Skip to content

Covert Narcissist Traits: 8 Signs to Look For

Keep an eye out for these narcissist red flags in your friendships and relationships.

We all know a handful of people who we'd say are somewhat full of themselves. Maybe they're always posting selfies on social media, or they love to dominate the conversation in a group. But while most of these people may just be a bit smug, some of them could have a form of narcissistic personality disorder (NPD), especially if they're displaying covert narcissist traits.

"Although many people use the term 'narcissist' very freely, narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) is very different from narcissistic tendencies," clinical psychologist Carla Marie Manly, PhD, author of The Joy of Imperfect Love, tells Best Life. "In the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), NPD is defined as comprising a pervasive pattern of grandiosity (in fantasy or behavior), a constant need for admiration, and a lack of empathy in a variety of contexts with an onset by early adulthood."

Manly adds that most of us have some level of narcissism that allows us to care for ourselves and our needs, but those with NPD "tend to be highly self-absorbed and lack empathy." Not sure if someone in your life has NPD? Read on for eight red flags that signal your friend or family member is a covert narcissist.

RELATED: I'm a Psychologist and These Are the 5 Telling Signs Someone Is a Narcissist.

What Is Covert Narcissism?

conceited man admiring reflection

There are several different kinds of narcissism, but the covert form, otherwise known as "vulnerable narcissism," can be somewhat difficult to spot.

"Covert narcissists still express many of the tell-tale traits of narcissism, such as self-importance, exaggeration, and exploitation," says Beth Ribarsky, PhD, professor and director of the School of Communication and Media at the University of Illinois Springfield. "However, they are much more subtle, making it easier for convert narcissists to get away with bad behavior and manipulate others."

Risk Factors

  • Abusive situations during childhood/childhood trauma
  • Being raised in a household where there was an emphasis on status or achievement
  • Overprotective or neglectful parenting
  • Genetics

RELATED: 10 Red Flags Your Friend Is a Narcissist, Therapists Say.

How Do Covert Narcissists Behave in a Relationship?

young attractive woman wonders why young attractive man would rather play with his phone than have sex with her, how to break up with someone, how to break up with someone

In relationships, a covert narcissist will want to pull the strings, whether they're aware of this or not.

"The covert narcissist's self-absorbed tendencies are often present in ways that subtly diminish, dismiss, or ignore a partner's needs," Manly says. "Although often intelligent and capable of success in the external world, the covert narcissist's lack of capacity for personal insight makes self-growth and relationship development very difficult."

Can someone with covert NPD be violent?

Closeup of aggressive man hand grabbed woman shoulder

According to PsychCentral, violence isn't a definitive symptom of NPD. Someone with covert narcissism may become violent just like someone without NPD may, depending on the circumstances. However, covert narcissist tend to internalize their pain, which could spark aggressive behavior.

It's worth notingm too, that according to a 2021 study published in Current Psychology, these covert or closet narcissists may be more likely to feel narcissistic rage.

Can someone with covert NPD get better?

Woman talking to therapist

Whether someone with covert NDP can improve will depend on the person and whether they're willing to address the issues they struggle with.

"People with NPD may never be fully cured, but they can get better with appropriate treatment and therapy," Ribarsky says. "However, many people with NPD never seek out treatment because they don't see what they're doing as a problem, or if they do seek out treatment, they may mask some of their symptoms/problems because they don't want to admit weaknesses/faults."

She adds, "An inability to be open and honest with a therapist or counselor can hinder growth and improvements."

RELATED: 7 Signs You've Been Raised By a Narcissistic Mother, Therapist Says.

8 Covert Narcissist Traits to Look For

1. A need for validation and admiration

narcissistic woman talking selfie
Nicoleta Ionescu / Shutterstock

According to experts, covert narcissists are defined by their need for external validation and admiration.

"Rather than explicitly boasting their self-importance, covert narcissists will still seek validation and admiration by fishing for compliments by downplaying their accomplishments or giving backhanded compliments," Ribarsky says.

This admiration also fills "their perpetual inner void," according to Manly.

She explains, "The covert narcissist's inner craving for excessive attention often manifests through self-deprecating behaviors that often prove irritating to others."

2. An exaggerated sense of self-importance

looking at phone about to decline call
xlaura / Shutterstock

Covert narcissists have a heightened sense of their own self-importance as well. While we may believe that narcissists are loud and demeaning, covert narcissists tend to use tactics like the silent treatment to achieve this—often making you feel small in the process.

"Rather than explicitly letting you know how much more important they are than you, they will do subtle behaviors that will reinforce their superiority such as standing you up, showing up late, ignoring texts or emails, or failing to make concrete plans with you," Ribarsky says.

