8 ways to spot a covert narcissist (and to deal with them)

Image Credit: Shutterstock - By Jack Frog

In this article, you’ll learn everything there is to know about covert narcissism.

What it is.

How to spot a covert narcissist.

And what you can do if a covert narcissist is in your life.

Let’s go…

What is a covert narcissist?

When you think of a narcissist, you probably think of someone who is an attention seeker and will manipulate anyone to get what they want.

However, what you may not realize is that not all narcissists are openly manipulative and arrogant.

A covert narcissist is an introverted narcissist that’s highly skilled at hiding a lot of the obvious narcissistic traits we associate with extroverted narcissists.

Covert narcissists aren’t more dangerous than extroverted narcissists. They’re just harder to spot.

According to Dr. Craig Malkin:

“The term ‘covert narcissism’ (aka hypersensitive or vulnerable) was coined to capture the pattern in narcissists who aren’t loud, vain, chest-thumping braggarts, but are still — as their partners discover soon enough — just as arrogant and argumentative as people with the prouder, more outgoing brand of extraverted narcissism (aka overt or grandiose).”

We decided to deeply explore covert narcissists after releasing Rudá Iandê’s free masterclass on love and intimacy.

In the masterclass, Rudá explains how codependents can often end up in relationships with narcissists.

If you feel like you have a covert narcissist in your life, you’re probably wondering what to do about it.

First of all, register for the free masterclass with Rudá Iandê. It plays in your local timezone.

And keep reading. We’ll talk about 8 clear signs someone is a covert narcissist. Then we’ll discuss how to deal with them.

Copy of love and intimacy masterclass 1 8 ways to spot a covert narcissist (and to deal with them)

How to spot a covert narcissist: 8 signs

1) They’re Extremely Sensitive

Is there something inherently wrong with being sensitive?

No, not really.

It’s okay to feel hurt due to personal matters or when you receive harsh criticism.

But covert narcissists have a different kind of high sensitivity:

They don’t like to get criticized at all. If you’re a covert narcissist, you can’t fathom the thought that someone found something wrong in you.

You believe that you are the epitome of perfection.

When you do something, you think that others see you as a flawless human being — even a minor, justifiable remark makes you feel outraged.

To put it in other words:

Covert narcissists honestly believe that the world revolves around them. The only difference compared to outright narcissists is that they won’t easily show how affected they are.

Instead of going ballistic, here’s what they’ll do:

They will think about the criticism over and over again in their mind.

They might appear unaffected, all the while becoming passive-aggressive with each passing remark.

2) They Act Smug to Express Their Sense of Superiority

How do you know that someone thinks so highly of themselves?

Usually, they’ll let you know.

The moment they have something in their mind, they tell it to everyone else. They feel like it’s a blessing for others to hear their opinions no matter how wrong or derogatory they are.

Extrovert narcissists will do what they can to hog all the attention.

But for the covert types?

You’d need to be a little more observant to uncover their sense of superiority.

Here’s one of their secrets:

You might think they’re so nice for seemingly being an attentive listener and observer in general, but that’s how they fool people.

In truth, they observe not out of genuine interest but so that they can judge others. They also prefer to listen than speak, but they’re not really interested in what you say.

Covert narcissists get satisfaction from being able to judge others without being so transparent about it.

And anyway, they get to express your distaste in many subtle ways:

— Rolling their eyes when they dismiss someone’s opinions or actions
— Letting out audible groans to express their disagreement
— Sighing a lot when they’re bored or annoyed but they don’t want to speak out
Yawning even if it’s disrespectful
— Refusing to give eye contact
— Giving disconcerting glares
— Providing only harsh criticisms and not acknowledging the good points

But even with all these introverted forms of smugness, it’s quite pitiful.


Because a covert narcissist is doing whatever they can to hide their overwhelming sense of vulnerability. They have insecurities like anyone else, but they refuse to let others know.

