Covert passive aggressive narcissist

Covert passive aggressive narcissist DEFAULT

10 Signs of Covert Narcissism

The term “narcissist” gets thrown around a lot. It’s often used as a catch-all to describe people with any traits of narcissistic personality disorder (NPD).

These people might seem self-centered or so focused on their own importance that they’ve lost touch with reality. Or maybe they don’t appear to care about others and rely on manipulation to get what they want.

In reality, NPD isn’t that simple. It occurs on a broad spectrum that involves a range of potential traits. Experts generally agree that there are four distinct subtypes. One of these is covert narcissism, also called vulnerable narcissism.

Covert narcissism usually involves fewer external signs of “classic” NPD. People still meet criteria for diagnosis but have traits that aren’t usually associated with narcissism, such as:

  • shyness
  • humility
  • sensitivity to what others think of them

The following signs may also point to covert narcissism. Keep in mind that only a qualified mental health professional can diagnose a mental health condition.

If you’ve noticed these traits in a loved one, encourage them to seek support from a therapist trained to help people with personality disorders.

High sensitivity to criticism

NPD typically involves insecurity and an easily damaged sense of self-esteem. This can manifest in covert narcissism as extreme sensitivity to criticism.

This sensitivity isn’t unique to NPD, of course. Most people don’t love criticism, even constructive criticism. But paying attention to how someone responds to real or perceived criticism can offer more insight on whether you’re looking at narcissistic sensitivity.

People with covert narcissism might make dismissive or sarcastic remarks and act as if they’re above the criticism. But internally, they might feel empty, humiliated, or enraged.

Criticism threatens their idealized view of themselves. When they receive a critique instead of admiration, they can take it pretty hard.

Passive aggression

Most people have probably used this manipulation tactic at one time or another, possibly without realizing it. But people with covert narcissism often use passive-aggressive behavior to convey frustration or make themselves look superior.

Two main reasons drive this behavior:

  • the deep-seated belief their “specialness” entitles them to get what they want
  • the desire to get back at people who wronged them or had greater success

Passive-aggressive behavior can involve:

A tendency to put themselves down

A need for admiration is a key trait of NPD. This need often leads people to boast about their achievements, often by exaggerating or outright lying.

Maury Joseph, PsyD, suggests this may be related to internal self-esteem issues.

“People with narcissism have to spend a lot of time making sure they don’t feel bad feelings, that they don’t feel imperfect or ashamed or limited or small,” he explains.

People with covert narcissism also rely on others to build up their self-esteem, but instead of talking themselves up, they tend to put themselves down.

They might speak modestly about their contributions with an underlying goal of earning compliments and recognition. Or they may offer a compliment to get one in return.

A shy or withdrawn nature 

Covert narcissism is more strongly linked to introversion than other types of narcissism.

This relates to narcissistic insecurity. People with NPD are deeply afraid of having their flaws or failures seen by others. Exposing their innermost feelings of inferiority would shatter the illusion of their superiority. Avoiding social interactions helps lower the chances of exposure.

People with covert narcissism may also avoid social situations or relationships that lack clear benefits. They simultaneously feel superior and tend to distrust others.

Research from also points out that managing the distress associated with NPD can be emotionally draining, leaving little energy for developing meaningful relationships.

Grandiose fantasies

People with covert narcissism generally spend more time thinking about their abilities and achievements than talking about them. They might seem smug or have a “I’ll show you” attitude.

“They may withdraw into fantasy, into an inner narrative world that’s not equivalent to reality, where they have inflated importance, powers, or a specialness that is opposite of what their actual life is like,” Joseph says.

Fantasies could involve:

  • being recognized for their talents and promoted at work
  • being admired for their attractiveness everywhere they go
  • receiving praise for saving people from a disaster

Feelings of depression, anxiety, and emptiness

Covert narcissism involves a higher risk of co-occurring depression and anxiety than other types of narcissism.

There are two major reasons for this:

  • Fear of failure or exposure may contribute to anxiety.
  • Frustration over idealized expectations not matching up with real life, and the inability to get needed appreciation from others, can trigger feelings of resentment and depression.

Feelings of emptiness and thoughts of suicide are also associated with covert narcissism.

“People under deep pressure to be pleasing and likable to themselves have to go to great lengths to keep that up and preserve their self-esteem. Failing to keep up that illusion involves the bad feelings that come with the reality of failure,” Joseph says.

A tendency to hold grudges

Someone with covert narcissism may hold grudges for a long time.

When they believe someone’s treated them unfairly, they might feel furious but say nothing in the moment. Instead, they’re more likely to wait for an ideal opportunity to make the other person look bad or get revenge in some way.

This revenge might be subtle or passive-aggressive. For example, they might start a rumor or sabotage the person’s work.

They may also hold grudges against people who earn the praise or recognition they think they’re entitled to, such as a co-worker who receives a well-deserved promotion.

These grudges can lead to bitterness, resentment, and a desire for revenge.


People with NPD often envy people who have things they feel they deserve, including wealth, power, or status. They also often believe others envy them because they’re special and superior.

People with covert narcissism may not outwardly discuss these feelings of envy, but they might express bitterness or resentment when they don’t get what they believe they deserve.

Feelings of inadequacy

When people with covert narcissism can’t measure up to the high standards they set for themselves, they may feel inadequate in response to this failure.

These feelings of inadequacy can trigger:

  • shame
  • anger
  • a sense of powerlessness

Joseph suggests this is based in projection.

People with NPD have unrealistic standards for themselves, so they unconsciously assume other people also hold them to these standards. To live up to them, they’d have to be superhuman. When they realize they are, in fact, just human, they feel ashamed of this “failure.”

