Say there were these two people you know, maybe from school or from work. One of them was arrogant, bossy, and domineering; while the other was reserved, anxious, and sensitive. Which one of them would you say is more likely to be a narcissist? Would you be surprised to find out that the answer could actually be the second person, not the first?
It’s hard enough already differentiating narcissism from narcissistic tendencies; after all, just because someone is arrogant and bossy doesn’t necessarily mean they’re a narcissist, and having these certain personality traits doesn’t constitute a diagnosis. But did youk now that narcissism actually comes in two forms?
When people often talk about narcissism, the tendency is to imagine it in it’s most extreme and most easily recognizable form. But psychology actually says that there are two “faces” to narcissism: one grandiose and exhibitionist (called “overt narcissism”) and another vulnerable and sensitive (known as covert narcissism”). At first glance, you probably wouldn’t even realize someone is a covert narcissist because of how much more reserved in nature they seem to be than their overt counterparts. But make no mistake, a covert narcissist is still a narcissist, and they can be every bit as manipulative, exploitative, ruthless, and inconsiderate.
With that said, here are 7 warning signs that can help you recognize a narcissist hiding in plain sight:
1. They often act passive aggressive.
Do you know someone — maybe a friend, family member, or colleague — who often acts passive aggressively to manipulate others and get what they want? A covert narcissist can’t take no for an answer, but they also won’t confront you about it because they want to make you look like the bad guy. So instead, they’ll give you the cold shoulder, tell you back-handed compliments, or whisper snide remarks about you under their breath, all the while insisting that nothing is wrong and that they’re not mad at you. Cover narcissists have an unrealistic sense of entitlement and want to demand special treatment from others without actually asking for it (Smolewska & Dion, 2005).
2. They are easily envious of others.
Whether we like to admit it or not, the truth is, a lot of us struggle with feelings of jealousy and envy towards others. But for most people, this is because we can’t help but compare ourselves to those around us and feel down when we don’t think we measure up. For narcissists however, their feelings of envy are excessive and rooted in the idea that they are superior to everyone else, so no one should ever outshine or outperform them. They resent other people for having the things they feel that they deserve more, like wealth, power, success, and popularity. And because seeing others succeed gives them feelings of inadequacy, a covert narcissist will often try to downplay the accomplishments of others.
3. They hold a lot of grudges.
Narcissists tend to hold a lot of grudges against others because they hold themselves in such high regard, so anyone who treats them with anything short of worship and unending praise is going to end up on their black list. If someone even so much as looks at them the wrong way or dares to disagree with them about anything, narcissists will hate that person until their dying breath. Now, a covert narcissist might not say anything in the moment, but rest assured, they are seething with rage deep down inside and already thinking of ways they can get their revenge (Luchner, Houston, Walker & Houston, 2011).
4. They are highly sensitive to criticism
Remember what we said about narcissists having a superiority complex and holding themselves at an unrealistically high regard? Well, another way this can manifest is by being overly sensitive to criticism, especially for introverted narcissists as introverts tend to internalize their feelings more than extroverts. And while there are a number of reasons why someone would be highly sensitive to criticism (such as being a Highly Sensitive Person or struggling with low self-esteem), for covert narcissists, it’s because any criticism can seriously damage their perfect, idealized view of themselves. They can’t come to terms with the fact that they have flaws and make mistakes, too, just like everyone else (Atlas & Them, 2008).
5. They have false modesty.
Narcissists need and desire lots of admiration from others, and covert narcissists might try to get this by putting on a false sense of modesty (Rohmann, Neumann, Herner, & Bierhoff, , 2012). They put themselves down as a way of “fishing for compliments” and try to downplay their skills and successes in ways they don’t really believe. And the moment someone doesn’t take the hint, they get upset (“I said I’m not even that smart because I only got 99 out of 100 on that test. You’re not saying anything, so you agree? You think I’m not that smart, huh? Some friend you are!”)
6. They have self-serving empathy.
Ever heard the expression “giving to get”? Well, that’s what most covert narcissists do, especially in their displays of empathy towards others. A covert narcissist might seem like they’re your friend, comforting you when you’re down and cheering you on when you’re happy, but don’t be fooled! Narcissists are always self-serving and they’re masters of emotional manipulation, too. They’re only “empathizing” with you because they want others to see them as someone kind, caring, and compassionate towards others. For example, they give money and food to the homeless only when there is someone else there to admire them doing it. They don’t really care about other people save for what they think of them.
7. They think no one understands them.
Last but certainly not the least, playing once again into their ideas of superiority and specialness, covert narcissists will often complain about no one else being able to understand them. And while you might feel bad for them at first, what they really mean is that they see everyone else as beneath them and struggle with “being so much better” than those around them. They will often remark about “hard it is to be so one-of-a-kind” or “so ahead of their time that no one else could ever appreciate their genius”.
So, did anyone in particular come to mind while you were reading this list? Do you think someone you know might be a covert narcissist? While we’re definitely not saying that any of the things we’ve talked about here — like feeling jealous of other people, feeling misunderstood, or being sensitive to criticism — automatically makes someone a narcissist, it’s important to understand that narcissism is so much more complex than what it’s often made out to be. Spotting a narcissist isn’t always easy, especially when they are masquerading as someone who loves and cares about you.
- Atlas, G. D., & Them, M. A. (2008). Narcissism and sensitivity to criticism: A preliminary investigation. Current psychology, 27(1), 62.
- Luchner, A. F., Houston, J. M., Walker, C., & Houston, M. A. (2011). Exploring the relationship between two forms of narcissism and competitiveness. Personality and Individual Differences, 51(6), 779-782.
- Rohmann, E., Neumann, E., Herner, M. J., & Bierhoff, H. W. (2012). Grandiose and vulnerable narcissism: Self-construal, attachment, and love in romantic relationships. European Psychologist, 17(4), 279.
- Smolewska, K., & Dion, K. (2005). Narcissism and adult attachment: A multivariate approach. Self and Identity, 4(1), 59-68.