Covert Narcissism- What Makes It So… | Counseling | Therapy

Covert Narcissism: What Makes It So Tricky To Identify : Therapy Counseling

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What makes Narcissism so tricky to identify : Therapy & Counseling image

Covert Narcissism- What Makes it so Tricky to Identify
Therapy in Philadelphia, Ocean City, Mechanicsville, Santa Fe

When someone talks about narcissism or describes someone as a narcissist, there is a good chance that many people will imagine a person who is loud, proud, and not afraid to let you know what is on their mind. This person might also be thought of as an arrogant or entitled individual with a tendency to be demanding and sometimes even demeaning. This person is most likely what is commonly referred to as an overt narcissist. In psychology, when behaviors are externally visible and easy to spot it is referred to as “overt.” The opposite of this is of course “covert,” meaning that things are happening more internally and are much less visible or obvious to others.

Covert narcissists can be difficult to identify as they are known for hiding the typical signs and symptoms of narcissism that we associate with the grandiose/overt narcissism. This is part of why it is sometimes even referred to as “the vulnerable narcissist” or “closeted narcissist”. They may be harder to spot as they can appear to be shy or modest and not match the typical charismatic and aggressively self-absorbed profile that is commonly associated with this person. This is part of what makes Covert narcissism so tricky to identify. This does not mean that they are necessarily any easier to live with or that the harm they cause is any less detrimental. To learn more about what sets covert narcissists apart from their overt counterparts and what makes them so challenging to spot, please read on!

What Is Narcissism?

The concept of narcissism has gained lots of traction in the past few years and has become something of a buzzword in everyday conversations to describe someone who is self-centered or arrogant. The reality is that Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD), is a serious mental health condition that must be diagnosed by a clinician and is actually fairly rare, affecting less than 5% of the population, according to the Cleveland Clinic’s department of Psychiatric Research. To be diagnosed with Narcissistic Personality Disorder, one must have at least five of the following nine traits present according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual on Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition.

1. Has a grandiose sense of self-importance (e.g., exaggerates

achievements and talents, expects to be recognized as

superior without commensurate achievements).

2. Is preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited success, power,

brilliance, beauty, or ideal love.

3. Believes that he or she is “special” and unique and can only

be understood by, or should associate with, other special or

high-status people (or institutions).

4. Requires excessive admiration.

5. Has a sense of entitlement (i.e., unreasonable expectations of

especially favorable treatment or automatic compliance with

his or her expectations).

6. Is interpersonally exploitative (i.e., takes advantage of others

to achieve his or her own ends).

7. Lacks empathy: is unwilling to recognize or identify with the

feelings and needs of others.

8. Is often envious of others or believes that others are envious

of him or her.

9. Shows arrogant, haughty behaviors or attitudes.

Narcissistic Tendencies vs. Narcissistic Personality Disorder

Now here is where things can get confusing. Even if a person does not meet the criteria to be diagnosed with Narcissistic Personality Disorder, they can still possess several of the aforementioned traits and can be described as “narcissistic.” Individuals who are exhibiting narcissistic behavior differ from individuals with NPD based on the frequency, intensity, and duration of their behaviors. With that said, individuals who only possess some narcissistic traits can still come across as self-centered, manipulative, and insensitive, and can also be challenging to deal with. For the purpose of this article, we will be using the term “narcissist” to describe anyone that displays narcissistic behaviors at times. Narcissistic traits and full NPD can occur in both covert and overt forms. The purpose of this article is not to diagnose NPD vs 'traits only, but rather to shed light on how covert narcissism presents, since many folks are more familiar with overt narcissism.

Covert vs. Overt Narcissism:

The primary reason that covert narcissism is often so challenging to detect is due to the fact that the traits of covert narcissists are less obvious and more subtle. It is no secret that overt narcissists tend to be in very visible places such as leadership roles that require a tremendous amount of self-advocacy and power. The covert narcissist is usually not the loudest person in the room, and might never brag about their accomplishments in such a clear way. Instead, the covert narcissist might come off as self-effacing and withdrawn, which might cause one to dismiss the possibility that this person is truly a narcissist.

The behaviors and techniques employed by a covert narcissist are often described as passive-aggressive and subtle but manipulative. When dealing with a covert narcissist, it is important to remember that although their behaviors may be subtle, the emotional harm they can cause is anything but. Because of this, gaslighting, minimizing and denying are often observable behaviors of a covert narcissist on the defense. The psychology community is still beginning to understand what makes covert narcissism so tricky to identify in individuals compared to overt narcissism.

Narcissistic Personality Disorder Vs. Narcissistic Behavior

The chart below lists the nine characteristics of Narcissistic Personality Disorder as defined by the DSM-5 with examples of how each trait might appear in a covert narcissist compared to an overt narcissist.




1. Has a grandiose sense of self-importance

May be outwardly confident to the point of vanity.

May minimize their positive attributes to a point of self-deprecation while seeking compliments and validation.

2. Obsession with power, success, brilliance

May speak loudly and frequently about their accomplishments and greatness.

Although they may be introverted, they may tend to focus on their own accomplishments and agenda in private conversations.

3. A Strong sense of superiority

May have no problem letting someone know why someone is flawed and inferior to them.

May feel little remorse for ghosting or avoiding a person deemed to be inferior or less important altogether.

4. Requires excessive admiration

May actively seek validation and appear vain or conceited.

May seek subtle but frequent reassurance of their positive attributes. This can come off as deceivingly modest and humble.

5. Has a sense of entitlement

May be very vocal about their position at work or impressive social connections.

May take manipulative measures to achieve the outcome they believe they deserve.

7. Lacks empathy

May treat others with condescension and say or do hurtful things with little remorse.

May ignore the feelings and emotional needs of other people by being dismissive and emotionally unavailable.

8. Is often envious of others or believes that others are envious

of him or her.

May spend a large amount of time trying to one-up others.

May resort to “silent treatment” or other emotionally manipulated and withdrawn actions if they experience envy.

9. Shows arrogant, haughty behaviors or attitudes

May strive to create a grandiose public image and make unreasonable demands on subordinates.

May expect others to care for them and solve their problems. Passive aggressive in the face of confrontation.

A Few More Behaviors Unique to Covert Narcissist:

  • May present with an outward sense of inferiority and be prone to self-deprecation.

  • May spend more time alone and struggle to build social and intimate relationships.

  • May react to challenging situations by crying, withdrawing or stonewalling.

  • May be frequently suicidal and use emotional distress as leverage to obtain their desired outcome during an interpersonal conflict

  • May have a tendency to identify as a martyr or victim when faced with a challenging or undesirable outcome.

  • May give frequent gifts and kind gestures in an effort to alter situations and gain a desired outcome in a subtle manner.

  • May use passive aggressive behavior is often used to gain upper hand and establish superiority

Covert Narcissism, Next Steps:

Because covert narcissism can be so difficult to detect, it is often challenging to deal with. If you feel that you have someone in your life who matches this description of a covert narcissist and you find yourself struggling, please know that you are not alone. Consider reaching out to an experienced therapist that can help you identify if the person in your life might have narcissistic traits and what that means for your own wellbeing. You may also benefit from joining the Life After the Narcissist Support Group

You can self schedule an in-person or virtual couples therapy session at the Center for Growth by calling (215) 922-5683 x 100.

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