Self-serving ‘empathy’

Contrary to popular belief, it’s possible for people with NPD to at least show empathy. But they spend so much time trying to build up their self-esteem and establish their importance that this often gets in the way, according to Joseph.

People with covert narcissism, in particular, may seem to have empathy for others. They might seem willing to help others out or take on extra work.

You might see them performing an act of kindness or compassion, such as giving money and food to someone sleeping on the street, or offering their spare bedroom to a family member who was evicted.

But they generally do these things to win the approval of others. If they don’t receive praise or admiration for their sacrifice, they may feel bitter and resentful and make remarks about how people take advantage and don’t appreciate them.

The bottom line

Narcissism is more complex than it’s made out to be in pop culture. While people with narcissistic tendencies might seem like bad apples that should be avoided, Joseph points out the importance of having sensitivity to narcissistic dynamics.

“Everyone has them. We all want to basically feel OK in our own eyes. We’re all under pressure to be like our ideals, to make ourselves into a certain image, and we do all sorts of things to create the illusion that we’re fine, including lying to ourselves and others,” he says.

Some people have an easier time than others with regulating these feelings and emotions. Those who struggle with them may be more likely to develop NPD or another personality disorder.

If someone you know has signs of NPD, make sure to take care of yourself, too. Look out for signs of abuse and work with a therapist who can offer guidance and support.

Crystal Raypole has previously worked as a writer and editor for GoodTherapy. Her fields of interest include Asian languages and literature, Japanese translation, cooking, natural sciences, sex positivity, and mental health. In particular, she’s committed to helping decrease stigma around mental health issues.


Signs of covert narcissism

Covert narcissist is a term to describe a person who has narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) but does not display the grandiose sense of self-importance that psychologists associate with the condition. They may appear shy or modest.

Other names for covert narcissism include closet narcissism or introverted narcissism. tend to use the term vulnerable narcissism, as people with this subtype of NPD appear to lack self-confidence.

In this article, we discuss covert narcissism in more detail, including the signs and causes. We also explain how a person can respond to narcissistic behavior.

What is narcissism?

Narcissism is a general term that encompasses several personality traits, including:

  • self-interest
  • a sense of entitlement to special treatment
  • vanity

The term comes from the Ancient Greek myth of Narcissus, a young man who fell in love with his reflection.

Anyone can behave in a narcissistic way at times. However, someone who displays highly narcissistic traits consistently across all situations may have NPD.

According to the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manualof Mental Disorders (DSM-5), NPD is a long-term mental health condition that presents with symptoms such as:

  • a constant need for admiration
  • an unrealistic sense of self-importance
  • lack of empathy
  • difficulty forming meaningful relationships

It is worth noting that self-importance is as self-esteem. A person with good self-esteem feels valuable in themselves and does not feel the need to assert their superiority over others.

For this reason, people with NPD can have low self-esteem, as their self-image depends on comparing themselves with other people. A study found that people with NPD scored lower on self-esteem tests than people without the disorder.

Overt vs. covert narcissism

Experts split NPD into : grandiose narcissism and vulnerable narcissism. Or, as some people call them, overt and covert narcissism.

Both types of NPD share the same traits, such as a need for admiration and lack of empathy. However, the outward behavior of those with each subtype can be very different.

People with overt narcissism are typically extroverted, bold, and attention-seeking. They may become if a person or situation challenges their sense of status.

The covert subtype is less obvious. A person with covert narcissism may come across as shy, withdrawn, or self-deprecating. However, they will still be self-absorbed and believe that they are better than other people.

Signs of covert narcissism

Although covert narcissism is less apparent than the overt subtype, several signs can indicate that a person has this disorder.

Secret sense of superiority

Researchers say that while people with covert narcissism appear to be modest, they believe that they are superior to other people. As a result, they avoid situations or tasks that challenge this sense of superiority. For example, they may avoid doing work that they believe is beneath them.

Avoids social situations

People with covert narcissism may lack interest in socializing or avoid it due to social anxiety, fear of comparing themselves with others, or envy.

Hypersensitive to criticism

People with vulnerable or covert NPD are very sensitive to criticism. They may perceive insults where others do not and are likely to become defensive easily. They may act in a vindictive or passive-aggressive way if they believe that someone has slighted them.

Difficulty with relationships and work

The way that a person with covert narcissism behaves often makes it difficult for them to stay in work. Sometimes, they may choose not to work because it does not match up with their sense of self. They may also struggle to maintain relationships.

Depression and anxiety

People with covert narcissism are likely to experience depression, anxiety, and symptoms of other personality disorders, such as borderline personality disorder.


Psychologists are still learning about the causes of narcissistic personality traits and NPD. However, research shows that a mixture of factors may play a role.

A found that adults with narcissistic personality traits frequently had parents who overvalued their achievements, emphasizing status and praise. The researchers speculate that this teaches children that they are superior to their peers.

By contrast, parents with warm, affectionate parenting styles were more likely to have children with healthy self-esteem. The researchers theorize that this is because parental affection teaches children that they are valuable, rather than superior.

The causes of NPD are likely more complex. According to the American Psychological Association, personality disorders in general are associated with:

  • genetics
  • childhood trauma
  • verbal or sexual abuse

People with covert narcissism may have a parent who displays similar traits, abused them as children, or both. Psychologists do not yet understand why some people develop covert NPD rather than overt NPD.

How to respond

Regularly interacting with someone with covert NPD can be challenging.

