The contrast between the overt/grandiose narcissist and covert/vulnerable narcissist is now mostly widely understood. Symbolically, the overt narcissist gets the megaphone out and demands attention openly and blatantly, but the covert narcissist is more sneaky and subtle, withdrawn and shy.
It is this more concealed form of narcissism that can be so dangerous for people caught up in it, for it can be very confusing, contradictory and schizophrenic to deal with, not knowing where you stand or what’s going on, but just feeling that something is really “off” with a person/relationship.
In this article, we’ll try to pin down this vagueness a bit more, explaining some key sneaky behaviors, tactics and traits of the covert narcissist. Just like the overt narcissist, the covert narcissist still demands attention, but just seeks to gain it in more sneaky, undercover ways, by manipulating and playing on the emotions of others, and by framing their own lives and others in negative terms rather than positive terms to elicit sympathy from others.
Put simply, if you get involved with a covert narcissist, you’ll likely be drawn into the constant drama of the negativity of their own life, of how hard they have it, of how misunderstood but great they really are and could be, whilst also tolerating all their passive aggressive digs, insults and barbs they always sneak in away from the prying eyes of others. In other words, your emotions are manipulated in every direction, and it’s never good for your own long term mental health.
Let’s list some of these broad level sneaky traits of the covert narcissist in more detail, in a way that hopefully allows people to see more easily what’s going on.
1. The Fake Vulnerability, Endless Sob Stories And Martyr Act
In contrast to the overt narcissist who portrays a strong confidence and bluster to the outside world, the covert narcissist is much more fragile and more painfully self aware of the negative aspects of their psychological makeup, such as inferiority, inadequacy and especially shame (a key factor that underlies NPD).
Therefore, with covert narcissists, you will see a certain vulnerability there that can lead you to let your guard down and think this person “surely can’t be dangerous, right?”. They can have a certain meekness, shyness and withdrawn nature, especially when you first meet them, that can be very misleading. And if you’re a “fixer”, you can fall into the trap of thinking that you’re the person who can bring this person out of their shell, “fix” them, make them more confident about themselves (recipe for disaster).
And then once you get to know them in the early stages, there will often be a relentless series of sob stories and victim mentality narratives, such as:
- How horrible they were treated in childhood and how damaged they are (very true with NPD, but also used to manipulate others).
- How horrible the world in general has treated them in adulthood as well, about how their failures were never their own fault and always some conspiracy from others against them. A deeply held sense of injustice on their part.
- How abusive previous relationships were (if you double check and cross reference though, you’ll find the picture they paint to you is often NOT accurate at all).
- A constant tendency to use their “troubled” past to elicit empathy and sympathy from people and sink their hooks in (which can make it harder to set boundaries with them later on).
- They can also give off an air of being very fragile and delicate and even humble early on, of being easily upset and knocked off their pedestal, to the point where you feel you have to tiptoe around them and walk on eggshells, like they can be upset very easily. You tone down your own needs, assertiveness and boundaries, just thinking they’re fragile but good and need treating with care.
- How they’d have been the “messiah”, the next big thing, successful and famous, “if only” XYZ person/thing hadn’t got in their way, if only there hadn’t been a conspiracy against them to hide their greatness (a grandiose sense of unfulfilled potential that they harbor a lot of resentment about). See the embedded video for more on this.
- In general a very self absorbed mindset where despite their apparent vulnerability, everything is still always about them, their emotions, their struggles, their frustrated ambitions, the tragedy of their life (if you try to move away from this and talk about you or someone else, you’ll find these people start to almost “power down” like a battery going flat and can’t listen).
- If you do argue with them in intimate relationships, they can break down and beg for forgiveness, appealing to (insert sob story). See point #4 below for more on this. Their act can be very convincing.
Part of this vulnerable aura is just a consequence of how broken and fragile their personality structure is, but part of it can also be an act to elicit sympathy and attention from people (a broad definition of narcissism could be “Putting on an act to elicit a response from others”, and this needn’t be getting the megaphone out like overt narcissist. It can be a more subtle act to draw sympathetic attention from others, and this is the covert narcissist’s game).
