How to Spot a Covert Narcissist

covert narcissist

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Discover covert narcissist traits and behaviors and learn how covert narcissism affects your relationships and personal dynamics.

Understanding and addressing covert narcissism is essential for fostering healthier relationships and promoting mental well-being. Covert narcissism, characterized by subtle but impactful behaviors, can be challenging to identify and treat.

This article provides insights into the symptoms, causes, and treatment options for covert narcissism, aiming to educate and guide individuals toward effective management and support strategies.

Always remember, that professional medical advice should be sought for accurate diagnosis and personalized treatment.

What is a Covert Narcissist?

What is covert narcissism? Covert narcissism, also known as vulnerable or hidden narcissism, is a subtype of narcissistic personality disorder characterized by a more subtle presentation of narcissistic traits.

What is a covert narcissist? Unlike overt narcissists, who are openly arrogant and attention-seeking, covert narcissists exhibit their narcissistic behaviors in less obvious ways.

They may appear shy, self-effacing, or introverted, but they still possess a grandiose sense of self-importance and a need for admiration.

Signs of Covert Narcissism

The symptoms of covert narcissism often include hypersensitivity to criticism and passive-aggressive behavior, making it challenging to recognize at first.

Individuals displaying covert narcissism symptoms may frequently exhibit a victim mentality and lack genuine empathy despite appearing self-effacing.

Recognizing the signs of covert narcissism involves observing inconsistent behavior, conditional help, and a tendency to seek praise for altruistic actions.

Hypersensitivity to Criticism:

Covert narcissists are extremely sensitive to criticism or perceived slights. They may react with intense defensiveness, passive-aggressive behavior, or withdrawal.

Passive-Aggressive Behavior:

They often express their narcissism through indirect or passive means, such as sarcasm, backhanded compliments, or sulking.

Chronic Envy:

Covert narcissists frequently compare themselves to others and feel envious of others’ success, talents, or possessions. This envy can manifest as resentment or bitterness.

covert narcissist traits

Grandiose Fantasies:

They have elaborate fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, or beauty, but they are kept private rather than openly displayed.

Lack of Empathy:

Similar to overt narcissists, covert narcissists struggle with empathy. They may dismiss others’ feelings or needs and have difficulty forming genuine, empathetic connections.

Sense of Entitlement:

They believe they are entitled to special treatment or recognition, even if they do not openly demand it.

Feelings of Inadequacy:

Covert narcissists often oscillate between feelings of superiority and deep-seated feelings of inadequacy or inferiority.

Victim Mentality:

They may see themselves as perpetual victims, blaming others for their problems and refusing to take responsibility for their actions.

victimhood mentality

How to Spot a Covert Narcissist

Learn about the subtle behaviors, symptoms, and signs of a covert narcissist that can help identify individuals with covert narcissistic traits.

Inconsistent Behavior:

Notice if someone’s behavior fluctuates between appearing self-effacing and displaying hidden arrogance or entitlement.

Excessive Humility:

They might downplay their achievements or skills in a way that seems insincere or designed to elicit praise and reassurance.

Subtle Manipulation:

Covert narcissists use subtle forms of manipulation, such as guilt-tripping or playing the martyr, to control or influence others.

Chronic Complaints:

Pay attention to individuals who consistently complain about how they are misunderstood, mistreated, or underappreciated.

signs of covert narcissism

Lack of Accountability:

They often refuse to take responsibility for their actions, preferring to blame others or external circumstances.

Envious Remarks:

Listen for envious or resentful comments about others’ successes or good fortune, which can reveal underlying feelings of inadequacy.

Emotional Invalidation:

Covert narcissists may frequently invalidate others’ feelings or experiences, dismissing them as unimportant or irrelevant.

Grandiose Fantasies:

They may occasionally reveal grandiose fantasies or unrealistic goals, indicating an inflated sense of self-importance.

Recognizing a covert narcissist can be challenging due to their subtle and hidden behaviors. However, understanding these traits and patterns can help identify covert narcissism in personal and professional relationships.

An example of covert narcissist husband behavior could be consistently portraying himself as the victim in conflicts, subtly manipulating conversations to receive sympathy and avoid accountability.

He might also use passive-aggressive tactics such as giving backhanded compliments or withholding affection to control or undermine his partner’s confidence and independence.

