Covert narcissism, a subtle and often undetected form of narcissism, can be a complex and confusing phenomenon to understand.
Unlike their overt counterparts who openly seek attention and admiration, covert narcissists operate in a more understated manner.
If you’ve ever encountered someone who seems to have an inflated sense of self-importance, a constant need for admiration, and an inability to empathise with others, you may be dealing with a covert narcissist.
This article will provide you with the knowledge and tools you need to understand and navigate this complex personality disorder.
What is Covert Narcissism?
Covert narcissists are generally characterised by having deep-seated fantasies, often envisioning themselves heroic or universally admired.
However, due to a chronic lack of confidence in their ability to achieve these aspirations, It leads to an interplay between their desires and self-doubt.
This can often lead to a suppression of their competitive and aggressive urges to succeed, driven by a sense of conscience that they’re not worthy or deserving enough to have that success, and that those fantasies aren’t legitimate.
This internal sense of struggle is a common feature of all narcissistic personality disorders (NPD) not just the covert type.
Identifying Covert Narcissism: Signs and Symptoms
Gaining awareness of covert narcissism from the perspective of the signs and symptoms at play is the first step in gaining a solid grounding in the condition. If you’re someone who’s experienced narcissistic abuse and trying to disentangle from the web of manipulation, it can be a vital first step in taking back control.
Key Signs of Covert Narcissism
Here are some of the key behaviour signs of covert narcissism
- Grandiose sense of self-importance, but expressed subtly.
- Preoccupation with fantasies of unlimited success, power, or beauty.
- Belief in being ‘special’ and unique, deserving of special treatment.
- Need for excessive admiration in a more understated manner.
- Strong sense of entitlement, expecting favourable treatment or automatic compliance.
- Exploitative in relationships, taking advantage of others to achieve personal ends.
- Lack of empathy, unwilling to recognise or identify with the feelings of others.
- Envious of others or believes others are envious of them.
- Arrogant or haughty attitudes, often veiled behind a facade of humility.
Symptoms and Traits of Covert Narcissism
Here are some of the key symptoms that a covert narcissist may feel.
- Sensitivity to criticism, taking offence easily.
- Passive-aggressive behaviour in response to perceived slights.
- Difficulty maintaining relationships due to hidden expectations and perceived grievances.
- Chronic feelings of emptiness or boredom.
- Emotional detachment and a lack of genuine connection with others.
- An outward appearance of being self-effacing or modest.
- Internal feelings of depression and vulnerability, often masked.
- Tendency to hold grudges and inability to forgive perceived insults.
- A sense of being misunderstood or unappreciated by others.
Real-World Examples of Covert Narcissism
Workplace Scenario: During a team meeting John subtly expresses reservations about a colleague’s idea, suggesting that it may be overly ambitious. Later, however, he presents a concept as his own. He portrays himself as modest yet hints at his superior understanding, seeking validation while downplaying his colleague’s contributions.
Family Dynamics: Sarah often complains about being undervalued by her family, despite their consistent efforts to include in all their gatherings. She portrays herself as a victim of neglect and constantly seeing sympathy and attention, while subtly implying that she deserves ‘special treatment’ due to her unique insights and abilities.
Social Setting: At social gatherings, Mike is often shy and unassuming. He avoids conversations that highlight his achievements or talents. Instead, he might display sensitivity when faced with criticism and may withdraw from conversations, preferring to maintain an image of being misunderstood, but highly talented.
The Psychological Underpinnings of Covert Narcissism
At its core covert narcissism is rooted in the fragile sense of self esteem that causes the person to engage in defence mechanisms to protect their ego, which is fuelled by the internal dialogue that oscillates between feelings of superiority and deep-seated insecurity.
What Causes Covert Narcissism?
The development of covert narcissism is often the result of early traumatic childhood experiences with primary caregivers. This can involve neglect, emotional abuse and inconsistent parenting, which over time can lead to a distorted self-image.
In some instances, covert narcissism is caused by parents who themselves may be narcissists. But in this scenario, overt narcissists.
