Understanding Covert Narcissists and Abuse
Their behavior may make them hard to recognize.
Posted May 25, 2021 | Reviewed by Devon Frye
- Covert narcissists tend to act differently than overt narcissists, yet both have similar narcissistic characteristics.
- The behaviors of a covert narcissist tend to be subtle, misleading, and hurtful to their intimate partner and other close others.
- Recognizing the covert narcissist and their behaviors for what they are can provide the best protection.
In the realm of intimate partner abuse, many abusive partners may fit the description of narcissism. Some types of overt narcissism, such as grandiose or malignant narcissism, are easy to spot. The covert narcissists (also called the vulnerable narcissists), however, have similar qualities to those of the overt types yet act quite differently, making it all the more confusing to identify. This situation can interfere with seeking help.
Overt vs. Covert Narcissism
Overt narcissism is easily recognized, but covert narcissism is not always as apparent until you recognize it by the manipulative behaviors of its practitioner.
The overt narcissist is the one who easily shows self-importance and exaggerates accomplishments while seeking admiration from his audience. Exploiting others to serve one’s self is done without concern for and a lack of empathy for others. Overt narcissists tend to have difficulty building and sustaining relationships for these reasons.
The covert narcissists also seek control in their intimate relationship, but with behaviors that are subtler. Like the overt narcissist, they too want to be thought well of and admired to offset not feeling appreciated. Rather than displaying arrogance, however, they often act withdrawn, anxious, and at times self-critical. Additional characteristics of narcissistic personality disorder that can help to identify covert narcissism are quiet superiority; passive-aggressive behavior; envying others and believing they deserve what others have; lack of empathy for how people feel; and a propensity to step up to help others out of a strong desire for recognition (Raypole, C. 2019).
The Covert Narcissist’s Abusive Behaviors
The covert narcissist is sensitive to being criticized or being shown to be in the wrong and uses coercive tactics to externalize and blame a partner to avoid responsibility. These self-serving tactics can include gaslighting and distorting reality; manipulations to get what they want; showing contempt and giving the silent treatment; dominating and controlling their partner; and belittling and humiliating verbally and emotionally.
The Partner of the Covert Narcissist
Relationships with a covert narcissist who needs to overpower and have control in the relationship will eventually cause the other partner emotional pain. If the non-narcissistic partner speaks up about their concerns to their highly sensitive partner, they are often heard as being critical and attacking, which in turn, opens them up to retaliation that can be the silent treatment or hurtful, demeaning comments.
Since the covert narcissist envies those who receive positive recognition, their partner may learn not to share accomplishments at work, compliments from others, or repeat having had a happy experience. At the same time, positive regard or compliments for their domestic or professional accomplishments will likely not be forthcoming from their partner.
Many partners of covert narcissists report confusion, self-doubt, and a loss of trust in their own perception, often the result of being the recipient of emotional and psychological abuse. The covert narcissist who is self-effacing can use this passive-aggressive maneuver to get sympathy from their partner who then, being sympathetic, might overlook the hurt they caused.
Barriers to Getting Help
I was so confused by my partner’s positive behavior in public–—unlike at home. It was making him well-liked by our extended family and friends.
One of the biggest barriers to seeking help—beyond shame, humiliation, and not trusting one’s judgment—is the covert narcissist’s favorable behavior in public. The strong desire for positive or admirable recognition can propel the covert narcissist to appear altruistic in public. When this occurs, the partner sees what their partner is capable of yet doesn’t experience this privately. The result? The non-narcissistic partner is thrown into confusion and the mistaken belief that they are the cause. When they want to move out of isolation and speak their truth, they don’t expect to be believed.
Being in an intimate relationship with a covert narcissist can cause one to believe that they are responsible for the hurtful behavior they receive. It’s critical to know that this belief was created by the manipulation of the covert narcissist who alone is responsible. This is a huge shift in perspective that’s necessary to getting out of the entrapment and seeing other options.
You cannot change a covert narcissist—they can only change themselves. You can take control of your own life and decide what you’re willing to tolerate and not tolerate. From this place, you can hold the covert narcissist responsible by consistently setting limits. In this way, you’ll learn if you can get their attention to what you’re saying and work with you. Or not. A recognition of covert narcissist behavior can help you decide what to do about the relationship.
Don’t feel you need to do this all alone. Therapy, narcissistic abuse groups, and other resources can help educate and support you.
National Domestic Violence Help Line
To find help near you, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.
Raypole, C. 2019. “Covert Narcissism: The Quiet Counterpart to Narcissistic Personality"