Covert narcissistic abuse is something that many people experience, although they aren’t always aware of it.
This is because covert narcissism manifests differently from overt narcissism, and thus may not be as easy to spot.
Since the abuse is subtle and passive, its effects may not be noticeable until it’s gone on for a significant amount of time.
In this article, we’re going to explore the typical causes and traits of covert narcissistic personality disorder. This will allow you to recognize it and know how to deal with the associated behavior effectively.
What is covert narcissism?
Covert narcissism is a type of narcissism—more formally known as narcissistic personality disorder (NPD)—that is characterized by introversion and subtle manipulation. This can include behaviors that may not be obviously harmful at first, but that accumulate over time.
Like other cluster-B personality disorders, NPD has various causes—which we will get into later—but they mostly involve trauma during a person’s early development. This trauma changed them on a fundamental level and caused them to develop behaviors that might have never manifested if they’d been raised in different circumstances.
Another term for covert narcissism is “vulnerable” narcissism. This is because those whose narcissistic traits are turned inward rather than outward tend to repress and hide their tendencies. They may be excruciatingly sensitive and introverted, and they are often crippled by insecurity and low self-esteem.
Covert vs. Overt Narcissism
It’s fairly easy to spot an overt narcissist when you come across one, as they’re usually brash, arrogant, selfish, and self-aggrandizing.
In contrast, the signs of a covert narcissist are more difficult to spot. In fact, some people spend years with close friends or partners before they realize that they’re dealing with a covert narcissist.
Whereas an overt narcissist will be loud and obviously arrogant, loudly boasting about their position or achievements, a covert narcissist is naturally introverted. They don’t display the rabid sense of self-importance often associated with overt, extraverted narcissists, nor do they feel that they deserve special treatment because they’re somehow better than others.
Instead, they take all that narcissistic energy and blast it inward. They feel that they don’t deserve love, compassion, or other positive energy because they’re somehow undeserving.
As a result, covert or vulnerable narcissists try to prove their worth to others via their perception of self-sacrifice and martyrdom. Then, if they don’t receive the appreciation and accolades they feel they’ve earned, they fall into a pit of self-loathing, resentment, and depression.
In some cases, their emotional dysregulation may manifest in self-harm. This is the introverted version of emotional dysregulation in grandiose (overt) narcissists, in which an extreme emotional reaction to a situation may result in yelling, property destruction, or even physical violence.
Narcissists often get so overwhelmed by their emotions that they feel compelled to do something to exorcise their personal demons: either at others, or in the case of vulnerable narcissists, toward themselves. 
Both overt and covert narcissists engage in behavior known as “narcissist sulking.” This manifests as petulant, childish behavior when and if things don’t go the way they want. They’ll give others the silent treatment or withhold any kind of emotional attention or affection.
Additionally, they’ll generally withdraw into a separate space and only interact with others when absolutely necessary, sometimes giving others long, expectant looks as though waiting for an apology or conciliatory gesture from them, which they’ll often refuse to accept.
In essence, everything they say and do broadcasts the fact that they’re feeling injured, it’s everyone else’s fault but their own, and others had better go above and beyond to make it up to them.
Causes Of Covert Narcissism
Covert narcissism can develop from a number of different causal factors. Those mentioned below are the primary causes, but the list may not encompass the full spectrum of reasons why an individual ends up with covert NPD.
A leading cause of covert narcissism is abandonment. Someone whose parent or other primary caregiver disappeared out of their life when they were young—whether due to death or divorce—is likely to have difficulty feeling grounded and secure in any relationships thereafter.
Alternatively, a parent may have used continued threats of abandonment (e.g. “behave yourself or I’ll leave you here in the mall alone forever”) to control their child’s behavior.
As such, covert narcissism develops out of a sense of ensuring that they’ll get their essential needs met by any means necessary, with little to no regard as to how their actions affect those around them. 
This may refer to emotional, physical, psychological, or neglectful forms of abuse.
A child learns that they would have to behave in a certain manner to get their needs met or avoid a torrent of abuse. As a result, they may have learned to pander to their primary abuser by whatever means they found worked.
Thus the techniques and manipulations they learned in order to get fed, cared for, or to avoid being injured, end up as part of their day-to-day behaviors as they get older.
Trauma (and subsequent emotional invalidation).
Although trauma related to abuse can be a major contributing factor to developing NPD, it’s often parental invalidation regarding a traumatic experience that can contribute to a young person developing covert narcissism.
A child may experience a harrowing situation, but if the adults in their life dismiss their very real emotions, the child comes to believe that what they feel doesn’t matter.
In addition to covert narcissism, this type of invalidation can lead to the child developing anxiety and eating disorders later in life. 
