What Are 10 Signs of Covert Narcissism?

Medically Reviewed on 2/25/2022
covert narcissism
A covert narcissist may appear shy or modest even though they have NPD

Narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) occurs on a broad spectrum that involves a wide range of traits. Covert narcissism, also called vulnerable narcissism, is one of them. A covert narcissist is someone who has NPD but does not outwardly display the grandiosity or sense of self-importance that is typical of NPD. Instead, they may appear shy or modest.

10 signs of covert narcissism

1. Extreme sensitivity to criticism

Feelings of insecurity are typical of NPD. In a covert narcissist, this manifests as extreme sensitivity to criticism. 

Of course, sensitivity to criticism isn’t unique to NPD, since few people enjoy being criticized. However the way someone responds to both real and perceived criticism can shed light on whether this sensitivity is extreme.  

Someone with covert narcissism might act as if they are above the criticism. Internally, however, they may feel empty, humiliated or angry, and their dismissive, sarcastic remarks are an attempt at hiding these feelings.

2. Passive-aggressive behavior

A covert narcissist may use passive-aggressive behavior to convey frustration or make themselves look superior. Passive-aggressive behavior may involve:

  • Sabotaging other people’s work or relationships
  • Mocking others
  • Giving others the silent treatment
  • Making others feel bad
  • Procrastinating on tasks they think are beneath them

3. Tendency to put themselves down

People with NPD crave admiration and rely on others to build self-esteem. Covert narcissists are no different, but instead of boasting about themselves, they tend to put themselves down with an underlying goal of earning compliments.

4. Shy or withdrawn nature

Covert narcissism is more strongly linked to introversion than other types of narcissism. People with this type of NPD are deeply insecure and afraid of other people seeing their failures. They may therefore avoid situations or relationships that lack clear benefits.

5. Grandiose fantasies

A covert narcissist usually spends more time thinking about their abilities and achievements than talking about them. They may have an “I’ll show you” attitude and often withdraw into a fantasy world of unlimited success or brilliance where they are superior to others.

6. Feelings of depression and anxiety

People with covert narcissism have a higher risk of depression and anxiety than other types of narcissists. Because of a deep fear of failure and frustration over unrealized perfectionistic ideals, they may struggle with feeling empty or even suicidal.

7. Tendency to hold grudges

Covert narcissists tend to hold grudges for a long time. If they feel they are being treated unfairly, they may say nothing at the moment but wait to take revenge in some way. Along with a desire for revent, these grudges can lead to feelings of bitterness and resentment. 

8. Envy

People with NPD are often envious of others who possess things they feel they should have. While a covert narcissist may not openly discuss their feelings of envy, they may show bitterness and resentment over not getting what they want.

9. Feelings of inadequacy

When covert narcissists can’t meet their own high standards, they often feel inadequate. This can result in feelings of shame, anger or powerlessness.

10. Fake empathy

Covert narcissists have the ability to seem empathetic and compassionate, but it’s usually self-serving and just for show. They may try to be helpful or generous but with the goal of winning approval and admiration.

What is narcissistic personality disorder?

Narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) is characterized by:

  • Exaggerated sense of self-importance
  • Arrogance
  • Need for constant admiration from others
  • Lack of empathy

While there are several types of NPD, the two most common include:

  • Overt narcissism
  • Covert narcissism or vulnerable narcissism

What is covert narcissism?

While both overt and covert narcissists desire attention and status but lack empathy, the two types act differently.

Covert narcissists are shy, and although they consider themselves to be superior to others, they tend not to show it in public. 

They are also highly sensitive to criticism and can become cruel and intensely negative during arguments. However, they may hide their fury because they don’t want to be seen as a bad person. Instead, they will hold onto grudges and wait for opportunities to get revenge, often using passive aggressive behavior to express their displeasure. They also never apologize because they never believe they are wrong.

Their behavior is motivated by two primary factors:

  • Deep-rooted belief that they are unique and therefore deserve what they want
  • Desire to exact revenge on those who have hurt them or who have attained greater success than they have

Covert narcissists may have the following traits:

  • Shy and socially withdrawn
  • Highly sensitive to criticism
  • Have grandiose fantasies
  • Exhibit passive-aggressive behavior, arrogance, or subtle superiority
  • Envious of others 
  • Believe that they deserve what others have
  • Do not have empathy for anyone
  • Natural tendency to hold grudges
  • Seem to have anxiety or depression


Laughter feels good because… See Answer

What drives a covert narcissist crazy?

