Do you have someone in your life who you suspect might be a covert narcissist?

If so, you’re not alone. A few of our community members recently asked the following question: “How can we tell if they are covert narcissists or not?” 

I did some research, and here’s what I learned.

In general, covert narcissists:

  1. Act like they’re always the victim.
  2. Are sensitive to criticism but critical of others.
  3. Seek sympathy and validation constantly.
  4. Harbor a quiet sense of superiority.
  5. Have difficulty forming genuine connections.
  6. Are secretly envious and competitive.
  7. Exhibit passive-aggressive behavior
  8. Struggle with empathy

In this article, I will explain each of these characteristics/traits to help you better understand the telltale signs of a covert narcissist.

1.) They Act Like They’re Always the Victim

One trait of a covert narcissist is they often act like they’re always the victim, no matter the situation.1 

It’s as if every story they tell casts them as the hero who was wronged despite the reality of the events. 

When something goes wrong, or they face consequences for their actions, they twist the story. 

They might say things like, “I only yelled because you made me upset,” or “I wouldn’t have forgotten if you had reminded me.” 

This way, they make it seem like it’s never their fault. Someone else’s actions or mistakes always cause their poor behavior. 

By playing the victim, they seek sympathy and avoid taking responsibility for their actions. 

This trait makes it difficult for others to confront them, as they are always positioned as the ones who have been wronged.

2.) They’re Sensitive to Criticism but Critical of Others

Another characteristic of a covert narcissist is their extreme sensitivity to any form of criticism, paired with a tendency to be highly critical of others.2 

Imagine giving someone a gentle suggestion on how to improve something, and they react as if you’ve told them they’re the worst at it. That’s how sensitive covert narcissists are to feedback. 

They can’t handle the slightest hint that they’re not perfect. Yet, they have no problem pointing out flaws in everyone else. 

They might disguise these criticisms as “just being honest” or “trying to help,” but really, it’s about pointing out others’ imperfections to feel better about themselves. 

This double standard creates a one-way street where they’re allowed to judge everyone, but no one can offer them constructive feedback without facing their wrath.

If you have or currently are experiencing narcissistic abuse, visit Unfilteredd’s Institute of Healing from Narcissistic Abuse for help.

3.) They Seek Sympathy and Validation Constantly

Covert narcissists are always on the lookout for sympathy and validation, craving it like plants crave sunlight.3 

However, they seek it more subtly compared to their overt counterparts. 

You might hear them share stories that highlight their struggles and hardships, always with a tone that seems to plead, “Feel sorry for me.” 

This tactic is not just about gaining attention; it’s about reaffirming their belief that they deserve special treatment and acknowledgment from those around them, even when their problems might not be as big or important as they make them seem. 

They often exaggerate or manipulate the truth to elicit sympathy and validation, ensuring they are seen as the deserving center of concern and care, often at the expense of acknowledging the needs and feelings of others.

4.) They Harbor a Quiet Sense of Superiority

Despite their outward appearance of modesty or self-deprecation, covert narcissists harbor a deep-seated sense of superiority.4 

They might not boast loudly about their achievements or belittle others openly, but they operate under the belief that they are more intelligent, more insightful, or morally superior to those around them. 

This belief is not usually expressed through overt statements but can be inferred from their attitudes and behaviors. 

For example, they may offer unsolicited advice, implying they know better, or dismiss others’ opinions with subtle comments or non-verbal cues that suggest contempt or disdain. 

This quiet sense of superiority allows them to feel above others while avoiding the social fallout of appearing arrogant.

Suggested Reading: How Do Narcissists See Themselves?

If you need help with anything related to narcissistic abuse, visit Unfilteredd’s Institute of Healing from Narcissistic Abuse today.

5.) They Have Difficulty Forming Genuine Connections

Covert narcissists often struggle to form genuine, deep connections with others.5 

This isn’t because they can’t initially be charming or seem interested. In fact, they can be very good at these things when it serves their needs. 

However, the issue lies in their inability to prioritize anyone else’s needs, feelings, or interests genuinely over their own for any sustained period. 

For them, relationships are more about what they can get out of them—whether that’s sympathy, attention, or validation—than mutual exchange and growth. 

They may listen to your problems or celebrate your successes, but often, it’s through the lens of how it affects them or serves their narrative. 

