A covert narcissist has narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) but does not display a sense of self-importance often associated with the condition. They may deal with insecurity and low self-esteem.

The term “narcissist” gets thrown around a lot. It’s often used as a catch-all to describe people with any traits of narcissistic personality disorder (NPD).

These people might seem self-centered or so focused on their own importance that they’ve lost touch with reality. Or maybe they don’t appear to care about others and rely on manipulation to get what they want.

In reality, NPD isn’t that simple. It occurs on a broad spectrum that involves a range of potential traits.

Experts generally agree that there are two distinct subtypes. One of these is covert narcissism, also called vulnerable narcissism.

Covert narcissism usually involves fewer external signs of “classic” NPD. People still meet the criteria for diagnosis but have traits that aren’t usually associated with narcissism, including:

The following signs may also point to covert narcissism. Keep in mind that only a qualified mental health professional can diagnose a mental health condition.

If you’ve noticed these traits in a loved one, encourage them to seek support from a therapist trained to help people with personality disorders.

High sensitivity to criticism

NPD typically involves insecurity and an easily damaged sense of self-esteem. This can manifest in covert narcissism as extreme sensitivity to criticism.

Criticism is a threat because it constitutes evidence that the person’s negative view of themselves may actually be true. When they receive a critique instead of admiration, they can take it pretty hard.

This sensitivity isn’t unique to NPD, of course. Most people don’t love criticism, even constructive criticism.

But paying attention to how someone responds to real or perceived criticism can offer more insight into whether you’re looking at narcissistic sensitivity.

People with covert narcissism might make dismissive or sarcastic remarks and act as if they’re above the criticism. But internally, they might feel empty, humiliated, or enraged.

Passive aggression

Most people have probably used this manipulation tactic at one time or another, possibly without realizing it. But people with covert narcissism often use passive-aggressive behavior to convey frustration or make themselves look superior.

Two main reasons drive this behavior:

  • the deep-seated belief their “specialness” entitles them to get what they want
  • the desire to get back at people who wronged them or had greater success

Passive-aggressive behavior can involve:

A tendency to put themselves down

A need for admiration is a key trait of NPD. This need often leads people to boast about their achievements, often by exaggerating or outright lying.

Maury Joseph, PsyD, suggests this may be related to internal self-esteem issues.

People with covert narcissism “have to spend a lot of time making sure they don’t feel bad feelings, that they don’t feel imperfect or ashamed or limited or small,” he explains.

People with covert narcissism also rely on others to build up their self-esteem. They react strongly to any perceived criticism that confirms their negative sense of self.

They might speak modestly about their contributions with an underlying goal of earning compliments and recognition. Or they may offer a compliment to get one in return.

A shy or withdrawn nature

Covert narcissism is more strongly linked to introversion than other types of narcissism.

This relates to narcissistic insecurity. People with covert NPD are deeply afraid of having their flaws or failures seen by others.

Exposing their innermost feelings of inferiority would shatter the illusion of their superiority. Avoiding social interactions helps lower the chances of exposure.

People with covert narcissism may also avoid social situations or relationships that lack clear benefits. They simultaneously feel superior and tend to distrust others.

Research from 2015 also points out that managing the distress associated with NPD can be emotionally draining, leaving little energy for developing meaningful relationships.

Grandiose fantasies

People with covert narcissism generally spend more time thinking about their abilities and achievements than talking about them. They might seem smug or have an “I’ll show you” attitude.

“They may withdraw into fantasy, into an inner narrative world that’s not equivalent to reality, where they have inflated importance, powers, or a specialness that is opposite of what their actual life is like,” Joseph says.

Fantasies could involve:

  • being recognized for their talents and promoted at work
  • being admired for their attractiveness everywhere they go
  • receiving praise for saving people from a disaster

Feelings of depression, anxiety, and emptiness

Covert narcissism involves a higher risk of co-occurring depression and anxiety than other types of narcissism.

There are two major reasons for this:

  • Fear of failure or exposure may contribute to anxiety.
  • Frustration over-idealized expectations not matching up with real life, and the inability to get needed appreciation from others can trigger feelings of resentment and depression.

Feelings of emptiness and thoughts of suicide are also associated with covert narcissism.

“People under deep pressure to be pleasing and likable to themselves have to go to great lengths to keep that up and preserve their self-esteem. Failing to keep up that illusion involves the bad feelings that come with the reality of failure,” Joseph says.

A tendency to hold grudges

Someone with covert narcissism may hold grudges for a long time.

When they believe someone’s treated them unfairly, they might feel furious but say nothing at the moment. Instead, they’re more likely to wait for an ideal opportunity to make the other person look bad or get revenge in some way.

This revenge might be subtle or passive-aggressive. For example, they might start a rumor or sabotage the person’s work.

They may also hold grudges against people who earn the praise or recognition they think they’re entitled to, such as a co-worker who receives a well-deserved promotion.

These grudges can lead to bitterness, resentment, and a desire for revenge.


People with either grandiose narcissism or NPD often envy other people who have things they feel they deserve, including wealth, power, or status.

They also often believe others envy them because they’re special and superior.

People with covert narcissism may not outwardly discuss these feelings of envy, but they might express bitterness or resentment when they don’t get what they believe they deserve.