3. Inability to take accountability

Couple Having a Fight
Just Life / Shutterstock

When it comes time to say sorry or own up to something, you likely aren't going to get the response you want from a covert narcissist.

"People with covert narcissism are largely incapable of remorse, responsibility-taking, and genuine empathy; this causes ongoing disharmony and disconnection in relationships," Manly says.

RELATED: 5 Biggest Red Flags Someone's a Narcissist, According to a Top Psychologist.

4. A need to be noticed

Boss thanking congratulating employee shaking hands

Going somewhat hand-in-hand with their need for admiration, covert narcissists just enjoy being noticed.

"Although it may not be overt, they will be sure to do behaviors that would be looked upon favorably when someone else is watching," Ribarsky explains. "For example, they might wait until an employee or cashier is watching before they put money in the tip jar."

5. Sense of insecurity

insecure woman looking out window
fizkes / Shutterstock

While it feels counter-intuitive, covert narcissists can also have low self-esteem or a poor self-image.

"Perhaps they didn't live up to their parents' standards, so now they seek out excessive acknowledgment and validation from others," Ribarsky says.

6. Passive-aggressiveness

passive aggressive coworkers
Mangostar / Shutterstock

Covert narcissists are known to rely on passive-aggressive behavior, experts say.

"They often engage in passive-aggressive behavior to get their way," Ribarsky explains. "For example, they may guilt another into spending more time with them or seek validation from others by putting themselves down—expecting others to highlight their strengths."

Manly also warns that this passive-aggression can directly affect others.

"The covert narcissist will often resort to passive-aggressive behaviors to get their needs met," she says. "This tendency can be extremely draining on those faced with these toxic behaviors."

7. Extreme sensitivity to feedback or criticism

skeptical man in job interview
fizkes / Shutterstock

According to Manly, covert narcissists don't respond well if you try to offer constructive criticism or even general feedback.

In general, they categorize others' opinions as criticism, she says.

8. An inability to acknowledge others' needs

Shot of a senior mother looking at the phone while upset daughter looks at her on the couch.
Dzonsli / iStock

A covert narcissist will also be uninterested in hearing you out and acknowledging what you need, according to Courtney Hubscher, LMHC, LCPC, NCC, of GroundWork Cognitive Behavioral Therapy.

"Covert narcissists struggle with empathy and have difficulty understanding or acknowledging other people's emotions and needs," she says. "This can lead to a lack of emotional support and validation in relationships, as the covert narcissist is more focused on their own needs and desires."

RELATED: Why You Should Never Call Out a Narcissist—And What to Do Instead, Therapists Say.

Grandiose Narcissist vs. Covert Narcissist: What's the Difference?

couple arguing angry expresson
fizkes / Shutterstock

While covert narcissists have defining traits, these people are different from their overt counterparts—also known as "grandiose narcissists"—who fall in line with the more stereotypical narcissistic personality traits.

"Overt narcissism is the more classic form that tends to be patently obvious through chronic displays of self-absorbed behaviors," Manly explains. "Covert narcissism … is the more subtle form that can be difficult to detect given the less obvious nature of the egocentric behaviors."

Both overt and covert narcissists have self-absorbed needs, they use different methods to meet them. According to Manly, "While the overt narcissist tends to be overtly aggressive and hostile, the covert narcissist tends to be antagonistic and passive-aggressively hostile."

But even though covert narcissists are "less arguably egocentric" than overt narcissists, but that doesn't make them "less dangerous," Manly cautions.

"In fact, the covert narcissist's negative dynamics can be more destructive over time as their damaging patterns can be more difficult to detect," she says.

Things Someone With Covert NPD Might Say

student talks to her mentor redirecting conversation while sitting together
  • "Things are never your fault!"
  • "You always have to be right."
  • "I can never 'win' with you."
  • "You always get it wrong."
  • "I'm tired of your constant criticism."
  • "You are so demanding."
  • "You don't know how to listen."
  • "You're so inflexible and demanding."
  • "You never take responsibility for anything."

How to Deal With a Covert Narcissist

Confident business partners walking down in office building and talking

If you think you may have a covert narcissist in your life, there are some strategies you can use to best interact with them, experts say. Depending on how often you interact with them, you'll want to consider a few different avenues.

1. Set healthy boundaries.

young couple fighting
iStock / RealPeopleGroup

First and foremost, establish boundaries, Hubscher says.

"Covert narcissists may try to manipulate or control those around them," she explains. "It's important to set clear boundaries and stick to them, even if the person tries to push back."

Once you have them in place, you need to stay firm as well.

"If given the chance, a narcissist will run over an unsuspecting victim," Ribarsky warns. "Setting boundaries is not always easy, but if you feel you are continually being belittled by another, set explicit boundaries of what behaviors you will or will not accept. This is a key way of protecting your own interests and self-worth."