This self-centered approach makes it difficult for them to engage in the give-and-take that forms the basis of true friendship or intimacy, leading to shallow connections that lack emotional depth and fulfillment.

Suggested Reading: What Do Narcissists Want In a Relationship?

6.) They’re Secretly Envious and Competitive

Another trait of covert narcissists is their secret envy and competitiveness, even over trivial matters.6 

Unlike overt narcissists, who might openly brag or display their competitiveness, covert narcissists keep these feelings under wraps. 

They might not outwardly show their jealousy or competitiveness, but internally, they constantly compare themselves to others and feel resentful if someone else appears to have more, achieve more, or be more liked. 

This envy can manifest in passive-aggressive comments, backhanded compliments, or minimizing others’ accomplishments while exaggerating their own hardships. 

This behavior stems from their deep-seated insecurity and need to feel superior, driving them to covertly undermine others to boost their own ego.

7.) They Exhibit Passive-Aggressive Behavior

Covert narcissists often resort to passive-aggressive behavior as a means of expressing their displeasure or exerting control.7 

Rather than openly communicating their feelings or desires, they express them through indirect actions and subtle digs designed to confuse or hurt the recipient. 

For instance, they might agree to a request but then intentionally procrastinate or do a poor job, signaling their disagreement or resentment without overt confrontation. 

They may also use sarcasm, silent treatment, or subtle insults to express disdain or opposition. 

This passive-aggressive approach allows them to avoid direct responsibility for their hostility, maintaining an appearance of innocence or misunderstanding while still inflicting emotional harm on others.

8.) They Struggle with Empathy

A significant trait of covert narcissists is their struggle with genuine empathy.8 

While they may mimic empathetic behavior or express concern when it benefits them or enhances their self-image, their ability to genuinely understand and share in the feelings of others is limited. 

This lack of empathy is not always obvious; they might offer the right words of support or mimic caring behaviors they’ve observed in others.

However, their responses often lack depth and sincerity, causing them to come across as hollow or performed. 

This inability to truly empathize stems from their self-centered perspective, where the feelings and needs of others are always overshadowed by their own. 

This can be particularly damaging in close relationships, where emotional connection and mutual support are key, leaving partners or loved ones feeling misunderstood, unsupported, and alone.

If you are ready to be more than a victim of narcissistic abuse, visit Unfilteredd’s Institute of Healing from Narcissistic Abuse today.


Thank you so much for reading; I hope you found this article valuable.

Now, I’d love to hear from you!

Have you ever encountered someone who displayed these signs of covert narcissism? How did it impact your relationship or interaction with them?

What strategies have you employed to manage or protect yourself from the negative effects of covert narcissistic behavior?

Or perhaps you’re seeking advice on how to navigate a relationship with someone you suspect might be a covert narcissist.

Either way, let me know by leaving a comment below.

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About the Author

Hey, I’m Elijah.

I experienced narcissistic abuse for three years. 

I create these articles to help you understand and validate your experiences.

Thank you for reading, and remember, healing is possible even when it feels impossible.

Unfilteredd has strict sourcing guidelines and only uses high-quality sources to support the facts within our content. You can learn more about how we ensure our content is accurate, actionable, inclusive, and trustworthy by reading our editorial process.

  1. Dr. Sruthi. What Are 10 Signs of Covert Narcissism? MedicineNet. ↩︎
  2. Jodi Clarke. (2023. December, 5). How to Recognize a Covert Narcissist. Verywell Mind. ↩︎
  3. Crystal Raypole. (2024. February, 5). 10 Signs of Covert Narcissism. Healthline. ↩︎
  4. Cleveland Clinic. (2022. November, 30). What Is Covert Narcissism? Cleveland Clinic. ↩︎
  5. Aaron Kandola. (2023. December, 21). Signs of covert narcissism. Medical News Today. ↩︎
  6. Eric Patterson. (2023. May, 17). Covert Narcissists: Traits, Signs, & How to Deal With One. Choosing Therapy. ↩︎
  7. Olivia Guy-Evans. (2023. November, 24). What Are The Signs Of A Covert Narcissist? How To Respond. Simply Psychology. ↩︎
  8. Michelle Pugle. (2023. July, 9). What Makes Covert Narcissist Traits Different? Verywell Health. ↩︎

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