7 Signs You’re Dealing With a Covert Narcissist

Do you know what it means to be a “narcissist”? While most people may think the term is simply synonymous with the likes of arrogance, conceit, vanity, and self-importance, in the world of clinical psychology, a narcissist refers to someone who has been diagnosed with Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD), which is characterized by a grandiose sense of self-importance, a deep-seated need for praise and attention, and a lack of empathy for others

In a recent survey conducted by the American Psychological Association (2013), less than 1% of the global population has been diagnosed with NPD. But while the disorder itself is only present among a rare few, people who display narcissistic traits and tendencies can still be just as dangerous and damaging to be around — especially those who try to hide it!

“Covert narcissism”, or otherwise known as shy, vulnerable, or secret narcissism, is a subtype of narcissism that is often harder to spot because of its less pronounced features and behaviors. People who are “secret narcissists” are not as outwardly arrogant, entitled, or self-centered as other narcissists, and instead of being charming and manipulative, they may be more anxious, reserved, and sensitive.

With that said, here are 7 warning signs you need to look out for that tell you if someone is secretly a narcissist:

1. They are very sensitive to criticism.

All narcissists have a grandiose self-image; they think of themselves as the best at everything they do and practically perfect in every sense of the word. And it’s precisely because they think so highly of themselves that it stings so much for them to ever be criticized, even over the littlest things (Kaufman, 2013). Offer a narcissist some help or give them some suggestions, and they will feel as if you’ve insulted them in the worst way possible. Narcissists take everything personally, so to them, even the most constructive feedback can feel like a harsh humiliation.

2. They don’t take no for an answer.

Another defining trait narcissists share is the relentless need to always have their way and get what they want (Gabbard, 2009). And though a covert narcissist may try to act more polite or friendly about it, they never take no for an answer. “Oh, come on, would it really be so bad? What do you have to lose?” They’ll say with a smile and a nudge until you give in. They don’t care what reasons you have for saying no, whether it inconveniences you or makes you uncomfortable. Because the truth is, all a narcissist really cares about is themselves, so they don’t bother trying to consider other people’s thoughts or feelings. 

3. Their motivations are always self-gain.

Aside from being self-absorbed and egotistical, narcissists are also incredibly self-serving. That is to say, they don’t ever do anything if there isn’t something in it for them (Vaknin, 2014). They may help you out if you offer them a reward, or act kind and sympathetic if they think it’ll help them gain praise from others. But at the end of the day, they don’t really do anything for anyone but themselves. Covert narcissists may pretend to empathize with you as they listen, acting like they care about you and your problems, but unless your conversation is about them, they will most likely just tune you out and wait for their turn to talk.

4. They act passive-aggressively.

Narcissists are masters of emotional manipulation, especially those trying hard to appear as though they’re not. Covert narcissists tend to have a lot of passive-aggressive behaviors to conceal their more undesirable nature to others (Dickinson & Aaron, 2003). Common examples include: subtly blaming others for their mistakes (i.e. “If only someone had known what to do”); making hurtful jokes that are half-meant (i.e. “What? It was just a joke! Anyway, we all know it’s true!”); and giving back-handed compliments (i.e. “I was so surprised to hear that you won. Congratulations, how very unexpected!”).

5. They are easily envious of others.

Because they’re so obsessed with being the best and want to feel superior to everyone else, narcissists are constantly comparing themselves to others. And when they feel someone has outdone them in some way or has something that they lack, they often become bitter, resentful, and envious of the other person. And though a covert narcissist may never express such feelings out loud to others, you can tell by the way they never seem happy for anyone else’s success that they are jealous (Bursten, 2013).

6. They tend to hold a lot of grudges.

Someone who is secretly a narcissist may hold grudges for a long time, even against their closest family and friends. This is because, when they feel like someone has treated them unfairly or hurt their feelings in some way, they have trouble letting their anger go. They are spiteful and vindictive, often in the most cunning of ways, and simply wait for an opportunity to exact revenge on the people they feel have wronged them. They always have to have the last word; they always want everyone to side with them in argument; and they might subtly look for ways to turn other people against their “enemies” by spreading rumors about them or ruining their image (Johnson, 2017). 

7. They have difficulty with empathy.

Finally but perhaps most importantly, if someone you know is a covert narcissist, then they may be trying to hide a callous lack of empathy for others. Covert narcissists are very good at tricking people into thinking that they care, with their fake laughs, empty words, and insincere apologies (Kaufman, 2013). The trick to spotting a covert narcissist lies in looking at their actions instead of their words. Are they there for you, even if there’s nothing in it for them? Are they a true friend to you, or do they simply see you as a means to an end? Think very long and hard about your answer.

So, did anyone in particular come to mind while you were reading this list? Do you think anyone in your life might be a covert narcissist?

Of course it’s important to always keep in mind that only qualified mental healthcare professionals can diagnose someone with a psychological condition such as narcissism. But if you’ve noticed these traits and characteristics in a friend or family member, encourage them to seek help from a therapist and consider counselling for yourself as well. Knowing the signs that someone may be a narcissist can help you look out for problematic behaviors, relationship dynamics, and even abuse of any kind from this person later on down the line. 


  • Kaufman, Scott B. “23 Signs You’re Secretly a Narcissist Masquerading as a Sensitive Introvert”. Scientific American. (2013)
  • Gabbard, Glen O. “Two Subtypes of Narcissistic Personality Disorder”. Bulletin of the Menninger Clinic. (2009)
  • Vaknin, Sam. “The Inverted (Covert) Narcissist Codependent”. Narcissus Publications. (2014)
  • Dickinson, Kelly A., Aaron L. Pincus. “Interpersonal Analysis of Grandiose and Vulnerable Narcissism”. Journal of Personality Disorders. (2003)
  • Bursten, Ben. “Some Narcissistic Personality Types”. The International Journal of Psychoanalysis. (2013)
  • Johnson, Stephen. “Humanizing the Narcissistic Style”. W. W. Norton & Company. (2017)

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