Feelings of inadequacy

When people with covert narcissism can’t measure up to the “superhuman” standards they set for themselves, they may feel inadequate in response to this failure.

These feelings of inadequacy can trigger:

Joseph suggests this is based on projection.

People with NPD have unrealistic standards for themselves, so they unconsciously assume other people also hold them to these standards. To live up to them, they’d have to be superhuman.

When they realize they are, in fact, just human, they feel ashamed of this “failure.”

Self-serving ‘empathy’

Contrary to popular belief, it’s possible for people with NPD to at least show empathy. But they spend so much time trying to build up their self-esteem and establish their importance that this often gets in the way, according to Joseph.

People with covert narcissism, in particular, may seem to have empathy for others. They might seem willing to help others out or take on extra work.

You might see them performing an act of kindness or compassion, such as giving money and food to someone sleeping on the street or offering their spare bedroom to a family member who was evicted.

But they generally do these things to win the approval of others. If they don’t receive praise or admiration for their sacrifice, they may feel bitter and resentful and make remarks about how people take advantage and don’t appreciate them.

While the causes of covert narcissism are not well-understood, research suggests that narcissistic personality disorder may develop due to a combination of factors, including:

  • genetics
  • early relationships with caregivers and relatives

One research study found that people with covert narcissism may have had more authoritarian parents and may, more frequently, recall instances of childhood trauma and abuse than those who have grandiose narcissism.

However, other research does not support the relationship between childhood abuse or trauma and the development of covert narcissism. More research may be needed in this area.

Certain personality traits are also more common in people with narcissistic personality disorder, such as aggression, reduced tolerance to stress, and difficulty regulating emotions.

Whether it’s a friend, family member, co-worker, or significant other, maintaining any type of personal relationship with a covert narcissist can be challenging.

Here are a few tips for how to deal with a covert narcissist:

  • Learn more. Understanding the signs of covert narcissism can make it easier to decide when it may be time to seek support, distance yourself, or end the relationship altogether.
  • Set healthy boundaries. Because many people with NPD lack clear boundaries, it’s essential to reinforce yours by setting realistic limitations and taking space from the relationship as needed.
  • Avoid feeling offended. While it may be easier said than done, it’s important to avoid taking things personally. Recognize that any hurtful comments or passive-aggressive remarks are not about you, and then don’t react or engage.
  • Build a strong support system. Seek support from friends and family members, who can offer a fresh perspective and help you recognize when you’re being manipulated.

How do you know if you’re a covert narcissist?

You may find articles on the internet that list traits for covert narcissism or provide multiple choice tests to determine if you are a covert narcissist. The truth is, this disorder is best diagnosed by a mental health professional.

If you think you may have covert narcissism, a therapist can help you understand your behavior and diagnose your condition. They can also provide coping skills that can help.

What’s the difference between overt and covert narcissism?

While both types share many similarities, including a lack of empathy, an inflated sense of self-importance, and a need for admiration, the way that each type presents outwardly can differ.

In particular, people with overt narcissism are generally more extroverted and are often described as bold and charming. However, they can also become combative and confrontational when challenged.

On the other hand, though people with covert (or vulnerable) narcissism are just as self-absorbed, they’re typically perceived as more introverted, self-conscious, and insecure.

What do covert narcissists do in relationships?

People with covert narcissism often use several tactics to gain control over others in a relationship.

This includes gaslighting, manipulation, passive-aggressive behavior, and intimidation.

What are the 4 stages of a covert narcissistic relationship?

Research notes that there are 4 stages of an overt narcissistic relationship. These stages can also be found in a covert narcissistic relationship. The 4 stages generally involve:

  1. attraction, charming
  2. manipulation
  3. victimhood, gaslighting
  4. withdrawal, silent treatment, ghosting

What are things that covert narcissists may say?

Covert narcissists may make dismissive remarks that will make you feel like your feelings or opinions do not matter. They may interrupt or take over a conversation, or conversely, they may give you the silent treatment if something is not happening the way that they want.

Some examples of statements you might hear include: “I was just kidding,” “you’re too sensitive,” “you’re crazy,” or “you’re not making any sense.”

Is covert narcissism more common in men or women?

Research shows that women tend to exhibit features of covert narcissism more often than men. This may be related, in part, to the fact that modern culture places a high value on women’s physical appearance.

As such, women tend to internalize a profound sense of insecurity and shame about their perceived inability to live up to social expectations of beauty.

Narcissism is more complex than it’s made out to be in pop culture. While people with narcissistic tendencies might seem like bad apples that should be avoided, Joseph points out the importance of having sensitivity to narcissistic dynamics.

“Everyone has them. We all want to basically feel OK in our own eyes. We’re all under pressure to be like our ideals, to make ourselves into a certain image, and we do all sorts of things to create the illusion that we’re fine, including lying to ourselves and others,” he says.

Some people have an easier time than others with regulating these feelings and emotions. Those who struggle with them may be more likely to develop NPD or another personality disorder.

If someone you know has signs of NPD, make sure to take care of yourself, too. Look out for signs of abuse and work with a therapist who can offer guidance and support.

Crystal Raypole has previously worked as a writer and editor for GoodTherapy. Her fields of interest include Asian languages and literature, Japanese translation, cooking, natural sciences, sex positivity, and mental health. In particular, she’s committed to helping decrease the stigma around mental health issues.