How to spot the signs of a covert narcissist


At some point or another, most of us have heard the term narcissism or read an article somewhere that illustrates the classic narcissistic traits of someone diagnosed with a narcissistic personality disorder.

Unlike other personality disorders, the word narcissist has become a widely used term among many communities in recent decades, and no longer gets restricted to the mental health community or those who work with clients with mental health issues.

Covert narcissists

Narcissism is associated with many personality traits, most of them superfluous. Covert narcissism causes things such as:

  • Superficial charm
  • Attention-seeking
  • Lack of reliability
  • Manipulation
  • The propensity to break peoples’ boundaries
  • Inflated sense of self-importance and self-centered
  • An exaggerated sense of self

As helpful as it is for people to understand the psychological profile of a typical narcissist, much research has gone into understanding the introverted narcissist, too, those who do not display the classic signs of a narcissist as outlined above.

Covert narcissism

Researchers have identified four subtypes associated with the introverted narcissist:

  • Covert narcissism
  • The hypersensitive narcissist
  • The vulnerable narcissist
  • The closet narcissist
Narcisstic personality

Signs of covert narcissism

People with covert narcissism tend to display very different personality traits to those with the classic variation of narcissism, individuals may undergo the covert narcissist test to identify the condition. A covert female narcissist may show slightly different traits to a male covert narcissist. Things covert narcissists say will also differ from person to person.

Instead of the extroverted characteristics such as attention-seeking and blatant manipulation, covert narcissism manifests as:

  • Impolite yawns
  • Eye rolls
  • Sighs
  • Strong sensitivity to criticism
  • Withdrawing and dismissing other people
  • Withdrawn self-centeredness
  • Extreme sensitivity

Although this subtype of narcissism tends to be largely hidden, closet narcissists uphold the same conceit and negative connotations as classical narcissism and are often led by their own interests. Their actions may also have a negative impact on intimate relationships and encourage self doubt in others.  

Moreover, because of their nature, these types of mental disorders often present many clinical challenges.

Vulnerable narcissism

It must be pointed out that not all introverts are narcissists, just like all extroverts aren’t. 

However, those who possess the classical traits of a closet narcissist tend to create a quiet tension with those around them, leaving others feeling off balance and uncomfortable.

Overt narcissists v’s Covert narcissists

Overt and covert narcissists share some common ground in how they do things, both usually exhibiting an external veneer of superiority over others, all to cover up their low self-esteem and vulnerability.

An overt narcissist tends to convey the message that they are ”better than everyone else.” In contrast, covert narcissists are slightly more subtle with their boasting, but the subtext is always there.

Narcissistic personality

Narcissistic personality

Narcissism shows up differently within each individual.

Some people may inhabit a few narcissistic traits now and then. 

But, at the same time, others tend to be more pathological and habitually reside in their narcissistic persona while being utterly clueless about their behaviour and how it impacts those around them.

Further information can be found in our blog, What Are the Signs of a Covert Narcissist?

Telltale signs

Some of the more profound telltale signs of closet narcissism get outlined below:

#1. Lack of empathy

Empathy or a lack thereof is a typical personality trait of narcissistic personality disorder for overt and covert types. Narcissists are often dismissive of other people’s feelings and are often oblivious of the impact of this.

A classical line from a narcissist is usually something like,” You’re stressed out and bogged down with work? But I thought you were driving me to the theatre? 

Even when friends or family members convey their frustrations to the narcissist and how their actions and attitudes affect them, this can often make the situation worse as the narcissist will somehow spin it around and make it about themselves.

#2. Silent superiority and complacency

Unlike the glorious fanfare typically observed in their narcissistic counterparts, covert narcissists are the quiet counterpart and often present themselves in markedly different ways to those around them.

Passive-aggressive behavior

In many ways, covert narcissists are more challenging to spot than those who scream self-importance.

They tend to observe their surroundings with quiet scrutiny and judgement and listen apathetically rather than offering anything substantial to the conversation.

