In this article I will be going into significant detail to help you understand and identify a covert narcissist. When you read descriptions about narcissism you are introduced to explanations about high control, attitude of entitlement, very low empathy, manipulative and exploitive behaviors, a need for superiority, and more. These represent very accurate portrayals of the narcissistic approach toward life.
In many cases, narcissists are so glaringly obvious with these traits, they leave little doubt about their dysfunction. We call this overt narcissism. What you see is what you get.
But there is a more insidious form of narcissism that is revealed over a longer passage of time. Many narcissists can present as normal, even reasonable, as you initially engage with them. As long as conflicts or strains are minimal, they can seem collegial. Only later might you realize that your connection with those people is not as positive or healthy as you may have earlier presumed. This is usually a sign of covert narcissism and a covert narcissist.
Think of covert narcissism as control with a sly, hidden twist. Covert narcissists crave dominance and admiration, but they are less intrusive than their overt counterparts. They can give the impression of being steady and reliable, and in fact that’s part of their game. But over time, you learn that they have a very tight agenda they want to impose. Thinking highly of themselves, they have low regard for you and will attempt to manipulate you to do their bidding. But their tactics can be subtle, at least for a while.
In some cases, covert narcissists can be more introverted than the overt narcissists. But they are just as driven by the yearning to be special and unique. They nurse fantasies of being extra important, and they resent a lack of favored treatment. Believing that others owe them something, they lack empathy since their preferences trump your feelings and needs.
Being sly and clever, though, they are not as quick to show their true colors as the overt narcissist. But make no mistake, they will manipulate under cover. And when you attempt to confront them about their improperness, they fall back onto their “good” reputation as they inform you about the inaccuracy of your perceptions. They are the ultimate gaslighters.
To get an idea of how they operate, let’s identify some of the many ways they impose their sneaky, devious means of control:
Appearing humble while being egotistical
While overt narcissists like the limelight, coverts shun it. They prefer not to generate high attention and clamor. Instead, they seem content to stay off to the side and let others get the attention…at least for a while. But despite the lack of open demands for attention, they will complain behind the scenes when they do not receive favored treatment.
As an example, let’s suppose you are at a social function with this person and you spend much of your time engaging with friends and associates while the covert narcissist smiles and seemingly enjoys the event. But later the narcissist might say: “Why were you ignoring me all night?” Or, “You really seemed impressed with yourself.” Or, “I hate being around such boring, pretentious people.”
On the surface, an outside observer might presume that the narcissist was being pleasant, but they would have no clue about the hidden egotism festering inwardly. Actually, their appearance of humility would be more accurately interpreted as disdain or disinterest.
Passive attempts to be praised
Narcissists want to feel special. It’s in their DNA. Coverts are not as brash as their overt counterparts in seeking admiration, but the need is just as strong. Let’s suppose, for instance, that you were complimented on an achievement. The covert narcissist might chime in with something like: “I was the one behind the scenes who did all the preparation.” Or if the covert is complimented, you might hear something like: “Oh, it was really nothing.” At that point, the other person may say, “No, really, I am really impressed by what you did.” The covert narcissist just turned one compliment into two.
Additionally, passive efforts for praise might come in the form of putting guilt onto you. For instance, they might gripe: “I worked all morning to make your day go better and I haven’t heard one word of appreciation.”
Occasional efforts to extract praise might be common in many people, but with the covert, these sly techniques are quite repetitive.
Sulking and pouting
Despite giving the appearance of confidence, coverts are very insecure. Remember, they need to feel extra-special, and you are supposed to regale them to satisfy their narcissistic supply.
In the event that you do not show them favored treatment, they sulk. They pout. They fume as they inwardly blame you for rejecting them. It is their way of implying: “You didn’t give me what I deserve, so now I’m going to punish you by shunning you.” If you call them out for being petty, they can look straight at you and say, “Who’s the petty one here? It certainly isn’t me.”
“Friendly” public jabs
Any normal relationship will have moments of disagreement or disappointment. Healthy people welcome the opportunity to discuss disagreements. They will explain their thoughts clearly and will hear the other’s perspective plainly.
Covert narcissists are not that healthy. When differences arise, they can certainly argue, gripe, and express dismay. But once the conversation is finished, the covert’s need for dominance remains. So true to form, they look for clever ways to manipulate you later. For instance, two or three days after a disagreement, that person may speak about you in front of other people with: “Oh wait, I forgot. I’m still on probation for something I did wrong a couple of days ago.” Or: “If you ever get on her back side, watch out, she’ll throw daggers at you with her eyes.” Then later when you ask for an apology, the covert can say: “I was just kidding. You’re so sensitive.” There will be no acknowledgement for the immaturity of the jab.
Acting nice then expecting a reward
Part of friendly, compatible relationships is the ongoing willingness to do favors, anticipating each other’s needs, being courteous, and acting with conscientious helpfulness. These behaviors reflect an understanding of our inter-connectedness.
