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Covert narcissist: 5 things they do and how to handle them

The image of a narcissist is well-illustrated in pop culture. You might think of a handsome, grandiose, beautiful man or woman, with a handheld mirror (or camera phone) in their hand, so they can appreciate their beauty whenever they wish.

But this idea of narcissism only covers half of the narcissists out there; for the other half, there are covert narcissists.

So what are covert narcissists?

These are narcissists who share the same self-loving characteristics of the more boisterous overt narcissists but without any of the outwardly defining traits of narcissism.

Covert narcissists are more dangerous because they understand how to hide their narcissism in a way that other narcissists don’t.

And being in a relationship with one? It can ruin your life.

(This article will be divided into two sections. The first section will discuss understanding narcissism, the difference between covert and overt narcissists, and the signs and experiences of a covert narcissist.The second section will discuss being in a relationship with a covert narcissist: are you with one, why you find it difficult to leave them, and how you can save yourself and move on.)

Part I: Understanding Narcissism

We often use the word “narcissist” to describe someone who might be obnoxious, arrogant, or self-obsessed.

However, narcissism also describes a serious mental health issue, and individuals showcasing too much of certain characteristics can be categorized as having Narcissistic Personality Disorder.

Narcissistic Traits

To be clinically diagnosed as having Narcissistic Personality Disorder, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (or the official handbook for professional therapists) states that an individual must have 5 of 9 listed narcissistic personality disorder traits. These include:

  • They lack empathy for others
  • They believe that they are inherently more important than those around them
  • They crave recognition for their inherent superiority
  • They showcase extreme arrogance through their attitude and behavior
  • They are paranoid of others being too envious of them
  • They have a natural sense of entitlement, believing that the world belongs to them
  • They obsess over fantasies of power, love, and success
  • They exploit others to fulfill their constant need for admiration and attention
  • They believe that only other special people can understand them properly

While some researchers believe that people are born with a narcissistic personality disorder, there are others who believe that it is a behavior that is learned through the environment.

They argue that while disorders such as schizophrenia and bipolar have been proven to have genetic and chemical backgrounds, Narcissistic Personality Disorder showcases no physical abnormalities or differences in the brain.

Two Types of Narcissism: Covert and Overt

As described above, the two types of narcissists – covert and overt – share the same goals and desires but seek to achieve them through different means.

The overt narcissist can be described as confident, assertive, and loud, but the covert narcissist is more insecure, passive, and quiet.

While both types of narcissists have an inflated sense of self-importance, the covert narcissist – for one reason or another – displays a shyness that will never be seen in the overt narcissist.

This makes the covert narcissist much more dangerous than the overt narcissist, as the covert narcissist can convince you they are anything but a narcissist, while still working towards narcissistic goals.

Covert Narcissist Overt Narcissist
Insecure, passive, and quiet Confident, assertive, and loud
Their will matters most, but they know they can achieve more if they play by the rules They don’t care what anyone thinks; their will matters most
They understand that a fake apology can keep people happy Will never apologize for the pain they’ve caused
They care about their reputation and looking good, so they make sure they cover their tracks They blindly do whatever they want, regardless of the consequences
Prone to depression, with experiences of failed ambition, and often feel fragile and empty Ambitious and charming, full of energy and self-righteous strength
They embrace their victimhood, using their vulnerability to seem sensitive to gain affection Always bragging about themselves and the things they’ve done
They believe that the world has shunned them because of their inherent superiority They believe that the world recognizes their inherent superiority
You can live with them for years without realizing what they are You can see them coming from a mile away

Signs of a Covert Narcissist

1) Quiet Self-Importance

Real-world example: One-Upping

What you might have heard: “You got an A on the test? That’s great! Not as great as my A+ last week, but still, good for you.”

How they want you to feel: A confusion between praise and shame, and a reminder that you are lesser than them. You are forced to thank them for their “kindness”, even if it doesn’t feel right.

Like the overt narcissist, the covert narcissist can’t stand the idea that they might not be the smartest or best person in the room. But unlike the overt narcissist, the covert narcissist doesn’t spread out its colorful wings every time it feels threatened.

