When you think of a narcissist, you probably picture someone whose behavior is grandiose, entitled and arrogant — what’s known as an overt narcissist. But there’s another, lesser-known type of narcissism that often flies under the radar: It’s called “covert narcissism.” And while a covert narcissist’s behavior may be less obvious, it can be just as harmful to those in their orbit.
Like overt narcissists, covert narcissists lack empathy for others, use manipulation to get their way and have a strong drive to feel special in comparison to other people. But the way the two different types of narcissists try to stand out is different, said clinical psychologist Craig Malkin.
“Covert narcissists don’t feel special by virtue of positive qualities like attractiveness or intelligence; they feel exceptional because of their pain or suffering, agreeing with statements like ‘most people don’t understand my problems’ and ‘I’m temperamentally more sensitive compared to others,’” Malkin, author of “Rethinking Narcissim,” told HuffPost.
Think of it this way: “In overt narcissism, their vulnerabilities are hidden and their grandiosity is loud,” he said. “In covert narcissism, the grandiosity is hidden but vulnerability is at full volume.”
Covert narcissists may appear quiet, introverted, anxious or even depressed, said University of Georgia psychology professor W. Keith Campbell.
“It takes a while to see the self-centeredness and entitlement in covert narcissism because it’s often indirect and comes out in them as anger about other people’s success, and insecurity and defensiveness about not being appreciated,” Campbell, author of “The New Science of Narcissism,” told HuffPost.
It’s also important to know that narcissism exists on a continuum; it’s a trait all people possess to varying degrees. You can have narcissistic tendencies in a certain area of your life without meeting the clinical criteria for full-blown narcissistic personality disorder, or NPD — a diagnosable mental health condition.
Covert narcissism is not a formal diagnosis, but it’s a term mental health professionals often use “to describe a certain manifestation of narcissism that has a lot of anxiety, insecurity and neuroticism along with it,” Campbell said.
“People use the term ‘covert narcissist’ informally to describe somebody who is high on that personality trait of covert narcissism,” he said. “But that is not a clinical description.”
So what does covert narcissism look like in a romantic relationship? Experts explain some signs to watch out for below:
They constantly play the victim.
No matter the situation, somehow your partner is always the injured party.
“Because they channel their grandiosity into being the most misunderstood or aggrieved person in the room, covert narcissists always have to win in the game of who was hurt the most,” Malkin said.
“One of my clients had a boyfriend who predictably turned the conversation to how neglected he felt whenever she brought him even the smallest request—even something as simple as putting items back in the fridge,” he said.
Even when you thoughtfully try to voice a complaint, your partner will say things like, “You don’t appreciate me,” said therapist Wendy Behary, author of “Disarming The Narcissist” and founder and director of The Cognitive Therapy Center of New Jersey.
“They’re always feeling criticized, let down and unsupported,” she told HuffPost.
So if you find yourself apologizing anytime you feel hurt or misunderstood — that’s a sign you could be living with a covert narcissist, Malkin said.
They seethe with jealousy when the spotlight is on you.
While grandiose narcissists are practically pushing people out of the way to be the center of attention, the covert narcissist is quietly “sitting on the sideline getting judgy, feeling envious, feeling insecure, feeling resentful and fantasizing” about being in the spotlight, Behary said.
“There’s a lot more neuroticism, a lot more hypersensitivity to not getting this extraordinary attention they think they deserve, never feeling appreciated enough,” she said. (She also noted that covert types tend to have more trauma or abuse in their upbringings).
Let’s say your friends threw you a celebratory dinner for a promotion you got at work. If your partner is a covert narcissist, they’d have a hard time playing second fiddle during your big moment.
“The covert narcissist is just boiling inside and will find other ways of punishing you or trying to banish you from this moment of glory,” Behary said. “And they will do it by bringing the attention perhaps to their own suffering, their own victimization. It can look like vulnerability.”
“Because they channel their grandiosity into being the most misunderstood or aggrieved person in the room, covert narcissists always have to win in the game of who was hurt the most.”
– Craig Malkin, clinical psychologist
They brood or act out instead of saying what’s really on their mind.
A covert narcissist wields emotion in a manipulative way. Any vulnerability they show is more display than genuine feeling, Malkin said.
“If your partner collapses in tears or withdraws into sulky silence when you ask for help with chores or dare to suggest they ask you about your day, the feelings may be more about getting you to change the topic than expressing genuine needs or reactions,” Malkin said.
“Covert narcissists don’t really trust people enough to state needs and feelings directly and clearly, so the emotions never quite feel genuine. In fact, covert narcissists often brood instead of saying exactly what’s on their mind.”
They suck all the air out of the room.
A covert narcissist believes their problems are more important than yours — or anyone else’s, for that matter, Malkin said. And they act accordingly.
“For that reason, they feel entitled to air time. If instead of a hug or hello, you’re greeted with an angry tirade about mistreatment at work or endless stories about how everyone else is treated better and has more advantages, it’s a strong indication of covert narcissism,” he said.
They’re very defensive.
This might show up as “defensiveness about one’s lack of achievements or negativity and hostility towards other people’s success,” Campbell said.
Covert narcissists are both insecure and hypersensitive, which can make them “very difficult to deal with,” psychiatrist Dr. Harold Hong told Mind Body Green.
“They’re constantly seeking reassurance and validation but are also quick to become defensive and react angrily when they feel threatened,” he said.
How To Cope If Your Partner Is A Covert Narcissist
When you’re in a relationship with someone who dominates every emotional exchange, it’s all too easy to put your needs aside, ignore your feelings and lose your voice in the process.
“Covert narcissists can make it so unpleasant when you ask for anything at all that it feels simpler to stay silent,” Malkin said. “But when you do, you’re nurturing a relationship where your partner’s pain is always more important than yours.”
Psychotherapy is often “crucial to the process of holding on to your center,” he added.
It’s important to become “keenly aware of the intricate game-playing of the covert narcissist through your clear observations, intuition and research,” marriage and family therapist Linda Martinez-Lewi, author of “Freeing Yourself from the Narcissist in Your Life,” told HuffPost.
“Renew your promise to be faithful and true to yourself as an individual,” she said. “Develop a practice of mindfulness that keeps you psychologically grounded. Honor and maintain stable, steady boundaries.”
Behary said she often coaches her clients on how to plan their departure — whether that’s from toxic conversations with their partners or from the relationship altogether.
“Find a way to say: ‘When you’re more ready to speak about this, without the escalated feelings, without the accusations, without the blame, when you’re ready to have a heart-to-heart, I’m happy to talk about this,’” she said. “And really stepping away because it can just be exasperating to constantly be in the throes of feeling like you’re being accused of being the bully.”
You may consider setting an ultimatum: If your partner doesn’t seek professional help, you can no longer stay in the relationship. Behary also noted that therapy is typically required to make “any meaningful, sustainable changes” in these kinds of relationships.
Her biggest advice for partners of covert narcissists is to work on finding your voice and “feeling sturdy in your skin again.”
“Because that’s something that gets lost in all the drama of living with people with this type of disorder.”