Covert Narcissism Traits And Signs
In this section, we’re going to touch upon the traits and behaviors commonly exhibited by covert narcissists. They don’t all exhibit every sign and trait, but you’ll likely recognize most of them in vulnerable narcissists around you.
Lack of empathy.
One of the most common covert narcissist traits is a lack of empathy for others. Covert narcissists are so focused on getting their own needs met that they don’t seem to see (or care) when those around them are suffering.
For example, a covert narcissist may have a partner who’s on the verge of a nervous breakdown from seeing to their every need on a constant basis, and who is in desperate need of a vacation to re-energize and regroup.
Instead of recognizing that their partner is burnt out, the covert narcissist will get resentful and angry at the thought of having their routine disrupted, and may sabotage the holiday plans in order to ensure that the status quo is maintained.
Hypersensitivity to criticism.
Another term for covert narcissism is “vulnerable narcissism” because of how hypersensitive covert narcissists are to anything that makes them feel bad.
A comment about how something they’ve done could be improved will be construed as a personal attack and make them feel utterly defeated, whereas someone without NPD would simply acknowledge the feedback and possibly incorporate it into future actions.
The slight criticism might make the covert narcissist give up on whatever they were doing to avoid getting criticized about it ever again. This may involve them discarding a hobby that had up until now brought them joy, or refusing to partake in an activity in which they received anything other than praise.
Something as subtle as suggesting that they add extra sauce to the lasagna they made might involve them going off to cry for hours about what a horrible cook they are, followed by never cooking that dish again for the rest of their lives. They may not even eat another person’s lasagna because of the traumatic ego wounding they associate with that dish.
Many covert narcissists use self-deprecation or false humility to encourage others to appreciate and praise them. Furthermore, their public face will rarely mirror their home or personal life.
The narcissistic mother who’s adored by her PTA or church group for being so selfless and humble might manipulate her children into doing all the housework or cooking that she takes credit for.
Similarly, the covert narcissist in the workplace who constantly puts themselves down about their supposed shortcomings or awkwardness knows full well how capable they are, but the praise and encouragement they receive from their peers and superiors helps to feed their delicate egos.
Fantasy-based goal setting.
Many covert narcissists have rich internal landscapes in which they indulge in goal-based fantasies.
For example, they might daydream about how much admiration they’ll win after they write the best-selling novel of all time, or how respected they’ll be when they earn a PhD in a particular field, or win the gold medal in a sporting event.
They’re so ideal-hungry that it doesn’t matter whether these daydreams have any basis in reality: they revel in their fantasies and get defensive if they’re confronted or questioned about them. 
A covert narcissist will have a litany of excuses and explanations as to why they haven’t achieved these goals yet.
For instance, they might choose the martyr route and claim that they have their award-winning novel fully formed in their mind, but they don’t have time to write it because they have to see to everyone else’s needs and demands without any help.
Similarly, they’ll claim that they can’t go back to school because they’re supporting others financially, and they can’t train physically because they’re too tired or sick from sacrificing themselves for their families for years.
In reality, they might not exercise at all nor have any academic leanings, but they’ll cling to these fantasies nonetheless.
Covert vulnerable narcissists often fully embody their victimhood. They use it as both a ladder and a shield to climb to wherever they want to be and protect themselves from any unwanted accountability.
For example, if they’re confronted about their poor behavior, they may tear up and talk about how they never learned any differently because their parent abandoned them before they had a chance to teach them.
Additionally, if someone they’re manipulating defends themselves against gaslighting or criticism and thus makes the narcissist feel bad, they’ll behave as though the one who defended themselves injured them horribly for no reason whatsoever.
If they have some sort of relationship with said person, they’ll keep referring back to that action for years in an attempt to wound the perpetrator (in their eyes) and hopefully make them feel bad for causing them pain.
Whereas overt narcissists are extraverted in their self-aggrandizing behavior, covert narcissists keep all that grandiosity inside.
As such, their thoughts about other people’s inferiority to themselves will manifest as internal dialogs full of judgmentalism, jealousy, condescension, and contempt.
If they do express any of these thoughts, then they will likely be passive in their expression.
For example, they might make backhanded compliments and comments about those whose work or achievements they feel are undeserved, or should have gone to themselves instead.
Someone whose work colleague earned a promotion may insinuate that the person earned it by sleeping with the boss, for example. Or they might claim responsibility saying that they’re the one who did the majority of the work on the project and thus should have been promoted instead, but that the other person is a more appealing age, aesthetic, race, gender, or other trait different to their own, and thus got the accolades instead.
Expectation of caretaking.
Remember that the covert narcissist will expect caretaking regardless of what their partners or family members are going through. They learned very early on that their value depends entirely on how they appear to others, and that other people’s value depends on what they can provide to the narcissist.
