What Is A Covert Narcissist?

A man holding a poorly clenched fist up to a mirror, looking at himself in the eye.

Outside a clinical setting, we tend to use the term narcissist to describe anyone who thinks a little too highly of themselves. However, narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) is a complex condition with various presentations.

Covert narcissists are defined by the same self-importance and reduced empathy associated with narcissism, presented in subtler ways.

Let’s take a closer look.

What Is A Narcissist?

Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) is a clinical term used to describe those with a focused sense of self-importance and a lack of empathy.

Although the term is used casually to describe a person who thinks very highly of themselves, the reality of the term is significantly more complex. Lacking compassion but craving admiration, narcissists can find it difficult to create meaningful connections with others.

What Is A Covert Narcissist?

Narcissistic Personality Disorder is divided into two subtypes: overt narcissism, and covert narcissism. Covert narcissism is sometimes referred to as vulnerable narcissism.

There is a significant overlap between the two categorizations. Covert and overt narcissists crave admiration and seek importance, while lacking empathy and compassion towards others. People with covert narcissism tend to be self absorbed, and have an excessive need for attention.

However, these signs can be hard to identify in covert narcissists. While overt narcissism can be easy to recognize, examples of covert narcissism are harder to observe.

What Is The Difference Between A Narcissist And A Covert Narcissist?

Covert narcissists and overt narcissists (see also ‘Different Types Of Narcissists‘) both have narcissistic personality disorder, but some key aspects of the disorder do differ. Narcissistic personality disorder is typically associated with a high sense of self-importance, which can result in extraversion.

Covert narcissists, on the other hand, often deal with low self-esteem. This can result in insecurity and defensiveness. Covert narcissism has a high correlation with introversion, as well as neuroticism.

Covert narcissists are also thought to have a higher degree of self awareness. They can experience empathy and recognize their behavior, typically for a limited period of time.

While many traits—an inflated sense of self-importance, a lack of empathy—overlap in both covert and overt narcissism, the presentation of these traits can differ significantly.

To diagnose a client with either covert or overt narcissism, you must observe the same clinical criteria. Key to this is the inability to regulate self-esteem, no matter how this trait is displayed.

Causes Of Covert Narcissism

The exact causes of narcissistic personality disorder are still not completely understood. NPD is often thought to be a result of traumatic relationships in early childhood, frequently with caregivers and parents.

Growing up with parents or caregivers highly focused on achievement can also result in NPD.

There is also a potential genetic link.

Exactly why narcissistic personality disorder sometimes presents in covert, rather than overt, ways is still poorly understood.

Recognizing A Covert Narcissist

Introversion and shyness are both observed in those with covert narcissism, which can make recognizing a covert narcissist difficult. Traits that are obvious in an overt narcissist can often go unrecognized in a covert narcissistic.

Due to the subtlety of the disorder, diagnosing covert narcissism can be challenging even for experienced health care professionals.

Man sitting on the floor looking between his legs.


A critical aspect of NPD is the desire for praise. While overt narcissists will directly seek admiration, often by lying or exaggerating, covert narcissists use passive techniques. By being self-deprecating and minimizing their contributions, they can receive reassurance and recognition.

Covert narcissists rely on others to build their self-esteem, and will have a negative sense of self. They will seek validation from others, to reassure their own importance.

Sensitivity To Criticism

Covert narcissists often struggle with a negative self view, causing them to react strongly to perceived criticism. When they receive criticism, it reinforces their insecurity.

This reaction can often be observed as dismissive comments and sarcastic remarks. While on the outside they appear disinterested, on the inside, they’re deeply frustrated and angry.

Passive Aggressive Behavior

While overt narcissists seek to become the center of attention, covert narcissists prefer life on the sidelines. Backhanded compliments, hostile jokes, and the “silent treatment” are all examples of this passive aggressive behavior.

This is driven by the idea that the narcissist is superior, and the desire to punish those who they feel have wronged them.

This can also lead to covert narcissists avoiding conflict, and failing to take responsibility. By shifting the blame, they can make themselves the victim, while shaming the other.

Emotional Neglect/Procrastination

A sense of self-importance is a crucial factor of NPD, and both covert and overt narcissists aim to steal focus. But while overt narcissists can be blatant in their dismissal, covert narcissists use a subtler manipulation.

This might be consistently showing up late, failing to respond to messages, and never giving compliments.

This same neglect can also be seen as procrastination. If they perceive a task as beneath them, then they will neglect it.

Envy And A Tendency To Hold Grudges

An inflated sense of self-importance means narcissists often struggle to respond to those they perceive to have achieved more than them. The narcissist believes themselves to be superior, and more deserving of achievement, so will resent others.

This envy and grudge holding can lead to bitterness and anger. A covert narcissist will often seek revenge in subtle ways: starting rumors, sabotaging work, and making unreasonable demands.


Gaslighting as a form of manipulation is a common tactic of the covert narcissist. Shifting blame and causing the victim to doubt themselves, the covert narcissist can keep the power and control they believe they deserve.


Covert narcissists are often treated with forms of talk therapy, and some may be prescribed medication for coexisting conditions.

Those in a relationship, or former relationship, with a covert narcissist may also seek talk therapy.


Self-importance and a lack of empathy is at the heart of covert narcissism, although these traits are often expressed in subtle behaviors. Because of this, diagnosing covert narcissism can be challenging.

The subtlety of covert narcissism makes it no less harmful than overt NPD. Treatment can be difficult as covert narcissists are often highly defensive, but talk therapies are often recommended.

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