Warning Signs of the Covert Narcissist

Keep your eyes open and your heart closed.

Posted Jun 16, 2020

There are several primary types of narcissists and each one is driven to self-aggrandize in varying degrees of vanity and hunger for power. The grandiose narcissist is probably the one that springs to mind for most people when they hear someone called a narcissist. These individuals are especially grating on our nerves as they tend to be pompous, try to be the center of attention in any room, are devoid of empathy, and believe the world and others should cater to and revolve around their needs. They want to get their way and are offended when they do not.

The malignant narcissist has similar characteristics, but also is willing to engage in hurtful and unethical behaviors in order to claim their position of power and authority. They are not above lying, cheating, or stealing in order to get ahead and express little to no regret for any actions they take that may harm others. They will spin the truth into lies to cover up bad behavior and never have a sense of guilt about what they do so long as their actions get them what they want.

Covert narcissists are as hungry for praise and prestige as other types, but they may take the “victim role” as a way of assuaging their disappointment at not being acknowledged by others in the ways that they want. They may use passive aggression to push their points or verbally harangue themselves when with others to encourage others to support them and contradict their statements of self-degradation. They may blame their losses on others, such as claiming that their true brilliance or value just wasn’t appreciated by the less sophisticated others. They may downplay a strength in order to encourage their partner or companion to bolster their ego with compliments and validation. They work the room in a different way than the typical narcissist; they may be more introverted and less likely to “steal the show,” but their hunger for positive attention and ego-stroking is no different from the others.

While most of us recognize grandiose and malignant narcissists pretty early in a relationship, covert narcissists might not totally reveal themselves until you’re deep into it. When a relationship is still new and each partner is eager to maintain it, tales of being an “underdog” or complaints about others failing to see one’s strengths and superiority might be met with a strong level of support and a willingness to take a partner’s side, even if the validity of the claims is questionable. We want to support the people we love and take their side – our maternal/parental side may even be activated and we respond with comfort, praise, and building up of a partner’s ego when they express frustration that the world doesn’t see the gift that they are to society.

Being involved with a covert narcissist can feel good at first: They need you in their lives to offer them unconditional love and support. However, because they are basically incapable of offering the same gifts to a relationship, the relationship can begin to feel lonely and one-sided. The more they take from your store of resources, the less you have to give or to offer yourself. And their need for continued admiration and esteem from others may leave them frustrated at your limits and present the “sad sack” face to others to harvest these things them. You may find yourself feeling “less than” as your partner saves the “good stuff” and feigned kindness for everyone but you. Trying to share your feelings with a covert narcissist can be an uphill battle – while the need to keep you in their life may be strong, and they may make promises to appease you, their ability to live out their promises of changed behaviors never last. And their lack of guilt or acceptance of responsibility will leave you in the role of discontented, unappreciative partner if you try to remind them of their earlier offers to change. In fact, the covert narcissist is likely to find a reason to blame you for any of their own shortcomings or failings in the relationship. Their fragile egos do not allow them to accept negative beliefs about themselves.

Some quick questions to ask yourself to help you determine if your partner is a covert narcissist despite all their protestations of commitment and loyalty to the relationship:

  1. Does your partner always blame you when they make a mistake or use shame and guilt to encourage you to do what they want to do?
  2. Does your partner use gaslighting or create situations in which you're always second-guessing yourself?
  3. Does your partner profess their commitment to you and the relationship but never put actions to their words?
  4. Does your partner try to buy your affection and loyalty rather than earning it through empathy, connection, and actions that mean more than "things"?
  5. Do you spend more time feeling "lonely" or "alone" than you did when you were single?

The saddest part of the narcissist’s situation is the presence of such deep-rooted insecurity that their egos are so fragile that they cannot tolerate the give-and-take of normal human relationships. The more grandiose and self-inflated their sense of self becomes, the stronger they are at tuning out or denigrating the messenger when potentially helpful constructive feedback is offered.