The point is, this sneaky “vulnerable” act from the covert narcissist can be very disarming and even slightly seductive and attractive, to your own detriment later on. You’ll have no idea how dangerous these people can be once the mask is off later on.
If you fall for this sneaky “perpetual victim” martyr act, you’ll end up giving the covert narcissist much more leeway than their behavior actually warrants, especially when they turn really toxic. You may fall into the mistake of thinking they’re a decent person who’s just “had it hard” in life, and therefore keep forgiving them for unacceptable behavior when they really need letting go of for your own health and sanity.
2. They’re Toxic Only When No One Is Looking
This is one of the nastiest aspects of the covert narcissist that messes with the minds of people caught up with them the most. Their toxic, abusive, vicious side only tends to come out in one-to-one interactions with people, and never when there could be widespread open scrutiny/observation of their behavior from others. It tends to be selectively targeted towards one or a few people and very well hidden from everyone else.
In other words, they are expert “undercover” abusers, never abusing or humiliating people openly for everyone to see as the overt narcissist might, but only when no one else is around.
This sneaky and pernicious aspect of covert narcissism is brilliantly explained in the video below from Abdul Saad (15 minute mark):
Some points made in this regard include:
- How the covert narcissist is painfully aware of social norms and will therefore put a very convincing “mask” or facade up in public/group situations to appear normal and respectful and not draw negative attention to themselves.
- These people are extremely sensitive to negative criticism or evaluation from others, and so are very careful to present a respectable image in public to avoid this.
- As part of their PR branding campaign, some narcissists will champion pro social causes – the perfect “front act” to present to the world to appear respectable and caring.
- However, it’s when in private that the covert narcissist lets the mask slip and becomes really toxic and abusive – for example, when one on one in relationships. They might have been fine at the dinner you went to earlier with friends, but once you get back home, that’s when the vicious narcissist comes out.
- Another example of this is online “trolls” who hide behind the anonymity of usernames, again where they can snipe and “dig” at others in that covert way, but never really be known or seen in person.
- In other words, covert narcissists are toxic ONLY when anonymity or lack of widespread scrutiny of their behavior is guaranteed. This is the sneaky aspect of their pathology.
Also, I would add that this cleverly concealed and cloaked aspect of the abuse adds to the “gaslighting” effect of the relationship with them, since you see the “real them” in private, whereas others in public don’t, making you feel further alone and invalidated, like no one else can see who this person really is and may even side with them when they start bad mouthing you and launching smear campaigns against you (another sneaky tactic of narcissists).
This person presents as so vulnerable and harmless in public, so how could they be the ones at fault in any relationship going wrong, right? That’s the perception onlookers can be left with, making the covert narcissist easier to smear and pathologize you to others, especially if they go go these friends/relatives/colleagues with their sob stories and sympathy seeking act as well.
This is a huge red flag to look out for with covert narcissists, and a key insight that can help with recovery from these people. No, it wasn’t you going crazy, they were abusive, just only when no one else could see it. And that was on purpose, a sneaky way to avoid ever being exposed.
Onlookers may have their PERCEPTION of what happened between you and them (often sneakily manipulated into place by the narcissist themselves), but you have your REALITY of what they were really like behind closed doors. Stick to this and don’t be gas-lit.
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3. The Sneaky Insults and “Digs” (Passive Aggressive Behavior)
This is another subtle but very toxic aspect of covert narcissism that I’ve had the misfortune to experience – those constant sneaky, sly “digs” and insults they get in, plus all the other passive-aggressive behavior that’s sneaky and “under the radar” and leaves you with a sense that something is wrong, but you’re not quite sure what.
Here are some examples of this:
- Covert narcissists engage in a very confusing, contradictory and even schizophrenic pattern of communication, where they’ll communicate something when they mean it’s opposite constantly – “it’s alright, but it’s not alright”, at the same time sort of thing. Because they struggle to communicate clearly and directly, and instead demonstrate disapproval in more covert, passive aggressive ways. Very confusing and crazy making over time.