This is especially true if the covert narcissist was a shamed child: they project past wrongdoings by their parent or guardian onto someone else and then put that person in a position where they’re forced to care for them.
Additionally, since vulnerable narcissists need external validation to feel valued, they often expect their partner to cater to all their wants and needs, and to make themselves available as required—even at the expense of their own wellbeing.
If their partner doesn’t anticipate their needs or cater to their wants on demand, the narcissist might start to feel insecure and anxious, worrying that they’re no longer first on the priority list, and then seek out backup support.
Depression and anxiety.
A 2020 study from Germany  showed that those with vulnerable (covert) narcissism are prone to suppressing their emotions, leading to distress including depressive disorders and anxiety. This emotional suppression also prevents them from feeling other emotions such as joy, which in turn can intensify their depression.
Furthermore, a covert narcissist may develop anxiety if they feel that their security is threatened. This is one of the reasons why they try to control everyone around them through passive manipulation—as long as they can maintain an environment they’ve cultivated in order to get their needs met, they’ll feel safe and secure.
If there’s any change or upheaval in the dynamic, they’ll do everything within their power to get things back to what they consider normal.
Passive-aggressive control tactics.
While overt narcissists control others via aggression and dominance, coverts do so through body language and subtle, passive responses.
In fact, a covert passive-aggressive narcissist is unlikely to ever raise their voice to express their dissatisfaction. Those who were abandoned or abused as children learned early that their voices didn’t really matter, or that yelling would earn them a punishment, so they learned to get their way via subterfuge instead.
For example, a covert narcissist wife who doesn’t get her own way in a situation may roll her eyes, sigh, withdraw into a locked room (possibly to cry audibly), and offer the silent treatment for protracted periods of time. These behaviors are an attempt to manipulate the other person into feeling guilty about not indulging them and hopefully doing something to make the narcissist happy again.
Repeated relationship cycles.
If you’re trying to determine whether you’re in a relationship with an introverted narcissist, find out about your partner’s past.
Covert narcissists tend to repeat the same types of behavioral patterns, as they can only maintain their relationships for so long before they discard one partner for another in order to attain a more favorable pairing.
Covert narcissistic behavior often manifests in what’s known as a “white knight narcissist.” This is a person who masquerades as the perfect partner who swoops in and rescues someone who’s in a difficult situation, thus placing themselves in a position where they’ll be idolized and worshipped.
These types of narcissists seek out (or are drawn to) people who are in unhappy relationships or marriages, in difficult financial circumstances, or are dealing with issues such as low self-esteem or disability.
The narcissist will lavish them with love and attention (aka “love bombing”) and take on traits that the person loves most. In essence, they become their dream lover, and thus encourage their target to leave their current situation and be with them instead.
Once that happens, they’ll often propose marriage and thus establish a sense of security for themselves. By doing this, they “lock in” the relationship to feel safe and grounded within it, but they rarely actually marry. This is because they like to have the freedom to leave whenever a better opportunity presents itself. They want the security of an engagement, but not the bonds of marriage.
When you’re learning about your partner’s past relationships, look for these kinds of repeated behaviors:
- Has this person been engaged multiple times without ever marrying?
- Do they talk about how their exes all had numerous issues that caused the relationships to break down, rather than taking any accountability? (i.e. they were perfect and their exes were always the problem?)
- Was your partner always the one to end the relationship?
Once you’ve found out more about your partner’s past, take a good look at your relationship up until this point to look for signs that this pattern is repeating itself.
Covert narcissists thrive on positive attention and accolades. As such, they often decry their partners, family members, friends, and co-workers to others in order to garner sympathy and emotional support.
By doing so, they gain the admiration and praise they crave, while also garnering support against those whom they feel bitter toward. The people who show support in these smear campaigns end up being their support pillars in their personal delusions, and may also behave as flying monkeys in the future—taking action on their behalf if and when others go low-contact or no-contact with them.
Covert narcissists often engage in delusions of self-sacrifice and martyrdom. Sometimes this will be a twisted perspective of a living situation they’re forced to live in, or over-aggrandized ideas of the gestures they perform for others’ benefit.
These are mostly in their own minds, or else largely exaggerated. For example, they might wash a dish or two and then sulk when their partner doesn’t praise them enough for doing so. Then they’ll turn around and tell their friends or family members that they had spent hours cleaning the kitchen and didn’t get a word of thanks for their efforts.
This delusion may expand to the point where they sincerely believe that they’re the ones who are continually making sacrifices for those around them, while receiving very little in turn.
Furthermore, they may imply that they’re continually being used and taken advantage of. As you can imagine, this allows them to cultivate a persona in which they’re perpetually the hero who throws themselves into difficulty for others’ benefit, and they’ll spin stories to try to make others believe this version of the events.
