What Are the Signs of a Covert Narcissist?


Narcissism is a typical human trait that is inherent in every person. It’s the desire to feel good about ourselves and to be recognised by others for our achievements.

However, in some people, narcissistic traits can be so strong that they affect the person’s ability to maintain healthy relationships and function in everyday life. These people may live with clinical narcissism, known as narcissistic personality disorder.

According to clinical analysis, narcissistic personality disorder has two types: overt (grandiose) narcissism and covert (vulnerable) narcissism. While the signs of overt narcissism can be clear, those of covert narcissism are often harder to spot.

This blog explores the nature and conceptualisation of convert narcissism and some signs of a covert narcissist.

What Is Narcissistic Personality Disorder?

According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) is characterised by grandiosity, a need for admiration, and a lack of empathy. Young people with NPD often struggle with maintaining healthy relationships, managing school or college, and everyday life.

Young people living with NPD may:

  • feel that they are different, better, or more deserving than others
  • have low self-esteem and depend on others to recognise their value
  • feel upset if they don’t receive the attention they think they deserve
  • resent the achievements of others
  • seem dismissive of other people’s needs

Narcissism is usually considered a developmental condition resulting from people’s early life experiences, such as childhood trauma or neglect. However, it can also be less frequently caused by distressing events later in life.

Conceptualising Personality Disorders

Not everyone agrees that the term and diagnosis of a personality disorder should be used. Some specialists and people with the disorder think that the term may be stigmatising and fails to consider social context. They feel that their behaviours and responses are reasonable and to be expected given the difficult events and adversity they have experienced. Instead of focussing on their behaviours, we should focus on the factors that may have led to these difficulties.

On the other hand, some believe a diagnosis helps them feel understood and improves their access to much-needed support. If a young person feels unhappy about a diagnosis, you could open a discussion about the way we use the terms and encourage them to discuss the issue with a mental health professional or access resources online.

What Are Overt and Covert Narcissism?

There are two basic subtypes of NPD – overt narcissism and covert narcissism.

Overt narcissists usually behave as most people would imagine. They are bold, attention-seeking, and competitive. Overt narcissists appear self-important and outwardly display the inflated sense of self-importance that characterises the condition.

The signs of covert narcissism, also called vulnerable narcissism, can be more challenging to spot. Unlike the overt narcissist, a convert narcissist may seem self-deprecating and withdrawn. While they still value themselves on the recognition of others, they may seek to avoid criticism rather than boast about their achievements. Convert narcissism is complex and comes with unique diagnostic and clinical challenges.

Narcissistic Status Pursuit

Narcissistic status pursuit is a new theory that explains the traits and behaviours of narcissists as an attempt to gain social status. The model argues that narcissists can gain status in two ways: by promoting themselves or derogating others. It suggests that narcissists may resort to the derogation of others when they are unable to promote themselves successfully.

What Are the Signs of Covert Narcissism?

Narcissism is a complicated diagnosis that manifests differently in each individual. In fact, some people think it isn’t helpful to categorise people as narcissists at all.

For those who accept the diagnosis of narcissism and its sub-type, some convert narcissist traits include:


Some people think that covert narcissists still believe they are superior to others but do not outwardly express their heightened sense of self-importance. Instead, they may avoid situations that challenge their sense of self, such as complex tasks or criticism from others.

Other researchers believe that covert narcissists are both inwardly and outwardly self-deprecating. They characterise the convert narcissist as someone who rejects any belief in their inherent goodness. In this model, convert narcissists may also seek to validate themselves by avoiding criticism, but they continue to feel inferior.

Sensitivity to Criticism

If covert narcissists are exposed to criticism, they can feel very hurt and upset. They may be inclined to take things personally and see something as an insult when others do not. Covert narcissists often understand themselves as victims or the target of discussions or events and may interpret other people’s evaluations of themselves in the most negative way possible.

Defensiveness and Passive Aggressive REsponses

A covert narcissist may become defensive easily and react in a passive-aggressive or vindictive way.

Appearing SelfLess and Seeking To Serve Others

Some covert narcissists may attempt to find a sense of self-importance in their ability to meet other people’s needs and seek approval for their services towards those around them.

Avoiding Social Situations

A convert narcissist may avoid social situations to protect themselves from criticism and to avoid hearing about other people’s strengths, which may make them feel worse about themselves.

Difficulty Maintaining Relationships

Like those with overt narcissism, young people with covert narcissism tend to have a perception and valuation of themselves and others that are different to most peoples’. This can make it difficult to form personal and occupational relationships.

Co-Occurring Mental Health Conditions

Young people with covert narcissism are more likely to struggle with other mental health conditions, such as depression and substance use disorders. They may also have symptoms of personality disorders like border personality disorder or antisocial personality disorder.

Supporting Young People with Covert Narcissism

Young people living with NPD can struggle to maintain stable relationships and achieve their potential at school or college. Their altered sense of self may lead to emotional distress and mental health issues that prevent them from feeling content.

Like all young people, individuals with NPD require care and support. While the process can be long, psychotherapy sessions can help covert narcissists identify and change their false perceptions of themselves and others and learn to value themselves independently of how others perceive them. They can also learn to recognise behaviours and responses that are harmful to others and replace them with positive ones.

Supporting young people with covert narcissism may also involve treating co-occurring mental health disorders such as anxiety or depression. Effective support address the multiple needs of the individual to promote lasting well-being. If you know someone showing signs of NPD, you can contact a mental health provider for expert advice and support.

Further information can also be found via our blog How to spot the signs of a covert narcissist.

The Wave – Specialist Treatment for Young People

The Wave Clinic is a specialist treatment centre that supports young people worldwide to recover, learn, and grow. We combine clinical care with a gap year experience, providing a transformative programme where young people can reconnect with themselves, discover their dreams, and develop the skills to get there. Our programmes inspire and heal, catering to every young person’s individual and multiple needs.

We understand that the needs of young people are unique and complex. Our expert team are extensively trained in adolescent mental health supervision to deliver the highest standard of medical treatment. We include family members in the treatment process, ensuring loved ones are involved in the journey.

If your child is dealing with mental health struggles, reach out to The Wave today. We’re here to support you.

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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