We all know how to spot a narcissist. He’s the one talking louder than everyone else at the bar, interrupting conversations with his own unrelated story, and you know — generally being an ass. But what about his little sister, the covert narcissist, who’s just as arrogant, but a little more reserved with her disgust?
Covert narcissism can hide inside anyone. Once you learn to recognize the narcissist traits, you might realize that the most introverted, shy, and insecure person you know is a narcissist. In fact, you could be one of them. Are you a covert narcissist?!
If your new love interest seems a little more arrogant and a little less empathetic than most people, you may be dealing with a covert narcissist. Before you get too attached, try to learn the truth about their past. Do they constantly talk about college years at “Harvard”? You could learn they actually attended community college in a town called Harvard.
An exaggerated sense of self is a red flag that you could be dealing with a narcissist, but there are many more symptoms of narcissism, and they aren’t always easy to spot. We included the signs of narcissism and a narcissist quiz below so you can at least figure out if YOU are … a covert narcissist.
What Is A Narcissist?
To fully understand the traits of covert narcissism, you have to know the signs of an overt narcissist. The well-known traits of narcissism are insufficient. Thanks to Greek mythology’s Narcissus, we call someone a narcissist when they are vain and self-centered. But narcissism is much more than that.
A narcissist, or person with narcissistic traits, has an exaggerated sense of self-importance, a lack of empathy, a constant need for attention and praise, fantasies about power, a sense of entitlement, and a history of exploiting others for personal gain. They always have to feel superior, and it is extremely difficult or impossible for them to admit when they’re wrong.
There needs to be a history of extreme, pathological narcissistic behavior in order for someone to be classified as having the disorder. If a person displays only certain characteristics, they may just be designated as having traits of narcissism, rather than diagnosed with narcissistic personality disorder.
What Is A Covert Narcissist?
Covert narcissism is also referred to as closet narcissism, hypersensitive narcissism, and vulnerable narcissism. As these names point out, someone with this version of traits is generally more shy, sensitive, and insecure. But those feelings of insecurity and weakness turn into defensiveness and anger.
Psychologist Scott Barry Kaufman explained it to Scientific American:
“While the ‘overt narcissists tended to be aggressive, self-aggrandizing, exploitative, and have extreme delusions of grandeur and a need for attention, ‘covert’ narcissists were more prone to feelings of neglect or belittlement, hypersensitivity, anxiety, and delusions of persecution.”
So while a covert narcissist has the same core traits of an overt narcissist (conceit, self-indulgence, and disregard of others), they present in very different ways. Preston Ni, author and expert on communication, lists the traits of covert narcissism for Psychology Today. We took his list of characteristics and created a guide for spotting a covert narcissist.
1. Quiet Smugness/Superiority
Covert narcissists have an eyeroll that would make Liz Lemon proud. They may not come out and tell you that they think your conversation is beneath them, but they will more than make up for it with nonverbal cues to show you they aren’t listening. Those cues can include exaggerated sighs, scrolling through their phone, and any other bored fidgeting that makes it clear that they are not interested in anything you have to say.
Covert narcissists will make an immediate decision on whether a conversation or topic interests them, and if they decide it’s not worth their time, they’ll tune you out until they can take the floor.
When you reach a pause in the conversation where a friend would usually ask a question or offer a comment, they will abruptly change the topic to whatever it is they want to talk about. Usually, that will have something to do with their life, not yours. In their mind, even trivial matters, such as what they ate for breakfast, can trump the importance of anything you have to say. It’s all part of that whole “exaggerated sense of self” thing.
3. Lack Of Empathy
Overt or covert, narcissists don’t give much, if any, thought to the feelings or well being of other people. They don’t care when you’re going through a hard time, and they don’t think about how their actions affect others.
Since covert narcissists prefer to keep their bloated egos to themselves, they won’t outwardly argue with you. If you offer an idea or extend an invite, they’ll simply agree or say, “Yeah perfect!” and then completely disregard it. When you ask why they didn’t follow through or show up, they’ll brush it off and give you no real reasoning.
5. Highly Sensitive
Not to be confused with a highly sensitive person, many people that have covert narcissistic tendencies are seen as highly sensitive because they are easily upset by criticism. The difference is that coverts are more sensitive to criticism because they literally can’t believe that someone can’t see their value. They are enraged at the idea that someone would see them as anything less than the perfect being that they are.
Rather than outwardly fly off the handle like their overt counterpart, coverts will either retreat and stew over the conflict internally, or they’ll be increasingly smug and deal with the confrontation in their usual passive aggressive manner.
It’s important to note the difference between a highly sensitive person and a covert narcissistic one because they do share a few traits. This realization led to new research to further explain the distinction between overt and covert narcissists and how hypersensitive people fit in.
6. The “Misunderstood Special Person”
Superiority complexes and a sense of entitlement are common in narcissists, and coverts are no different. According to Preston Ni, “By constructing the superficial belief that one is “exceptional”, the introvert narcissist creates a reassuring role, submerging the fearful and vulnerable true self.”
They often believe that the only possible reason someone could overlook their talent is that they are just soo misunderstood.
7. Impersonal And Difficult Relationships
Covert narcissists have trouble forming genuine connections with people for a number of reasons. One reason is that they don’t believe others deserve their attention or understand them (see number 6). At the same time, they have such severe insecurities that they use their smug, arrogant persona to hold people at a distance.
This makes it nearly impossible for them to have meaningful relationships with anyone in their life, from family members to co-workers. This difficulty engaging with people can lead to antisocial hobbies or simply avoiding human interaction as much as possible.
Are You A Covert Narcissist?
We’re all guilty of being self-centered at some point in our lives, and the transition from college to adulthood can leave us particularly insecure. You no longer have the constant praise of your parents and teachers. Instead, you have coworkers and bosses who expect you to do a good job because it’s your job.
This can cause you to feel unappreciated, or that your hard work is being overlooked. (One of the characteristics of covert narcissism.) Because of your already lowered self-esteem you may feel extra sensitive to criticism. (Another sign of covert narcissism.) But having a few of these symptoms for a period of time does not mean you are a covert narcissist.
If you feel constantly agitated because you think you are being wronged, not given enough attention, or slighted in any way, you may be a covert narcissist.
Take this test designed by psychologist Jonathan Cheek to find out where you fall on the spectrum. Or if you feel that your symptoms are interfering with your daily life, go see a mental health professional. They can give you the help you need to live a healthier life — without the constant threat of agitation.