There’s another reason for their martyrdom, and that’s to instill a sense of guilt and obligation in others. The covert malignant or vulnerable narcissist will subtly, passively blame others for their misfortune and then try to reap the benefits of their guilt.
Obligation is a major motivator for a lot of people, and they’ll often try to do what they can for the injured party in an attempt to alleviate their own discomfort—much to the narcissist’s satisfaction.
The following are also common covert narcissist traits that you may come across:
- “Hoovering” past lovers: this involves getting back in touch with a person they were intimately involved with before, in order to get emotional energy or validation from them through flirtation and/or flattery.
- Gaslighting: just like overt narcissists, coverts often try to manipulate those around them so that they’ll doubt or question their own emotions and experiences. This is a means of controlling others by keeping them ungrounded and insecure.
- Mirroring: implying that another’s successes or accolades are due to their own contributions and sacrifices. For instance, a narcissist mother letting everyone know that her child’s medical degree was earned thanks to all the help and support she offered while they were in school.
- Blame-shifting: instead of apologizing for dropping the ball on a responsibility or for breaking a promise, they’ll imply that the other person is directly (or indirectly) responsible for their inability to keep their word. For example, if they neglected to pay a bill on time, they might say “I would have remembered if I hadn’t been caught up in all those other things you asked me to do,” or, “I would have remembered to do so if you had written it on the calendar like you write all the other important tasks.”
- Excuses for everything: there’s always a reason as to why they can’t take care of a responsibility or take action to heal from issues they had to contend with in childhood. For example, the depression from the abuse they experienced as a child renders them incapable of cleaning the bathroom, or they can’t get therapy for their behavior because they’re too traumatized to be vulnerable with anyone—even a therapist.
- Emotional masochism: the tendency to place themselves in positions where they will feel emotional pain, which reinforces how wonderful they are because of how much suffering they can endure.
- Moodiness and bitterness: since they don’t express their emotions the same way overt narcissists do, they get sullen and bitter from everything they keep inside, making snide remarks and muttering under their breath when just out of earshot.
Common Phrases Used By A Covert Narcissist
The phrases below are among the most common things covert narcissists say. You might have heard different variations of them over the years, or they may help you to identify covert narcissists you’ll come across in the future.
“I’m just trying to help.”
“If you’d suffered as much as I have, you’d understand.”
“I’m not like other people. Nobody else can understand what it’s like to be me.”
“I’m doing the best I can despite the burdens you all place upon me, but I’m happy to do all I can because I love you.”
“I was just joking, so don’t be so dramatic. If you’re actually upset by a joke, I don’t know what to say to you.”
“You misunderstood me. Do you actually believe that I’m such a horrible person as to say something that awful to you?”
“I can’t believe you said that to me, knowing everything I’ve been through. That’s hurtful and abusive, and I don’t know how I feel about you anymore.”
“Nobody else can possibly relate to how much difficulty I have been through.”
Examples Of Covert Narcissistic Behavior
If there’s a covert vulnerable narcissist in your life, then you may have encountered some of the behaviors mentioned below. What you’ve observed will depend on the role that the narcissist plays in your world, and you may only be clueing into their real nature now after years of witnessing it.
In romantic relationships:
Covert narcissists exhibit some of the same traits that overt narcissists do in romantic relationships, but these traits will manifest differently. As mentioned earlier, rather than being aggressive and overtly cruel in their abuse, covert narcissists turn inward and express their anger or dissatisfaction passively.
- Passively projecting and shifting blame: they may make snide remarks suggesting that their partner is the source of many of the issues faced in the relationship.
- Embodying victimhood to abdicate responsibility: they may go into victim mode if their partner expresses frustration or upset with them. For example, if attention is brought to the fact that they aren’t pulling their weight with house chores, they may cry and apologize for being “useless” because of one health issue or another. They may also exaggerate health issues to get out of responsibility and garner more sympathy (and guilt-trip their partner for making their condition worse).
- Going cold when they’re getting ready to discard one partner for another: once the love bombing and honeymoon period is over, they’ll look for their next target and ice out the current one. This will involve becoming more withdrawn and wanting time alone, as well as refraining from showing affection or expressing it verbally.
The items in that last point are classic covert narcissist discard signs to be aware of. Others may include being secretive about their communications, such as preventing you from looking at their phone or computer, spending more time away from home, and distancing themselves more.
If your covert narcissist husband or wife (or other partner) is suddenly exhibiting many of these behaviors, take steps to protect yourself. Quite often, a discard will happen seemingly out of nowhere and may leave you in a very difficult place.
