10 signs someone is secretly a narcissist, according to psychology

As people, we crave validation, understanding, and genuine interaction.

It’s these things that are lacking when dealing with a covert narcissist.

Narcissism, as defined by psychology, is a personality disorder characterized by excessive self-importance, a deep need for admiration, and a lack of empathy for others.

This disorder may be less conspicuous in a covert narcissist who may not display obvious signs of self-absorption.

A covert narcissist can often behave in manipulative and dismissive ways, making it difficult for others to detect their narcissistic tendencies.

This behavior is often persistent and may intensify over time, making it particularly challenging to identify early on in relationships.

In the following article, I’ve compiled some subtle signs and traits that psychology suggests may indicate someone is secretly a narcissist.

1) Excessive need for admiration

An intense craving for admiration and validation is often a key indicator of covert narcissism.

This trait may not be easily noticeable at first, but over time, the signs become more apparent.

You might observe that they always redirect conversations to focus on themselves, their achievements, or their hardships.

They might be hypersensitive to criticism, even if it’s constructive, and may react defensively or with hostility.

On the flip side, they can become excessively charming when they need something from you, only to withdraw their affection once their needs are met.

This constant push and pull can leave you feeling drained and confused about their true intentions.

While everyone likes to feel admired and appreciated, when it becomes a constant need and the primary focus of all interactions, it could be a sign of covert narcissism.

2) Lack of empathy

A fundamental sign of a covert narcissist, according to psychology, is an evident lack of empathy.

This might not be immediately noticeable, but it does become clearer over time.

You may find that they’re indifferent to your feelings or struggles, and they might disregard your needs or emotions.

They may often invalidate your experiences, making you feel as though your problems are insignificant or that you’re overreacting.

Moreover, they might not express genuine concern or understanding when you’re upset.

Instead, they might use your vulnerabilities against you or shift the focus back to themselves.

While everyone can occasionally be self-absorbed or unsympathetic, a persistent lack of empathy is a red flag for narcissism.

3) Exploitative behavior

Another key sign of a covert narcissist is their exploitative behavior, often using others to fulfill their own needs and desires.

You might notice that they seem to take more than they give, using your time, resources, or emotional energy without reciprocation.

They may have a pattern of taking advantage of others’ kindness or generosity for their own benefit.

They might see people more as tools or stepping stones than individuals with feelings and needs, so if you feel like you’re being used or that the relationship is one-sided, it could be an indicator that you’re dealing with a covert narcissist.

4) Fragile self-esteem

Ironically, despite their self-centered behavior and grandiose self-image, a covert narcissist often harbors fragile self-esteem.

This might manifest as them being overly sensitive to criticism or failure.

Even minor setbacks can trigger a significant emotional reaction.

They may overreact or become defensive when they’re not the best or when they feel threatened.

They might even go to great lengths to hide their insecurities, often by projecting an image of perfection and superiority.

But beneath the surface, their self-worth depends heavily on validation from others, which can make their confidence seem brittle and unstable.

5) Emotional manipulation

Emotional manipulation 10 signs someone is secretly a narcissist, according to psychology

One of the most painful signs of a covert narcissist is their use of emotional manipulation.

This isn’t always obvious, but it’s incredibly damaging.

They might use guilt trips, play the victim, or gaslight you – making you question your own memory, perception, or sanity.

They might make you feel like everything is your fault, even when it’s clearly not.

They can twist situations and conversations to their advantage, leaving you confused and feeling like you’re walking on eggshells.

You might start doubting your own worth or sanity, and this can severely impact your mental health.

It’s a vicious cycle that only serves their needs and leaves you feeling lost and drained.

6) Difficulty with genuine connections

While it may seem like a covert narcissist is aloof or uncaring, the reality is often that they struggle to form true, deep connections with others.

This struggle might appear as them being dismissive of your thoughts and feelings or as them being unable to truly share in your joy or sadness.

They might also seem distant or unresponsive when you’re trying to build a deeper bond.

It’s important to remember that this lack of connection isn’t a reflection of your worth or value.

It’s simply a part of their struggle with narcissism.

Everyone deserves empathy, understanding, and genuine connection in their relationships.

7) Perfectionism

We all have moments where we strive for perfection, whether it’s in our work, hobbies, or personal life.

However, for a covert narcissist, this desire for perfection can become an obsession.

You might notice they set extremely high standards and are rarely satisfied with their achievements.

They might also expect perfection from others, often leading to criticism and dissatisfaction when those unrealistic expectations aren’t met.

This constant pursuit of perfection can make the relationship feel like a pressure cooker, always on the brink of disappointing them.

It’s a struggle many of us can relate to, but in the case of narcissism, it’s taken to an extreme level.

8) Love of the spotlight

Let’s face it, we all enjoy a bit of attention now and then.

But for a covert narcissist, basking in the spotlight is their favorite pastime.

They might have a tendency to turn conversations or events around to focus on them.

Whether it’s subtly steering the topic to their achievements or stealing the limelight at a party, they always find a way to ensure they’re the center of attention.

This love of the spotlight can be amusing at times, like watching a natural-born performer on stage.

But when it becomes a persistent pattern, it could be a sign of narcissism lurking beneath their charismatic exterior.

9) Inability to take responsibility

We all make mistakes; it’s a part of being human. Owning up to them and taking responsibility is what helps us grow.

This, however, is something a covert narcissist struggles with.

They may often blame others for their own failures or missteps.

They might twist situations to make themselves appear as the victim, never the perpetrator.

They might even gaslight you into believing it was your fault when it clearly wasn’t.

This refusal to take responsibility can be both frustrating and damaging.

It’s crucial to remember that you are not responsible for someone else’s actions or failures.

Stand your ground and don’t let them shift the blame onto you.

10) Disregard for boundaries

The most important thing to remember when dealing with a covert narcissist is their tendency to disregard personal boundaries.

Whether it’s emotional, physical, or mental boundaries, they often overstep them without consideration for your comfort or consent.

They might invade your personal space, dismiss your feelings, or ignore your requests for them to stop certain behaviors.

Maintaining healthy boundaries is essential in any relationship.

If someone consistently disrespects your boundaries, it’s not only a sign of covert narcissism but also a clear red flag that the relationship could be harmful.

Always remember that your boundaries are valid and should be respected.

Final thoughts

Being constantly belittled, manipulated, and having your boundaries overstepped can be incredibly draining.

You cannot morph a person with narcissistic tendencies into a selfless, empathetic individual through sheer willpower or love.

They often remain engrossed in their own world and needs, making interactions feel one-sided and leaving you emotionally depleted.

Essentially, your efforts may never seem sufficient because they’re always seeking more.

Remember: This article is not intended to diagnose anyone.

It’s made to help you identify potential signs of covert narcissism.

Noticing one or multiple signs doesn’t label your partner as a narcissist, but it’s certainly cause for reflection on whether your relationship with one is healthy and fulfilling for you.

As you digest this information, ponder on what it means for you and your relationships.

Reflect on how these traits impact your interactions and how they make you feel.

After all, everyone deserves respect, kindness, and authentic connection in their relationships.

Picture of Ethan Sterling

Ethan Sterling

Ethan Sterling has a background in entrepreneurship, having started and managed several small businesses. His journey through the ups and downs of entrepreneurship provides him with practical insights into personal resilience, strategic thinking, and the value of persistence. Ethan’s articles offer real-world advice for those looking to grow personally and professionally.

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