Instead, the covert narcissist is much better at showcasing their superiority in subtle manners. This includes minimizing accomplishments by comparing them to their own, back-handed compliments, and other smug remarks.

2) Nonchalant Disregard

Real-world example: Ghosting

What you might have heard: “Oh you texted me? Sorry, I didn’t see. I’ve just been super busy with everyone else messaging me.”

How they want you to feel: Unimportant and small. They know that they have you on a leash, and want to remind you by showing you who’s the boss every now and then. They want you to know that they don’t care about your time or your feelings.

Narcissists love having the spotlight on themselves, even if that spotlight is just the attention of a single person.

This involves manipulating the people in their lives into believing that no one’s time, wants, or needs matter except their own.

So while an overt narcissist might openly demand that you abide by their wishes, a covert narcissist does it slowly and carefully.

Over time, they carefully break down your own self-respect for your time and your needs. They do this by not sticking to their plans with you – arriving late for meetings, changing plans on-the-go, never sticking to promises, and even ignoring your messages.

3) Appreciated Altruism

Real-world example: Sharing Charity Donations

What you might have heard: “So I slipped in $20 into the tip jar at Starbucks and the barista was so grateful, it was hilarious.”

How they want you to feel: Admiring them for their generosity as well as their wealth. They want you to know that they are a nice person, but they would not perform the nice deed if they didn’t have the opportunity to tell you or anyone else.

Altruism is supposed to be a selfless act of kindness and love. It should be about helping other people and enriching their lives at the expense of part of your own, unconditionally.

But narcissists are unable to empathize with people and don’t see the need to help others if it does nothing to benefit themselves.

While overt narcissists wouldn’t even bother with the mind games, covert narcissists care about the way other people think of them.

They want their social network to know every time they’ve done a good deed because the good deed isn’t for the recipient; it’s for them to raise their own brownie points.

These are the people who, when tipping in the tip jar at a coffee shop, wait until as many people in the line are looking before they drop their tip.

4) Confusing Others

Real-world example: Gaslighting

What you might have heard: “You have no idea what you’re talking about.”

How they want you to feel: Uncertain of what you believe in and what you understand. They want you to question your reality and your perceptions, and in doing so, they want to further establish and reinforce their own opinions and desires.

Covert narcissists love confusing other people. They love to see the self-doubt other people experience when their thoughts and perceptions are challenged wholeheartedly.

By taking away a person’s ideological foundation, it makes it that much easier for a covert narcissist to exploit and manipulate them.

Remember: covert narcissists only have a single goal, and that is to feed their own ego.

They will do that by whatever means necessary, even (and most of the time especially) if it at the expense of people who care for them.

5) Emotionally Inaccessible

Real-world example: Too Busy For You

What you might have heard: “You’re too sensitive. Just get over it already.”

How they want you to feel: That your emotions are a negative part of your psyche. They want you to feel that they are superior to you because they have full control of their emotions, while you do not.

They make you feel small and stupid for even needing emotional support from a friend or a partner since they are so emotionally stable and put-together.

Narcissists do not experience emotion the same way that others do, which is why they have difficulty building meaningful relationships with those around them.

While overt narcissists express this through obnoxious and loud behavior, covert narcissists will just tend to ignore their partners and friends altogether.

They do not understand the need to compliment or praise other people, because they naturally believe they are inherently superior, so anything that their partner or friends might do is never enough to impress them.

Other Experiences of Being with A Covert Narcissist

  • They get angry when you are sick
  • They condescend you for no reason
  • They forget about your requests on purpose
  • They gaslight when it comes to sex
  • They make people fight each other
  • They drain all your energy but don’t give you any
  • They have no interests beside self-gain
  • They project their own issues onto you
  • They give you the silent treatment and make you beg and plead
  • They never try to make you happy
  • They don’t really know anything about you

Part II: Dealing with a Covert Narcissist

Countless people are trapped in relationships with covert narcissists. If you have experienced any or all of the examples listed above, then your partner might be one, too.

Are You a Target for Covert Narcissists?

Covert narcissists tend to target a certain personality type. These are people who possess characteristics that make them most susceptible to covert narcissist behavior, people that covert narcissists can manipulate, exploit, and control over an extended period of time.

These characteristics include:

  • Nurturer, home-maker (they pity the vulnerable side of the narcissist)
  • Caretaker
  • Extremely sensitive
  • Quiet
  • Doesn’t have a big social network (they must rely on the narcissist)
  • Self-doubting
  • Overly kind
  • Self-reflective (they have a desire to become better which the narcissist can exploit)
  • Self-sacrificing (even if they do recognize the exploitation, they stay to help)

Why Covert Narcissists Make Dangerous Relationships

Unlike relationships with normal people, relationships with covert narcissists are a game from start to finish. They are designed to manipulate their victims from the onset.

There are three stages of a relationship with a covert narcissist. These stages are:

Love Bombing: Love bombing is the first stage, in which the covert narcissists does everything to make themselves your ideal partner.

They do this by understanding your background and any underlying issues you might have, and then presenting themselves as your ideal partner.

Love bombing is different for every person, as we all have unique wants and needs in a partner.

Some people might be looking for someone more dominating to take control of their lives; other people might be looking for someone who will listen and react to their issues.

Ask Yourself:

  • Did you ever feel like “I can’t believe this person exists”?
  • Did you ever feel overwhelmingly lucky to have found the perfect partner?
  • Did they begin the relationship by asking about your every want and need, and did that interest drop?

Demeaning and Devaluing: This is the second stage and most often the longest stage as well.

After the victim has fallen in love with the covert narcissist, the narcissist will then end their love bombing and become their true selves.

This is when the majority of the narcissist signs begin to show: emotional inaccessibility, lack of praise or effort, lopsided relationship, condescension and more.

Ask Yourself:

  • Was there an immediate change in your relationship after a certain period of time?
  • Did you ever think, “This isn’t the person I fell in love with”?
  • Did you ever try to explain and excuse their behavior to your friends or family?

Discarding: The final stage is the discarding stage, in which the covert narcissist has not only shown all their characteristics, but they are also now playing with their partner.

Their quietly abusive behavior intensifies, as the covert narcissist tests their partner’s limits.

It is at this stage that they want to see how much they can emotionally manipulate and exploit their partner without pushing them too far.

Generally, the relationship has gone on long enough that the covert narcissist is the person’s only source of support and affection.

They have become isolated and alone, and have no means to escape.

Ask Yourself:

  • Did you ever wonder, “What did I do to deserve this treatment?”
  • Do you find yourself feeling lost, trapped, and more confused than ever before?
  • Do you find yourself without any of your old friends, family, or other social network?

Dealing With It: Are You In Love? Or Is It Trauma Bonding?

The most difficult part of accepting that your partner is a covert narcissist is accepting the fact that you have allowed yourself to fall into this kind of relationship without realizing it.

And for many people, this acceptance is the most difficult part.

Before you can begin to escape and save yourself, it is important that you understand why you allowed this to happen and the parts of your personality that let this person into your life.

So the first thing you must ask yourself is: are you really in love, or is it trauma bonding?

What is Trauma Bonding?

Narcissistic Trauma Bonding is the condition that occurs when the three steps of a covert relationship listed above are thoroughly executed.

The psychological processes by which Narcissistic Trauma Bonding set in can be described as a combination of Intermittent Reinforcement and Stockholm Syndrome.

Intermittent Reinforcement: Intermittent reinforcement is the phenomenon in which a person is firstly conditioned to expect a reward after doing a certain task, and then the reward is later removed, leaving the person continuously doing the task, hoping the reward will eventually return.

In the case of a covert narcissist, the reward is their love and affection, and the task is the victim’s obedience and loyalty.

Stockholm Syndrome: Stockholm Syndrome describes the phenomenon in which prisoners or victims develop positive feelings and even love for their captors.

The captive regresses into a childlike state, and soon begin to emotionally depend on their captors.

Covert narcissists can trap people in narcissistic trauma bonding, keeping them stuck in relationships even if they know that the relationship is unhealthy and toxic.

Steps Towards Escaping a Relationship with a Covert Narcissist

1) Forgive Yourself: For many victims, their first response upon learning and accepting that they have fallen into a manipulative and exploitative relationship with a covert narcissist is shame and self-hatred.

Thus the first step is to forgive yourself. Tell yourself: this happened to me because I have a positive, kind, and self-sacrificing personality, all of which are positive traits.

It’s time to rebuild who you are and escape.

2) Don’t Believe That They Can Change: Even after discovering that your partner is a covert narcissist, you might convince yourself to stay.

You might believe that you’ve invested years of your life into a relationship with someone who is great but just has a slight personality disorder that they can grow out of.

But it won’t happen.

Most narcissists never change and keep their narcissistic personality for life. No amount of therapy or love can help them become a truly loving and caring partner.

3) Be Tactical: Slowly but surely, you have to reverse the role in the relationship until you can get to a point where you are emotionally-ready to leave.

While it might be easy for those on the outside to say “just leave”, you know that’s not the case: you feel drained, empty, and lost.

This means you have to stop letting the covert narcissist suck the life out of you. One way you can do this is with the grey rock technique.

Close yourself off completely to the narcissist. In every interaction – every call, every talk, every text – keep as much of yourself to yourself as possible.

If they ask you a question, stick to the bare facts. No feelings mean no opportunity for exploitation.

Soon you should be ready to leave, as they will no longer have the chance to drain you or manipulate you with new information.

And remember: a relationship with a covert narcissist never ends easy. They will come back for you – it is your job to keep yourself closed to them.

Life After: What to Learn for the Future

Life must go on. After escaping a relationship with a covert narcissist, it is up to you to build something new.

But how do you move on from a relationship filled with exploitation and manipulation? Here are three things to learn for the future:

You will be naturally inclined to avoid relationships, and this will attract more narcissists.

Whether you choose to or not, you will have a natural inclination to avoid relationships in the future, and this can fill you with negative feelings.

Feelings of criticism, self-blame, self-denial, and procrastinating from moving forward, emotionally and physically.

Not only that, but other covert narcissists will sense your vulnerability. After all, you still have the same personality traits that attracted your first covert narcissist; now you are vulnerable, alone, and damaged.

Be careful of people who try to step in your life too quickly, too much; but open your doors to those who might be able to help you normally.

Never assume that everyone has a conscience. Because some people don’t.

The problem with those who are too kind is that they have difficulty understanding the minds of those who are not. Many of us are naturally guided by an inherent conscience, telling us the difference between right and wrong.

But for some people, there is no moral compass guiding them in life. According to one study, 1 out of every 25 people is a sociopath. These people are guided by their own belief in self-importance, entitlement, and an absolute lack of empathy.

Don’t always trust your emotions; people can use them against you.

It is one of the hardest lessons to learn, but perhaps the most important. A relationship with a covert narcissist teaches you that your own feelings might not be reliable. That head-over-heels, love-drunk feeling can make you feel young and excited, but it’s also something you should think twice about.

To you, it might feel like your stomach is full of butterflies and you’ve finally found “The One”, but to them, you might just be the next source of affection and love.

And if you’re looking for specific techniques to improve all aspects of your daily living, including your relationships, emotional resilience and state of mind, check out my new eBook on the no-nonsense guide to using Buddhism and eastern philosophy here.

Are you mentally tough?

Resilience and mental toughness are key attributes to living your best life. They determine how high we rise above what threatens to wear us down, from battling an illness, to dealing with challenging emotions, to carrying on after a relationship has ended.

In The Art of Resilience: A Practical Guide to Developing Mental Toughness, we outline exactly what it means to be mentally tough and equip you with 10 resilience-building tools that you can start using today.

Check it out here.

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Lachlan Brown

Written by Lachlan Brown

I’m Lachlan Brown, the founder, and editor of Hack Spirit. I love writing practical articles that help others live a mindful and better life. I have a graduate degree in Psychology and I’ve spent the last 6 years reading and studying all I can about human psychology and practical ways to hack our mindsets. If you to want to get in touch with me, hit me up on Twitter or Facebook.

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