People in the vulnerable or covert subtype of narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) have low self-esteem and are introverted, defensive, fragile, hypersensitive to criticism, and socially withdrawn, while still harboring a sense of entitlement and egocentricity. They may be very fragile and require lots of affirming attention as well as being damaging to those around them.

What is covert narcissism?

Covert narcissists have narcissistic personality disorder (NPD), but they hide many of the obvious signs of the condition. 

Usually appearing introverted, shy, and anxious, a person’s covert narcissistic traits can manifest subtly and be harder to identify. They often appear stressed or distressed, seemingly besieged by swathes of everyday problems.[1]

They often isolate themselves from others, since they loathe criticism and are constantly comparing themselves unfavorably to other people. 

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How is covert narcissism different from overt?

The key difference between covert and overt narcissism is the way they are outwardly projected. The outward narcissist can be seen as more typically extroverted. They can seem charming, larger than life, humorous, spontaneous, and fun. These are underpinned by motivating feelings of grandiosity, entitlement, and extreme arrogance.[1] 

In contrast, the covert narcissist may seem inhibited, shy, and outwardly self-effacing.[1] They are hypersensitive to criticism from others and chronically envious of others.[1] 

Whilst the overt narcissist can be identified more clearly due to their behavior, the covert narcissist displays the same traits albeit in a more muted way. Both are extremely self-important and harbor unrealistic fantasies of success and grandeur. 

Though they present narcissistic traits differently, both covert and overt narcissists tend to meet the criteria for NPD outlined by the DSM.

Whilst low self-esteem is characteristic of NPD, overt narcissism has been linked with higher self-esteem, whilst covert narcissism has been conversely associated with lower self-esteem [2]. This may be because covert narcissists are particularly sensitive to negative feedback or rejection.[3] This can make convert narcissists more susceptible to depressive symptoms than people with other forms of narcissism.[3]

Signs of a covert narcissist

Covert narcissists demonstrate narcissistic tendencies in subtler ways than other narcissists. Here are 7 signs of a covert narcissist:

Hypersensitivity to criticism

Low self-esteem is emblematic of NPD and is particularly prominent in covert narcissists.[3] It causes extreme fragility in covert narcissists and causes them to be extremely sensitive to criticism. They respond drastically to perceived slights, balking at minor remarks.

Subtle self-importance

Whilst covert narcissists craves admiration and status, they seek to attain these in more subtle ways than other narcissists. For example, they may behave self-deprecatingly, purposefully diminishing the value of their own achievements so others offer reassurance on their talent and accomplishments and provide the desired admiration.

This self-deprecating persona is a façade. On the inside, covert narcissists believe themselves superior to others. 

Grudge holding

A person with covert narcissism may be more prone to holding grudges. They may internalize their anger at perceived mistreatment from another, waiting for the right opportunity to exact revenge. This can be done subtly, for example sabotaging a colleague’s work or a friend’s relationship. 

They may also develop grudges against friends or colleagues because of the latter’s accomplishments. For example, a covert narcissist may believe they were entitled to the promotion their colleague received. 

Envy

People with covert narcissism are chronically envious of things other people have that they lack. 

Fueled by a belief that others don’t deserve their wealth, power or status, covert narcissists may isolate themselves from others, fostering their inner sense of superiority.

Passive aggression

People with covert narcissism tend to use passive-aggressive behavior to belittle others and bolster their own egos. Examples of passive-aggressive behavior include derisory remarks masked as jokes, silent treatment in relationships, or refusing to do tasks they consider beneath them.

These are all motivated by the covert narcissist’s sense of grandiosity, entitlement, and desire to assert their superiority over others.[3]

Lack boundaries

Due to their sense of self-importance and lack of empathy, covert narcissists believe their feelings and experiences are more important than others. They may often complain to their close circle of friends about the difficulties of their life, without regard for their friend’s feelings or time.[4]

Forming relationships

Covert narcissists can have significant trouble forming relationships.[4] They may end relationships early on because they cannot reconcile their positive self-image with someone else's, by comparison, negative perception of them.[4]

The covert narcissist’s predisposition to feel entitled and deserving of other people’s success, their low threshold for tolerating criticism, and their shy persona may all contribute to their deficiency in forming connections with people.

Related: Narcissistic abuse.

Things covert narcissists say

Underpinned by self-aggrandizement, blaming, shaming, passive aggression, denial, and defensiveness in the face of perceived criticism, here are 12 things a covert narcissist might say:

  1. I know I deserve great things and they will happen for me, even if everybody else keeps getting in my way.
  2. No one has suffered like me – I deserve more.
  3. I was just joking – chill out.
  4. You’re imagining things
  5. I will never lie to you again, I promise.
  6. You always misunderstand what I’m saying
  7. You’re being overly sensitive and dramatic.
  8. You’re lucky I put up with you.
  9. I’ve got so much on – I don’t have time for your thoughts and feelings.
  10. Nobody appreciates my work. I do so much for everyone and they’re never there for me.
  11. You probably forgot.
  12. Why aren’t you paying me more attention?

How to deal with a covert narcissist

  1. Educate yourself – Study up on NPD and recognize there are multifaceted ways in which narcissists manifest characteristics, covert narcissism being a key example.
  2. Discuss concerns with others – Present your misgivings about the covert narcissist in your life to others. It can feel validating to have friends, colleagues and family empathize with your plight and informative to gain their take on next steps.
  3. Establish and stick to boundaries – Narcissists do not respond to the way you feel, they respond to consequences. If they continue to flaunt boundaries you’ve put in place, whether they regard communication frequency or insulting remarks, follow through with any stated consequence e.g., withholding contact.
  4. Encourage them to seek help – Covert narcissists often deny they need treatment as their symptoms are harder to spot. Despite this, you should encourage them to seek professional help, otherwise, your relationship will suffer. Cognitive behavioral therapy can be helpful in helping narcissists relate to others better and understand the causes of their negative emotional patterns. 
  5. Be prepared to cut them off – Having an interpersonal relationship with a covert narcissist is draining and complex. If despite the steps you’ve taken, you feel no progress is being made, then you do not need to be subjected to their lack of empathy, passive aggression, and generally abusive behavior. The best option available to you may be to end the relationship with this person.