It can be extremely challenging to accurately identify a covert narcissist without the guidance of a qualified professional. Society often depicts a narcissist as a charming, charismatic, and extroverted person who can swoop us off of our feet with extravagant forms of attention so it is important to learn the signs of a covert narcissist because they don’t always conform to society’s perception of narcissism.  

14 characteristics that are relatively unique to covert narcissism are a low level of extraversion, pessimism, high neuroticism, jealousy, resentfulness, distrustfulness, insecurity, hypersensitivity to criticism, defensiveness, socially awkward, unforgiving, internalized anger and aggression, and feelings of shame.

Just to clarify for readers who may be unfamiliar with some of the characteristics above, people with a low level of extroversion tend to be considered introverted. People with high neuroticism are more prone to negative emotions such as anxiety, depression, anger, guilt, and loneliness. And a pessimistic person has a tendency to see the worst aspect of things or believe that the worse will happen.

A woman asking what the signs of a covert narcissist are

When learning about narcissistic personalities it’s important to remember that there are rarely any absolutes because narcissism is on a continuum, a continuous sequence in which adjacent elements are not perceptibly different from each other, but the extremes are quite distinct. 

Meaning that narcissists who are considered to be on the extreme end of covert narcissism are clearly different from narcissists who are considered to be on the extreme end of malignant, communal, and grandiose narcissism and vice versa. However, there tends to be a lot of overlap among narcissists who display milder traits of the different narcissistic personalities. 

To further explain the high probability of the different narcissistic personality types overlapping with one another we’ve created a short video summing up some very interesting research we’ve come across about the fascinating relationship that covert narcissism and grandiose narcissism have with each other. 

Covert Narcissism and Grandiose Narcissism Often Exist Side-By-Side in the Same Person

Five Signs of Covert Narcissistic Abuse

In a survey among one-hundred survivors of narcissistic abuse we found that the most reliable approach one could have to spotting the signs of a covert narcissist would be to familiarize themselves with the signs of covert narcissistic abuse. 

If you focus on the narcissistic behavior patterns that covert narcissists often display you’ll be in a much better position to see through their manipulative nature and avoid the confusion that comes with the different narcissistic personalities tending to overlap with one another. 

They Will Constantly Be Victimizing Themselves

Self-victimization is a go-to tactic for covert narcissists and it is one of the reasons that they often attract people who have a tendency to want to “rescue” others. To truly grasp a comprehensive understanding of the relationship self-victimization and covert narcissists have, you have to understand their grandiosity, arrogance, and sense of entitlement. 

The grandiosity, arrogance, and sense of entitlement that grandiose, malignant, and communal narcissists have manifests in a very extravagant manner. They’re charming, charismatic, extroverted, and because of this, often very successful. All of these things fuels a grandiose, communal, and/or malignant narcissist’s inflated ego which makes their grandiosity, arrogance, and sense of entitlement easy to identify.  

A covert narcissist is just as grandiose, arrogant, and entitled, if not more, than all of the other types of narcissists, but their demeanor is so resentful, distrustful, shameful, and sullen that they often come off as depressed and therefore their grandiosity, arrogance, and sense of entitlement often goes unnoticed. 

Why does any of that matter? 

Narcissists are really good at manipulating their victim into justifying, rationalizing, and normalizing their abusive behavior so it is really important that you truly understand every nook and cranny of narcissism if you want to protect yourself from being manipulated by a narcissist.   

How Do Covert Narcissists Victimize Themselves

While there are a million different ways that a covert narcissist can victimize themselves, the technique that is most commonly seen is the should’ve, would’ve, could’ve method. 

This method could manifest in so many different ways and doesn’t necessarily have to use the words “should’ve, would’ve, could’ve” but the point is that the covert narcissist purposely victimizes themselves to justify, rationalize, and ultimately normalize their manipulative, exploitative , and abusive behavior.