(To thwart a narcissist from getting you down, check out Hack Spirit’s guide on how to love yourself here.)

3) They Don’t Do Well with Forming Relationships

We’re all social animals, so doesn’t that mean we should do our best to connect with one another?

Not for the covert narcissist.

Personal bonds are out of their expertise because they don’t want to focus on having meaningful social relationships. Or rather, they’re incapable of doing so.


Because they don’t see anyone else as being worthy to talk to as much as them. In their mind, it’s a waste of time to be with someone of lesser value.

“Why would I approach anyone if they can’t fully appreciate my presence?” is a question an introverted narcissist would think of.

Thus, covert narcissists usually fail in forming and sustaining genuine relationships, whether it’s of the romantic or platonic type.

Does this mean they don’t have anyone in their life?

Not exactly.

They also have a loving family and a bunch of friends, especially since they’re not outright rude like their extroverted counterparts.

The introverted narcissist still has social bonds, but there’s simply nothing in it for them to justify exerting any real effort to truly connect with others.

So this is the harsh reality:

These introverted narcissists value themselves too much that they’d rather leave a smug, unapproachable vibe than admit that they do have a problem connecting with others.

4) They Find Ways to Exude Their Sense of Self-Importance

Given that covert narcissists don’t do well with forming genuine relationships, who else will put up with their passive-aggressive, smug attitude?

The best strategy for a covert narcissist is to focus on a certain social group or interest and narrow down their social circle.


Because it then becomes easier to maintain their ‘rank’ in the group:

Fewer people around means fewer people to mask insecurities from. There are fewer chances of being with people who are actually better than them — but of course, they won’t acknowledge that.

These are some ‘outlets’ a covert narcissist can utilize:

— Becoming obsessed with video games
— Reading books all the time
— Being busy with work
— Spending too much time on social networks

Now, to be fair, these activities aren’t bad if they’re done with moderation.

But do you notice the pattern here?

The objective of the covert narcissist in doing any of these is to appear busy whenever possible, to look like they can’t afford to be with others.

They don’t really have to spend so much time with their hobbies or interests, but it makes other people think they’re a cut above the rest — and it works.

Think about it:

If you spend most of your days playing a specific video game title or reading a particular subgenre of books, won’t you accumulate enough knowledge to become an ‘expert’ of sorts?

And this feeds of their sense of superiority.

How so?

By staying in a small social circle of people with the same interests but aren’t as conceited and self-absorbed as them, they get to keep their ‘cool introvert’ persona.

Their peers will think that they’re too dedicated to their craft to spend time with them, but the real reason is that they like the ‘mysterious’ reputation they receive and it feeds their covert narcissism.

5) They Demand So Much But Give So Little

It wouldn’t be such a problem if everyone was just fair, but narcissists despise being seen as equal to others.

But here’s the thing with introverted narcissists:

They want to keep their image of being a good person even if they’re not.

For example:

If a friend tells them a long story about their horrible relationship, the narcissist won’t tell them to shut up. They’ll let their friend tell the whole story.

But in their mind, the covert narcissist would have already prepared a short-sighted, self-serving judgment of the situation.

So even if they’re told a lot of information, they will only consider what’s interesting to them and block out everything else.

In other words:

There is no point in opening up to a covert narcissist because they only hear what they want to hear. You are not going to get the emotional support you need from the likes of someone who lacks empathy.

On the other hand, a covert narcissist wants more out of everybody.

See, their lack of empathy works both ways:

They won’t understand your situation, but they expect you to prioritize their feelings.

If you get late for work, they’ll sigh and roll their eyes for your supposed lack of work ethic.

But if it’s them who was late?

Oh, you should understand how much they needed that extra hour of sleep because they were so tired. Or that traffic is beyond their control. Plus, you could’ve picked them up along the way.

Long story short:

It’s always about them.

6) They’re Great at Making You Feel Sorry For Them 

It might not be that they do bad things to you and then turn it on you making you feel like it’s your fault – although that does happen and is a sure sign that a narcissist is in your vicinity.