- Covert narcissists are the masters of sarcasm, veiled criticism and back handed compliments (again well covered in the video above).
- They’re also good at what I call “by implication insults”, where it’s not as such a direct insult to you, but something you infer from what they say supposedly about something/someone else, but is actually a dig at you. A conclusion you’re led to draw by comparison.
- More generally, they can slip digs and insults in that you don’t immediately process but only sink in some time later when you think several steps on from what they said, and draw implications from it. They can be very precise and calculating with the toxic things they say, and leave you will a horrible internal feeling that may only come out minutes or hours later.
- They are also masters at disrespectful metacommunication (words behind the words, tone of voice). Things can be said again in a very calculating tone or inflection (condescending, patronizing, demeaning, belittling etc), and which again often only sinks in later on after the interaction.
Again, it’s advised to be very careful watching for this and especially pay attention to your body, which never lies, and always tells you when something is “off” when interacting with someone. Pay attention to a regular feeling of “wrongness” you feel, especially in your gut, when communicating with these people after they’ve just slipped in another one of these sneaky, passive aggressive insults or “digs”. Heed what this feeling tells you and dis-engage from these people accordingly.
Another good strategy to protect against this is the develop a broad emotional literacy and precise vocabulary to pin down these toxic behavioral patterns. Even though they’re more sneaky and “underground”, they can still be pinned down with words, which makes it easier to identify what’s really going on and detach.
4. The Troubled AND Toxic Dichotomy
This is sort of related to the first point in the sob stories and apparent “meekness” and “vulnerability” of the covert narcissist, and it’s a crucial “hook” that keeps well meaning people stuck to them psychologically. These people often show signs of being BOTH a vicious predator and a troubled, lost soul that needs saving at different times. Sometimes, it’s just the way they are, but it’s also sometimes an act that’s put on to manipulate us.
We’ve covered in another article how narcissists can be classed as both victims and predators, since in order for the narcissistic personality disorder to form, the person has to go through such an intense level of childhood trauma that their real self “splits off” and is replaced by a false self which becomes their entire identity over time. See also this excellent video from Richard Grannon which covers this aspect of covert narcissists being both abusers and victims, and how crazy making this split can be to people caught up with them.
The overt, grandiose narcissist covers this up more effectively to the point where it’s not so obvious most of the time, but with the covert narcissist, this painful vulnerability and weakness in their psyche will be more often apparent. They may cry sometimes, dish out sob stories of how painful their childhood was, and seem like a truly hurt, vulnerable person who just needs our help and sympathy to be “saved”. They may also even occasionally apologize for their abusive behavior, and so we given them another chance. If you do try to leave, you’ll often be guilt tripped into thinking they cannot survive without you because they’re so “weak” and “vulnerable”.
But for overly conscientious people with a “fixer” mindset, this is a HUGE trap that keeps us stuck to these people, and in time, often becomes something a covert narcissist will sneakily play on to “tug on our heartstrings”. We tolerate the toxic side because we also see the “vulnerable” side, and still think there’s a “real person in there somewhere” we can “reach”, “fix”, or “save”.
But in the end, this is a trade-off and compromise that never works, since the toxic side never goes away and continually wears us down over time. Plus once a person has reached full blown NPD, nothing can fix this “broken-ness” except for many years of intensive psychotherapy, and even that is not guaranteed. And we’re not qualified to do that in most cases.
But the smarter, sneakier covert narcissist will learn over time to malinger and put on a very convincing vulnerable/apologetic/meek/tearful act to “hoover” you back in, knowing exactly what works to push your “guilt buttons” and sink their hooks in further into your psychologically. And we need to be aware of this and know when to walk away from unsalvageable people and relationships, regardless of any apparent shreds of “vulnerability” that may still appear to be there.
New E-Book Out Now – A-Z Glossary Guide on Cluster B abuse, designed for newcomers to the topic. Click here to check it out.