These behaviors often mask underlying feelings of superiority and entitlement while appearing self-effacing or accommodating on the surface.

covert narcissist husband

How To Spot Covert Narcissism Disguised as Altruism

Spotting covert narcissism disguised as altruism can be particularly challenging because the behavior often appears genuinely selfless and caring on the surface.

However, some subtle signs and patterns can help identify when altruism is motivated by narcissistic needs rather than genuine concern for others. Here are some key indicators to watch for:

Covert narcissism disguised as altruism, meaning the tendency to use seemingly selfless acts to gain admiration and control, masking narcissistic tendencies.

Self-Congratulatory Behavior:

Covert narcissists may frequently highlight their altruistic actions, seeking recognition and praise. They might consistently bring up their good deeds in conversations or on social media.

Conditional Help:

Their help often comes with strings attached. They may expect something in return, whether it’s loyalty, praise, or favors, and can become resentful if these expectations are not met.

Victim Mentality:

They may present themselves as a martyr, frequently reminding others of the sacrifices they’ve made. This can be a way to manipulate others into feeling indebted or guilty.

Public Display of Altruism:

Covert narcissists prefer their good deeds to be visible to others. They might go out of their way to ensure their altruism is noticed, often choosing public acts of kindness over private ones.

covert narcissism disguised as altruism

Emotional Manipulation:

They use their altruism to control or manipulate others, making others feel guilty or ungrateful if they do not reciprocate or acknowledge the narcissist’s efforts.

Inconsistent Behavior:

Their altruistic actions may be inconsistent. They might be extraordinarily generous in some situations but show a lack of empathy or kindness in others, especially when there is no opportunity for recognition.

Underlying Motives:

They may engage in altruistic behavior primarily when there’s something to gain, such as improving their social status, gaining influence, or enhancing their self-image.

Lack of Genuine Empathy:

Despite their outwardly altruistic behavior, they may lack genuine concern for others’ feelings or needs. Their help can feel transactional rather than compassionate.

Overreacting to Criticism:

If their altruistic actions are questioned or criticized, they may react defensively or with excessive hurt, indicating that their self-worth is tied to being seen as altruistic.

Focus on Their Efforts:

Conversations about their altruism often center more on their efforts and sacrifices rather than the actual benefits to the recipients.

narcissistic behavior examples

Examples of Covert Narcissism Disguised as Altruism

Volunteering for Praise:

A person who volunteers regularly but ensures everyone knows about their volunteer work, often posting on social media or bringing it up in conversations to receive validation.

Conditional Generosity:

Someone who offers help or donations but expects unwavering loyalty, recognition, or favors in return. They may withdraw support if they do not feel adequately appreciated.


A person who frequently talks about how much they sacrifice for others, often in a way that seeks sympathy or admiration, may use these sacrifices to manipulate others into feeling guilty or indebted.

By observing these behaviors and patterns, you can better identify covert narcissism disguised as altruism.

Genuine altruism is selfless and focused on the well-being of others, whereas narcissistic altruism ultimately serves the narcissist’s need for validation, control, and admiration.

covert narcissism

What Causes Covert Narcissism?

Covert narcissism, like other forms of narcissistic personality disorder (NPD), is believed to result from a combination of genetic, environmental, and psychological factors. Here are some of the primary causes:

#1. Genetic Factors

Hereditary Influences:

There is evidence that narcissistic traits can be inherited. If there is a family history of NPD or other personality disorders, the likelihood of developing covert narcissism may be higher.

Biological Factors:

Certain genetic predispositions can affect brain structures and functions related to empathy, self-regulation, and emotional processing.

#2. Environmental Factors

Parenting Style:

Early childhood experiences and the type of parenting received play a significant role. Overindulgent, neglectful, or inconsistent parenting can contribute to the development of narcissistic traits.

Excessive Praise:

Being excessively praised and told they are superior without being taught empathy and humility.

Criticism and Neglect:

Experiencing harsh criticism, neglect, or abuse can lead to feelings of inadequacy and the development of a covert narcissistic coping mechanism.

Attachment Issues:

Inconsistent fulfillment of a child’s emotional needs by caregivers leads to insecure attachment styles, potentially fostering the development of narcissistic traits.

female covert narcissist

#3. Psychological Factors

Low Self-Esteem:

Covert narcissists often have fragile self-esteem. Their outward behavior may be an attempt to compensate for deep-seated feelings of inadequacy or inferiority.