Whereas in a healthy relationship, a partner might express that they aren’t happy and either suggest counseling or a breakup, a covert narcissist will keep everything to themselves. Then, you may come home one day to find that they’ve cleaned out your bank account, packed half of your belongings, fled while you were away, and ghosted you.
In family relationships:
The most common example of a covert narcissist in a family environment is that of a covert narcissist mother or father. That said, if there’s a narcissist parent who has turned one of their children into a scapegoat, that child may end up with covert narcissism in turn because of the cruelty they’re subjected to.
Covert narcissism in a family may include:
- Manipulation via guilt and passive-aggression, e.g. “I’m so happy you’re going out and having fun with your friends, even though I’m sick at home alone. If something bad happens to me because you weren’t here to help me, don’t blame yourself.”
- Telling friends or extended family members stories about how ungrateful or cruel the people closest to them are to garner sympathy and support.
- Intense criticism toward children, particularly if they make mistakes or if their behavior (or appearance) isn’t to the parent’s preference.
- Bullying (either from parents to children or between siblings).
- Avoiding accountability or responsibility through victimhood and martyrdom, or blaming other family members.
- Dissociative behaviors when confronted, e.g. zoning out, focusing on their phone, walking away and hiding somewhere.
Your covert narcissist friend may be fun to hang out with in small doses, but if you spend a lot of time with them—such as moving in with them as a housemate or making them a primary companion—you may discover that their narcissistic tendencies manifest as:
- Putting other friends down in order to make themselves seem superior in comparison, usually with backhanded compliments or other passive statements.
- Fishing for praise with self-deprecating comments.
- Avoiding deeper connections by keeping conversations light and superficial (for example, only sharing information when and if they may benefit from doing so).
- A lack of empathy when others are going through a difficult time.
- Expecting help from others when needed but always finding excuses as to why they can’t reciprocate, usually revolving around their victimhood or martyrdom (too busy because caring for dependent family, too many personal health problems, etc.)
In the workplace:
Since covert narcissists tend to have tremendously low self-esteem, they don’t do well when they’re surrounded by others whom they consider to be smarter, better-educated, or more attractive than they are.
If they feel disrespected by their peers or disempowered by superiors, their narcissistic tendencies may go into overdrive by:
- Being condescending or belittling toward coworkers.
- Blaming others for their mistakes and never holding themselves accountable when and if they make an error—it’s always someone else’s fault.
- Potentially sabotaging others’ work or promotions for their own benefit.
- Gossiping about everyone to everyone else (basically having something awful to say about each person there, but acting sweetly to their faces).
- Crying or behaving as though they’ve been deeply wounded by this unfair treatment, followed by emotional withdrawal and clipped, formal responses.
- Calling in sick or quitting so they can find a job in a new place where they’ll be properly appreciated and respected.
Regardless of the situation, a covert narcissist will often engage in passive vindictive behavior to get back at someone whom they feel slighted them, criticized them, or otherwise made them feel small.
Instead of retaliating outright, they’ll often find ways to sabotage the other person or turn others against them.
Smear campaigns are often employed by covert narcissists who want the satisfaction of retaliation while remaining in the spotlight as martyr and victim. For example, if they were criticized at the workplace, they may befriend someone who’s close to someone in HR and drop subtle hints about discrimination or sexual misconduct—especially if it’s verbal or otherwise difficult for the other party to refute.
Alternatively, if this is a family or romantic relationship, they may suddenly develop a scary health issue the night before others are going to go on vacation, thus requiring them to cancel their plans to take care of the narcissist.
Can a covert narcissist change?
Although many people hope that a covert narcissist can change, this can only happen if the narcissist learns to recognize their own traits and behavioral patterns. They cannot be forced, nor encouraged to change by other people, nor will others’ selfless devotion to them magically change their ways.
Only if they acknowledge their problems can they take action to remedy them—through psychoanalysis, gestalt therapy, and cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) to address unhealthy behaviors, develop coping mechanisms, and work through the factors that contributed to their narcissism.
Even then, there’s no guarantee that real change will happen. Many narcissists quit therapy when they feel challenged or threatened, especially if the techniques they use to charm or manipulate people don’t work on their therapist.
Considering that it may take five to 10 years for real change to happen, few will dedicate themselves to the process and will thus lapse back into their comfort zones.
That said, if the narcissist finds the therapy interesting and engaging, they may be more inclined to continue with it. 
How To Deal With A Covert Narcissist
If you have a relationship with a covert vulnerable narcissist, you may feel unsure of how to deal with them. Many people say that they feel there’s “no winning” with a narcissist—especially an introverted one—but there are some ways you can adapt to their behavior, circumvent certain responses, and protect yourself.
Learn to recognize their signs and behaviors.