What Drives a Covert Narcissist Crazy
Covert narcissists hate losing control and being ignored. So not responding to their tantrums and calmly carrying on with your life will drive them crazy

Covert narcissists hate losing control and being ignored. So not responding to their tantrums and calmly carrying on with your life will drive them crazy, as they will no longer feel like they have power over you.

The following tips may help you protect yourself from a covert narcissist:

  • Do not debate over who is “right” and who is “wrong”
  • Try to empathize with their emotions instead of arguing
  • Use the word “we”
  • Do not expect apologies
  • Learn to set boundaries and prioritize yourself

11 tactics covert narcissists use in relationships

Since covert narcissism isn’t as obvious as overt narcissism, you may not realize you are in a relationship with a covert narcissist until they have already trapped you. Being aware of how they operate can help you protect yourself.

Tactics they may use to gain your trust include:

  1. Surprise gifts: Covert narcissists often use money to exert their influence over you, buying you gifts to lure you into emotional attachment. Gifts may be given to buy your allegiance, silence, favors, etc. 
  2. Emotional trump cards: When you inform them about a weakness you have or admit a past wrongdoing, they will bring it up at an inopportune time to make you lose an argument, especially if you are trying to show them how they have hurt you.
  3. Put you down: Covert narcissists like to put you down or show you that something is wrong with you, but instead of saying it outright they will do it with jokes that seem teasing but are hurtful.
  4. Acting innocent: They pretend to be innocent or clueless, even if they are intentionally hurting you. They may also act like their forgetfulness was unintentional, even if it happens far too often to be an accident.
  5. Act of omission: They may act disinterested and uninvolved in the relationship, not responding to what you say and do.
  6. Telling lies: It can be difficult to know when you are being lied to because covert narcissists are master liars.
  7. Double meanings: Covert narcissists are experts at veiled insults and backhanded compliments, like “you are more attractive in that photo than in real life” or “you don’t look so horrible in that outfit .”
  8. Being nice but not intimate: They may be very pleasant with you but avoid true intimacy, instead seeking intimacy outside the partnership.
  9. Refuse to listen: Narcissists may not show little interest in listening to you, and even if they listen to you, they use it to misinterpret or condemn what you say. This can make you feel irritated and give up trying to be heard and understood.
  10. Controls conversations: They have complete control over when you speak, how you speak, and what you speak about. 
  11. Silent treatment: Narcissists like to shut out people to make them do what they want. The person who is abused by a covert narcissist often believes they are at fault and will try to compensate by showing their narcissist partner how much they truly love them. 

How is narcissistic personality disorder treated?

While treating NPD can be difficult, therapy as well as medications in some cases can often help. Treatment options include:

  • Supportive psychotherapy involves using both psychodynamic and cognitive behavioral techniques combined with psychopharmacologic management.
  • Structured psychotherapies include mentalization-based therapy where therapists teach their patients to self-reflect.
  • Transference-focused psychotherapy involves identifying a patient’s treatment goals and establishing a treatment contract between therapist and patient.
  • Schema-focused psychotherapy involves using cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), attachment theory and psychodynamic therapy to treat negative perceptions of self, others and one’s place in the world that are established in early life.
  • Dialectical behavioral therapy is a form of CBT that combines individual therapy with group treatment and has core principles of acceptance and change.
  • Medications may be used to treat patients who have severe symptoms, may be a risk to themselves or others and have other, treatable psychiatric conditions. Medications that used to treat NPD may include:
Medically Reviewed on 2/25/2022
Kacel EL, Ennis N, Pereira DB. Narcissistic Personality Disorder in Clinical Health Psychology Practice: Case Studies of Comorbid Psychological Distress and Life-Limiting Illness. Behav Med. 2017;43(3):156-164. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5819598/

Ambardar S. Narcissistic Personality Disorder. Medscape. https://emedicine.medscape.com/article/1519417-overview

Ambardar S. What Are the DSM-5 Diagnostic Criteria for Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD)? Medscape. https://www.medscape.com/answers/1519417-101764/what-are-the-dsm-5-diagnostic-criteria-for-narcissistic-personality-disorder-npd

Raypole C. Covert Narcissism: The Quiet Counterpart to Narcissistic Personality. August 22, 2019. https://www.goodtherapy.org/blog/covert-narcissism-the-quiet-counterpart-to-narcissistic-personality-0822197