Narcissists exist in a universe where they always come first, but they’re not always in-your-face about it.
In fact, covert narcissists are much harder to spot than typical extroverted narcissists.
If you’re not careful they will entrap you in their web, leaving you doubting your own perceptions, experiences and value.
Here’s how to spot the classic behavioral signs of a covert narcissist.
These things are subtle, but that doesn’t make them any less toxic or damaging than the behavior of a typical narcissist.
Covert narcissists are masters of humblebragging.
This is where they disguise a boast in a complaint or seemingly humble statement.
“It’s so stressful being asked to give talks in front of hundreds of people, I’m just a normal guy.”
The message: he’s a normal guy apart from being important enough to give talks in front of large crowds and be called on in ways other people generally are not.
2) Toxic sensitivity
Toxic sensitivity is different than just being a highly sensitive person (HSP).
Covert narcissists use sensitivity to get their way:
The covert narcissist makes other people feel like they have to walk on eggshells.
They use their supposed heightened sensitivity to demand and get their way from other people and also to keep score.
“You’ve never really respected me, you know that I’m sensitive to smells yet you still use that type of aftershave!
I can’t believe you won’t let me use your credit card, too” complains the covert narcissist girlfriend.
3) Guilt tripping
Covert narcissists use guilt as a weapon, but they do so in subtle and hard to spot ways.
“No, no, it’s fine,” is one of their favorite statements.
What it means is that it (whatever it happens to be) is anything but fine.
Another one is “don’t worry about me, it’s cool,” which means somebody should worry about them and it is definitely not cool.
They use this kind of passive aggressive tactic to guilt trip people into feeling indebted to them or giving them their way.
Covert narcissists don’t get in your face the way typical narcissists do.
They tend to be dismissive in a subtle way, nodding non-comitaly when asked to contribute or shrugging in a sort of indifferent expression during many situations.
They play the part of a mild mannered guy or easy-going woman, but something about them is just detached and dismissive.
It’s as if they feel they are above the problems and concerns of the people around them.
This ties into the next point…
5) Low-key arrogance
Covert narcissists tend to be low-key arrogant.
They sit back and watch everything going on through a quiet kind of superiority, but then smile sweetly or shrug when it comes to conversing or interacting with others.
This is why many typical “nice guys” for example, are actually covert narcissists.
They feel like they are better and deserving of ideal treatment in life, yet they put on a false mask of niceness and detach from any real involvement in the dirt and messiness of life.
“Covert narcissists are more challenging to spot than those who scream self-importance.
They tend to observe their surroundings with quiet scrutiny and judgment and listen apathetically rather than offering anything substantial to the conversation.”
6) Introverted megalomania
Typical megalomania of the kind exhibited by narcissistic gurus and political fanatics, for example, is not what you’ll find in a covert narcissist.
Instead, they tend to have introverted megalomania, meaning they feel better than others and more important but they don’t push it on people.
The covert narcissist is in many ways simply a more self-aware narcissist, meaning they are aware of how they come across to others and moderate that to be more effective.
They know that coming in with all sorts of boasting and claims of superiority doesn’t tend to work very well.
For that reason they keep their megalomania under wraps.
But behind closed doors and in their drunken or unguarded moments friends and colleagues may notice that the covert narcissist doesn’t have a balanced view of their place in the world.
They genuinely consider themselves to be of another class or superior type than most others, often with a special role or gift that makes them better than most people in their own mind.
This ties into the next feature of many covert narcissists…
7) Paranoid fears
Covert narcissists tend to have similar paranoid fantasies and delusions as narcissists.
They’re just better at keeping them hidden.
They may get very involved in elaborate conspiracies in which they’re the “only one” who knows the real truth.
They may also feel victimized and like the “System” is after them more so than anybody else.
This doesn’t generally cross the line into full-fledged mental illness, but is more of a neurotic fixation in which the covert narcissist doesn’t really care if the paranoia is true:
They just care about how it makes them feel special and misunderstood.
8) Demanding special treatment
The covert narcissist often demands special treatment.
Whether they justify this by their supposed heightened sensitivity or their special status and gifts, they tend to ask for special favors.
Watch for them to do so very nicely and meekly.
But behind the pleasant (but sometimes excessive) requests is the clear belief that they deserve to be treated differently and with more care and consideration than everyone else.
In other words: narcissism.
9) Smothering levels of smugness
Covert narcissists are much more subtle than outer egomaniacs and manipulators.
But if you know them well and see them on a daily basis you’ll also observe underlying very smug attitudes.
They refuse to consider other points of view but shrug and say “well, that’s one opinion…”
They refuse to open up much about issues that come up at work or at home, saying “not my problem” or “it’s fine.”
The common theme is that they feel more or less above the issues and controversies of those around them.
“In covert narcissism, the calm exterior and smugness often serves as a protective barrier to the rest of the world,” explains Yassin, adding that this is “often a defense mechanism to keep others at a distance.”
This relates to the next point as well:
10) Complacent apathy
Covert narcissists are masters of complacence.
Apart from raising their sensitivities and particularities or their own beliefs about being special whenever possible, they don’t seem to care about much.
They will usually try to pass this off as being “chill” or easy-going, but if you look carefully you’ll notice that their apathy and complacency only extends a certain distance:
Specifically they’re pretty much indifferent and apathetic about everything that isn’t directly connected to their interests, wellbeing and material interest.
If you notice these are common traits of modern consumer society as a whole! (Modern society has deep patterns of covert narcissism woven all through it).
11) Self-absorbed solitude
Certain people thrive in solitude and that’s a great thing.
But the covert narcissist doesn’t seek out solitude for empowering or positive reasons.
They seek it out as a way to only do what they want:
Lounging all day on their computer playing video games…
Meditating and following spiritual gurus while feeling superior to the other plebians out and about serving the “System.”
This self-absorbed solitude doesn’t connect them more to themselves or anyone else: it’s just a form of immediate gratification and an intentional severing of ties with the outside world.
12) Refusal to take responsibility
The covert narcissist tends to operate more by passivity than proactive narcissism.
In other words, they disconnect and withdraw and that is their main form of narcissism.
A big part of this is simply refusing to take responsibility.
Or they make excuses about their sensitivity, about their boundaries, about how it’s just not a “good time.”
They know how to wrap all this in the most reasonable-sounding phrases and explanations.
But at the end of the day it’s still just narcissism and a refusal to take on more responsibility in life.
Dealing with covert narcissists
The best way to deal with a covert narcissist is to refuse their bait.
They will often present sly gambits where you have a simple choice:
Play along or refuse to participate.
The less you participate the more they will disengage and eventually leave you alone or at least stop trying to emotionally manipulate you.
Lost Your Sense of Purpose?
In this age of information overload and pressure to meet others’ expectations, many struggle to connect with their core purpose and values. It’s easy to lose your inner compass.
Jeanette Brown created this free values discovery PDF to help clarify your deepest motivations and beliefs. As an experienced life coach and self-improvement teacher, Jeanette guides people through major transitions by realigning them with their principles.
Her uniquely insightful values exercises will illuminate what inspires you, what you stand for, and how you aim to operate. This serves as a refreshing filter to tune out societal noise so you can make choices rooted in what matters most to you.
With your values clearly anchored, you’ll gain direction, motivation and the compass to navigate decisions from your best self – rather than fleeting emotion or outside influences.
Stop drifting without purpose. Rediscover what makes you come alive with Jeanette Brown’s values clarity guide.