Narcissists are people with an exaggerated sense of self-importance. They’re hungry for praise, attention, and admiration. Narcissistic traits include:
- Having delusions of grandeur
- Exaggerating abilities
- Being preoccupied with beauty, fame, power, and love
- Having an exaggerated sense of being unique
- Exploiting others for selfish ends
- Lacking empathy
- Having an entitlement mentality
Narcissism can be overt or covert (also called vulnerable narcissism). Overt narcissists tend to be extroverts who outwardly express their exaggerated sense of self-importance.
They’re loud, attention-seeking, arrogant, dismissive of other people’s needs, and always hungry for praise. You can easily detect an overt narcissist in a room.
Covert narcissists have the same goal of self-aggrandization and seeking admiration, but they’re subtle about achieving this goal. They come across as likable and reserved. They tend to be withdrawn, shy, and introverted.1
Why are there covert narcissists?
At the root of narcissism is a fragile sense of self. A narcissist has unclear values and fluctuating self-esteem. Their self-esteem is overly dependent on the admiration of others.
Children tend to have narcissistic tendencies. When they grow up, they develop a stable identity if they undergo healthy psychological development. Narcissists miss this phase of developing a secure and stable identity.
Thus, narcissists are children trapped in adult bodies. They get enraged and throw childish tantrums when they don’t get what they want.2
Narcissists share their selfishness and lack of empathy with psychopaths. Hence, many psychopaths are also narcissists.
Most people have a mix of narcissistic and empathic traits. Few people are full-blown, overt narcissists. There are likely more covert narcissists than there are overt ones.
Overt narcissism lies on one end of the narcissism-empathy bell curve. Covert narcissism is close to overt narcissism but more frequent:
Overt narcissism, being easily detectable, is costly. Most people will not tolerate overt narcissists for long. They get kicked out of jobs and relationships pretty soon unless they’re in positions of power.
Covert narcissists fly under the radar; before they’re detected, they’ve probably already done the damage.
Besides introversion and having a withdrawn temperament, social adeptness, and intelligence may also contribute to covert narcissism. Covert narcissists know that overt narcissism has its downsides, which they minimize by taking a covert route to narcissism.
Weird things covert narcissists do
We’ll now look at some of the weird things covert narcissists do. As pointed out earlier, most people have a mix of narcissistic and empathic traits. If you find you have some of these traits, it doesn’t mean you’re a covert narcissist.
However, if you find that most of these behaviors fit you or someone you know, there’s cause for concern.
1. They show passive-aggressive behaviors
Overt narcissists tend to be overtly aggressive. They’ll put you down overtly without shame. Covert narcissists have a more passive approach to their aggression. They’ll put you down gently- so gently that you’ll be left scratching your head, debating their maleficence.
For example, they’ll dish out a backhanded compliment like:
“You don’t look fat in that dress.” (But in every other dress)
Or they’ll hurl a hurtful joke at you and then say:
“I was only joking. Why are you taking it seriously?”
Covert narcissists won’t directly tell you that you’re worthless and they’re superior to you. They’ll convey their lack of regard for you in other ways.
For example, they’ll show up late for meetings or respond late to your texts, conveying their lack of respect for you and your time.
2. They forget deliberately
This is another sneaky passive-aggressive behavior. If you ask a covert narcissist to do something for you, they’ll ‘forget’ to do it.
Since they’re selfish and only care about themselves, they don’t really want to help you. But they know they can’t directly refuse you. So, they passively disobey you with their deliberate forgetting.
3. They apologize insincerely
Covert narcissists make significant efforts to maintain their relationships. They have to maintain them because they hardly contribute to them. To them, relationships are a way to boost their self-worth, not a two-way street.
When they do something wrong to cater to their selfishness, they apologize, not to mend the relationship but to keep their partner. They don’t genuinely regret what they did.
4. They’re obsessed with their reputation
They’re obsessed with looking good for two reasons:
- It helps them win the admiration of other people
- It allows them to hide who they really are
They’re attracted to professions that will help them win the respect and admiration of people, such as Medicine, Priesthood, and Teaching. They make a big show of their considerable contributions to charity.
5. They’re not genuinely interested in anyone
Covert narcissists are so preoccupied with themselves that they can’t be genuinely interested in anyone else. The people they do seem to be interested in are their supplies who feed their narcissism by praising and admiring them.
They’ll ask you questions about you not because they want to get to know you but because they want to gather information about you to use it against you later.
They’ll ask you questions about you but not really listen to your answers because they see the interaction only in terms of superiority and inferiority. They’ll frequently interrupt you to toot their own horn, breaking the flow of conversation.
6. They resent giving
Narcissists aren’t givers who give for the sake of giving. They’ll give to charities to project a generous image of themselves. They’ll give in relationships to maintain the relationship.
They resent giving, and you can always feel it. When they give you a gift, they give it to you, but they don’t give it to you. There are always strings attached.
They have a win-lose mentality. They believe that if they give, they’re losing something.
Even when you’re sick and need care, a covert narcissist will care for you, but they’ll resent it. And you’ll sense it in their nonverbal communication.
7. They’re super competitive
They want to prove to themselves and to the world that they’re better than everyone else. Their high competitiveness makes them sensitive to loss and failure.
Unlike an overt narcissist who’ll get mad and launch a tirade upon losing, a covert narcissist simply refuses to play. If they lose 100 games, they’ll play game 101 just to win and never play again after attaining the superior position.
They gloat at the misery of others because they’re always competing. They can’t drop their competitiveness for one minute and empathize with suffering people.
8. They’re different with different people
A sure sign of a fragile sense of self is being different with different people. Covert narcissists behave so differently with different people to get into their good books that you’re left wondering:
“Who is he, really?”
They either have no core values that they stick to, or their values keep changing.
9. They devalue themselves
“Wait!”, you might be wondering, “If they have an exaggerated sense of self-importance, why would they ever devalue themselves?”
Well, they do it to fish for compliments. When you devalue yourself, sympathetic people will likely praise you to reassure you.
They’ll be good at something but pretend they suck at it. They’ll deny their good qualities. This false humility makes them look great when they do moderately well in what they were supposedly bad at.
10. They’re hypocrites
They judge others for the things they themselves do. For instance, they’ll gossip to feel superior to others and then judge others who gossip to, again, feel superior.
Or they’ll criticize those who show off but do the same when they get a chance. The goal of showing superiority remains the same. Only the tactics change as per convenience.
11. They can’t take jokes and criticism
They’ll pretend they’re strong when they’re really feeling weak. They’ll pretend they’re above criticism when it hurts them deeply.
They’re okay with cracking jokes as long as the joke is not on them. Also, they don’t like it if anyone else is cracking the joke because it takes their attention away.
12. They have a Messiah complex
They tend to think they’re the saviors of humanity. They’ll attach themselves to a cause that’s meaningful to them but looks meaningless to an outside observer.
They may create a crisis where there is none so they can be the saviors and save people from non-existent trouble.
Think you might be a covert narcissist? Take this covert narcissism test to get a score.
- Wink, P. (1991). Two faces of narcissism. Journal of personality and social psychology, 61(4), 590.
- Krizan, Z., & Johar, O. (2015). Narcissistic rage revisited. Journal of personality and social psychology, 108(5), 784.