Someone with a close friend or family member with NPD may find that this individual’s narcissistic behavior affects their own mental health. In these cases, a person might benefit from setting some boundaries.

For instance, the person could limit their interactions with the friend or family member with NPD so that they only see them on specific days or for certain periods. They may also want to limit the amount of personal data that they share with them.

If someone has experienced abuse or trauma as a result of their relationship with a person who has NPD, they may need to cease contact with them entirely.

When to seek help

Anyone living with mental health symptoms that interfere with their work or personal life should consider seeking help. Speaking to a doctor or psychotherapist is a good first step. These healthcare professionals can assess the problem and recommend treatments.

A person who is recovering from an unhealthy relationship with someone who has NPD may benefit from the support of organizations such as Narcissist Abuse Support.

If someone is in an abusive relationship with a person who has narcissistic traits, they may require help leaving the relationship. :

  • physical abuse, such as hitting, scratching, or kicking
  • emotional abuse, including gaslighting or guilt-tripping
  • verbal abuse, such as insults, yelling, and threats
  • financial abuse, in which the abusive person seizes control of the partner’s money
  • sexual abuse, such as rape


Narcissism is a personality trait that involves self-interest, a sense of entitlement, and vanity. Some people have NPD, which is a lifelong mental health condition causing a lack of empathy, feelings of superiority, and a need for admiration and attention.

People with the vulnerable or covert form of NPD may appear shy, withdrawn, and lacking in confidence. Interacting with someone with covert narcissism can be difficult. In some cases, a person may need to limit or break contact with the individual to protect their own mental and physical well-being.

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25 Signs of a Covert Passive-Aggressive Narcissist

In this article I interview Debbie Mirza author of the bestselling The Covert Passive-Aggressive Narcissist to find out the signs and symptoms of covert narcissism, how you can spot it, and what you can do about it.

In this article:

Let&#;s begin:

What is narcissism?

Michael Frank: I always like to start off with a clear definition of terms. So before we get into covert vs overt narcissism: What is a narcissist and what is narcissism?

Debbie Mirza: It&#;s a good question to ask because the word narcissist is thrown around too lightly especially with our selfie culture now people see it in general terms, as they&#;re selfish, they&#;re self-absorbed. But narcissistic personality disorder is a whole nother thing.


The DSM-5 (The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) is what therapists use to diagnose people with personality disorders, and if someone has at least 5 of the following 9 traits, they&#;re diagnosed with NPD (Narcissistic Personality Disorder)

  1. A grandiose sense of self-importance
  2. A preoccupation with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love
  3. A belief that he or she is special and unique and can only be understood by, or should associate with, other special or high-status people or institutions
  4. A need for excessive admiration
  5. A sense of entitlement
  6. Interpersonally exploitive behavior
  7. A lack of empathy
  8. Envy of others or a belief that others are envious of him or her
  9. A demonstration of arrogant and haughty behaviors or attitudes

Is narcissism natural or a learnt behavior?

Michael Frank: It seems as though narcissism is on the rise worldwide. Is narcissism a learnt behavior? Or is it a biological genetic trait?

Debbie Mirza: I personally think it&#;s a learned behavior. I find it interesting that a lot of people say that it&#;s a disorder, implying that they really have no control over it, and I see that NPD (Narcissistic Personality Disorder) is clumped with the cluster B disorders and it&#;s in a different category than bipolar and schizophrenia and things like that that have to do with chemical imbalances. But we have to remember that these people have freewill just like us. It&#;s not like something is wrong in their brain.

Covert vs overt narcissism

Michael Frank: Are there more covert or overt narcissists?

Debbie Mirza: That&#;s a tough one. My hunch is that there are more covert than overt narcissists, but it&#;s difficult to say for sure because they&#;re the last people to book themselves in for therapy.

Michael Frank: How does covert vs overt narcissism manifest differently?

Debbie Mirza: Covert and overt narcissists have the exact same traits, but the overt is more obvious. They don&#;t care what people think. They do what they want. They&#;re think they&#;re fantastic. They think they&#;re right every time. They&#;re very showy. Fancy cars, fancy homes etc.

Michael Frank: It sounds like you&#;re describing every rapper that &#;just doesn&#;t give a fuck&#;

Debbie Mirza: Exactly. They&#;ll run you right over. They don&#;t care. They&#;ll yell at you. They can get physically abusive.

A covert narcissists number one priority is to look good, and they care a lot about their reputation, and that they&#;re well liked, well respected, and so they will do many things to cover their tracks.

An overt narcissist won&#;t apologize for anything. A covert will. Sometimes they&#;re great apologizers &#; but they never mean it. It&#;s just meant to get you off their back. So they&#;ll do things to placate and pacify you. They won&#;t have empathy, but they learn how to act like they have empathy. A covert narcissist won&#;t put themselves in your shoes.

Everyone sees an overt narcissist coming and everyone&#;s annoyed by them.

A covert narcissist is much more sneaky, and people are shocked whenever something slips out because they seem so nice. These people appear to be the cream of the crop, a great wife, a great husband, a great mother, a great father, they seem like great parents. And oftentimes if you have a mom or a dad who&#;s a covert narcissist, you&#;re told throughout your entire childhood &#;You&#;re so lucky to have a mom like that&#; or &#;You&#;re so lucky to have a dad like that&#;. And that makes it so confusing because you&#;re at home and you never feel like you&#;re good enough. Instead you&#;re feeling belittled and devalued on a daily basis. But everyone around you is telling you how lucky you are. So as a child, that&#;s incredibly confusing and so you think &#;It must be me. I must be what&#;s wrong in this equation&#;.