Although many covert narcissists will display the same types of behaviors, they will often be unique to the individual. As such, it’s important to learn how to read the one(s) you have in your life so that you get to know their tells and patterns.
For instance, over the years you may have realized that your partner will back out of any social engagement they agree to by claiming they aren’t feeling well, and then trying to get you to cancel so you’ll stay home and take care of them.
Or they’ll counter any upset you have with them by exploding into tears about how useless and worthless they are so you’ll stop “being mean” to them.
Don’t take their behavior personally.
A vulnerable narcissist’s behavior has everything to do with them and how they experience the world, and very little to do with you.
In fact, anyone could be in your position and they would react to them exactly the same way.
This is often why you’ll hear vulnerable narcissists talk about how they experienced the same situations with every friend or partner they ever had—if those types of behaviors repeat themselves, you know there’s something else going on.
Try to view the covert narcissist in your life as a wounded child instead of an autonomous, capable adult. We tend to be much more tolerant of children’s poor behaviors because they haven’t learned any better. Since these covert narcissists are basically repeating behavioral patterns established in their wounded childhoods, they haven’t developed the mechanisms to behave differently either.
If you wouldn’t be manipulated by a pouting 10-year-old child who’s trying to guilt you into doing her chores for her, don’t allow a sulking, overgrown 30-year-old child to affect you either.
Avoid taking part in their lies and delusions.
Most covert narcissists seek out support and validation, and thus try to coax others into playing along with them. When people don’t, they tend to be vilified or punished for hurting the narcissist’s feelings. That often makes those close to them feel obligated to perform in an expected way to keep the peace.
This doesn’t mean that you need to bark at a covert narcissist who’s lying about their suffering or claiming that others were bullying them, but instead, simply stand your ground.
You can do this indirectly, as your goal isn’t to make them feel disempowered, but rather to give them a reality check.
For instance, if they’re overplaying poor health symptoms and suggesting that you need to cancel plans because they’re unwell, you can say that if they’re feeling so bad, you can either call an ambulance or drop them off at the E.R. for some tests. In most cases, they’ll back off about it and miraculously feel much better because they know official tests will undermine their claims.
Establish (and uphold) healthy boundaries.
Boundary-setting can be difficult if you’ve been manipulated by a covert narcissist for a long period of time, and doubly difficult if you’re also a people-pleaser who tries to avoid confrontation by any means necessary.
Don’t share any information unless you want to do so, and be firm about the fact that nobody is entitled to know anything about you unless you choose to share it.
Create distance when needed, and don’t make yourself too available. Many covert narcissists will try to create drama in order to have others come and help or rescue them, so you may have to be the “bad guy” and not pick up the phone on date night when you’ve told them ahead of time that you won’t be available.
Most covert narcissists don’t like boundaries, and they try to cross them whenever possible—especially if they feel that they’re losing control.
As such, there needs to be a penalty in place if an established boundary has been broken. They’ll complain about it and potentially rope their flying monkeys into reprimanding you on their behalf, so you’ll have to stand strong and not allow any of this to work on you.
Bring the focus back to them.
It may sound counterproductive to make it all about them, but this technique is surprisingly effective.
If and when you find yourself having an argument with a covert narcissist, stop trying to be heard or acknowledged because it’ll never happen. Instead, ask them to explain themselves and their motivations.
They’ll try to deflect and redirect, but call them out on that. Bring it back. Stop them every time as though you were returning a tennis serve. “No, we’re not going to play this game. Answer my question.”
Brace yourself for the inevitable outburst that will ensue from that. Depending on their personality, they’ll either go on the attack by insulting you, or dissolve into tears to make you feel bad. Stand firm and don’t fall for it.
Once they realize that things aren’t going to go their way, they’ll attempt to end the conversation in the best way they know how: by being self-righteous and walking away.
One of the most common things that covert narcissists say when they know they’re losing an argument and want to end it on their (winning) terms, is to suggest that you’re being abusive, and that they need to leave for their own wellbeing and protection. As such, if you preempt this projection by informing them of how they’re going to behave, they don’t know what to do.
Simply say something to the effect of describing exactly what they’ll do next. For example:
“You know I’m right in this situation and you refuse to admit it, so you’re going to tell me that I’m being unreasonable and abusive and walk away.”
This short-circuits them because you’ve called them out on their failsafe behavior before they’ve had a chance to execute it. This throws them off guard and they don’t know what to do.
In most situations, they’ll simply leave, fuming, likely calling something abusive over their shoulder as they go. Alternatively, they may try to turn it back on you and imply, wide-eyed and incredulous, that you’re unstable, you need help, you’re not the person they thought you were.
Stand your ground.
