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Understanding Covert Narcissism

And how to heal from its effects.

Key points

  • Covert narcissism is a kind of narcissism that's more difficult to identify but just as impactful as overt narcissism.
  • The impacts of covert narcissism can negatively influence our boundaries, our sense of self-trust, and our emotional regulation skills.
  • Seeking out professional support to heal from the impacts of covert narcissism is advisable, particularly if you experienced this as a child.

Narcissism is a term that is, more than ever, commonly used in our everyday language.

However, it’s important to bear in mind that the definition of narcissism can vary based on the context in which it is used.

In my field, narcissism is defined and characterized by an excessive love or admiration of oneself, often to the detriment of others.

Within this definition, it’s important to realize that actions and behaviors resulting from narcissistic tendencies encompass an extensive spectrum—from overt, grandiose expressions to more covert, unobtrusive forms.

Covert narcissism, a subtle and often insidious form of self-absorption, often lurks undetected beneath the surface of seemingly cordial interactions, which is how and why it can be so difficult to spot but yet still so impactful.

In this post, I’ll explore what exactly covert narcissism is, share examples of covert narcissistic behavior, how to recognize covert narcissism, probable causes of covert narcissism, the impacts of having someone with covert narcissism in your life, and, most importantly, how to heal from its effects.

What exactly is covert narcissism?

Delving into the topic of covert narcissism, it becomes increasingly evident that this subtle form of narcissism is complex.

Characterized by a person’s inclination to cloak their narcissistic traits, covert narcissism stands in stark contrast to its overt counterpart, which is marked by grandiosity and attention-seeking behavior.

It may seem paradoxical that covert narcissists often portray themselves as introverted, shy, or even selfless individuals when in reality, their motivations are deeply rooted in an ardent desire for admiration, attention, and control within their relationships.

Examples of covert narcissism

While covert narcissistic behavior can be challenging to spot, some of the common signs and signals might include:

  1. Playing the victim: Covert narcissists often position themselves as the victim in situations, seeking attention and validation from others, including their children.
  2. Gaslighting: Covert narcissists may manipulate others into doubting their own experiences or perceptions, often to maintain control and/or influence over them.
  3. Lack of empathy: People with covert narcissism may struggle to understand or acknowledge the feelings and needs of others, instead prioritizing their own feelings and needs.
  4. Passive-aggressive behavior: Covert narcissists may use subtle tactics, such as withholding affection or giving someone the silent treatment in order to control and manipulate them.
  5. Projection: Covert narcissists may project their own faults, insecurities, and shortcomings onto others, often to avoid taking responsibility for their own behavior and vulnerabilities.

And these are just a handful of the ways that covert narcissism can manifest.

What are the causes of covert narcissism?

Most of us in our relational trauma journeys will, at some point, ask the question, “Why is this person the way that they are?”

When it comes to covert narcissism, the origins are complex and unique to every individual in the same way that any constellation of manifested mental health symptomology is a complicated confluence of variables.

But, speaking in broad strokes, a myriad of factors can contribute to the development of narcissistic tendencies, with childhood experiences often taking center stage.

For instance, in an attempt to navigate through the pain and insecurity arising from traumatizing events or neglect, some individuals may turn to narcissism as a coping mechanism. In other words, it results from wounding.

On the other end of the spectrum, a hyper-affectionate upbringing involving overly generous praise and inappropriate coddling may inadvertently breed an inflated sense of self-worth, ultimately manifesting as narcissistic behavior.

And while it can be helpful to ask the question of what causes covert narcissism in someone, I think the more important question by far is, “What are the impacts of having been raised by a covert narcissist? How did this impact me?”

What are the impacts of having been raised by a covert narcissist?

This may go without saying, but growing up with a parent who has covert narcissism can have a significant impact on a child’s development and well-being. Although the effects of covert narcissism can be subtle, they can be just as damaging as those of overt narcissism.

Below are some common impacts of growing up with a parent who has covert narcissism:

  • Difficulty establishing boundaries: Children of covert narcissists may struggle to establish healthy boundaries, as their parent may have manipulated and controlled them throughout their childhood leaving them with a lack of or distorted understanding of their boundaries and the boundaries of others.
  • Low self-esteem: Covert narcissists may project their insecurities onto their children, leaving them feeling inadequate or unworthy.
  • Lack of emotional support: Covert narcissists may struggle with empathy, making it difficult for them to respond to their children’s emotional needs. This can leave children feeling isolated, unsupported, and mis- and un-attuned to.
  • Gaslighting: Covert narcissists may use gaslighting tactics to control and manipulate their children, making it difficult for them to trust their own experiences and perceptions as they move through the world.
  • Emotional manipulation: Covert narcissists may use emotional manipulation to control their children, leaving them feeling guilty or responsible for their parent’s feelings and behavior.
  • Invalidation: Covert narcissists may invalidate their children’s emotions and experiences, dismissing or minimizing their feelings and needs, effectively teaching a child that they don’t matter.
  • Intense criticism: Covert narcissists may be highly critical of their children, leaving them feeling like they can never meet their parent’s expectations.
  • Fear of abandonment: Covert narcissists may use threats of abandonment or withdrawal of affection to control their children, leaving them feeling anxious, insecure, and insecurely attached.
  • Difficulty forming healthy relationships: Children of covert narcissists may struggle recognizing healthy, functional behavior in others and instead be drawn to familiar, templated examples of covert narcissistic behavior in their friends, romantic relationships, and more.

And this is just a sample of the impacts that a child raised by a covert narcissistic parent can experience.

If you suspect you have experienced covert narcissism—either from a parent, sibling, romantic partner, or otherwise—seeking out professional help can be a wonderful option to help you recover from its impacts. Searching the directory on Psychology Today for a trauma therapist can be a wonderful way to start your healing journey.

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