Positions of power

Covert narcissists tend to have impressive jobs and they&#;re usually materially successful. They can be doctors, lawyers, pilots, officers in the military, people in government etc. and they can also be pastors, missionaries, gurus, shamans, teachers of some kind that people admire and revere, that has an influence over people, and is loved and appreciated and gets their ego stroked all day long.

Not to say all people in these positions are covert narcissists, but covert narcissists tend to gravitate towards jobs like that.

25 Signs you&#;re dealing with a covert narcissist

Michael Frank: What are the other signs of a covert passive-aggressive narcissist? I want to know every single thing to look for.

Debbie Mirza: Okay here&#;s what to look for&#;

A lopsided relationship

A relationship with a covert narcissist will always be lopsided. You will always give them more attention then they give you.

Ask yourself: Who&#;s getting more attention? Who&#;s giving more attention?

They don&#;t actually want to get to know you

Covert narcissists don&#;t actually want to get to know you either. Even though they may have asked you lots of questions about yourself in the beginning, a lot of that was really gathering information to learn what affects you, so that they can use it to manipulate you throughout the relationship, and that will be used to hurt you much later on.

Ask yourself:

&#;Does this person really know me?&#;

&#;Do they really want to know me?&#;

&#;Does this person really want a connection with me?&#;

&#;Is this a mutual thing where we&#;re both working on this relationship?&#;

Like if there are issues with intimacy, do they say &#;Hey, I&#;m noticing that you&#;re not coming to orgasm at all. What&#;s going on? I really care about you. Let&#;s figure this out together&#;. That&#;s both of you wanting to work on it. Or do they just make you feel bad about stuff without doing anything to make the relationship better?

They don&#;t want you to be happy

Covert narcissists don&#;t want you to be happy either. They feel better when you&#;re not doing well or when you&#;re in pain. You&#;ll notice that when you&#;re happy, they get really upset. That&#;s when their rage just takes off and they&#;ll come at you with anything that they can use to control you with.

Praise is rare

Praise is rare too. I spoke to one woman who was this amazing artist who had been with her partner for years and he&#;d never once said anything about her paintings. So sometimes with these people it&#;s not what they do, but also what they don&#;t do. What should be in the relationship isn&#;t there.

Are they protective of you?

Is your partner or spouse or parent someone who is protective of you?

In a healthy relationship, the husband or wife wouldn&#;t tolerate someone putting their partner down. They would be the shield for them. But the covert narcissist doesn&#;t do that because they don&#;t really care about you. A covert narcissist will throw you under the bus and not care.

The world isn&#;t a safe place

If you have a mother or father that is a covert narcissist, you may have felt as if you weren&#;t protected when you were growing up, or you may have felt that you were on your own and needed to take care of yourself.

Or sometimes it can go the other way, especially with moms who are so overly involved in your life and overly protective of you, that you get the message that this world isn&#;t safe, and the only person you can trust is your mom. You&#;re never gonna make it out there on your own. It&#;s a very disempowering relationship.

Birthdays and holidays will be difficult

Birthdays, holidays and vacations will always be difficult, if not a disaster, with a covert narcissist. A lot of times you&#;ll end up crying on your birthday, but you can&#;t really explain why. They gave you a gift and everything seemed fine. You don&#;t know why you&#;re being so affected.

The reason for this is that narcissists always do things to turn the focus back on them. So you can&#;t have a day that&#;s about you. And if you do, they will do things to subtly ruin it.

I talked to one woman whose brother had passed away and it was the one year anniversary of his death. So she was feeling it a lot. Suddenly her boyfriend got really depressed that day. So being that she&#;s a caring person, she put her attention on him. So that&#;s the covert part.

The overt will be like:

&#;I don&#;t care about you&#;

&#;You&#;re too emotional&#;

&#;You&#;re too sensitive&#;

&#;Get over it&#;

The covert will suddenly become depressed so your attention will go to them.

Gifts you don&#;t want

A covert narcissist will give you a gift, but it&#;s nothing you would ever want, and then they&#;ll tell you a story about how much effort they went through to find it. And then you&#;ll get the feeling from them that you&#;re a difficult person, that you&#;re not grateful enough.

Or they&#;ll give you a gift but you always have the feeling that there&#;s strings attached.

Or they&#;ll give you a showy gift, maybe they&#;ll have a limo pull up, or they&#;ll surprise you with something amazing, but the thing to ask yourself is: Were there people there to watch it? If you&#;re with a covert narcissist, you probably can&#;t think of a time where it was just the two of you and they gave you an incredible gift, or a really heartfelt card, or you had a heartfelt conversation.

They resent you for being sick

When you&#;re sick or if you&#;ve had an injury or a surgery, a covert narcissist might help you, maybe they&#;ll bring you food, watch the kids, bring you home from the hospital etc. but you can feel their resentment of you. You can feel that they hate and despise taking care of you.

Silent rage

Covert narcissists aren&#;t necessarily yellers or hitters, but you can just feel the anger and rage inside of them when you&#;re around them just permeating the room.

You also don&#;t know what will anger them, what will trigger them, what will set them off, and what will make them come after you.

They&#;re condescending and patronizing

When a covert narcissist gives you advice, let&#;s say it&#;s a parent, they will talk down to you in a way that leaves you feeling disempowered. They&#;re belittling, condescending, patronizing. You feel like you can&#;t do it. You feel like they&#;re better than you. They know more than you. They&#;ll say things like &#;I&#;m really concerned about&#;&#; but you don&#;t feel that they&#;re concerned.

They conveniently forget on purpose

Covert narcissists conveniently forget things on purpose. So if they&#;re at the store and you text or call &#;Can you please pick up some Avocados while you&#;re there&#; they&#;ll reply &#;Sure&#; but when they get home &#;Ah, totally forgot, sorry&#;.

This is really common and it&#;s a way of gaslighting you. You feel like you can&#;t be angry, even though you&#;re frustrated, because it was an honest mistake. But the thing you&#;ll notice is that they&#;ll never go back and get it. They&#;ll never say &#;Oh, I&#;m so sorry. You know what? I&#;m going to get in the car right now and go get you some&#;. That will never happen.


Covert narcissists will use gaslighting to get you to feel crazy, to get you to feel like something&#;s wrong with you. An extreme case would be a guy unscrewing all the light bulbs in the house and the wife can&#;t figure out why none of them are working. Then he goes and screws them all in and asks her what she&#;s talking about.

I talked to a man who whenever he&#;d recall a story to his wife &#;remember when we did this?&#; she&#;d say no. And then she&#;d say &#;Well who are you going to believe you with your terrible memory or me with my great one?&#; And even though you know that it clearly happened, you can&#;t imagine why this person would lie to you, so it makes you question yourself. And that&#;s what gaslighting does.

Michael Frank: It&#;s mind games to make you question your reality.

Debbie Mirza: That&#;s exactly it. That&#;s a good way to put it.

Gaslighting through sex

Covert narcissists frequently gaslight through sex too. And sex with a narcissist, like everything else, is % about them. It&#;s an incredibly selfish act.

If you feel like something&#;s wrong with you sexually, you maybe with a covert narcissist. I talked to so many women that were with men for decades that never orgasmed. And they had no desire for sex. And every single time they thought it was their fault. One woman said, I just came to the conclusion that I was asexual, that it just wasn&#;t in me.

If a guy is with a female covert narcissist he&#;ll feel like he&#;s never good enough for her. He&#;ll feel like he&#;s less than, that she&#;s better than him, or maybe he&#;ll feel if only I was only taller, shorter, this size, that size, if I did only did this better etc.

A lot of times the scenario might just be of you doing dishes and they come up behind you and put their arms around you and you just feel icky, almost disgusted, like you don&#;t want them to touch you, but it seems like they&#;re doing a nice thing, so then you feel bad, because there seems to be nothing wrong with what they&#;re doing.

How does your body feel?

What makes covert narcissists so confusing is nothing they&#;re doing on the outside seems that bad, but your body feels it. When you&#;re in conversations with them, you feel jumbled inside, you feel confused, you feel belittled, but they&#;re not yelling at you, they&#;re not putting you down, but you&#;re feeling small.

And that&#;s why listening to your body is so important, because your body knows that you&#;re not emotionally safe with this person. It knows that this is not love, this is not about you, they&#;re trying to get something from you.

How does your body react when you&#;re around them? Do you feel completely free to be yourself? Do you feel loved? It&#;s not about the words they&#;re saying cause they&#;ll be saying nice things to you, and about your body, and the different things you&#;re doing, but how do you feel?

They pit people against each other

Covert narcissists often create drama and pit people against each other, under the guise of concern.

&#;I&#;m really concerned because my brother mentioned how manipulative and controlling you are, but I don&#;t see it, and I&#;m not sure what to tell him&#;&#;

So what that does is it makes you angry at his brother. And who knows if the brother even said that? So he&#;s just created drama that doesn&#;t even need to exist. And even if it&#;s true that his brother really said that, he should still never say that to you, because he knows it would just affect and hurt you.

Michael Frank: An extremely passive-aggressive thing to say. Always planting that seed of doubt in you. Always chipping away at your self-esteem incrementally.

Debbie Mirza: Yeah. With the guise of &#;I care about you&#; or &#;I&#;m concerned&#;


That&#;s an example of triangulation, and another example of triangulation could be if he said to his brother &#;I don&#;t think she&#;s manipulative, I mean the other day she did this and that, but I don&#;t know if that&#;s manipulative..&#; So that gets his brother going &#;You&#;re not even seeing it! She&#;s worse than I thought!&#; 

Another type of triangulation would be if you were talking to someone you&#;re dating about past relationships, and they start talking about how horrible the other person was &#;Oh, she was so dramatic and I couldn&#;t deal with this and that&#;, so you&#;re listening to this and unconsciously thinking &#;Okay, I shouldn&#;t be dramatic, I shouldn&#;t cry too much, I need to make sure I&#;m not like that&#; etc.

Or they might go the other way &#;This guy or girl at work is just amazing!&#; and they&#;ll be talking them up to make you feel insecure about yourself, but they&#;ll seem so innocent when they&#;re doing it. And that makes you feel like you have to live up to that, and what if I&#;m not good enough? And it seems that guy or girl is now the one I have to match or beat, so it&#;s very stressful.

They suck the life out of you

Covert narcissists are energy vampires that slowly suck the life out of you. You will often feel incredibly drained and chronically exhausted a lot of the time and have lots of unexplained health issues with these types of relationships.

They&#;re empty inside

Covert narcissists are very chameleon like, and they they will latch onto people and mirror their emotions and become like who they&#;re around and because of that people like them.

These people feel empty and hollow and vacant inside.

Ask yourself: Does this person have a strong sense of self?

When you look at them do you think: Who are you?

They project on to you

Covert narcissists project their issues onto you. When I was going through therapy a wise man said to me: &#;When a covert narcissist starts a conversation with you, you&#;re so wowed by how humble, how kind, and how eloquent they appear. But you don&#;t notice that they&#;re projecting their issues onto you, and then you start to take them on, and then you feel the shame and blame that really has nothing to do with you&#;.

The three phases of relationship with a covert narcissist

There are three phases in a relationship with every covert narcissist:

  1. Love bombing &#; at the beginning
  2. Devaluing and demeaning &#; in very subtle ways you don&#;t notice &#; over a long period of time
  3. Discard &#; At the end when things start getting very strange with their behavior

Love bombing

In the beginning, in the love bombing stage they&#;re wonderful. These are people everybody loves and they are kind to everyone and you think they&#;re kind to you. These are people who you think,

&#;I didn&#;t know people like this existed&#;

&#;I feel so lucky to be with this person&#;

You see them as kind, you see them as loving, and it appears to you that they love you just as much as you love them, and so everything that happens from then on, you filter through that view of them.

A lot of times people in a relationship with a covert narcissist will say, &#;We are so alike, it&#;s so easy!&#; and that&#;s because covert narcissists mirror you at the beginning. They kind of become you. And so you think, &#;Wow, we have like no issues, it&#;s just so easy!&#; And so you like them because they are like you. But oftentimes the next person they end up with, they become like them too, and it&#;s very strange to watch them become like a completely different person.

I spoke to one woman who had been in a physically abusive relationship with a very violent man. And when she ended it, she ended up meeting this covert narcissist. And that can happen a lot someone going from an overt to a covert narcissist. And then she thought &#;Oh thank God this guy listens to me, he asks all about me, he cries, he&#;s sensitive, he seems to really care, we bond on the same things&#;. So the way love bombing looked for her was him asking her a lot of questions, really wanting to get to know her, being someone who seemed tender. So that to her was love bombing because that took her in.

A lot of times love bombing works by them getting to know you and figuring out what your issues are from childhood, what you long for, what you want, and becoming that.

The discarding phase

During the discard phase at the end of the relationship, the person you&#;ve seen as kind and loving all of a sudden becomes a lot more aggressive, and what was subtle devaluing turns into more overt and blatant attacks.

They&#;ll start saying strange and confusing things about you and the relationship that does not match reality at all, and they&#;ll start projecting a lot of their own issues onto you.

However they make you start to doubt and question yourself, especially when the covert narcissist is a parent, you think, well they know me more than anybody, they raised me, because they come at you with so much confidence and seeming clarity. And this is because they basically live with delusional thoughts about you and life.

Covert narcissists are oftentimes really good parents when the kids are young, when they&#;re getting attention, when they&#;re still cute and they still look up to their parents, because their egos are being stroked.

If the child agrees with the covert narcissist parent, or if they engage in conversation that the covert narcissist parent is interested in, then they&#;re there, and all is well.

But if the child starts thinking for themselves, or if they have any belief that&#;s different, or any way of life that&#;s different, then they&#;ll turn on the child and try to control and manipulate them in different ways and then oftentimes discard them &#;I don&#;t want to see you anymore&#;. And then oftentimes when they do that, they&#;ll use another sibling and put all their love into that sibling to further hurt the other one.

With a spouse or romantic partner, the discard is sudden and shocking, and everything you have opened up about for so many years, all of a sudden gets turned on you like a fire hose.

It&#;s an incredibly confusing and painful time because they&#;re suddenly treating you so terribly. It literally feels like they&#;re treating you like the trash that they throw out. You just can&#;t believe that this person that you thought was so kind and actually loved you is treating you so badly and it makes you question everything. What was true? Was there ever love? Was this an illusion the whole time?

Cognitive dissonance

Michael Frank: It seems that you can&#;t believe what you&#;re seeing and hearing, but at the same time you feel that this person loves you. And so you&#;re in a constant state of cognitive dissonance with mixed thoughts and mixed feelings.

Debbie Mirza: Exactly. That&#;s the thing that makes it the most difficult to move on and see clearly with a covert narcissist, because you and everyone around you sees them in this beautiful light, but their behavior is not reflecting that, and you&#;re devastated that you&#;re being treated like garbage. So there&#;s so much cognitive dissonance.

It&#;s never over

Michael Frank: Once the relationship has split with a covert narcissist, is that it? You never hear from them again? Or do they continue to get in touch with you?

Debbie Mirza: A breakup or divorce situation with a covert narcissist is very different, because they will often continue to try and get in touch with you.

A breakup is painful, but then eventually you move on. But they don&#;t move on. Even when they end up with someone else, they still don&#;t move on. It&#;s remarkable.

And they will try to control you through money or children, or both, or in any way they can. If they can they they&#;ll try and turn your kids against you.

Personality types targeted by covert narcissists

Michael Frank: Are there certain personality types that are more likely to be targeted by covert narcissists?

Debbie Mirza: There is definitely a type of personality they target. Usually that type is someone very sensitive, kind, nurturing, caretaking, and self-reflective. Because if you think about it, if someone is self-reflective, they look at themselves, they want to improve themselves, they want to get better, so they&#;re easy to manipulate because the narcissist will turn everything on them.

And instead of going, that&#;s awful what you&#;re doing, the target, the sensitive self-reflective person, will often look at themselves and go, &#;Maybe there is something I&#;m not looking at here. I want to make sure I work on myself&#;. So that can keep you in that relationship and in that dynamic for a long time.

I also think people who were raised with the belief that they&#;re here to sacrifice themselves for others, to love others no matter what, those types of people that have a distorted view of unconditional love where they end up taking on a lot that they shouldn&#;t, are the type of people that tend to get with covert narcissists.

How to deal with a covert narcissist

Michael Frank: How do we actually deal with a covert narcissist?