No, these kinds of narcissists are more discreet and will pile on the sob stories to try to get your attention.

They are the people who think the sky is falling even when it’s a bright and sunny day.

They are also exhausting to be around because no matter how great life is, they will always find something to complain about and ruin it for everyone else.

If you’re feeling sorry for them, then they’re happy because it means they’re getting your attention and sympathy.

7) They Show a Lack of Respect to People “Lower” Than Them

Another thing to watch out for is people who are nice to certain people but mean to others, especially in public.

While most people are mean behind closed doors, covert narcissists will be rude to the waiter or undermine the secretary at work.

They see certain people as lower than them and will treat them accordingly. This usually involves things like completely ignoring the waitress or waiter.

They do it in such a way that nobody really notices until it’s too late and then people are left justifying the actions believe they were in the wrong.

It’s very tricky and can wear a person’s self-worth down over time.

8) They Blame Everyone But Themselves

People who are cover narcissists will blame everyone around them for their failures in life, taking no responsibility for the things that have gone wrong for them in life.

The often believe they had emotionally abusive parents, blaming them for what’s happened to them in life. They blame their parents for not having the right education or job and they blame their boss for not making enough money.

They blame their friends for not helping them meet the right people, and they blame their romantic relationships on their inability to commit to themselves because they are too busy trying to help someone else in their life.

It’s all a tightly bound web of lies and you need to keep your eyes peeled for it in your life because your happiness depends on it.

Are You a Covert Narcissist?

After reading those signs, perhaps you’re wondering if you’re one yourself. Most people do and explore how to stop being a narcissist.

But what you need to realize is that we all have a bit of covert narcissism in us. It’s more like being on a continuum.

For example, there’s nothing wrong with knowing your worth.

What’s wrong is when you’ve formed a delusional sense of superiority that, in your own introverted ways, you begin to despise others.

Whether it’s extroverted or introverted, narcissism disconnects you from others.

If you realize that you’re only listening to everyone else because you like mentally judging people and looking cool, you might be more of a covert narcissist than others.

If you have a problem receiving constructive criticism but all you ever do is point out what you don’t like, you might be the self-absorbed introvert in your social circle.

Only by being aware of the difference between introversion and covert narcissism can you properly assess yourself.

How to Deal With a Covert Narcissist

Whenever you meet a covert narcissist, you may, at first be wowed by their stamina and charm, but soon you’ll find that they disagree with everything you say and put you in awkward positions to defend yourself knowing you cannot possibly win the argument.

They’ll set you up at work and make it look like everything is your fault. They really are damaging and damaged people.

It’s best to steer clear whenever possible and as soon as you identify someone as a narcissist keep your eyes peeled for ways they may try to sabotage your efforts.

What if the covert narcissist is your boss or girlfriend? 

Whether the narcissist in your life is your boss or your girlfriend, it’s best to create boundaries and distance between the two of you as much as possible.

If this person is impossible to put out of your life, it’s important to protect yourself at all costs.

Don’t open up to them in any way, don’t tell them anything personal about yourself that they could use against you.

Don’t share work wins or even losses so that they can turn around and throw them in your face when something goes good or bad in the future.

Regardless of the person who is narcissistic in your life, you have an obligation to yourself to protect yourself, so do yourself a favour and get them out of your life as fast as possible, or at least, pull the chains a little tighter around your life so they can’t get in.

Also read: 11 signs of a codependent boss (and what to do about it)

5 full-proof ways to deal with a covert narcissist in your life

If you’re looking more full proof way to deal with covert narcissist, here are 5 important tips to keep in mind:

1) Do it their way

While this might not be the answer you thought you’d get here, one way to deal with a narcissist is to just let them do their thing.

If they want to see a show, go to a movie, have a certain dinner, or buy a certain product, just let them have it.

