How to know when you are being secretly manipulated.
Parade/February 6, 2023
By Renee Hanlon
Taylor Swift sings on Midnights, “Did you hear my covert narcissism I disguise as altruism like some kind of congressman?” But “covert narcissism” is much more than a catchy lyric—it’s important to fully understand and look out for in your relationships. So, what exactly is a covert narcissist?
While narcissism is oftentimes blatant and obvious, it can also be a little more hidden. Therefore, it can be very easy to be fooled and fall for a covert narcissist. So how do you know what type of person you are really dealing with? We’ll explain what a covert narcissist is and the traits that you can expect to see.
What Is a Covert Narcissist?
Where a narcissist is someone who has an inflated sense of self-importance and openly expresses their own superiority, a covert narcissist may feel the same, but they’re not as obvious about it. However, what all narcissists have in common is that they want to make themselves look good at the expense of others. There are many ways of doing that, even though some are more apparent than others.
A covert narcissist is someone with a narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) that is subtle and harder to detect. They are most interested in how other people view them. So, outwardly they appear caring but the kind “acts” are actually meant to inflate themself and manipulate others.
Tracy Malone, author and founder of Narcissist Abuse Support, tells Parade, “Covert narcissists are exceedingly difficult to recognize and even harder to expose because they have built a fake persona with everyone they know. Most that are unaware of the covert traits see a charming, helpful, caring, compassionate, and often enlightened individual.”
The typical pattern of a covert narcissist is to come on strong at the beginning of a relationship with love bombing. Victims will fall under their spell without ever truly knowing the real person. Then, it’s confusing when all of that attention changes.
“Until you are completely infatuated, the charming mask will be used both in public and in private; then they are free to act differently behind closed doors,” explains Malone.
Related: ‘Love Bombing’ Sounds Romantic, but Here’s Why It’s Actually a Red Flag
Traits of a Covert Narcissist
According to Paul Wink in the study “Two Faces of Narcissism” from the Institute of Personality Assessment and Research at the University of California, Berkeley,” “Covert narcissism is marked by largely unconscious feelings of grandeur and openly displayed lack of self-confidence and initiative, vague feelings of depression, and an absence of zest for work (narcissistic deficiency).” Wink goes on to say that “covertly narcissistic individuals appear to be hypersensitive, anxious, timid and insecure, but on close contact, surprise observers with their grandiose fantasies.”
According to Malone, here are some of the specific traits that a covert narcissist might have.
An over-inflated sense of self-importance and yet very sensitive to criticism
Charming, yet socially awkward
Tendency to hold grudges
Envies people who have what they think they deserve or are entitled to
May appear to have empathy
Tends to put themselves down, needing excessive admiration to validate themselves
An introverted personality with superficial relationships (no genuine friends—only admirers and people they can use for supply)
Takes advantage of others for personal gain in a passive-aggressive way
Resistance to change due to real but secret feelings of anxiety and depression
Has grandiose fantasies about their abilities but may really feel inadequate
Plays the victim in a relationship
Never content—a quiet rage simmering just below the surface
Related: How to Deal With a Narcissist… When You Suddenly Realize You’re in a Relationship with One
Differences Between Covert Narcissists and Overt Narcissists
An overt narcissist’s actions are visible to others and easily detectable. Covert narcissists, on the other hand, have subtle traits. They use outward appearances of charm and love bombing to manipulate which is a passive-aggressive way to control. The narcissist who covertly works to destroy your sense of self is just as dangerous as the one who overtly belittles you.
Covert narcissists have been described by spouses as “worrying, anxious and moody, defensive, bitter, and not mature and contented,” whereas overt narcissists have been described as “aggressive, outspoken, show-off, egotistical, assertive and not modest.”
Malone tells Parade, “Covert narcissists have created many masks throughout their lives that they present to the world. Imagine a mask as a character, role, or false persona that they play. Masks of normalcy are routinely invoked to create the illusion to the world that they are normal and not disordered. The mask chosen for you is customized to your needs; they made themselves your dream illusion. The role was defined by your own imagination and carefully orchestrated to trap you.”
Related: ‘Love Bombing’ Sounds Romantic, but Here’s Why It’s Actually a Red Flag
Causes of Covert Narcissism
“This is a very broad question and subject, but the long and the short of it generally is childhood abuse and trauma,” says Malone. “It can stem from a narcissistic parent, sibling or family member. A person who is abused learns methods of self-preservation and unconsciously figures out the best way to cope. They will, at that moment in time, sway one way or the other. They will either become like their abuser or not. We are, in fact, products of our environment and tend to take on traits that we learn and are exposed to. Narcissism is one of these traits.”
Wink further elaborated, “Psychoanalysts have attributed narcissism to parental insensitivity, which results in the child’s defensive grandiosity. The presence of grandeur is accompanied by feelings of inferiority, which reflect the child’s natural and nondefensive response to faulty and insensitive parenting. Through the use of the defense mechanism of splitting, the narcissist manages to keep the two conflicting feelings about the self away from conscious awareness.”
Signs of a Covert Narcissist
“If you put a frog in a pot of cold water and steadily turn up the heat, the frog will adjust to the raising temperature and will boil to death,” describes Malone. “Narcissistic covert abuse is often compared to this analogy because it happens slowly. Once caught, the heat (abuse) gets turned up.”
A covert narcissist will use many sly tactics to make their victim feel alone and confused. This is done by using some common tactics like gaslighting and rewriting history to fit their own story. And, everything the covert narcissist does is well calculated, so that everyone else is unaware of his evil side.
Related: What Is Gaslighting? 11 Subtle Signs of Gaslighting To Look For in Your Relationship
Signs of a covert narcissist are hard to detect. However, as Malone explains, “[The signs] are unoriginal, often cowardly, and exceptionally low on the emotional intelligence scale. Most victims don’t notice these methods or understand their meaning. They don’t see the person as they really are until they leave. The strategies are stealthy and designed to confuse”.
Typically, the public side of the person is charming. However, in private, their true colors will begin to shine. Some of the weapons that a covert narcissist uses are important to watch out for and include:
giving you the silent treatment
playing the victim
name calling/verbal abuse
pretending to forget the promises that were made
How To Deal With a Covert Narcissist
As you begin to question what is happening in your relationship, it might be good to start writing out your thoughts and feelings in a journal. Keep track of what situations arise between the two of you and how they are resolved. You may begin to see a pattern of behavior with the narcissist that is not healthy.
If you’re able to put some space between you and the individual, that could help you figure out the next steps for yourself. “This is the time to begin to understand why you were a victim and why you were targeted in the first place. Finding yourself again and healing should be your goals. Do not jump into a new relationship; find a therapist or coach who is well-versed in NPD to get to the root of the problem”, says Malone.
According to Cleveland Clinic, it’s also important to note that NPD isn’t a personality flaw it is actually a mental illness. Because of this, learning everything that you can about it will help you to make some sense of what is going on. Depending on the relationship that you have with the narcissist, it may be necessary to seek family or couples therapy—as well as individual counseling.
What To Do if You Think You Are a Covert Narcissist
The best place to start is therapy. Cleveland Clinic suggests working on cognitive behavioral therapy as a way to work through what triggers your negative emotions. This will help you to learn how to better respond so that you don’t hurt the ones around you. A therapist can provide great help in working through your insecurities to build self-esteem and help you to recognize your self-worth.