Is Your Partner a Covert Narcissist?

Shannon V. McHugh, PsyD
July 9, 2020

Often when discussing narcissists, people are quick to talk about all of the outward social behaviors that relate to narcissism: arrogance, grandiosity, lack of empathy, entitlement, expressing that they are unique, special, worthy of success, manipulating others, etc. While these are definitely traits of someone who falls into the narcissistic personality disorder category, researchers have found that people can have a more internal presentation, less outwardly affected, and continue to meet the criteria of a narcissistic personality disorder.

Covert Narcissist

Researchers and mental health professionals have coined this subtype of narcissism as being called “covert narcissism”, and while it may be more difficult to detect, these symptoms carry the same self-preoccupations that can lead to negative social relationships with others.

Here is a list of common characteristics of “covert” narcissists:

Smugness – This may be less outwardly present than in those who are more externally 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, etc. 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.

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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 may look like they are approving of what others want, but then doing as they please anyway. They may 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 quick to feeling offended or criticized. Instead of taking criticism in stride, they will often become defensive and exhibit lots of negative behaviors from withdrawing from those who are trying to communicate with them to make changes in their relationship, or by lashing out and causing others pain as a form of deflection or projection onto others when they feel attacked.

Entitlement – Often covert narcissism, like any other form of narcissism, will 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. Often, when they do not receive the accolades, they believe they deserve, this can also cause them to see everyone else as an enemy and further isolate them from support systems and people that could positively influence their ability to succeed.

Interpersonal Problems – When someone is unable to empathize with the thoughts and feelings of others, is highly self-focused and uninterested in connecting with others unless the interactions are focused on them, it is no surprise that their connections to people and interpersonal 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 leading to unhealthy and toxic relationships for all involved.

If you think your partner meets the characteristics of a covert narcissist, or narcissist in general, it can often be helpful to seek out a professional therapist to improve communication with you and your partner. Often times, psychotherapy treatment can help a person with narcissistic personality traits to develop empathy and learn how to improve communication skills with a neutral party helping to communicate their wants and needs.

Shannon V. McHugh, PsyD

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