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9 Signs You're Dealing With A Covert Narcissist, From Psychologists

Abby Moore
Author: Expert reviewer:
Updated on April 29, 2022
Abby Moore
mbg Nutrition & Health Writer
By Abby Moore
mbg Nutrition & Health Writer
Abby Moore is an editorial operations manager at mindbodygreen. She earned a B.A. in Journalism from The University of Texas at Austin and has previously written for Tribeza magazine.
Kristina Hallett, Ph.D., ABPP
Expert review by
Kristina Hallett, Ph.D., ABPP
Board-certified Clinical Psychologist
Kristina Hallett, Ph.D., ABPP is a board-certified clinical psychologist with a background in neuroscience. She is also the Director of Clinical Training at Bay Path University, and an associate professor in Graduate Psychology.

When you think of narcissists, you most likely think of loud and boastful personalities. While those are common traits of overt or grandiose narcissism, some narcissists actually fly more under the radar—also known as a covert narcissist.

While they tend to be quieter and may even seem shy, the covert narcissist can be just as dangerous and manipulative, so it's important to be able to identify them.

What is a covert narcissist?

A covert narcissist is someone who has many of the quintessential narcissistic traits, which include an exaggerated an sense of self-importance and a lack of empathy, but they don't display these qualities in overt ways. Their grandiosity actually often presents in the form of insecurity, which is why covert narcissism is also sometimes called vulnerable narcissism or hypersensitive narcissism.

"Covert narcissists feel special because they believe their pain is more important than others'," clinical psychologist and Harvard lecturer Craig Malkin, Ph.D., explains. "They may feel like the most misunderstood genius, the person who's suffering the most, or even the ugliest person in the room." 

People with narcissistic personality disorders (NPD) are addicted to feeling special, Malkin explains. In the case of the covert narcissist, their specialness derives from experiencing—at least in their mind—the most intolerable or unique suffering.  

"They'll say things like 'I've suffered more than anyone has ever suffered before,'" licensed psychologist Daniel Fox, Ph.D., says. "They expect others to understand how hurt they are and how much pain they're experiencing, when in the grand scheme of things, their suffering is usually pretty mild."

Signs of a covert narcissist:


They believe they're uniquely miserable.

Unlike most types of narcissists who often come across as confident and grandiose, covert narcissists tend to be more insecure and self-effacing. "They don't generally feel good about themselves at all and agree with statements like 'I feel I'm temperamentally different from most people,'" Malkin says.  


They think they're superior to others, even if they're quiet about it.

Covert narcissists can tend to be shy, but this shyness may come from a quiet sense of superiority, or "secret grandiosity," according to the American Journal of Psychiatry. It may also stem from their deep insecurity. 


They're constantly jealous.

Covert narcissists tend to be envious of other people's talents, possessions, and capacity for deep relationships, Fox explains. Because entitlement is one aspect of NPD, covert narcissists believe they deserve what other people have and tend to get jealous when they don't get it.


They're unable to build meaningful relationships.

According to the American Journal of Psychiatry, covert narcissists have an "unrealistic and extremely fragile sense of self, which leads to a lack of engagement in the world." That lack of engagement combined with a general lack of empathy (common in NPD) makes it nearly impossible for covert narcissists to connect with others in any meaningful way. 


They're passive-aggressive.

Passive aggression is a very common trait among covert narcissists. Like any other narcissist, the covert narcissist can be antisocial and mean-spirited, but Fox says their quieter nature means these behaviors are usually passive-aggressive as opposed to openly aggressive.


They're hypersensitive to criticism.

A total inability to handle criticism is a telltale sign of covert narcissism. The covert narcissist tends to wear their heart on their sleeve, Fox says, and is thus often easily wounded. They might then use this offense as a way to get attention from others or present themselves as a victim. 


They project their insecurities onto you.

"Covert narcissists are even more uncomfortable with their obvious insecurities than overt narcissists, so they tend to use a tactic called projective identification," Malkin explains. Think of it like a game of emotional hot potato, with feelings of insecurity. 

"They say or do things to make you feel off-balance, insecure, or uncomfortable so they can feel more in control or knowledgeable." 


They lack boundaries.

Because covert narcissists believe their experiences are more important or more difficult than other people's, "they'll often call you all the time to talk about how hard life is for them, how much they suffer," Fox says. They tend to do this with a complete disregard for your side of the conversation or your time.  


They demand constant attention.

"Covert narcissists with NPD often vacillate wildly between being demanding of rapt attention (you have to pay attention to their every word or else suffer their wrath) and abjectly miserable, often suicidal," Malkin says. They may even use their misery to get attention, essentially using it as a way to manipulate others.

"The covert narcissist needs that attention, and they need to be seen as special," Fox says.

How to deal with covert narcissism. 

To manage a covert narcissist's difficult emotions, it's important to truly understand certain truths about narcissists, so you know their actions are not your fault: 


Recognize their comments have nothing to do with you. 

"If you're dealing with an ex," Fox says, "they already see you as this horrible person." Meaning, it doesn't matter what you say or do; they're only thinking about how they were wronged in the first place. "You have to realize those comments aren't about you," he says. "They're coming from an individual whose behaviors you can't change." 


Don't allow yourself to be offended.

Sure, this is easier said than done, but insulating yourself from hurtful comments is important. "You have to be a duck in the rain and let those arguments or backhanded statements roll off your back," Fox says. "You're never going to win an argument or get to a point where they admit you're right, so learn to let it go."


Don't engage in their lies. 

Narcissists of all types are often delusional and believe in their own sources of data, Fox tells us. "They usually find people with low self-esteem or people who will fall for their lies." Those lies may be personal, intended to insult or belittle you or, more general, intended to make them feel knowledgeable. Either way, "if you don't engage, they can't win."


Acknowledge their true motivations out loud.

If a covert narcissist is micromanaging you or belittling your abilities out of their own potential anxieties (i.e. the "projective identification" concept explained above), Malkin recommends "blocking the pass by saying something like: 'You seem really worried about my work today—more so than usual. Are you feeling nervous about something?'"

Whether they admit to it—or, more likely, reject it—this act can help you feel more secure. Acknowledging the true source of their doubt might remind you that you're not inferior, which is what they want you to believe.

The bottom line.

"It's best to think of narcissism as a trait, or pervasive universal human tendency, which exists on a spectrum," Malkin says. "The drive is to feel special, exceptional, or unique, and stand out from the other 7 billion people on the planet in some way."

Covert narcissists are the same. They simply display their behaviors on a quieter, less grandiose scale than overt narcissists do.

Abby Moore author page.
Abby Moore
mbg Nutrition & Health Writer

Abby Moore is an editorial operations manager at mindbodygreen. She earned a B.A. in Journalism from The University of Texas at Austin and has previously written for Tribeza magazine. She has covered topics ranging from regenerative agriculture to celebrity entrepreneurship. Moore worked on the copywriting and marketing team at Siete Family Foods before moving to New York.