So as the child doesn’t receive consistent validation, they might become closeted and introspective.
They believe they’re worth so much more than they are told they are, but their self doubt causes them to enter into a victimhood mindset.
So while they might desire recognition, they are unable to fully receive it when they eventually receive compliments, because of their conditioning from childhood.
Comparing Covert Narcissism and BPD
Covert narcissism, especially in its vulnerable form, and Quiet Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) do share some similarities in terms of intense emotions and self esteem issues. However, while they are similar, they do remain different.
In covert narcissism, the emotional instability is typically fueled by a sense of entitlement and difficulty in handling threats to one’s self worth.
On the other hand, borderline individuals experience instability due to deep-seated need for care and the fear of abandonment.
While BPD is often marked by impulsivity and as risky behaviours, these traits are less apparent in vulnerable narcissism.
Impulsiveness for a covert narcissist goes against the general baseline of behavioural tendencies, and may only surface during extremely heightened emotional states.
There is also a much higher degree of substance abuse and aggression found in BPD compared with covert narcissism.
Although anti-social behaviour is often observed in both conditions.
Altruism as a Disguise in Covert Narcissism
Where the covert narcissist is concerned, altruism can sometimes – oftentimes – be self-serving, intended only to seek validation and maintain the narcissistic supply. The most common example of this is love bombing. This is one of the core tendencies of all narcissistic types, and is one of the main manipulation tactics used to draw in their victims.
Here are some examples:
Offering Help to Gain Attention: Individuals with covert narcissism may offer assistance without being asked only to later highlight their sacrifices or efforts. Their intention is to use this generosity as a means to seek admiration or attention.
Assuming the Role of a Martyr: Covert narcissists frequently present themselves as prioritising the needs of others over their own. This behaviour is typically a strategy to attract sympathy or attention while simultaneously avoiding criticism or taking responsibility for their actions.
Gifts with Strings Attached: Covert narcissists may give gifts, or do favours with an ulterior motive. Their “generosity” often comes with expectations of something in return or they may use it as a way to guilt trip the recipient into meeting their demands.
Self-Deprecation for Sympathy: These individuals might employ self deprecating humour. Make remarks about themselves in order to fish for compliments or reassurance. They often manipulate their perceived flaws or weaknesses in order to gain sympathy or admiration.
Claiming Moral High Ground: Covert narcissists also frequently assert superiority over others in order to gain admiration and exert control. They might present themselves as enlightened or empathetic using this perceived superiority as a way to shame or manipulate others into complying.
Covert Narcissism in Relationships and Social Dynamics
The main challenges faced in covert narcissism within relationships include difficulties in communication, emotional detachment and a lack of empathy. This can hinder the formation of maintaining healthy connections, leading to interactions that are tainted with an underlying theme of manipulation and through the ongoing pursuit of validation.
What are the 4 Stages of Covert Narcissism?
Idealisation Stage: The narcissist forms a quick, intense connection, making their target feel special, often through love-bombing and excessive admiration. This stage, marked by an overwhelming sense of appreciation, can feel sudden and deeply intense.
Devaluation Stage: Here, the narcissist gradually undermines their target’s confidence. Techniques like criticism, passive-aggressive comments, backhanded compliments, stonewalling, comparisons, and mind games are commonly employed, leading to feelings of insecurity and devaluation.
Repetition Stage: This stage sees a return to the idealisation phase, where the narcissist reverts to being exceptionally nice and complimentary. However, this is short-lived and soon cycles back to devaluation, creating a repeating pattern of highs and lows in the relationship.
Discard Stage: Eventually, the narcissist may abruptly end the relationship, often through rejection or indifference. In this phase, they might employ tactics like gaslighting, inexplicable anger, or hoovering to maintain control, leaving their target confused and hurt.
How Does a Covert Narcissist Think?
If you imagine the mind of someone with covert narcissism as a stage in which two actors are constantly vying for attention. One called Superiority and the other called Insecurity.