Debbie Mirza: It depends on the spectrum. For example: I have someone who has been in my life for a long time who has some traits of covert narcissism but they&#;re lower on the spectrum so I can tolerate them for short periods of time.

I realize this person&#;s not going to change. I&#;m not going to change them. It&#;s not my job to change them. It&#;s too exhausting to try and change anyone. So with someone at a lower spectrum, I&#;ll spend some time with them here and there, but I&#;ll stay off certain topics, and I&#;ll just enjoy what I enjoy about them.

The Grey Rock technique

However with covert narcissists on the higher spectrum it&#;s literally toxic to your body to be around them, so the best course of action is no contact. That can be tricky if you have children. Sometimes you just can&#;t do that.

In those situations, there&#;s something called the grey rock technique, which is where you just become very boring and lifeless. You basically have no life for them to suck from you. So whatever correspondence you have, whether through text or email, you just stick to the facts &#;I&#;ll drop the kids off at 5pm&#; and you don&#;t bring up how you&#;re feeling, and if what they said was off, you just ignore it. Just know this is who they are.

Michael Frank: You don&#;t give them anything that could be used against you.

Debbie Mirza: Exactly.

Should you call out a covert narcissist on their shit?

Michael Frank: Is it useful to call out a covert narcissist on their shit? Should you call it out directly? &#;I know what you&#;re doing, I&#;m not going to put up with this shit&#;. Or is it best to just leave it unsaid?

Debbie Mirza: In my opinion, it&#;s best to leave it unsaid, because these people are so irrational and full of rage. Just know that they&#;re a narcissist, and you bringing it up to them isn&#;t going to change anything. It&#;s just going to trigger their anger and rage.

Don&#;t take a covert narcissist to therapy

It&#;s also the worst idea to take a covert narcissist to therapy because that&#;s a training ground for them, and they will learn from the therapist where the cracks are showing in their mask, and what to change that about their behavior. And a lot of therapists will be really impressed with covert narcissists because they&#;ll do all their homework, they&#;ll be really attentive, because now they&#;re becoming the therapist.

So going to therapy, does not help with these people.

Does the covert narcissist ever change their ways?

Michael Frank: Does the covert narcissist ever change their ways?

Debbie Mirza: Rarely. I mean, I think it&#;s possible for anybody to change, but they rarely see that they have a problem, so there&#;s really no way of changing unless you see you have a problem. It is possible. It&#;s just rare.

Your heroes journey

Michael Frank: Is there anything we haven&#;t covered that you&#;d like to say in closing?

Debbie Mirza: I was talking to a woman the other day with young kids. She&#;s just realized that her husband is a covert narcissist and she has to get out. And that is a really overwhelming place to be in. She hasn&#;t built a career and she doesn&#;t know how she&#;ll support herself.

She said to me &#;I&#;m so overwhelmed by this, I mean, even the realization is overwhelming, what happens next?&#;

And at first I was giving her practical things that would help her and letting her know what was going to happen depending on what she chooses. But I could tell that she just felt exhausted. She just didn&#;t feel good.

And then I said to her, this is what&#;s going to happen, this is your hero&#;s journey. The truth is we don&#;t get into these relationships by mistake. There is something in childhood we learned about ourselves and our worth and our value. And then we get into these relationships because there are patterns we&#;ve inherited from our parents that we didn&#;t notice.

We learned what our role was in a relationship. We learned what was okay for us to take when it shouldn&#;t have been okay. And so the hero&#;s journey really begins with awakening out of the illusion that you&#;ve lived with for so many years that allowed you to get treated so badly and really learning and educating yourself on it.

In so many ways coming out of a long term relationship with a covert narcissist is like coming out of a cult and you really have to deprogram the illusions and the beliefs that you&#;ve been programmed with.

Why was I okay with someone treating me that way?

The next step is to look at yourself and ask yourself: &#;Why was I okay with someone treating me that way for so many years?&#; Even if it was subtle, why didn&#;t I listen to myself when my stomach was tight? When it didn&#;t feel right? When they said those things, when they did those things, when it hurt so much, when it made me feel so bad about myself, why was it okay, why did I stay?

And if you choose to really look at those beliefs, and you start to reprogram your brain, and you start to treat yourself with the kindness and respect that you didn&#;t have growing up, or in this relationship, it will change your life, and you will probably end up being an incredibly strong person with a lot of love and respect for yourself, and you will do something career wise you can&#;t even imagine right now.

This is your hero&#;s journey. Ultimately it can be incredibly overwhelming and painful, but it can lead you to amazing places.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Debbie Mirza Covert Passive Aggressive Narcissist

Debbie Mirza is an author, restorative coach, and singer/songwriter.

Her latest book The Covert Passive Aggressive Narcissist: Recognizing the Traits and Finding Healing after Hidden Emotional and Psychological Abuse quickly rose to Amazon’s bestseller list and has just been named the #1 New Release on Audible. 

Her first book The Safest Place Possible: Becoming Who You are Meant to Be gently guides people to a new loving relationship with self. 

As a coach, she specializes in helping people who are coming out of relationships with covert narcissists.

Many other helpful resources such as online courses and guided meditations can be found on Debbie’s website

What is a Covert Passive-Aggressive Narcissist - Dr Rhoberta Shaler - Anna Koss
Marcelo Chagas/Pexels

Source: Marcelo Chagas/Pexels

A common perception about narcissists is that they are loud, over-the-top, and extremely visible in their sense of grandiosity and their feelings of superiority over others. While this is one expression of narcissism, psychologists recognize that narcissism actually occurs on a spectrum. In other words, there is a range of different behaviors an individual with narcissism can display.

