How to Identify a Covert Narcissist

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Updated on July 8, 2021

Narcissists are typically associated with the more commonly-known behaviors they exhibit such as arrogance, grandiosity, lack of empathy, entitlement, manipulation and more. While these are definitely traits of someone who might be characterized as having narcissistic personality disorder (NPD), researchers have found that people can have a more internal presentation and continue to meet the criteria of a narcissistic personality disorder. Mental health professionals refer to this as covert narcissism, sometimes called hypersensitive or vulnerable narcissism.[1]

woman walking sadly

Covert narcissism is subtype of narcissism personality disorder marked by attributes more typical of introverts such as self-consciousness and social insecurity, in addition to the self-absorbedness common to all narcissists. While those classified as “covert” may not align with the personalities we normally think of as being narcissistic, it should be noted that some of the core psychological features of the disorder include vulnerable self-esteem and feelings of inferiority, which may be more apparent in covert narcissists, but are actually present in the other subtypes of narcissism as well.[2]

Common Characteristics of Covert Narcissists

Smugness

This may be less outwardly present than in those who are more overtly narcissistic, but for covert narcissists, this may be presented by a person being seemingly disinterested in the suggestions of others; many non-verbal behaviors and body language clues can suggest that someone is smug and feels smarter or more worthy of time and attention than others. Eye rolls, appearing bored or uninterested in what others are discussing are all non-verbal ways that someone may show disinterest in others’ thoughts, feelings, and behaviors.

Highly Focused on Self

A preoccupation of everything self is common with all forms of narcissism. Prioritizing discussing their own thoughts, feelings, behaviors, and experiences is a common theme in narcissistic personality disorders, and covert narcissists will also have this propensity. They may be less outwardly descriptive of their annoyance with addressing others’ thoughts or needs, but their go-to conversation topics will suggest that they are self-focused and primarily self-interested.

Empathy Deficient

Lack of understanding of the thoughts and feelings of those around them, or a disinterest in taking the time to try and perceive how others may be feeling is common with those who are narcissistic.

Passive-Aggressive

While some narcissists may be more aggressive and domineering in getting what they want, covert narcissists may prefer the more passive-aggressive approach, which might look like they are approving of what others want, but then doing as they please anyway. They can also be sarcastic in their acceptance of others’ thoughts and feelings, only to prefer and prioritize their own when confronted.

Sensitive

Covert narcissists often have a high level of sensitivity and are very easily offended. Instead of taking criticism in stride, they will often become defensive and exhibit lots of negative behaviors including withdrawing from their critics, lashing out to cause others pain as a form of deflection, and projection onto others when they feel attacked.

Entitlement

Covert narcissism, like any other form of narcissism, will often involve a fixation or fixed belief of grandiosity and superiority that sets them apart from others. Their belief that they are more special, more talented, and more worthy than others can often come with a sense of arrogance that pushes others away. Sometimes, when they do not receive the accolades they believe they deserve, it can cause them to see everyone else as an enemy and further isolate them from the support systems that can help them overcome their challenges.

Interpersonal Problems

Unsurprisingly, when someone is unable to empathize with the thoughts and feelings of others and is self-absorbed, their relationships will suffer. Their lack of ability to connect and address issues may make relationships highly conflictual. Sometimes, they may withdraw and cause their loved one to stop trying to initiate healthy dialogue, only making things worse for all those involved.

Final Thoughts

If you someone you care about meets the aforementioned characteristics of a covert narcissist and it is harming their relationships as well as other areas of their life, it can be helpful to seek out the guidance of professional therapist. The traits of narcissistic personality disorder make it difficult to admit problems and vulnerabilities, so convincing a loved one with NPD to see a therapist can be challenging.[3] However, a trained professional can help you in navigating this process as well. It may be a long road, but things can get better.


References

  1. Jauk, E., Weigle, E., Lehmann, K., Benedek, M., & Neubauer, A. C. (2017). The Relationship between Grandiose and Vulnerable (Hypersensitive) NarcissismFrontiers in psychology8, 1600. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2017.01600
  2. Caligor, E., Levy, K. N., & Yeomans, F. E. (2015). Narcissistic Personality Disorder: Diagnostic and Clinical Challenges. American Journal of Psychiatry, 172(5), 415–422. https://doi.org/10.1176/appi.ajp.2014.14060723
  3. Ronningstam E. (2011). Narcissistic personality disorder: a clinical perspectiveJournal of psychiatric practice17(2), 89–99. https://doi.org/10.1097/01.pra.0000396060.67150.40
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Dr. Shannon McHugh is a Licensed Clinical and Forensic Psychologist in Los Angeles, California. She specializes in assessment and treatment of children, adolescents, and adults who have developmental and social delays, behavioral difficulties, and those who have experienced traumatic events

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