If you’re feeling particularly feisty, ask them when was the last time they held themselves accountable for their own actions instead of blaming someone else for them. They tend to freeze up when confronted and try to redirect, but you can preempt that by predicting their behaviors as well. On very rare occasions, this may prod them into acknowledging unhealthy actions and considering getting help to change them.
Try to keep your distance from a covert narcissist whenever possible. If you must be in the same environment because you work together, aim to keep yourself to yourself and don’t engage in small talk with them, nor spend time with them at lunch or after work hours. If your colleagues get together for lunch, stay at your desk or go out alone to eat instead.
Similarly, if you have to deal with a covert vulnerable narcissist because they’re an immediate family member, your best bet is to maintain as much physical and emotional distance as possible.
Don’t spend time with them unless you absolutely have to, and if you are obligated to do so, go “gray rock.” Give them no emotional fuel and behave as though nothing they say or do affects you in any way.
The Effects Of Being Raised By A Covert Narcissist
When a person has a covert narcissist mother or father, that parent’s behaviors will influence the young person’s overall development. Here are some ways the child might be affected.
The child is likely to develop people-pleasing characteristics. They likely received passive-aggressive guilt trips and withheld affection if they failed to meet their narcissist parent’s expectations, and as such learned to fawn and pander to others in order to feel loved.
Since their self-worth depends on how much others adore them, they adapt themselves to be as perfect as possible, often to their own detriment.
Anxiety and depression.
Since covert narcissists shift blame and rarely take responsibility for their actions, they often end up scapegoating their child—or children—as the source of anything bad that happens.
As a result, the children may develop hypervigilant anxiety and depression from constantly trying to avoid upsetting their parents, as well as from growing up believing that everything that goes wrong is their fault.
They never receive apologies for mistreatment because the parents imply it is deserved. If they hadn’t distracted the parent in the kitchen, the parent wouldn’t have dropped that plate, and thus they wouldn’t have had to be punished, and so on. 
Covert narcissists make a lot of promises, but then end up finding reasons to justify why they can never fulfill them. Something else inevitably comes up and although they promise to make it up to the person they’ve hurt, they never do.
Furthermore, they’ll play injured and sulk if others actually express their disappointment about them never keeping their word. Then they might indulge in classic covert narcissist gift-giving in an attempt to cheer up the hurt child, then act injured or offended if the child doesn’t appreciate said gift enough.
As a result, children of covert narcissist parents learn early on that their caregivers can’t be trusted. This wariness may also extend to the child mistrusting and second-guessing their own emotions, and feeling as though they need to perform to others’ expectations instead of being authentic.
Furthermore, they may end up seeing any gift from another as a window to manipulation, rather than an act of love and generosity.
The child of a covert narcissist father or mother will try to be the perfect offspring in their eyes—either to earn love, or to avoid punishment and cruelty.
As a result, these young people strive for perfection in everything they do. Many develop eating disorders, while others drive themselves to exhaustion to achieve high grades or athletic awards.
In fact, they may develop similar covert narcissist behavior to the parent(s) who invalidated them and demanded perfection from them in the first place.
This perfectionism will extend to their interpersonal and work relationships in adulthood—they’ll attempt to anticipate what their partners or employers want, aim to achieve perfection in that, then punish themselves severely if they miss the mark.
The self-loathing and self-deprecation often exhibited by covert narcissists influence their offspring in turn.
Children learn by example, and hearing their parent constantly put themselves down to receive comfort and praise from others may encourage them to mimic that behavior.
Since they don’t understand the motivation behind this behavior, however, they may honestly believe that they’re useless, stupid, and a burden instead of merely using those phrases to manipulate others.
People with covert NPD are also sometimes referred to as “thin-skinned” narcissists.  This refers to the fact that they are devastated by the slightest perceived criticism.
Since children of covert narcissist parents aren’t taught to be self-confident and to have faith in themselves, but instead to constantly put themselves down, they end up having low self-esteem.
This may be compounded by the parent’s criticism and projections toward them.
Inability to develop healthy relationships.
When a child grows up knowing that they can’t trust those closest to them, having to be hypervigilant about other people’s emotions and walking on eggshells in order to avoid criticism and cruelty, they put other people’s needs and wants ahead of their own and have difficulty recognizing their own emotions.
Many children of narcissist parents end up in relationships with people who remind them of their parents. In fact, a lot of them end up dating narcissists as well. This is often referred to as “repetition compulsion.”
In simplest terms, repetition compulsion is a case of the devil you know being comfortable and familiar.
Children of narcissistic parents may unconsciously seek to re-create the family dynamics they grew up with because those are the dynamics they know best. They know how to deal with self-absorbed, manipulative people who are incapable of showing them real care and affection, so that’s who they end up befriending and dating.