The byproduct of this type of narcissism tends to manifest as being lukewarm in sentiment. The covert narcissist often appears calm and detached and frequently displays unsettling non-verbal cues.

#3. Self-absorbed behaviors

Another common trait of closet narcissists is their quiet, self-centeredness.

Although most introverts are good listeners and are capable of contributing to a conversation equally, you’ll find that people high in covert narcissism are often derisive, poor listeners.

They are quick to convey frustration.

Covert narcissists jump into a conversation with an often unfair assessment about a person or situation only to quickly find the topic boring, uninteresting and unworthy of their attention.

You might also find that people with covert narcissism often deploy stonewalling techniques such as blocking you out whenever you are speaking or trying to make a point, or they may listen to you but half-heartedly.

#4. Extremely sensitive

Almost every one of us feels slighted at some point during our lives. However, the difference between a narcissist and the rest of the world is their excessive sensitivity.

Covert narcissists tend to get combative and offended at the smallest slight or perceived criticism.

When receiving constructive criticism, closet narcissists tend to go into fight or flight mode – they will defend themselves with an increased smugness or dismissal, or they may withdraw entirely from the conversation with a quiet sullenness.

#5. Challenging relationships

Broadly, narcissists tend to have a difficult time holding down relationships in general, whether it be with a family member, friends or a romantic pairing, narcissists of all kinds struggle to create and sustain genuine, long-term relationships.

In covert narcissism, the calm exterior and smugness often serves as a protective barrier to the rest of the world and is often a defence mechanism to keep others at a distance.

Essentially, the covert narcissist’s underlying goal is to conceal their inadequacies and feelings of low worth from other people.

Diagnostic and clinical challenges

Due to its nature and the lack of empirical research compared to other narcissistic types, covert narcissism has presented some challenges in both clinical and research areas.

Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) is common and highly comorbid with other mental health disorders; the condition also gets associated with significant psychosocial ability and functional impairment.

Diagnostic and statistical manual

One of the biggest challenges is the lack of research regarding narcissism; for mental health specialists, this has created much confusion, a lack of reliability, validity and sensitivity regarding the diagnostic criteria of the disorder.

There have been no randomized trials with regards to any of the subtypes of Narcissistic Personality Disorder. Because of the lack of literature and research, narcissism got eliminated from the Diagnostic Statistical Manual.

Fortunately, this decision was overturned, and consequently, Narcissistic Personality Disorder got included in section II of the Diagnostic Statistical Manual – edition five.

Treatment for Narcissistic Personality Disorder


Treatment for Narcissistic Personality Disorder is usually psychotherapy (talk therapy). In some cases, medication may get prescribed if you have other co-occurring mental health conditions.

Contact us

If you or someone you know has any of the symptoms mentioned in this article, perhaps it’s time to get in touch with a professional who will help you work through any self-limiting feelings, allowing you to live a happier, more fulfilling life.

Fiona Yassin is International Family Director at The Wave Clinic in Kuala Lumpur. Fiona works closely with her colleagues in London and Dubai to advise parents and family offices on global treatment options. Fiona is a registered UK Psychotherapist and Clinical Supervisor (License Number #361609), EMDR Trained (EMDRIA registration number #100054651), a fellow of ACCPH and a Senior Accredited Addiction Professional.

Fiona is also a trauma-focused mental health professional, specialising in Eating Disorders and Borderline Personality Disorder. CBT-E (Oxford), FREED (King’s College), Clinical Supervisor (UNCG), Post Grad Neuroscience (Tennessee), a member of IAEDP and The Association of Child Protection Professionals, and has a baby Maine Coon called Dave.

Further reading on similar topics can be found via our blog How to spot the five major signs of passive-aggressive behaviour.

Fiona - The Wave Clinic

Fiona Yassin is the founder and clinical director at The Wave Clinic. She is a U.K. and International registered Psychotherapist and Accredited Clinical Supervisor (U.K. and UNCG).

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