2. Don't engage in games.

Young couple having relationship difficulties and arguing at home.
iStock / Drazen Zigic

Another important tactic when dealing with covert narcissists is not feeding into their manipulative tendencies.

"Covert narcissists often use emotional manipulation to get what they want," Hubscher says. "It's important not to engage in their games or give in to their demands."

This may also mean recognizing and fending off gaslighting tactics.

"Do not allow yourself to be gaslighted," Ribarsky urges. "It is not unusual for a narcissist to gaslight others into believing that they are inaccurate in their perceptions or are the ones at fault."

3. Focus on your own importance and needs.

young couple discussing a problem in the cafe

Experts also recommend focusing on yourself in these friendships or relationships, creating distance if necessary.

"Covert narcissists can be draining and may try to make everything about them," Hubscher says. "It's important to prioritize your own well-being in these situations."

Ribarsky says that, when possible, distancing yourself from a covert narcissist can be helpful as well.

"There are many times when we don't have a choice but to interact with a narcissist, such as a co-worker. But, limiting personal interactions can help avoid falling victim," she says. "Take your lunch break at a different time. Try to avoid committees where you will be working with them."

She continues, "In cases of friends or family, sometimes the best thing you can do is to cut off the relationship altogether. This may be easier said than done, but by terminating the relationship, it can prevent you from being sucked back in by gaslighting or other manipulative behaviors."

RELATED: 5 Red Flags Your Parent Is a Narcissist, According to Therapists.

How to Heal From Covert Narcissist Abuse

Couple with relationship difficulties

If you feel like you need some healing or perspective after dealing with a narcissist or even narcissistic abuse, you should prioritize taking care of yourself and your needs. According to therapists, you have a few options, which require you to look both externally and internally.

1. Seek therapy.

Mid age man talks with a female counselor at home. One on one meeting

Therapy and talking to a mental health professional can help with so many different aspects of life—and these kinds of relationships are no different.

"If you've been subjected to abuse at the hands of a covert narcissist, it's important to seek mental health support immediately," Manly says. "As NPD in any form is often intractable and difficult to treat, the only healthy way to move forward is to receive ongoing mental health support or to choose to leave the relationship."

2. Don't blame yourself.

Tired young woman sitting on desk and using computer. Papers and tools, a cup on desk. Tall windows, shelves with folders, office seat on background.

Another important component of your healing process is remembering to show yourself some grace and not to feel ashamed of how someone with NPD made you feel.

"Healing from emotional abuse sustained at the hands of a covert narcissist can be especially challenging as covert narcissists often don't initially present as narcissists; as such, it can take years for the abused individual to understand the nature of the toxic dynamics," Manly explains.

She adds, "This often gives rise to feelings of embarrassment, guilt, and shame that require special attention and healing. Thoughts such as 'I should have seen it sooner' or 'I am so stupid to have not realized what was going on!' often plague the victimized person."

3. Connect with people who are safe.

Friends enjoying Outdoor Dining Social Gathering

Among coping skills like meditation and breathing exercises, Manly also suggests fostering relationships with the people in your life who don't exhibit these covert narcissist traits.

"Those who are abused in relationships often close down and avoid others due to internal shame and fear," she says. "Part of the healing process involves connecting with people who are safe, loving, and respectful—the essential traits that the narcissist is unable or unwilling to provide."

4. Work on your confidence.

confident determined man ready to workouot
Jacob Lund / Shutterstock

In addition to being kind to yourself, you should also work to build yourself up—especially if you had your confidence knocked by a covert narcissist.

"It is not unusual for someone who has been in a relationship with a covert narcissist, whether it be a family member, friend, romantic partner or even work colleague, to have a diminished sense of self-worth," Ribarsky says. "Narcissists are experts at dismissing others in an attempt to bolster their own self-worth."

To do so, Ribarsky recommends seeking out activities that you excel at, and like Manly, building a support group of people who love and respect you.

RELATED: 5 Red Flags That Your Partner Is a Narcissist, According to Therapists.

Wrapping Up

narcissistic man center of attention – Yuri A / Shutterstock

Both overt and covert narcissism present their own diagnostic and clinical challenges—but the vulnerable form is especially tricky, since it doesn't adhere to what we're taught narcissistic behavior looks like. That's why it's so vital to notice any signs and address issues with narcissistic partners or friends in your life.

Abby Reinhard
Abby Reinhard is a Senior Editor at Best Life, covering daily news and keeping readers up to date on the latest style advice, travel destinations, and Hollywood happenings. Read more
Sources referenced in this article
  1. Source:
  2. Source: