Covert Narcissism: How to Recognize & Respond Powerfully

Covert Narcissism Victim

Last Updated on April 11, 2022 by Ray

What is Narcissism?

The term narcissist is often utilized to describe people who act selfishly or are overly self-involved. However, narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) is a legitimate mental health condition that needs to be diagnosed by a qualified medical professional. Someone with this disorder will typically possess an inflated sense of self-importance, require excessive amounts of attention or acclaim, and have a distinct lack of empathy for others.

These individuals may also be very controlling and engage in manipulative, abusive behaviors, such as gaslighting, lying, character assassination, isolation, and more, resulting in cycles of narcissistic abuse that they inflict on their partners, children, or other loved ones. However, it’s important to note that narcissistic behavior can generally take one of two forms within the realm of psychology; overt and covert. 

This article intends to explain the latter of these two narcissistic types, how to recognize these behaviors and respond to them safely and effectively. If you believe that you have been the victim of narcissistic abuse, please continue reading to learn more, and feel free to reach out to the services of a professional therapist.

You may also choose to reach out to Ray of Solace, whose expert life coaches can help you learn how to take back control of your life, happiness, wellness, and more.

Related: 10 Narcissistic Abuse Examples You Need to Know

What is Covert Narcissism? 

Covert narcissism is the much less obvious of the two NPD subtypes, and it can sometimes be challenging to identify these people as being narcissists as a result. Covert narcissists tend to come across as very shy, vulnerable, and withdrawn, and they may often make use of self-deprecation around others. But while covert narcissism may be much less apparent than overt narcissism, several signs will indicate the presence of NPD.

These signs tend to include a secret sense of superiority (though they tend to appear modest), difficulty with work and relationships, and a hypersensitivity to criticism. This hypersensitivity to criticism is especially significant to note.

These individuals are likely to perceive insults where there are none and become quickly and intensely defensive, often leading to passive-aggressive, if not outright vindictive behaviors towards those who the narcissist feels have slighted or shamed them.

Individuals who exhibit covert narcissism are also likely to lack interest in and avoid social situations, often due to feelings of social anxiety. They fear being in situations in which they may compare themselves to others, potentially resulting in feelings of failure, anger, or envy.

Additionally, those with covert NPD are likely to struggle with symptoms of anxiety, depression, and other potential personality disorders, such as borderline personality disorder. Because NPD is often comorbid with other mental health conditions, those seeking treatments must go to qualified mental health professionals to ensure that their needs and symptoms are adequately addressed.

Related: Narcissistic Victim Syndrome: 10 Warning Signs to Know 

Overt vs. Covert Narcissism

As noted previously, experts break down NPD into two groups based on their behavior and its overall intensity. These groups include overt and covert narcissism, which can also be thought of as grandiose narcissism and vulnerable narcissism.

While both of these NPD types share the same traits, such as a lack of empathy, the need for attention and deficits in their ability to regulate their self-esteem, the outward behaviors exhibited by these two groups tend to be very different.

Unlike overt narcissists, who avoid social situations and have a more secretive sense of superiority to others that can be hard to pick up on, overt NPD is much more visible to the naked eye. Overt narcissistic behaviors, simply put, are those that other people can easily observe, and overt narcissists are often considered extraverted, attention-seeking, and bold.

These individuals also have a higher potential to become aggressive or violent if someone or something challenges their perceived status and control in a situation.

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Recognizing Signs of Covert Narcissism

As previously stated, those with NPD (whether overt or covert) will often exhibit abusive behaviors, especially towards their romantic partners. But it can be challenging for the loved ones of narcissists to realize that they are actually in a toxic or abusive relationship, especially if the narcissist’s behaviors are covert. The following are critical signs that people should be on the lookout for if they believe they might be in an abusive relationship with a covert narcissist.

Shaming and Blaming Others

It’s common for narcissists to resort to shaming and blaming others to secure a sense of superiority or an elevated position over the people around them, especially if those people are perceived as being more successful. While overt narcissists will be obvious about this by using put-downs, sarcasm, and criticism, covert narcissists are likely to take a more gentle approach in their efforts to lower the perceived position of others.

They may take the time to explain why something is someone’s fault rather than their own to deflect blame. They may even play the role of a victim or engage in emotional abuse and manipulation to gain reassurance, praise, and support from others.

Creating Confusion and Gaslighting

Narcissists of both kinds will often create confusion and gaslight their partner to maintain a sense of control over a person or situation. Even if they aren’t directly engaging in shaming or blaming behavior, they may actively get people to question their perceptions and memories or cause them to second-guess themselves.

By getting people to question themselves, the narcissist gains a solid opportunity to manipulate and exploit them more easily than they already do. These can have severe ramifications for the mental health and overall wellbeing of narcissistic abuse victims, often resulting in lowered self-esteem, a loss of confidence, and a sense of having no personal freedom or control.

Passive Self-Importance

While overt narcissists will be obvious in their arrogance and elevated sense of self, covert narcissists are much less evident in their cravings for importance and admiration. They may utilize back-handed compliments or minimize their talents or accomplishments so that those around them will reassure them of how talented they are.

In short, they will typically look to others for confirmation of their abilities as a way to satisfy their need for self-importance, attention, and recognition. The end goal of these interactions is for the covert narcissist is to make the other person feel small or powerless. 