They literally don’t know how to deal with or behave around those who show healthy, stable levels of care and affection.
Repeated behavioral patterns with others.
Children of covert narcissist parents may develop “eager-to-please” behaviors. Not only have they learned these traits from those who raised them, but they also learned early on that if they don’t do all they can to make their parent feel loved and appreciated, they’ll receive the silent treatment or passive-aggressive abuse.
Since this is the example they were raised with, they may very well repeat these behaviors themselves once they reach adulthood. This can perpetuate the cycle, as the very abuses that were heaped upon them when they were young will then be visited upon their own offspring, and so on.
Substance abuse and/or self-harm.
Children of covert narcissists often feel alone and unseen. Their narcissist parent is so good at convincing everyone of how benevolent and self-sacrificing they are that others can’t conceive of the idea that they may in fact be harming those closest to them.
Furthermore, if a child tries to tell other trusted adults about the abuse they’re experiencing at home, they may not be believed.
Things get even worse if those the child confided in turn around and tell the parent what’s been said. Then, not only will the child be tormented further at home, they’ll gain the reputation of being an attention-seeking liar.
Furthermore, they’ll have learned that they can’t trust anyone because those they were vulnerable with ended up betraying them.
As a result, many turn to substance abuse to help them cope with their pain. They feel so utterly alone in their suffering that going numb or blissing out through artificial means is one of the only ways they can keep going.
In some cases, the young people take part in self-harming behaviors as well. Since they learned that they can’t express their thoughts and emotions safely to anyone, they may cut or burn themselves in an attempt to release the overwhelming emotions inside them.
Others may develop eating disorders as both control and energy release (e.g. exercise bulimia). In some rare cases, especially if the child has either vulnerable narcissist or borderline personality disorder traits themselves, they may even attempt to end their lives to escape from the never-ending torment they’re enduring.
If you’re looking for more resources on how to deal with covert narcissism, including how to heal from narcissistic abuse, the following links may be helpful to you.
Further reading on A Conscious Rethink:
We have a number of different articles on our website that may help you to understand and cope with the covert narcissism you’re contending with:
These websites may be helpful if you’re looking for additional resources on how covert narcissism develops and manifests, or how to heal from the damage done to you:
If you’re suffering from abuse or emotional distress due to a covert malignant narcissist or other vulnerable narcissistic type, please don’t think that you have to go through this alone.
There are many organizations that may be able to help you. There are crisis hotlines you can call for immediate assistance, and the counselors employed there can refer you to a therapist that may be right for you.
Below are some additional resources and support groups that may be able to offer you help:
National Domestic Violence Hotline, for those in the United States
The following book recommendations may be helpful, depending on your individual circumstances.
- Lingiardi V., McWilliams N.(eds.). (2017). Psychodynamic Diagnostic Manual, 2nd Edn. New York, NY; London: The Guilford Press.
- Centonze A, Popolo R, Panagou C, MacBeth A, Dimaggio G. Experiential techniques and therapeutic relationship in the treatment of narcissistic personality disorder: The case of Laura. J Clin Psychol. 2023 Jul;79(7):1656-1669. doi: 10.1002/jclp.23514. Epub 2023 Mar 27. PMID: 36970988.
- Huxley E, Bizumic B. Parental Invalidation and the Development of Narcissism. J Psychol. 2017 Feb 17;151(2):130-147. doi: 10.1080/00223980.2016.1248807. Epub 2016 Nov 18. PMID: 27858527.
- Sivanathan, D., Bizumic, B., Rieger, E. et al. Vulnerable narcissism as a mediator of the relationship between perceived parental invalidation and eating disorder pathology. Eat Weight Disord 24, 1071–1077 (2019). doi: 10.1007/s40519-019-00647-2
- Loeffler LAK, Huebben AK, Radke S, Habel U, Derntl B. The Association Between Vulnerable/Grandiose Narcissism and Emotion Regulation. Front Psychol. 2020 Oct 15;11:519330. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2020.519330. PMID: 33178059; PMCID: PMC7593238.
- Interest in therapy: Elinor Greenberg; Group Therapy with Borderline, Narcissistic, and Schizoid Adaptations. Gestalt Review 1 September 2019; 23 (2): 129–150. doi: 10.5325/gestaltreview.23.2.0129
- Vignando M, Bizumic B. Parental Narcissism Leads to Anxiety and Depression in Children via Scapegoating. J Psychol. 2023;157(2):121-141. doi: 10.1080/00223980.2022.2148088. Epub 2023 Jan 3. PMID: 36595560.
- Yakeley, J. (2018). Current understanding of narcissism and narcissistic personality disorder. BJPsych Advances, 24(5), 305-315. doi:10.1192/bja.2018.20