Superiority confidently takes to the stage proclaiming, “I am better, more intelligent, more capable than others. Why can’t they see my unique talents?” This archetype revels in the fantasies of grandeur and acknowledgement.
Suddenly Insecurity sneaks in quietly whispering doubts and fears, “What if they see through me? What if I’m not as good as I believe?” This character embodies the deep-rooted insecurities of the covert narcissist, constantly questioning their worth.
Now, imagine a critic in the audience representing how others perceive them.
Even minor criticisms send Insecurity into a downward spiral, while Superiority reacts with indignation saying, “How dare they not acknowledge my brilliance? I must prove them wrong.”
This reaction is not about countering the critique; it’s an attempt to silence Insecurity.
This internal battle creates dissonance—a clash between self perception and reality.
The narcissist feels compelled to seek validation hoping that applause from the audience will drown out Insecurity’s whispers. However no amount of validation ever seems enough as these two characters continue their never ending performance.
Examples of mental rehearsals and phrases a covert narcissist might think:
- “They don’t realise how much more I know about this than they do.”
- “If only people recognised my unique talents, they’d appreciate me more.”
- “I’ll show kindness now, but they should remember this and repay me later.”
- “No one understands or appreciates the sacrifices I make for them.”
- “This criticism is so unfair. They’re just trying to make me look bad.”
How Do Covert Narcissists Argue?
When it comes to arguments, covert narcissists typically resort to manipulative strategies. They avoid confrontation. Instead opting for passive-aggressive tactics to express their emotions.
This style of arguing is often marked by deliberately unclear communication.
They have a tendency to distort facts and employ emotional manipulation, presenting themselves as the ones who have been wronged. This approach makes it extremely difficult to focus on the facts at hand in a conflict resolution situation.
Examples of argument tactics used by covert narcissists:
- Employing the silent treatment to punish or control the other person.
- Guilt-tripping by highlighting past sacrifices or efforts.
- Subtly shifting blame to the other person, even for their own mistakes.
- Distorting facts or bringing up irrelevant issues to divert from the main argument.
- Playing the victim to gain sympathy and avoid accountability.
Recognising Common Phrases and Behaviours
Covert narcissists tend to most often employ language that revolves around boosting their ego or portraying themselves as victims, subtly seeking sympathy or admiration.
Here are some key phrases that a covert narcissist might use most often.
- Self-Aggrandisement: “You just don’t understand all the things I do for everyone.”
- Perceived Victimhood: “I’m always overlooked, no matter how hard I work.”
- Martyrdom Complex: “I guess I’m just too nice and that’s why people take advantage of me.”
- Invalidating Others’ Feelings: “You’re making a big deal out of nothing – you’re too sensitive.”
- Deflecting Blame: “Why do I always end up being the bad guy when I’m just trying to help?”
Strategies for Dealing with Covert Narcissism
Effectively dealing with covert narcissism involves knowing the particular patterns of the narcissist you’re in contact with.
Understanding the broad traits is the first step. But understanding them from the point of view of their behaviour is what will help you most in breaking the cycle of abuse.
While directly changing a narcissist’s behaviour can be challenging, due to the manipulation tactics, to truly become empowered once again there needs to be a sense of safeguarding from receiving negative projections.
Here are key areas that individuals recovering from covert narcissistic abuse need to focus on:
- Rebuilding Self-Esteem: Many victims of narcissistic abuse struggle with diminished self-worth.
- Setting Boundaries: Learning to set and maintain healthy boundaries is crucial for emotional safety.
- Processing Trauma: Professional help can assist in healing from the psychological impact.
- Re-establishing Trust: Relearning to trust oneself and others is a critical part of recovery.
- Understanding Manipulation: Recognising and resisting manipulative behaviours in the future.
- Self-Care and Support: Prioritising self-care and seeking support from trusted individuals or support groups.
- Educating Oneself: Gaining knowledge about narcissism to better understand and cope with past experiences.
- Empowering Oneself: Focusing on personal growth and empowerment to overcome the feeling of victimhood.