The Covert Narcissist And How You Might Not Spot Them Straight Away

The type of narcissist that most of us think we’re familiar with is the stereotypical one usually portrayed in films and television. This is a person who’s loud and brash, puts others down for their own amusement, needs to be the centre of attention at all times, and never mind what you’re talking about: let’s talk about them again!

In contrast, an introverted narcissist is a bit more difficult to spot. They also crave attention and admiration, but they’ll do so in ways that are more passive. They might martyr themselves for a cause so others will praise their apparent selflessness, or play the victim in a situation in order to garner sympathy.

They’ll use their shyness to rope people in who will do their best to nurture them, reassure them of how special and giving and kind they are, and then turn around and vilify their White Knight if they dare to pull back and stop lavishing them with praise.

This kind of covert narcissist can be equally as damaging to people as an overt one, but so much more difficult to spot. It’s fairly easy to recognize a standard narcissist based on their behavior, but a covert one might take months to reveal themselves… and by then, the damage has already been done.

Here are some things to watch out for when you think you might be dealing with a covert narcissist:

Passive Aggressiveness And Manipulation

An reserved narcissist who wants to be appreciated and lauded for their awesomeness might resent any demands you make of them. When and if you do need something from them, they’ll say “sure” and reassure you that they’ll take care of it, no problem, and then they’ll sulk and stew in silence because they feel put out for having their time and energy wasted.

They’ll avoid doing what it is you asked of them, and then avoid you when you try to follow up with them. When and if you finally confront them about their behavior, they’ll likely lash out and go on about how busy they’ve been and how inconsiderate you were to make such unreasonable demands of their time.

They might still do what you asked of them, but rest assured that you’ll never hear the end of it, and they’ll tell everyone how awful you were to them in order to garner other people’s sympathy while appearing as admirable martyrs.

These narcissists also have no problem stooping to the lowest, most guilt-tripping manipulations in order to get their own way. An example might be a person who wants their partner to stay home with them because they’re not feeling well. When the partner reassures them that they’ll be fine for a little while without them, the narcissist may counter with something like, “Well, okay. You go out and have fun with your friends. Just so you know, I’m having trouble breathing, so if I have an asthma attack and die because I’m here by myself, you’ll have to live with that.”

That may seem melodramatic, but that’s a nearly verbatim example from someone who’s had to deal with such tactics from a family member. Normally, this goes right along with…

Lack Of Empathy

You might be lying in bed with a fever so high that you’re hallucinating, but well, you promised that you’d go out to dinner tonight, and if you break that promise, then you’re being a selfish assh*le. This is something that a covert narcissist may actually accuse you of, since all they can focus on is the fact that their precious plans will be derailed, which is upsetting to them. They really don’t take into account how you might be feeling. It’s possible they’re not even capable of doing so.

This lack of empathy can be quite damaging to people around them, since they really can’t be objective about the effects of their actions (or lack thereof) on others.

A covert narcissist parent in ill health might make utterly unreasonable demands on their family members until their spouse, children, and even their siblings are drained to the point of hysteria, but they just won’t see it. All they can focus on is their own ill health, their wants, their needs, and anyone who isn’t doing what they want to make them feel better/happier is a cruel, unfeeling bastard who doesn’t care about them.

Their self-absorption and lack of compassion towards others can also affect those outside their immediate social circle. The narcissist may sabotage their partner’s or children’s friendships, intimate relationships, education, or even their careers with drastic manipulation tactics.

When these people are called out for their actions, they’ll immediately play the victim. They’ll paint you as the horrible one who isn’t showing them any empathy or compassion, give you the silent treatment, and be passive aggressively horrible until you give them what they want again.

More essential narcissist reading (article continues below):

Hypersensitivity, Especially To Criticism

Both standard and covert narcissists hate to be criticized, but whereas the grandstanding, megalomaniacal standard narcissist has an overblown sense of their own self-importance and will respond with scathing retorts, the covert narcissist tends to have problems with self-esteem, and will respond in a different way.

Many introverted narcissists will often respond to a perceived slight with an onslaught of belittling superiority. They’ll attempt to bully the other person with what they feel is their superior intellect, talking circles around them to confuse them and make them feel small, and then mock them for not being able to “keep up.”

This is how the covert narcissist maintains their lofty sense of self-importance: by breaking down anyone who tries to knock them from their pedestal, by any means necessary. It doesn’t even need to be an overt criticism that’ll throw them into a furor: it might be as simple a situation as having one of their habits questioned, or implying that another course of action might be a better idea than the one they had in mind.

They’ll immediately try to put the questioner back in their “place,” often demanding that they defend their idea, and then destroying everything they say with withering commentary. Basically bullying them into submission and silencing them with shame and self-doubt. Then, once any small whisper of personal power has been quelled, the narcissist will love-bomb the questioner and apologize and talk about their personal damage and vulnerabilities to regain the sympathy and adoration they crave, and the entire cycle begins anew.

Covert narcissists are also hypersensitive to the stresses and strains of everyday existence. While the more outgoing narcissist will simply bulldoze their way through life with little regard for the collateral damage they create, the covert type is likely to internalize things, overthink, and carry a great deal of anxiety and stress. They may even shun the wider world and get their narcissistic supply exclusively from a small number of people whom they keep close to them.

Unlike their overt counterparts who believe they are god’s gift, a covert narcissist may harbor secret feelings of shame, and inadequacy. They will avoid coming into contact with anyone whose achievements they secretly admire, for they cannot cope with the insecurity such a meeting would stir in them. So they surround themselves with people they see as inferior, in order to maintain the fragile grandiose vision they have of themselves.

Introverted, But Not In The Traditional Sense

Covert narcissists may come across as introverts, and in some ways they are, but in others they most definitely differ from what you’d stereotypically expect.

For one, in contrast to many introverts, they are rubbish listeners. They simply do not give two hoots about your life or your problems; they’d rather just talk about themselves.

This self-absorption also means that, unlike true introverts, they have little to no interest in pursuits such as reading, hiking, solo sports, baking, movie-going, musical instruments, puzzles, etc. They prefer more superficial activities which will in some way benefit them – grooming, shopping, going to expensive restaurants (so they can boast about it later), and anything which might promote them in the eyes of others.

Like most introverts, they do spend a lot of time in their heads, but it’s not a creative imagination that holds their attention, but their destructive self-doubting, stress-laden thoughts. They are consumed with their problems (real or perceived), their relationships (feelings of envy, jealousy, and resentment to name but a few), and general plotting of ways to manipulate others.

Covert, yes. Introvert, not really.

Extricating yourself from a relationship with a covert narcissist can be very difficult: they’ll often draw upon the very compassion and pity that they inspired in you to begin with, attempting to manipulate your emotions so you don’t withdraw the teat of giving energy from them. If they’ve been gaslighting you, you may have difficulty believing your own thoughts and emotions as real and valid.

There’s no shame in seeking counseling to help you navigate or remove yourself from a relationship like this, whether it’s with an immediate family member, a partner, or a so-called friend. You are worthy of respect, honesty, and love, and you won’t receive any of those from a narcissist, ever, no matter what type they are.

Have you had dealings with a covert narcissist? How else do you think they differ from a more extroverted, overt narcissist? Leave a comment below to share your thoughts.

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About Author

Catherine Winter is a writer, art director, and herbalist based in Quebec's Outaouais region. She has been known to subsist on coffee and soup for days at a time, and when she isn't writing or tending her garden, she can be found wrestling with various knitting projects and befriending local wildlife.