A covert narcissist trying to justify his abuse

This can be really dangerous for those who have a tendency to “rescue” others because a covert narcissist’s ability to victimize themselves every single chance that they get will manipulate “rescuers” into believing that the narcissist is on the cusp of changing or greatness. 

This change or greatness could manifest as the covert narcissist being the compassionate, thoughtful, and respectful person that the “rescuer” desperately desires or it could be achievements like finally getting the promotion they’ve been working “so hard” for.  

Whatever it may be, the “rescuer” will remain in the relationship because they believe that if they keep making sacrifices for the covert narcissist, they’ll be able to help them reach their full potential. 

Covert Narcissists Create Disturbingly Negative Environments

Key characteristics of covert narcissism like pessimism, high neuroticism, jealousy, resentfulness, distrustfulness, hypersensitivity to criticism, unforgiving, internalized anger and aggression, and feelings of shame cause the environments that covert narcissists are in to be extremely negative. 

One of the clearest manifestations of this negativity is a covert narcissist’s tendency to minimize, devalue, and invalidate the success of others all the time. When they’re in the presence of someone who is even remotely successful, a covert narcissist will have an uncontrollable need to minimize, devalue, and invalidate their success. 

A covert narcissist devaluing the success of others.

It’s also very common for victims of covert narcissistic abuse to feel like the narcissist hates every single thing about them. The reason being that it doesn’t matter how much validation, admiration, and reassurance the victim gives the covert narcissist, it is never good enough. 

This means that arguments are often left unresolved, there are never any compromises being made by the narcissist, there’s always a negative side to everything, and the victim is left feeling like they have to walk on eggshells around the narcissist because their anger and hate is always looming over the victim’s head.

This underlying anger and hate also fuel the narcissist’s unforgiving tendencies. In an argument a covert narcissist is masterful at transforming their brain into an encyclopedia of every single “mistake” the victim has made. It doesn’t matter how long ago it was or how much the victim has apologized, the covert narcissist is incapable of letting it go and will bring up the past as if it is a current issue. 

Covert narcissists have also been known to use self-victimization and an overwhelming amount of negativity to isolate their victims from friends and family. They do this by trying to shame, guilt, and/or devalue their victim for wanting to spend time with other people.

It’s an incredibly difficult position for victims to be in because the covert narcissist is so introverted and negative that they don’t want to be a part of social gathers but will punish the victim if they decided to acknowledge the narcissists claims of “loneliness and neglect” for even considering hanging out with people on the outside of the relationship in the first place. 

This is nothing more than an insecure grasp for power and control that originates from a covert narcissist’s crippling sense of inadequacy and fear of abandonment. 

They Need Proof That Their Partner Loves Them

It’s very common for a covert narcissist to need “proof” that their romantic partner loves them and won’t leave them. Their need for “proof” originates from their anxious attachment style which we cover thoroughly in our article How Are Narcissists Made but it is amplified by the jealousy of others that they have that originates from a fear of being inadequate.

Unfortunately, they’re too insecure, distrustful, and emotionally inadequate to have a healthy approach to seeking reassurance in a relationship so they rely on projection and wild accusations to soothe their need for “proof” of love and commitment. 

The wild accusations that a covert narcissist will make in an immature search for reassurance usually revolve around the idea that the victim isn’t happy in the relationship.

A covert narcissist needing reassurance that his wife loves him.

Projection is a defense mechanism that both narcissistic and non-narcissistic people use in which a person takes aspects of their own identity that they find unacceptable and projects them onto someone else to avoid the psychological tension that comes from acknowledging said traits or impulses in themselves. A simple example of this in a narcissistic relationship would be a narcissist cheating on their partner but instead of taking responsibility for their own actions, they accuse their partner of cheating.

They Rely on Projection to Manage Criticism

Narcissists, not just covert narcissists, are hypersensitive to any type of criticism because it contradicts their falsified identity. This falsified identity is a narcissist’s crown jewel. It has been crafted to accumulate as much validation, admiration, and reassurance as possible so they view it as perfect. 

