Covert Narcissism: How to Identify It in Others

When you think of narcissism, an ex-boyfriend or girlfriend typically comes to mind. They knew how to charm and delight you, but then things changed at a moment's notice. They became harsher, critical, and abusive to make you feel smaller and worthless. The term "narcissist" is a term that has become popularized through the use of social media and other forms to gain more attention. Narcissism has become an informal term to describe someone so horrible that there HAS to be something wrong w...

BlogNarcissismCovert Narcissism: How to Identify It in Others

When you think of narcissism, an ex-boyfriend or girlfriend typically comes to mind. They knew how to charm and delight you, but then things changed at a moment's notice. They became harsher, critical, and abusive to make you feel smaller and worthless. The term "narcissist" is a term that has become popularized through the use of social media and other forms to gain more attention. Narcissism has become an informal term to describe someone so horrible that there HAS to be something wrong with them to treat you that way. They expected everything and gave you nothing in return; when you needed them, they were gone.

Like all mental illnesses, narcissism can be different in each person depending on the level of severity, genetic predispositions, and can be more pronounced in other areas of their life. You may not recognize some types of narcissism because there are four types. We will be investigating covert narcissism or otherwise known as vulnerable narcissism.

Not as widely known as its grandiose narcissism relative, covert narcissism might be more common than you think.

Types of Narcissism

Narcissists are not villains; they are only hurt people. Narcissist Personality Disorder or NPD craves external validations to do whatever they need to achieve it. NPD possible causations include child abuse, unrealistic expectations from parents, or genetics. It could be their psychology as their brains have rewired much differently than those who are not narcissistic. Identifying the types of narcissism is a way to prevent additional hurt because if you can determine that they are a narcissist, you won't fall down the hole of experiencing gaslighting or other victim-shaming behaviors.

Imagine covert narcissism as having the same traits as its grandiose relative while being introverted. It is not too far from the truth as covert narcissism manifests in several ways, such as being self-absorbed, lacking empathy, and manipulating. Still, the only difference is they stray away from the limelight in the hopes of not being called out or criticized. They can be very reserved, petty, and sensitive. 

Covert Narcissists can often hide behind roles like coaches, teachers, volunteers, or any type of role that brings immediate authority and control over others. 

If you have watched Zootopia, the little secretary sheep named Dawn Bellweather could be identified as a covert narcissist. *SPOILER ALERT IF YOU HAVE NOT WATCHED ZOOTOPIA* She is more of a background character in the beginning, but at the end of the movie, her main goal is to have power and control over zootopia and the carnivores because she deems them as less worthy than her and her herbivore counterparts. The interesting thing while researching the movie is that other sources have identified covert narcissism as a wolf in sheep's clothing.

Covert narcissists play a role of an actor that tricks people around them to think they are selfless, givers, and kind. They like job occupations such as teachers, pastors, and other giving roles. Covert narcissists want to remain in control and power because they feel validated in this experience when they have control over others and people trust them.

The closer you get to a covert narcissist, the more hurt you feel without even realizing it. Covert narcissists are excellent actors who have perfected their roles for many, many years. Their primary purpose is to seem better than you and everyone else because they have maintained this value that they are indispensable and somehow different than everyone else.

Due to their introverted nature, covert narcissists feel pain more internally. They crave attention and feel unworthy with judgment because they think they are better than others. Instead of being the loudest or most confident in the room to gain the attention, they ruminate on all the things they want to happen, who they would like to control, and steps to take to get to the next level of their plan like all the narcissists on the list.

As we already know grandiose narcissism, let's investigate covert narcissism's other relatives: communal and malignant. 

Communal narcissism is incredibly hard to pinpoint as they are pleasant, seemingly kind, and warm. Still, the truth is that communal narcissists have a plan to ensure they are seen as the most helpful, giving, and of course, categorized as THE best friend of the group. Like grandiose, they have stronger personalities and crave power but go about getting their goals in a much different way. Communal narcissists live by the saying, "you attract more flies with honey." Like the overt narcissists, when they are caught and not seen as positive as before, they crumble.

Malignant narcissism, on the other hand, is similar to grandiose but much more dangerous to encounter. They have the same traits as overt narcissism that they need constant affirmation and support. Still, they have higher antisocial tendencies or otherwise known as psychopathic behavior, due to their general lack of empathy. They believe they will win no matter the cost. Even to the point of hurting others, some enjoy watching suffering due to the power they hold over others. They are the type of people who will instill fear into others because they believe fear earns them respect.

Signs You are Interacting with a Covert Narcissist

While some people may have a predisposition or share traits with narcissists, it does not mean that they are actually narcissists. Attached is a list to see who might match some of the characteristics listed below for covert narcissism.

  • A fragile sense of self
  • Give themselves backhanded compliments or downplay accomplishments to receive attention
  • Pretend to be a victim in a situation they caused
  • Petty behavior
  • Emotionally distant
  • Purposeful of giving. They make sure they help others when people are looking
  • Mark you as second best to not make you a priority for time, attention, or other forms of affection
Narcissist expects others to bow to them. If you don't, they distance themselves from you or manipulate the relationship. 

Covert narcissism shows is more pronounced depending on the relationship the narcissist finds themself and where they feel they can leverage their power. It can come in the form of work relationships, parent-to-child, friends, or romantic partners. 

Covert Narcissist in Relationships

When you realize a lover, friend, or family member is a narcissist, it can be challenging to manage. It can take years of therapy and self-acceptance to understand what being in a narcissistic relationship has done to you. Some of the more common symptoms of victims who have been entangled with a covert narcissist are guilt, shame, gaslighting, and emotional neglect.

