Signs of a Covert Narcissist

By becky
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The term narcissist gets thrown around a lot to describe people who demonstrate the typical external traits of narcissist personality disorder, which include a constant need for attention, persistent boasting and a grandiose self-image. The reality is, though, that some people can possess the traits of NPD without anyone realizing it. These people may be what is known as a “covert narcissist.”

In the field of psychology, any type of behavior can be overt or covert. This is true even of narcissism. Overt narcissists are easy to spot, as they tend to be self-aggrandizing, aggressive, exploitative and loud about their needs for attention. Covert narcissists, on the other hand, tend to be shy, sensitive and insecure. However, both types share the same core personality traits. Very Well Mind explains it best: The difference is like listening to a song on full blast versus very low. The song remains the same; it’s only the volume that changes.

1. Defining Narcissism

In terms of clinical mental health, someone must meet a very specific set of criteria to receive a narcissistic personality disorder diagnosis. Narcissists in general, however, operate with an inflated sense of self-importance, little empathy and thirst for admiration and reassurance. They are also often preoccupied with power and success and have no qualms about using others to get what they want. This is true regardless of where on the spectrum a narcissist falls.

That said, though individuals must meet specific criteria to be diagnosed with covert narcissism — also known as hypersensitive, closet or vulnerable narcissism — it can be difficult to identify. Covert narcissists are quieter and generally more amicable than their overt counterparts. If you suspect you are dealing with a covert narcissist, there are some general traits and patterns to look for in everyday interactions.

Covert Narcissist

2. Shy or Withdrawn Nature

The key differentiator between overt narcissism and convert narcissism is introversion. Closet narcissists appear shy and demure in nature. However, as opposed to other introverted people — who get social anxiety and can find social situations stressful or overstimulating — covert narcissists are withdrawn because of their deep sense of insecurity, which is a common trait of all forms of narcissism personality disorder.

Vulnerable narcissists prefer to avoid social interactions and engaging with others out of a deep-seated fear that said engagement will reveal personal flaws or failures. They honestly believe that by exposing their innermost feelings and fears, they would be shattering their personal illusion of superiority. To reduce the chance of exposure, they severely restrict their social circles. Like overt narcissists, closet narcissists avoid relationships and situations that do not present a clear benefit to themselves.

3. Self-Absorption

Like overt narcissists, covert narcissists are self-absorbed individuals. When interacting with others, they typically make an immediate determination about whether the conversation interests them. If they decide it doesn’t, they will generally tune the other person out and engage in rude habits, such as scrolling through their phone, fidgeting with their hands or outright sighing and rolling their eyes.

Closet narcissists are always eager to change the conversation to themselves. In places of a conversation where people would typically ask a question or prompt further explanation, covert narcissists will change the topic to something they want to talk about. In their minds, even trivial matters, such as what they had for dinner the night before, trumps other topics of conversation.

Covert Narcissist

4. Passive Self-Importance

The overt narcissist will be loud about his or her grandiose self-image, telling others how great he or she is. Covert narcissists, on the other hand, take a different approach. Closet narcissists crave admiration and praise as much as their aggressive counterparts, but they use a softer approach to achieve the same end goal.

Closet narcissists may use backhanded compliments to put others down without seeming as if that’s what they’re doing. They may belittle themselves to encourage others to disagree and downplay their accomplishments so that people will offer up reassurance by telling them how successful and talented they are. Closet narcissists are constantly seeking reassurance about their skills, talents and accomplishments — a tactic they use to feed their sense of self-importance.

5. Passive-Aggressive Behavior

Closet narcissists may engage in passive-aggressive behavior for two main reasons: They want to get back at people whom they feel “wronged” them, or they have a deep-rooted belief that they are entitled to whatever it is they want. Passive aggression is manipulation at its finest, and while most people have probably deployed this tactic at one point or another, narcissists use it on an almost daily basis.

Passive aggression can occur in a number of different ways. For instance, people may give a friend or loved one the silent treatment when things don’t go their way. They may sabotage another person’s friendship or work, or frame insults as jokes. A highly common tactic is to play the blame game in order to get others to feel bad about a given situation. They may also try to shame others into doing what they want or create confusion to get others to second-guess themselves.

Covert Narcissist

6. Blaming and Shaming

Narcissists love to play the victim. Both outward and closet narcissists use blame and shame to elevate their status among others and to retain control in relationships. However, whereas the overt narcissist will outwardly criticize and belittle others, the covert narcissist uses a much gentler approach. The covert narcissist won’t blame or shame you outright; instead he or she will tell you why something is your fault, but then contradict him or herself by saying, “It’s not your fault.”

Many covert narcissists will go so far as to victimize themselves by claiming another person’s actions hurt them. It is not uncommon for a covert narcissist to hold grudges for extended periods, either. The end goal of both the shaming and grudge-holding is two-fold: to receive reassurance and praise and to make the other party feel small. Instead of extending forgiveness, the closet narcissist will just look for the ideal opportunity to make the other person look bad.

7. Creating Confusion

Narcissists, both overt and covert, tend to distort reality to their favor. One tactic narcissists commonly deploy is to create confusion surrounding certain events that may have not gone in their favor. For instance, if they want someone to feel bad about their behavior, they may not blame or shame but rather cause “the offender” to question his or her perception of the incident in question.

Narcissists create confusion to maintain control. By creating confusion, they elevate themselves to the “sure party, the one with all the answers and clarity.” As other parties begin to second-guess themselves, the narcissist can use the opportunity to manipulate and exploit them even more.

Covert Narcissist

8. Sensitivity to Criticism

Not to be confused with sensitive individuals, covert narcissists are extremely sensitive to criticism, hence the term, “hypersensitive narcissism.” The difference between sensitive people and narcissists is the basis of the reaction to criticism. Whereas sensitive people may respond to criticism with embarrassment or apology, narcissists respond with rage.

Narcissists cannot handle criticism because they literally cannot believe that another person questions their talent or worth. They become enraged at the very thought that someone else views them as anything less than perfect. Closet narcissists may not act out immediately, but they will use passive-aggressive tactics to deal with the confrontation.

9. Emotionally Neglectful

Narcissists lack empathy. This is a common trait across the entire spectrum of NPD and not just of overt narcissism. Both overt and covert narcissists lack the ability to build and maintain emotional bonds with others. This is in large part due to the fact that they put so much time and energy into themselves. Though vulnerable narcissists typically appear kinder and less intolerable than their overt counterparts, they are just as emotionally distant and unresponsive.

Covert narcissists are not big on giving praise or thanks. This is because they are constantly focused on keeping themselves elevated in the eyes of others; handing out compliments would undermine this goal. They also have little to no regard for others’ talents, efforts or abilities. Though the closet narcissist may seem more emotionally accessible than overt narcissists, this is not the case. If in a relationship with a covert narcissist, you may find yourself doing the majority of the emotional lifting.

10. Giving With a Goal

Narcissists do not give out of generosity. In fact, narcissists do not do much of anything unless it will serve them in some way. This is evident in everything from their tendency to steer conversations to themselves to their inability to give compliments to their disinterest in forming non-beneficial social connections. So, it goes without saying that narcissists, even covert ones, do not give to others without having an end goal.

This may look like a narcissist tipping only when dining with new and impressionable parties. Any other day, though, he or she skips the tip altogether. A narcissist may gift you an extravagant item for your birthday with the expectation you will do the same in return. He or she may also show up to Christmas with an over-the-top gift, knowing full everyone else is on a budget, in an attempt to make him or herself look wealthy and everyone else appear cheap.

Covert Narcissist

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