Covert narcissists can act in helpful ways, sort of. They can do tasks that would please you, but true to their craving for special treatment, their entitled attitude will be displayed. They want special recognition for mundane cooperation.
Think of a narcissistic husband who does his wife a favor after a major argument, then is dismayed when she is not interested in sexual connection right away. Or a friend might assist with a financial need, then later expect you to alter your plans to do what she wants, even though the timing is off.
With coverts, good deeds become a bargaining chip for obligatory servitude. Their goodness is merely a means to gain the extra measure of control they crave.
Remember, a defining feature of narcissism is the need to be superior. Overt narcissists might convey this with strong insults, pushy requests, or punitive threats. They are hardly subtle.
Covert narcissists likewise have an attitude of being “above it all,” but they can be coy. For instance, when accompanied by those they deem “less-than,” they may not be blatantly gruff, but they will not be personally engaging. Likewise, when they consider a person as inferior, they will display zero curiosity. Or it could be that they will make an exit earlier from an engagement than is really warranted. By keeping others at an emotional and physical distance, they indicate: “I’d rather not spend my time with people who don’t meet my specifications.”
This stand-offish attitude is part of their lack of attentiveness to the feelings and needs of others. Their aloofness displays the haughty smugness that is central to their personalities.
Tight emotional defenses
Commonly, the covert narcissist can appear pleasant and engaging, but over time you begin realizing: “I don’t really know this person deeply.” If the covert shares personal information, it is guarded. They absolutely do not like to make themselves feel subjugated to anyone. Exposing personal pain, deficiencies, or needs could cause them to feel as if they have lost their power, so they do not like others knowing about mistakes, embarrassing moments, or inadequacies.
Coverts live with a thick impenetrable shield around their psyches. They are highly sensitive to any presumed criticism. They make excuses if you speak about their deficiencies. They play the blame-shifting game when problems come to light. They minimize personal failures. They do not admit past or present problems. They are deeply committed to keeping an unblemished image, even when the evidence indicates that they are just as human as anyone else.
Over time, you will feel as if there is a great emotional gulf between yourself and the covert narcissist. Their need to live behind that defensive shield is the beginning point for loneliness.
Stubbornness in general
Each person begins relationships with a unique set of experiences, ideas, preferences, needs, emotions, and biases. No two people can be expected to be a perfect match. This means successful relationships operate with a willingness to be flexible. Control issues will need to be set aside in favor of pliability.
Covert narcissists, however, are neither flexible nor pliable. They stubbornly cling to the notion that they can and should superimpose their preferences onto any circumstance. They believe so strongly in their correctness that there is little room for any other perspective. What is worse, when you plead for compromise, you will be labeled as an argumentative person. If the covert has to suspend common sense or fair play, so be it. They approach relationships as a means of establishing superiority, and they will not cede power. Change and adjustment is something you are supposed to do, but it will not be reciprocated.
Healthy relationships are authentic, meaning the person’s external persona matches the internal persona. Honesty, openness, and trustworthiness are prioritized.
A primary ingredient of covert narcissism is dishonesty. What they reveal about themselves outwardly does not match their inner motives. Wanting no accountability, they are masters at creating a False Self. They hide activities. They lie easily. They encourage you to believe in them without you knowing who they really are. They withhold information. They are involved in relationships or engagements you will not know about. They smile while holding seething emotions inwardly. Their management of time, money, or associations is none of your business. They speak in half-truths.
Identifying as a unique misunderstood person
Sometimes you make miscalculations, you err, or you clash with others. It is in moments of conflict that relationships can grow and strengthen. Differences can prompt individuals to lay down their egos for the purpose of connecting with others for the sake of healing or growth.
Narcissists find it next to impossible to approach conflict with a growth mindset. In their minds, you are either a friend or foe. They do not seek collaboration; instead they seek power and superiority. So, when you do not agree or connect with them, they interpret you as an enemy. “Look how you are making my life miserable,” is a common theme in their minds.
Then, you attempt to discuss your differences with the narcissist, instead of agreeing that it is reasonable for two people to have separate perspectives, they belittle you. Their opinion of Self is so lofty, they conclude that your disagreement reveals one primary miscalculation on your part: “You clearly don’t understand how unique and special I am.” You will not become coordinated because the narcissist has labeled Self as a Victim and you as the Agitator.
No effort to empathize
A hallmark of successful relationships is the willingness to empathize, demonstrating an understanding of others from that person’s frame of reference. With empathy comes connection and heartfelt affirmation.
Coverts might appear to be compassionate if it advances their goal of winning dominance, but they are not really interested in knowing others from the inside out. That requires humility, a trait they do not possess. Keeping a protective layer around their hearts, coverts avoid becoming too deeply invested in the personal dimension. They prefer to maintain relationships that are functional and transactional, but not emotionally engaging.
People connected to covert narcissists will think statements like: “Don’t you care if I’m struggling?” Or, “For once, I’d like you to hear me all the way!” But instead of receiving affirmation, such comments will be met with a comment like: “Quit being so high-maintenance.” Or, “Spare me.” Or, the covert may just glare at you, then shrug and walk away.
Gathering data, then using it against you
When we say that coverts are not interested in knowing your heart, it does not mean they want to know nothing about you. They really like knowing about your problems or confusions but not for the purpose of building bridges of affirmation. They want to collect data about you that could prove useful to them at some later time.
Suppose, for instance, you have spoken in the past with a narcissist about an embarrassing moment in your life. But later, you learn the narcissist has spoken “in confidence” to others about that episode with harmful intent. It can leave you feeling very betrayed. Or perhaps the narcissist will directly shame you, even though you had once assumed there was support.
With low empathy, narcissists do not hear you for the purpose of knowing how to better encourage. They constantly seek an advantage, so knowing negative data about you becomes a means for them to seize power.
Passive aggressive anger
Your first impression of the covert narcissist may not include the observation of anger. And yet, beneath their veneer, you will eventually learn they ooze anger. They will not admit the emotion, especially if they are not prone toward shouting and raucous behaviors. But they might concede to feeling frustrated or annoyed.
Coverts are too cunning to play their cards openly but they cannot cover their anger as successfully as they might presume. Instead of loud pushy communication, they might be deliberately unavailable. They may procrastinate, or perhaps they will promise to do something then not deliver. Often, they will speak poorly about you behind your back, but rarely to you directly. They are known to sabotage your work, to give half-hearted efforts, to imply disinterest, and to use silence as punishment.
In the ongoing attempt to control, they will not disclose their motives directly, because in their minds that allows them to maintain an upper hand over you. But make no mistake, they draw upon a deep well of bitterness, condescension, resentments, and disgust. In other words, they are very, very angry.
Difficulty expressing gratitude or affirmation
No one is so self sufficient that the helpfulness of others is irrelevant. Others can and will do favors to make life flow smoothly. And even in the absence of that, there is goodness to be found in many circumstances. Healthy people prioritize finding the good in others and openly reinforcing it.
Since narcissists have with a strong attitude of entitlement, they want to be the special one in the group. If they praise, affirm, or uplift others (so their reasoning goes), they lose their elevated status. In their minds there is a limited supply of esteem in a relationship, and if others are esteemed too fully, that leaves less esteem for the narcissist.
Many who live or work with narcissists will recall times when it would be easy to pay compliments or to offer kind gestures, but the narcissist does not come through. For instance, inside a family the narcissist may fail to give gifts or celebrate special days. Or at work, narcissistic coworkers want the glory for a good job but are reluctant to spread the good will around. And even when a positive gesture is made, it has a “you owe me” hook on the back-side.
A judgmental attitude
When you spend extended times with the covert, you get the feeling you do not measure up. As part of their superiority complex, they nurse critical thoughts, and over time, they will either speak those criticisms directly or you will sense them via non-verbal cues.
Often covert narcissists will make “I disagree” statements. They will let you know if you have preferences or interpretations, theirs’ are better. They give advice you did not ask for. They will point out deficiencies. They will cite past experiences to refute current data points. They may roll their eyes or purse their lips. Sometimes they huff. Other times they stare off into the distance or they just walk away.
Whatever their means of communicating, you soon get the message: “In this moment, you are deficient.” And when you attempt to explain or justify yourself, they follow with: “You’re ridiculously thin-skinned, too.”
Because each person has diverse feelings, needs, perceptions, and interpretations, it is wise to approach one another with a willingness to blend and flow in the midst of our many differences. Variety is the spice of life, so our differing outlooks can stretch one another to be well-rounded and informed.
Narcissists, though, think in black and white thoughts. When you are not the same as the narcissist, you are interpreted as a saboteur. They will complain:
“You’re not listening to me.”
“You are betraying me.”
“You are an unappreciative person.”
Narcissists require conformity, and interpret your uniqueness as refuting them. Their inability to empathize inhibits them from showing flexibility. It does not cross their minds that a middle ground can be found. They have predetermined that you are supposed to do as they wish, end of discussion.
Your responses as you move forward
As you learn to identify the many tactics of the covert narcissist, you will (sadly) conclude that these people cannot be reasoned with. Their defenses are impenetrable and their reasoning is unbending.
The most common mistake you can make when clashing with the covert narcissist is to plead for understanding. Instead of hearing you, the narcissist will predictably attempt to discredit you. So drop the illusion that you will be the one to help the narcissist change. It simply won’t happen.
Instead, determine your True North and stick with your plans for a healthy life. You are not required to filter your plans through that person. Your responsibility is to be clean, to be whole, and to be appropriate. When the covert narcissist protests, stay your path anyway. Covert narcissists are not emotionally healthy people, so it defies logic to acquiesce and let them be the ones who dictate how you should live. Be you.
Les Carter, Ph.D.
PS. Watch my detailed video on the covert narcissist here.