Initially, in the relationship, it is nice and feels too good to be real. This person places you on the pedestal and seems to be precisely what you have always wanted. Then there is a shift, it sometimes seems like whiplash, but the behaviors were small-scale all along. 

A wise metaphor once described cooking a frog. If you were to put a frog in instant hot water, the little frog would jump out unscathed, but if you place a frog in room temperature water while slowly heating the water until it is boiling. This explains what it feels like to be in love with a narcissist.

A covert narcissist has a general lack of concern for their partner, child, family member, or peer. It can become frustrating for the person without narcissism because they begin to think, "why won't they be there for me when I have been there for them." The entire relationship is based upon inequalities through making subtle behaviors during the conversation to focus on the narcissist and not caring about the other person. It can become subtle put-downs to the partner that would make them begin to second-guess their worth. It could also be when a friend is venting, feeling like they are so close to an emotional breakdown, the covert narcissist will either turn the attention on them or use this vulnerability later as emotional blackmail. 

As stated before, they are master actors and actresses who can manipulate by fishing for compliments or downplaying their success. When things do not go their way, they do not take responsibility for their actions but blame it on outside factors. They can belittle the people around them or lash out due to the lack of attention they are not receiving by making snide remarks or emotionally distant so that people ask "what is wrong," then they have the attention of pity. 

It's not uncommon for narcissists to easily take offense to, well, anything! 

The vulnerable narcissism or covert seems to be incredibly sensitive. Their feelings can be hurt rather quickly if they do not receive the goal they are achieving or the needed attention. A hurt person can take offense to anything that is being said, especially on a day not filled with admiration. With a covert narcissist, this is a volatile situation. The partner will experience groundless rejection, possible critiques about their personality or looks that they were initially complimented on by the narcissist, or an unwarranted attack. Couples or family counseling can be beneficial; check out our article 20 Ways to Find a Good Therapist Near Me as some therapists can specialize in narcissists in treatment. Therapy can only work if everyone is onboard for changing their actions. If the victim is the only one who wants to change and the narcissist is going just for validation; it can become an even more toxic situation. 

In domestic situations, covert narcissistic parents create cyclical patterns that their narcissistic parents may have treated them. They may develop unreasonable goals for the child to accomplish. The child begins to believe if they balance all the aspects in their life, their parent's love might be given. It creates a concept that love is conditional. 

The parent sees their child's value through vicariously bragging about them. For example, a narcissistic parent might say, "Julie has all a's, soccer team captain, and prom queen." In a backhanded way, it is saying, "because I raised her, that is why she is so accomplished." When Julie breaks a rule or doesn't appear perfect, the parent will be angry and say that she is embarrassing them. 

A great example of covert narcissism in a parent role is in the film Tangled when Mother Grothle is trying to convince Rapunzel to stay inside the tower when Mother Grothle is using Rapunzel's powers for her selfishness. There is a common theme for narcissists that they want to ensure their needs are met before anyone else's. 

Like familial relationships, the second most common relationship you will have after school is your workplace relationships. Narcissists come in many different forms. The work narcissist can make snide comments about your new promotion, such as saying you provided sexual gratifications to get on top or because the boss plays by favorites. They deeply envy peers who are seen as more successful and constantly feel more intelligent and overall better than the rest. 

Last but certainly not least, you can easily become a friend to a convert narcissist because of their charming and calmer demeanor versus their grandiose siblings. Like narcissist parents, narcissist friends have conditional love. They will not give you everything because they do not have everything to offer. Covert narcissist friends can be the person who gets irritated if you do not text them immediately or bringing the conversation back to subjects they would like to talk about or the focus is on them.

Current Research on Covert Narcissism

In the 2015 study by James Brookes, he researched the two subtypes of covert versus obvert narcissism (grandiose kind). He discovered that while obvert narcissism had incredibly higher levels of self-efficacy than self-esteem. In contrast, convert had lower life satisfaction with low levels of self-esteem and self-efficacy. Self-efficacy is defined by the belief that a person can accomplish their goals and be confident in taking the steps necessary to achieve said goals. 

Covert narcissism has found another tool to not be in the limelight but still receiving the attention they crave-social media. The 2020 article by Shane-Simpson et al. studied social media "selfies" and their frequencies within the different types of narcissists. The overt narcissists naturally chose more selfies, while covert narcissists were divided into egocentric and incredibly sensitive to judgment. 

It could be hypothesized that while the overt narcissist may choose to selfies or look like they have a picture-perfect life. Covert narcissists may choose to create posts that warrant sympathy from others and feel more relatable receive attention. 

Many people feel residual guilt for not allowing the relationship to work through the "I wish I had done this or that," but it is not your fault. In seeking individual therapy after being in a narcissistic relationship, it might be beneficial to try Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. Additionally, finding support through journaling your experience is a great way to track your progress and participate in mindfulness. Join our team at JournalOwl to begin seeking online therapy and practice journaling.

About Emily Ruiz, MA

Emily Ruiz is a contributor of JournalOwl with a passion for spreading mental health awareness. She believes that mental health topics are instrumental in creating change. She enjoys writing about PTSD, anxiety, depression, and other arrays of topics by adding an emotional feel to her writing.

Before joining the JournalOwl team, Emily received her Masters in Communication with a focus in healthcare advocacy at East Carolina University in North Carolina. She has assisted organizations teaching social skills to children who are autistic and ADHD and teaching mindfulness to teenagers with BPD and who are high-risk self-harm and suicide. Emily created a training module for a non-profit equestrian therapy, Difference instead of Disability, for her independent study during her master’s program.

Emily and her husband are North Carolina natives who enjoy traveling, exploring, and general shenanigans with one another. They foster and rescue animals in their free time. She enjoys riding horses, theatre, and reading.

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