Defense Mechanisms:

Covert narcissism can develop as a defense mechanism against feelings of vulnerability. The person may develop a grandiose self-image to protect against underlying insecurities.

Coping Strategies:

Over time, certain coping strategies, such as seeking admiration or feeling entitled, can become ingrained behaviors, reinforcing narcissistic tendencies.

#4. Social and Cultural Factors

Societal Influences:

Societal and cultural norms that emphasize competition, success, and individualism can contribute to the development of narcissistic traits. Media and social networks that promote self-aggrandizement and superficial success can also play a role.

Peer Relationships:

Early interactions with peers, including experiences of bullying or exclusion, can impact self-esteem and contribute to the development of covert narcissistic behaviors as a means of coping.

covert narcissism traits

#5. Trauma and Stress

Childhood Trauma:

Experiencing trauma, such as emotional, physical, or sexual abuse during childhood, can significantly impact personality development and contribute to narcissistic traits.

Chronic Stress:

Prolonged exposure to stressful environments, particularly those involving rejection, failure, or inadequacy, can exacerbate narcissistic tendencies.

Covert narcissism arises from a complex interplay of genetic predispositions, early childhood experiences, psychological coping mechanisms, and social influences.

Understanding these underlying factors can provide insight into the behavior of covert narcissists and help in developing effective approaches to treatment and support.

How To Treat Covert Narcissism

Treating covert narcissism involves a combination of therapeutic approaches and strategies to address the underlying psychological issues and promote healthier behaviors. Here are some key methods for treating covert narcissism:

#1. Psychotherapy

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT):

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) can help individuals identify and challenge distorted thinking patterns and develop healthier ways of relating to themselves and others.

Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT):

DBT focuses on improving emotional regulation, interpersonal effectiveness, and distress tolerance, which can be beneficial for individuals with covert narcissism.

Psychodynamic Therapy:

This approach explores the unconscious roots of narcissistic behavior, helping individuals understand how their early experiences and relationships influence their current behavior.

Schema Therapy:

This combines elements of CBT, attachment theory, and psychodynamic therapy to address deeply ingrained patterns of thinking and behavior.

professional therapy

#2. Medication


If covert narcissism is accompanied by depression or anxiety, antidepressants may help manage these symptoms.

Mood Stabilizers:

These can be prescribed if the individual experiences intense mood swings.

#3. Self-Help Strategies

Mindfulness and Meditation:

Practicing mindfulness and meditation can help individuals become more aware of their thoughts and feelings and develop greater emotional regulation.


Encouraging regular self-reflection and journaling can help individuals gain insight into their behavior and motivations.

#4. Building Empathy & Compassion

Empathy Training:

Techniques to enhance empathy, such as perspective-taking exercises, can help individuals with covert narcissism develop a greater understanding and concern for others.


Engaging in volunteer work can provide opportunities for genuine altruistic behavior and help shift focus from self to others.

mindfulness teacher training

#5. Improving Interpersonal Relationships

Communication Skills:

Teaching effective communication skills can help individuals with covert narcissism express themselves more clearly and listen to others more empathetically.

Boundary Setting:

Helping individuals understand and respect personal boundaries can improve their relationships and reduce manipulative behaviors.

#6. Support Groups

Narcissistic Abuse Recovery Groups:

These groups can provide support and understanding for individuals trying to change narcissistic behaviors.

Therapy Groups:

Group therapy can offer a supportive environment where individuals can practice new skills and receive feedback from others.

#7. Education and Awareness


Educating individuals about narcissism and its impact on themselves and others can increase awareness and motivate change.

Reading and Resources:

Providing access to books, articles, and other resources about covert narcissism can support the therapeutic process.

Treating covert narcissism requires a comprehensive approach that includes psychotherapy, self-help strategies, empathy training, improving interpersonal relationships, and support groups.

By addressing the underlying psychological issues and promoting healthier behaviors, individuals with covert narcissism can work towards more fulfilling and authentic lives.

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The information in this article is for educational purposes only and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek advice from your physician, psychiatrist, therapist, or other qualified mental health provider regarding any medical condition or mental health disorder.

Do not disregard professional advice or delay seeking it because of this document. If you have a medical emergency, call your doctor immediately. This content is not a comprehensive guide to mental health issues and should not be the sole basis for decisions. Reliance on the information is at your own risk.

The authors and publishers are not responsible for any adverse effects or consequences resulting from the use of suggestions, recommendations, or procedures described herein.


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