Emotionally Neglectful

Narcissists are not emotionally accessible or responsive to others and are unlikely to provide people with praise or compliments because they want attention on themselves to maintain their sense of self-importance. Those in a relationship with a covert narcissist will likely find themselves doing all of the heavy emotional lifting. When a covert narcissist does appear to be emotionally accessible, it tends to be a performance done to allow them to exploit or manipulate their partner, leaving them feeling small through the narcissist’s disregard.

Procrastination and Disregard

People with NPD are primarily fueled by their need for self-importance and recognition from others, and they will do whatever they feel they need to keep people’s attention focused on themselves. While overt narcissists will blatantly push people aside or manipulate them to accomplish a goal, covert narcissists are more likely to stop acknowledging people.

They have no problem letting others know that they are not important in one way or another. For instance, though a covert narcissist will not directly say that someone is not important, they may purposely take actions that indicate they have no regard for their time, feelings, or interests. This can be done by standing their partners up on a date, always waiting until the last moment to respond to emails and texts, or never confirming plans. 

Giving to Gain Returns

Generally speaking, narcissists are unlikely to give things to others unless they intend to get something in return, such as recognition. For instance, a narcissist is more likely to leave a tip at the coffee counter when they know that the barista is looking than when they are not looking. In short, a narcissist’s intent when giving is more about them and less about those to whom they are giving something.

Related: How To Become a Life Coach in 5 Easy Steps

What Are Covert Narcissists Attracted To?

Certain traits may attract covert narcissists into your life—romantically or not—without you even realizing it. 

Generally, we tend to assume narcissists would be most attracted to people they characterize as “weak” to gain a greater sense of control over them. However, it can actually be the opposite—many narcissists tend to gravitate toward people who are strong-willed, talented, and empowered in some way. 

Whether a given person has an impressive career, close ties to family and friends, or is in great shape, a narcissist might see these strengths as a thrill or challenge that can quickly spiral into abuse. They may try to drag this person down to feel more powerful while also taking these things for themselves. Bonus points if this person makes the narcissist looks good by association!

Narcissists are also famously attracted to empaths since they are more likely to fulfill their own emotional needs without asking for anything in return. Empaths will often be more likely to overlook any negative qualities in the narcissist and will therefore be less likely to leave them behind.
 Since empaths are more highly-attuned to others’ emotions and tend to be more selfless, they are also more likely to constantly validate and support a covert narcissist while receiving nothing in return. This relationship can quickly turn parasitic, in which the empath truly believes that they can “fix” the narcissist with enough compassion. Meanwhile, the narcissist continues to use manipulative tactics to maintain power over the relationship while benefiting from the selflessness of the empath.

How to Respond to Covert Narcissism

Whether your relationship with a covert narcissist is that of a partner, coworker, or family member, it’s essential to know that you are not powerless, and there are some important things to keep in mind when responding to their comments and actions. While you cannot control what a narcissist says or does, you can control how you react to and interact with them. These are the basic steps you can use to protect yourself when interacting with a covert narcissist:

Set Boundaries

Narcissists do not have healthy boundaries, and it can be challenging to set boundaries with them. However, it’s essential that people set and maintain personal boundaries based on their needs and values to avoid being mistreated or taken advantage of by others, especially narcissists.

If a narcissist attempts to disregard or violate your boundaries, you need to understand that such actions are unacceptable, and you do not have to tolerate them. They will likely try to break down your boundaries or subvert them to gain power over you, so it’s essential that you hold firm to them and not allow yourself to be exploited. 

Advocate For Yourself

It can be easy to lose your nerve and voice when dealing with narcissists, whether they are overt or covert in their behavior, but it’s essential that you actively take steps to advocate for yourself. To do this, you need to be in touch with your values, goals, talents, and who you are as a person in general.

A key part of this involves speaking up and standing up for yourself when interacting with a narcissist, especially if they are trying to belittle or manipulate you. When a narcissist learns that you will not tolerate their treatment, it will become less appealing for them to try and exploit or control you.

Don’t Take a Narcissist’s Behavior Personally

The behaviors of narcissists can feel very personal to those who experience them, whether they are overt or covert. Their entitlement, disregard for your emotions and experiences, and manipulative behavior patterns can be difficult not to take personally when you are on the receiving end.

However, it’s important to understand that their behavior has nothing to do with you and is not your fault, no matter how impactful or painful they may cause you to feel.

Narcissists behave in the ways they do because their thought processes and self-esteem work in a very unhealthy way, and it doesn’t mean that there is something inherently wrong with you. Narcissists feel small and wish to make themselves feel significant; they will do this by trying to gain leverage and manipulate others, which is not the fault of their victims.

Create Distance Between Yourself and The Narcissist in Your Life

One of the best things you can do for yourself is to establish some healthy distance between yourself and the narcissist in your life when your relationship starts to feel frustrating or overwhelming. This can be difficult to do with coworkers or family members, but people can use some effective tactics to help mediate their interactions.

These include limiting your interactions with the narcissist, asking to be moved away from them in an office setting, and taking breaks or lunches at different times. If the relationship is getting to be too much, it may also be beneficial to cut off contact with them altogether, especially if you feel hurt by their behavior. The goal should be to protect yourself and create a safe space to heal from their negatively impactful behavior. 

Do you need help to take control of your life, relationships, health, happiness, and more but aren’t sure how to get started? Reach out to Ray at Ray of Solace today to learn how her top-quality life coaching services can help.

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