How to Spot a Covert Narcissist
Do you have someone in your life who belittles and blames you? Who is passive-aggressive, condescending, or easily threatened? How about someone who has so much confidence that it gives you whiplash?
We all know them. The people who make our problems about them, who put their self-interest at the forefront, others be damned. It can feel like they’re stringing us along behind the scenes, setting us up to act or react how they want us to.
If this sounds familiar, chances are you're dealing with a narcissist. Psychologists use the term narcissism to describe an inflated sense of self. Like any trait, someone’s level of narcissism can fall on a continuum from normal levels to problematic levels. It’s important to distinguish between normal, self-absorbed behavior and pervasive patterns of narcissism that impair social, work, or relationship functions.
Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) is used to describe people on the extreme end of the spectrum. People with NPD have a pervasive and stable pattern of traits captured by inflated self-importance. These people tend to be preoccupied with fantasies of wealth or power, a need for admiration, a lack of empathy, and exploitation of others. This condition is extremely rare (average 1% prevalence rate), but you may still run into people who possess narcissistic traits.
A more subtle manifestation of NPD is called closet narcissism. These people aren’t necessarily openly attention-seeking or outwardly aggressive. But similar to those with NPD, they manipulate others for their own self-interest, lack empathy, and have a fragile sense of self.
Covert narcissists can fly under the radar. It is really easy to miss the classic traits. So it’s important to arm yourself with information so you can identify any covert narcissists in your life, before you’re neck-deep in a harmful relationship.
Here are three telltale signs of a covert narcissist.
1) They passively demoralize you
Covert narcissists often present as passive-aggressive, airing their grievances with you behind your back rather than to your face.
They may belittle you, making you feel inadequate or incapable. The way they undermine you can feel so subtle that you question yourself. You ask yourself, “did I make that up?” or “did that really happen?”
Covert narcissists struggle with empathy. They often withhold validation or understanding for your struggles. They may even make your problems about them, using your troubles as a springboard to discuss their problems or inconveniences.
They dismiss your feelings and challenges, as well as your accomplishments. They may also use platitudes or empty promises instead of forging genuine connections. They do all this, while leaving you feeling dejected, hopeless, or ashamed.
2) They won’t let you forget your mistakes and shortcomings
Covert narcissists are similar to more overt narcissists in that they are extremely critical. They may make unrealistic demands or expectations of you that are impossible to live up to. They criticize your abilities by nitpicking what you do or say.
Covert narcissists usually try to disguise this behavior by saying they’re “helping you.” They label this constant critique as constructive feedback, when in fact it is a thinly-veiled attack on your actions and character. You find that this critique doesn’t help you at all because it’s just painful.
Because narcissists have a fragile sense of self, they are most critical towards themselves—but they don’t show it. However, this doesn’t excuse their behavior, and it doesn’t make it any less painful or harmful to you.
3) They act superior but try and downplay it
Individuals with covert narcissism do everything with an air of superiority. They prioritize themselves over everyone and everything. They have a fragile sense of self, so they adopt a self-important persona—sometimes so extreme that it borders on delusional. The sun rises and sets with them, and there isn’t any room for others. But covert narcissists don’t let you see it.
As opposed to overt narcissists, covert narcissists have sneaky ways of covering their sense of self-importance, and may even try to downplay it.
For example, a covert narcissist may give lots of gifts. Although on the surface it seems they are trying to make you happy, over time you realize that gift-giving is really about feeding their own self-importance. They might reiterate how amazing they are for getting you the gifts, or criticize the gifts you get from others.
Covert narcissists believe their problems are most important and their feelings most valid, and they will belittle and downplay yours in order to show it.
Want a comprehensive checklist of signs? Check out this article.
There are several telltale signs of a covert narcissist. They are often overly critical, demoralizing, dismissive of your needs and feelings, and passive-aggressive. They are self-centered and lack emotional empathy. They are also emotionally labile; they react poorly to criticism, hold grudges, and demand much from others.
When one or two of these signs are present, they seem innocuous. But put together, they create a perfect storm of traits that lead to manipulation and exploitation.
Remember that, like all personality traits, narcissism falls on a continuum. Just because someone has some of these traits does not mean that they meet the criteria for Narcissistic Personality Disorder, and only mental health professionals can make this designation. However, it is important that you recognize the signs so you can take steps to protect yourself.
Covert narcissists exploit our attempts to be human and gaslight our emotions. They make us feel like we don’t matter. But you do matter. It’s common to experience guilt, shame, self-criticism, and anger when interacting with a covert narcissist. It’s important for you to know that it’s not in your head, and it’s not your fault. And it’s important that you know the signs so you can take steps to protect yourself.