12 non-obvious signs you’re dealing with a covert narcissist

A covert narcissist is someone who really wants people to admire and think highly of them. 

They don’t show much understanding or care for others. Still, they don’t act as openly self-centered as an open or overt narcissist might.

Even though they’re narcissistic, they’re good at hiding the clear signs of the disorder. 

That’s why spotting covert narcissism can be tricky, but it’s important to know that it can be just as harmful as the more obvious narcissistic behaviors.

So, to help you deal with them, here are the non-obvious signs you’re dealing with a covert narcissist.

1) They’re excessively modest

Covert narcissists often cloak themselves in disproportionate modesty.

While on the surface, they might downplay their achievements or talents, beneath this humility lies a constant need for admiration. 

It’s a subtle way for them to receive praise without directly seeking it.

Don’t get me wrong – it’s perfectly fine to be modest. I mean, I try to be humble as much as I can. But when you couple it with other behaviors on this list, you see that it’s, in fact, false modesty on their part. 

Here’s another sign of their narcissism.  

2) They often play the victim 

Playing the victim is a common tactic for covert narcissists. They skillfully manipulate situations to cast themselves as the injured party, gaining sympathy and deflecting attention from their own shortcomings. 

This victim mentality serves as a shield against accountability.

Imagine a project at work where everyone is contributing, but a covert narcissist consistently portrays themselves as the one facing the most challenges. 

They constantly complain about the workload, subtly hinting that they’re the most burdened, hoping to gain sympathy and avoid additional responsibilities.

But what if you’re in a relationship with such a person? 

Well, they might frequently emphasize how they feel mistreated or unappreciated, even when their partner is genuinely supportive. 

This victimhood allows them to manipulate their partner emotionally and forces the partner to constantly prove their love and loyalty.

And then there’s this:

3) They’re passive-aggressive

If you thought playing the victim was terrible, you’re in for a surprise. You see, instead of addressing issues directly, covert narcissists also resort to passive-aggressive behavior

This means you’re faced with subtle sarcasm, backhanded compliments, or indirect expressions of anger. 

It’s their way of showing dissatisfaction without openly confronting the source of their dismay.

Here are some examples:

  • Making facial expressions or gestures, like rolling their eyes or sighing, to show they’re not happy
  • Choosing when to cooperate and when not to, to make things harder for others
  • Saying something negative but making it sound like they’re just giving helpful advice
  • Acting like they forgot important dates or promises on purpose to upset you

There are endless examples I could write here, but I believe these paint a good picture already. 

4) They listen selectively

Instead of really listening to everything you say, covert narcissists tend to hear only the stuff that fits with how they see themselves. 

If something doesn’t match their image, they kind of just ignore it. It’s like they have a filter that keeps in only what makes them look good.

When you tell them something that doesn’t match the picture they have of themselves, they just dismiss it or pretend like they didn’t hear it.

5) They use subtle manipulation

Covert narcissists excel at subtle manipulation. Through guilt-tripping, playing on other people’s emotions, or creating a sense of indebtedness, they handle situations to their advantage without openly revealing their controlling nature.

They’re like ninjas in the sense that you don’t notice them or what they’re really doing until it’s too late. 

They stab you in the back, and you’re simply left wondering what the hell happened. 

6) They mask insecurity as criticism

When covert narcissists keep criticizing people, it’s not because they’re genuinely pointing out flaws. It’s more like they’re trying to hide their own insecurities. 

By focusing on what others might be doing wrong, they’re trying to shift attention away from their own feelings of vulnerability. 

It’s kind of like putting on a mask of superiority to make it seem like they’ve got everything together, even though, deep down, they might not feel that way.

Think about that for a moment. 

7) They feign helplessness

People who lack empathy frequently say these phrases without realizing their impact 12 non-obvious signs you’re dealing with a covert narcissist

Sometimes, covert narcissists also act like they can’t do things on their own. It’s a trick they use to make others feel sorry for them and jump in to help. 

By pretending to be helpless, they get people to take care of them, making it seem like they really need that help. 

This way, they can control the situation and make others depend on them. It’s like they’re playing a game to make sure things go their way.

At work, they might act like they’re incapable of doing a certain task, even if it’s something they can handle, to get someone else to do it for them. 

For instance, saying, “I have no idea how to set up this presentation software. Can you do it for me?”

At home, they’ll act clueless about chores or simple repairs, waiting for someone else to pick up the slack. 

And then we have this:

8) They practice idealization and devaluation

Covert narcissists swing back and forth between idealization and devaluation in relationships. 

So, what does that mean?

At the beginning of a relationship or interaction, they put you on a pedestal. It’s like they see you as this amazing, perfect person. 

They shower you with compliments and praise, making you feel like you’re on top of the world.

That’s the idealization phase.

When things don’t go exactly as they imagined or you don’t meet their unrealistic expectations (which can be pretty high), they suddenly switch. 

They knock you off that pedestal they initially put you on and start seeing flaws that weren’t a big deal before, and the praise turns into criticism.

That’s the devaluation phase. 

9) They’re susceptible to criticism

Even though they might seem really sure of themselves, covert narcissists get defensive really quickly when someone says something that sounds like criticism. 

It could be a small comment or anything that makes them feel like someone doesn’t think they’re as great as they believe.

If someone challenges their ideas or actions, even in a friendly or constructive way, covert narcissists can react strongly

It’s like they can’t handle the idea that they might not be perfect. But they also do this:

10) They’re charming

So, these covert narcissists can be really charming. It’s not just a friendly vibe; it’s a strategic move. 

When you first meet them, they come off as really likable and charming. 

They want you to like them right from the start. They’re laying down a foundation of positivity. 


Because later on, they’re going to use that good impression to get what they want. It’s kind of like a charm offensive, where they win you over initially, and then they play their cards when they need something.

So, if someone seems too charming from the get-go, especially if it feels a bit too perfect, it might be worth keeping your radar on for any hidden motives.

11) They’re emotionally withholding 

Some hidden narcissists can be a bit stingy when it comes to emotions. Instead of freely giving affection, support, or positive vibes, they hold back. 

They’re playing a game where they make you work hard for their approval and good feelings.

By keeping their emotions under wraps, they create a situation where people around them are always trying to earn their love and approval. It’s a bit like emotional puppetry.

But they’re also incredibly competitive, but in a low-key way.

12) They’re stealthy competitive

Covert narcissists are, as I just said, sneakily competitive, among many other things. They might not show it directly, but they’re always trying to be better than others. 

Whether it’s in what they achieve, how they look, or where they stand socially. They have a strong desire to feel better or more important than everyone else.

How to deal with a covert narcissist 

When dealing with covert narcissists, avoid direct confrontations, as they can escalate the situation. Instead, address specific behaviors.

Limit the sharing of personal information to prevent potential exploitation. Also, stay calm and composed during interactions, as emotional reactions can be used against you.

Picture of Adrian Volenik

Adrian Volenik

Adrian has years of experience in the field of personal development and building wealth. Both physical and spiritual. He has a deep understanding of the human mind and a passion for helping people enhance their lives. Adrian loves to share practical tips and insights that can help readers achieve their personal and professional goals. He has lived in several European countries and has now settled in Portugal with his family. When he’s not writing, he enjoys going to the beach, hiking, drinking sangria, and spending time with his wife and son.

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