When a narcissist receives a criticism it contradicts core aspects of their falsified identity like their sense of specialness, uniqueness, and entitlement. It serves as a constant reminder that they aren’t as “special” as they portray themselves as. 

When this happens all of the negative emotions they have suppressed behind their falsified identity begin to bubble to their psychological surface but because they’re so emotionally inadequate they’re unable to manage them properly. 

It is for this reason that narcissists rely on narcissistic rage, projection, the silent treatment, gaslighting etc., to regulate their own emotions. It is the equivalent to a child throwing a tantrum when they’re upset simply because they lack the interpersonal skill to communicate when they have uncomfortable thoughts, feelings, emotions, and needs.

a child throwing a tantrum

It’s very common to see a covert narcissist use projection in the face of criticism to make whoever criticized them feel the shame, fear, and overwhelming sense of inadequacy that the criticism made the covert narcissist feel. 

They Behave Sadistically to Manage Their Negative Emotions

There’s a ton of research about the origin of narcissism and it is believed to originate from an unhealthy/abusive upbringing with primary caregivers who are unavailable, unresponsive, and inconsistent.

These types of primary caregivers are incapable of mirroring their child’s thoughts, feelings, emotions, and needs which means that the child wouldn’t get the validation, admiration, and reassurance that is required for a healthy cognitive development.

This forces the child to search their external environment for the validation, admiration, and reassurance that their primary caregiver couldn’t give them and to do this a child will prioritize their external environment over their internal environment. A simple example of this could be a child focusing on becoming a really good basketball player instead of expressing his or her emotions to their parents. 

When the child gets the validation, admiration, and reassurance that they desperately need from their external environment instead of their internal environment, it causes them to develop a belief that their true identity isn’t good enough because they’re being neglected by their primary caregivers. 

As a result of this the child will begin to create a falsified identity and optimize it to accumulate as much validation, admiration, and reassurance as possible and to suppress all of their negative emotions like shame, self-hate, and fear, that they have because of their misguided belief that they aren’t good enough.

a child wondering why his primary care givers don't love him

This creates a person who is terribly unstable emotionally and incapable of regulating their own emotions because of how emotionally inadequate they are. So, narcissists tend to use scapegoats and projection to regulate their own emotions but covert narcissists are often quite sadistic when they do so. 

Generally speaking, a narcissist’s reliance on scapegoating or projection to regulate their negative emotions originates from an emotional inadequacy and a protectiveness over a fragile sense of self. Same is true for covert narcissists but they also do so with the intent of making others feel as bad as they do. 

When they’re able to destroy the emotional stability of others, it gives them a significant amount of validation, admiration, and reassurance that they use to reassure their fragile sense of self and further suppress their negative emotions. This behavior isn’t necessarily unique to covert narcissists but it is a very common occurrence to witness in the relationships that covert narcissists maintain. 

What Should You Take Away From This Article?

The importance of grasping a comprehensive understanding of narcissism, narcissistic personalities, and narcissistic abuse is immeasurable. It is going to put you in a position from which you can effortlessly dismantle the manipulative structure designed to keep you trapped under the power and control of the narcissist in your life that their abuse creates.


This article has been reviewed by our editorial board and has been approved for publication in accordance with our editorial policies.

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References:

Rohmann, Elke, et al. “Grandiose and vulnerable narcissism.” European Psychologist (2012).

Dickinson, Kelly A., and Aaron L. Pincus. “Interpersonal analysis of grandiose and vulnerable narcissism.” Journal of personality disorders 17.3 (2003): 188-207.

Baumeister RF, Dale K, Sommer KL. Freudian defense mechanisms and empirical findings in modern social psychology: reaction formation, projection, displacement, undoing, isolation, sublimation, and denial. J Pers. 1998;66(6):1081-1124.

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