Their lives are very sad and so sad in fact that they have no idea how terrible it is. They think they are doing great. But we know better.

Of course, you can’t tell them that, so it’s easier for everyone to just continue to let them have their cake and eat it too.

According to clinical psychologist, Al Bernstein:

“There is no way around this. If you want to communicate effectively with narcissists, you have to admire them, their achievements, and their toys as much as they do. Typically, this won’t require any great effort. They’ll be more than happy to come up with reasons to congratulate themselves. All you have to do is listen and look interested.”

Keeping in mind, however, that you aren’t going to bend to their will, or put yourself in a compromising situation to appease them.

And, you can always revert to getting rid of them if you can’t be around someone like this.

2) Get yours first

When dealing with a narcissist, be sure to do everything you can go to get what you need from them first.

If it’s possible, do your dealings with your side before handing over control to their side.

Once they have control, you’ll lose any chance of getting what you want. They’ll see this control as a win and milk it for all its worth.

You are better off trying to get small wins away from them and then move on as fast as you can.

If this person is in your family, you might choose to just smile and nod at them throughout your Sunday dinners, but if they are in the workplace, you need to stand up and show that your job is as important as theirs and get some ground under you too.

3) Put the spotlight on them

Rather than try to minimize their behaviours by ignoring them, one approach is to continually point out how terrible their actions and behaviours really are.

At first, they’ll try to undercut you and your position because that is what narcissists do, but over time, you might be successful at wearing them down and making them go away.

Again, you don’t change them and you can’t fix their behaviour – only they can do that – but you can’t make it so unbearable for them that they just excuse themselves from the situation.

This is a good old-fashioned power play move and one that will be surely tiring, but also, very effective.

4) Stop being empathetic

One reason that normal people try to reach out to covert narcissists and fix them is because they feel empathy for them.

Obviously, there is something very wrong in a narcissists life for them to walk around treating people the way they do.

They live lives of such great expectations that they are continually disappointed by how things really turn out and must turn to manipulation and deceit to get what they want out of life. Rather than feel sorry for these people, stop caring.

They are not your responsibility. They can’t be helped by anyone but themselves and the ironic part is that they’ll never see it.

Keep your feelings to yourself and remember that they are their own worst enemy.

5) Don’t deal with them at all

As we mentioned above, the best and sometimes the only way to deal with a narcissist is to stay away from them altogether.

Although easier said than done, it is worth it to make the effort to avoid these kinds of people.

Not only are they toxic to themselves, but they also do a very good job of dragging others down the toilet with them.

They go out of their way to make people feel unworthy, uncomfortable, and unliked. They’ll shine a light on your shortcomings while never giving you any credit for the things you do really well, or even slightly well.

They love to see people fall on their face because it makes them look capable just for continuing to stand tall.

If you can’t stand to be around these people – and frankly, who can? – keep your distance. If it’s a family member, engage in minimal contact.

Don’t ask questions, and don’t provoke them. You can’t “fix” them.

In Conclusion

Narcissists are all around us. Many people have covert narcissists in their immediate family, at their job, and as neighbours.

We are surrounded by people who only think about and act in the best interest of themselves.

Narcissists are categorized as people who act from a place of selfishness, often manipulating others to better their own standing, and putting people in harm’s way so that they come out on top.

It’s easy to spot narcissists in your workplace, but it’s not always easy to see them in your own family or to identify yourself as a narcissist.

If you find yourself dealing with one, remember to keep your wits about you and don’t emotionally react.

Know your self-worth, set your boundaries and don’t let them manipulate you.

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Picture of Lachlan Brown

Lachlan Brown

I’m Lachlan Brown, the editor of Ideapod and founder of Hack Spirit. I love writing practical articles that help others live a mindful and better life. I have a graduate degree in Psychology and I’ve spent the last 6 years reading and studying all I can about human psychology and practical ways to hack our mindsets. If you to want to get in touch with me, hit me up on Twitter or Facebook.

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