ they are and fault find with the victims as to why they aren’t cured by now.

        It’s almost a given that the medical establishment has told your daughter that you are the problem. Pathologizing mothers is practically step one. Aren’t mothers blamed for everything, anyhow? Sexism, misogyny. What a simple answer that is given to so many people. Mothers being the supposed root of all problems.

        When people talk about recovery and healing, I think about the number of people in their 50s or 60s who left comments on websites about childhood bullying and how they still remember the hell they went through when they were kids, due to bullies at school, and how 40 or 50 years later, it’s still sharp and painful when they think back on it.

        When people talk about recovery and healing, I think about the battered woman who was beaten so badly her head injuries left her dependent for the rest of her life, needing a caregiver to help her along in life. He got something like 15 years in prison, and she is living out a lifelong sentence. Where is the justice? If he is good, he’ll be out in 7 or 8 years and he can do what he wants with his life then. She’ll be forever struggling with basic things.

        And if we battered women, targets of mobbing, stalking victims, etc. do manage to ‘recover’ to a point of being moderately functional, in terms of semi-self-supporting at some point in the future, how is that supposed to be seen as ‘recovery’ and ‘healing’? Still heavily marred by what some evil perps did to you. Still forever altered. One’s life trajectory is irreparably altered, always for the worse, never for the better.

        I don’t think CDs can be helped, nor should they be. They should be rounded up and ridded of, for the good and safety of the rest of society. Sheep need protection from the wolves. No wolf ever becomes a sheep. A cheetah cannot change its spots. It’s Biblical. Anything else but hard truths is serving the agendas of these manipulators, abusers, con artists, and predators.

        I think good people, truly salt of the earth, good, decent, trustworthy people are exceedingly rare. And I believe truth-telling about this wretched, wicked world is also fairly rare. Nobody wants to acknowledge just how many predators are out there, freely feeding on innocents. Then the victims are pathologized.

        1. At a loss – I’m sooo glad that I’m not the only one who believes/thinks what I do.

          Thank you very much for your comment.

        2. at a loss,

          You’ve made a lot of good points. One never forgets the abuse they’ve suffered. The hope is though to live a life that is tolerable, not totally consumed with grief from abuse. Some drugs may take the edge off so she/he can function when one feels totally torn. Myself, when I went through a very rough ordeal that threw me into a depression, I took some meds which really just numbed me a bit. It didn’t really help. The underlying problems and grief weren’t worked through yet. I let myself feel the pain, cry as much as I need to cry, and I’m talking the wretched cry when one is suffering. This went on for quite awhile, but you know what, it stopped on its own time. I didn’t try to block the pain. Then came the anger, and it was intense, and it was intense for about a year. And as I came to accept the injustice I’d had, it slowly dissipated. I’ll always be angry about what’s happened, but it no longer consumes my day.
          To the people who have suffered terrible emotional and physical abuse for long periods of time, I really hope there is hope for them to find some pleasures in life. I don’t have the answers.
          I’ll always be scarred and am still working out some things within myself, and I am restoring my life and finding pleasures in it. I though first had to learn what happened, why, and accepted it, and will make sure that now what happened to me will never occur again to me.

  2. Someone in my cancer support group is covertly aggressive. She came on strong when I first met her. I allowed her to trick me into giving her my last name. After the fact, I realized that the reason she gave for needing it made no sense. Those were the first and second red flags. She’s been trying to force a close relationship that I do not want or need. She kept telling me to call her if I needed anything or want to talk, but it felt like a trap, so I haven’t! I’ve been very careful now not to drop my guard around her. She made a point of saying my last name to me at point, it was really odd and it felt strangely ominous.

    I’m a more quiet, reflective person and she kept interrupting me when it was my turn to share and then turning the conversation back to her. I calmly said, I wasn’t finished or please don’t interrupt or as I was saying. She’s finally stopped that (and I suspect is not pleased about it), but now she is taking suggestions/insights that I’ve shared before and speaking as if they are hers. She’s done it many times now. And last night she offered information about me to a newcomer, information about my family status;it was not her information to share. Even though she said many times I don’t want to speak for anyone else….she did/does. She certainly likes to be the center of attention.

    I have walked away from my family of origin as she knows because I shared it early on when others shared their histories and before I realized who she was. She made a point last night of telling me she has two family Thanksgiving dinners to attend this week and then repeated it. She didn’t ask about and I didn’t offer my plans. I think she’s punishing me for not responding the way she wants me to.

    I feel really uncomfortable in the group now, it very small and there’s not another one nearby. She clearly has boundary issues.

    I’ve done my best to be calm and confident when dealing with her and it seems as though she wants to steal my light and put me in the one-down position.

    I feel frustrated because I don’t want to silence myself, but I also don’t want to give her information to use to hurt me. I’m also sick of her taking my hard earned insights and speaking as if they’re hers!

    1. Mindful – how awful for one selfish person to ruin your group. I was in a 4 person discipleship group once that met weekly. I didn’t trust one member; she was not overtly manipulative like the woman you describe, but I was not comfortable sharing thing about my life. I ended up leaving the group after just a few weeks. So sorry you are dealing with such a freak.

      1. Thanks, Cynthia S. I’m not sure the others recognize/understand what’s happening. She tends to use humor a lot and folks seem to be taken in.

        Sorry you dealt with something somewhat similar and that you were not comfortable sharing and felt the need to leave too. Once you realize what these folks are capable of, it often feels like leaving is the best option.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *