The first things that come to mind upon hearing the word narcissist are extreme and irritating confidence, belief in one’s superiority, expecting constant praise and self-righteousness. All of us must have encountered that kind of people in our social and professional lives.
But do all narcissists have these traits?
Both yes and no. Although all narcissists are selfish manipulators, they don’t always look like one. Some of them choose to hide themselves and they’re quite good at that.
In this article, I’ll tell you about covert narcissists.
First of all, I want to explain why I felt the need to write this article and highlight the importance of this issue. Few years ago I found out that the person I’ve been with for a long time had narcissistic personality disorder, which confused me a lot. I already knew the meaning of the word and its place in mythology. Also, I had heard and read a lot of things about the fact we’re in the age of narcissism and that social media had turned everybody into narcissists. However, I soon realized that my knowledge about narcissism in terms of pathology was quite limited and surface level.
In order to understand the things I’ve been through during this relationship and to find a reason to my disappointment, I read and listen to whatever source I could find about narcissistic personality disorder for the following weeks. But even then it somehow didn’t add up.
Yes, high self-confidence.
Yes, feeling special.
Yes, the need for praise.
All of that made sense but I still couldn’t see a solid connection between the stereotypical narcissistic person and the one I was in a relationship with. He wasn’t exactly like them. So I found myself even more confused than before.
Maybe he was not really a narcissist? Maybe it was just a wrong diagnosis? Maybe I was the real problem? Questions starting with ‘maybe’ haunted me for quite some time.
Then one day, I saw the term ‘covert narcissist’ in an article and it started to unveil the mystery. I hope this article helps some of you understand certain things as well. (Still, let me warn you about something. You should always avoid diagnosing yourself or someone you know based on the things you read on the internet.)
Returning to our main topic; what is a ‘covert narcissist’, ‘introvert narcissist’ or ‘vulnerable narcissist’?
15 Characteristics of Covert Narcissists
1- They can’t handle criticism
First of all, I’d like to say that all people can be a bit sensitive when it comes to criticism. Even the most mature people who are comfortable in their own skin can get a little upset when they’re criticized harshly. But things are a bit different for covert narcissists. These people can throw a tantrum and hold a grudge for quite some time even when they’re criticized in a very gentle and subtle way. In their own minds, they’re already perfect and superior, so if you’re able to see the bad in them, you’re probably just ill-minded.
On the other hand, overt narcissists (or grandiose narcissists) tend to be immune to criticism in comparison. They can laugh it off or completely ignore it. Overt narcissists believe themselves to be so superior that the opinions of other people are simply ridiculous to them. Covert narcissists, however, can get really upset when they’re criticized even though they also think themselves superior. Because being criticized makes them realize that they’re not that perfect in the eyes of other people.
2. They usually play the victim
They can tell you about their sad childhoods or their severely depressed and problematic exes. They were always taken for granted at their workplaces and their friends always ended up betraying them. Because they were always too nice and tolerant. These stories can lead you to sympathize with them and you can find yourself feeling really bad for them. And that is exactly what they want. If you sympathize with them, you care about them. And that makes them feel special.
If there’s someone around them who truly needs help, they’re annoyed by it. Because that means the attention they want all for themselves will be divided. They always have to be the most unfortunate ‘victim’ around. Long story short, they feed off misery.
But the overt narcissists don’t enjoy your sympathy as much because you’re inferior. They’re the alpha, the lion, the strongest person in the room; so your sympathy looks like pity to them and that’s a huge insult.
3- They express themselves passive-aggressively.
As I stated above, the overt narcissists are the ones we can call ‘the alphas’. They’re not afraid of stepping forward, they’re more extroverted and their reactions are clearer. But the covert narcissists tend to be passive aggressive. For instance, when they’re upset by something, they prefer sulking for days instead of telling you what the problem is. They can humiliate you publicly, but they do this so subtly that if you try to confront them about it afterwards, they can easily save themselves.
4- They can act like a brand-new person when they’re outside.
They can be quite cheerful, sociable and talkative when they’re surrounded by others. When there’s an audience, they can pretend to be a caring, loving partner to you. People can admire you as a couple and see them as an ideal partner. But once you’re home and away from prying eyes, they can turn into a timid, sour, intolerant and aloof person. In fact, they can even be violent, hateful and vengeful. This can confuse you a lot. Because if you try to talk to your inner circle about this, they’re likely to think that you are the problem. They can tell you that you’re exaggerating things or that you misunderstand your partner. They can insist that they’re a very good person who loves you a lot, and even accuse you of under-appreciating what you have. When you’re the only one feeling in a certain way whereas so many people are opposing you, you can end up believing that you really are the problem.
5- They are the ‘special, misunderstood’ people
Even if they never achieved something significant in life, covert narcissists believe that they have great potential. They’re simply the unfortunate souls who couldn’t reach their full potentials, they’re special people who are misunderstood. It’s their families’, friends’, partners’, the system’s and the society’s fault that they were not noticed before. It’s never their own fault.
6- They’re ‘good listeners’.
Covert narcissists look like good listeners. Especially in the early stages of the relationship, they can listen to everything you say with utmost attention. While you believe this to be an advantage, their actual purpose is to analyze you better so that it’s easier to manipulate you in the future. Once they found all your weaknesses, things start to change. They no longer need to listen to you that carefully. From thereon, they only pretend to be listening to you. If you pay attention, you’ll see that all the details are instantly forgotten. You’ll have to tell them everything (even the most important things) again and again. Narcissists are so lost in their own worlds that paying attention to other people takes great effort. That’s why their listening tend to be surface level. Still, they’re quite good at pretending to be a good listener.
7- They’re able to have long-term relationships.
Overt narcissists, on the other hand, tend to have short-term relationships. Long-term relationships require more effort and that’s not entertaining at all for an overt narcissist. But covert narcissists can maintain the same relationship for years. Covert narcissists need to be surrounded by other people in order to feel important. They’re also emotionally dependent.
8- They’re ‘humble’.
Unlike genuinely humble people, covert narcissists like to tell stories that highlight their humility. They also mention every single good deed of theirs to keep this perception alive.
9- They can be benevolent.
Overt narcissists are not very interested in helping others but covert narcissists can be known as a very benevolent and charitable person among their inner circle. Their main goal behind this is the phenomena called narcissistic supply. They like to be known as a good, helpful person. For narcissistic people, appearance is everything.
10- They can apologize.
In a lot of articles about narcissists, it’s said that they never apologize. But that’s not exactly true. Covert narcissists can apologize and acknowledge their mistakes, however rarely. But these apologies tend to start with ‘I’m sorry, but…’ and they’re usually far from being sincere apologies. For instance, they include subtle accusations like ‘I’m sorry but I had no other choice’, or ‘I’m sorry but you pushed me too far’. Some of their apologies may seem quite sincere and it can look like they’ve said everything there is to say. But those are usually insincere ramblings uttered in an attempt to pour oil on troubled waters and maintain control. Their promises are never kept, and they’re soon forgotten. In short, their words and actions don’t match.
11- They don’t fly too high.
Naturally, most of us think of people with high standards, politicians or conceited managers when we hear the word narcissist. Their ability to act superior and entitled puts them in a high position in the capitalist system. That’s because our age looks down on kindness and purity while rewarding empty bravado and vanity.
But of course, not everyone at the top happens to be narcissistic just like the fact not everyone down below is kind. Covert narcissists may prefer being the leader of a smaller group than trying to climb to the top. For them, it is enough to be very good at a single subject, being the manager of a small company or a highly respected person among their friend groups. Unlike overt narcissists, they’re usually self-conscious so they rarely step out of their comfort zones.
12- They guilt trip you.
Covert narcissists are very good at making you feel guilty. For example, if you tell them that you’re too busy to meet them, they can tell you things like ‘I just wanted you to be there for me’ or ‘I really wanted to see you because I’ve missed you so much’. With passive aggressive methods, they dump their own problems on you or make you feel guilty by emotional blackmail. You often find yourself apologizing and trying to make it up to them even when you didn’t have to.
13- They’re jealous.
They get annoyed when someone else is in the spotlight. Covert narcissists need praise and attention all the time and when the praise and attention are directed at someone who’s, in their eyes; unworthy of it, they can get extremely jealous. The success and happiness of other people are threats to theirs.
14- They can be depressed.
Overt narcissists can look appealing and charismatic due to their apparent confidence. Most of the time, they’re energetic and self-assured. But covert narcissists are more inclined to depression. They’re not as energetic and they can’t handle stress very well.
15- They know that there’s something wrong with them.
This one doesn’t apply to all of them but most of the time, covert narcissists know that there’s something wrong with them even if they don’t know what it is. While feeling superior, they can also doubt their own value and acknowledge the fact they’re not supposed to feel this way about themselves. That’s why they’re more self-conscious and restless. Their suppressed shame and the feeling of inadequacy make them complex individuals.
Overt narcissists, however, don’t doubt themselves. In their minds, they’re utterly flawless.
If we look at them carefully, we can see that they’re not that different. Both overt and covert narcissists believe that they’re superior and special, they both care about appearance and they both have the power to wear you down emotionally. But I personally think that covert narcissists are more dangerous because they’re harder to notice. By the time you see their true colors, they already might have stolen your career, your youth, your hopes and your sanity.
You can also find the articles on https://medium.com/@narsistsiz:
Wiley Online Library. “The many faces of narcissism”. Access 5 June, 2016. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/wps.20323.
Independent. “ How to Spot a Covert Narcissist, According to a Therapist”. Access 29 May, 2018. https://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/narcissist-personality-how-to-spot-behaviour-people-liar-empathy-a8372936.html.