The opposite of the self-centered narcissist who is loud and meets to be the center of attention is the covert narcissist. This person is sometimes called the vulnerable narcissist, which seems like a contradiction in terms.

The individual who is passive-aggressive and displays narcissistic traits uses the traditional techniques and tactics associated with the diagnosis, but they also display some traits that are outside the typical behaviors. As with any mental health issue, a diagnosis should only be completed by a trained mental health professional, as there are other personality disorders that may exhibit some of the same traits and behaviors.

Here are some of the traits and behaviors you may see in a passive-aggressive, covert narcissist:

Sabotaging others

This is the passive-aggressive component. The covert narcissist makes fun of others through jokes, blames others at work and in relationships, and works behind the scenes to cause others to fail for their benefit. They may also choose not to work on team or group projects but use the blame game to shift the focus to others.

Highly introverted

The covert narcissist is not extroverted, and they tend to be very insecure. Staying away from others limits their need to compare themselves or to have to live up to external standards.

Hypersensitive to correction

Constructive criticisms or mild correction is seen as a personal threat to the covert narcissist. They tend to respond to these types of comments with the silent treatment or anger. Keep in mind that perceived criticism is just as significant for these individuals as intended correction.

Depression and anxiety

The feeling of being isolated and the fear of being exposed as not as good as they see themselves increases the risk of anxiety and depression.

Grudges and envy

These people do not let go of a perceived slight and tend to hold on to grudges and negative thoughts for sustained periods of time. They also see others who are successful as undeserving of their success or taking away what is rightfully the narcissist's recognition, wealth, job, or another tangible or intangible thing.

Finally, the covert narcissist often has created a fantasy narrative that is very different from their reality. This is similar to the classic behavior of a narcissist. However, the fantasy is often kept hidden or private from others.

Some covert or vulnerable narcissists can display a show of empathy. However, their kindness or caring for others is done as a way to gain favor or recognition, not for unselfish and altruistic reasons. Everything this type of narcissist does, including making self-deprecating statements, is about drawing attention from others. Like the typical narcissist, this individual needs attention from others to feel complete.

It can be very difficult to determine if a person is a covert narcissist. Working with a therapist is the most effective way to protect yourself, develop boundaries, and assess the viability of the relationship based on your emotional and mental health and well-being.


Narcissist covert passive aggressive

Covert Narcissist: Signs, Causes, and How to Respond

Sometimes it's easy to spot the narcissist in the room. They are the ones who are working the crowd, loudly sharing fabulous stories that convey a sense of importance and accomplishment so that they can feel admired. Someone behaving like this tends to send out a clear signal to those around them that they are not approachable or compassionate.

Could there be other people in the room with those same exaggerated motivations for admiration and importance but are harder to identify? Yes, in fact, there could be someone close to you who is a narcissist but shows up in less obvious ways.

What Are Narcissistic Traits?

Common narcissistic traits include having a strong sense of self-importance, experiencing fantasies about fame or glory, exaggerating self abilities, craving admiration, exploiting others, and lacking empathy.

This article discusses how to recognize the signs of covert narcissism and some of the factors that cause this behavior. It also covers what you can do to protect yourself if someone you know is a covert narcissist.

What Is Narcissism?

The word narcissist is a term regularly used in casual discussions to describe anyone who seems a bit self-involved. However, in terms of clinical mental health, someone needs to meet specific criteria in order to be diagnosed with narcissistic personality disorder.

In general, people with narcissistic personality disorder are preoccupied with their own success and have a grand sense of self-importance that influences their decision-making and interactions.

Narcissists find it difficult to build or maintain connections with others because of their manipulative tendencies and lack of empathy. They often feel entitled and lack compassion, yet crave attention and admiration. The following are some elements of narcissism:

  • Having a sense of self-importance or grandiosity
  • Experiencing fantasies about being influential, famous, or important
  • Exaggerating their abilities, talents, and accomplishments
  • Craving admiration and acknowledgment
  • Being preoccupied with beauty, love, power, or success
  • Having an exaggerated sense of being unique
  • Believing that the world owes them something
  • Exploiting others to get what they want (no matter how it impacts others)
  • Lacking empathy toward others

What Is a Covert Narcissist?

In the field of psychology, behavior can be described as overt or covert. Overt behaviors are those that can be easily observed by others, such as those of the traditional narcissist described earlier. Covert behaviors, however, are those that are more subtle and a bit less obvious to others.

A covert narcissist is someone who craves admiration and importance as well as lacks empathy toward others but can act in a different way than an overt narcissist.

When considering the behavior of narcissists, it might be hard to imagine how someone could be a narcissist and be inhibited in their approach and behavior. A covert narcissist may be outwardly self-effacing or withdrawn in their approach, but the end goals are the same.

For example, this might be described as listening to your favorite song while blasting the volume, compared to listening to that same song on a low volume. The song itself hasn't changed, just the volume in which you are listening.

Causes of Covert Narcissism

The exact causes of covert narcissism are not entirely understood, but it is likely that a number of factors contribute. Experts suggest that narcissistic personality disorder is linked to factors including:

  • Genetics
  • Childhood abuse and trauma
  • Upbringing and relationships with caregivers
  • Personality and temperament

One study found that people with narcissistic personality disorder are more likely to have grown up with parents who were highly focused on status and achievements. Because they were often made to feel superior to other children, the belief that they are special and more valuable than others may persist into adulthood.

It is not clear, however, why narcissistic behavior is sometimes displayed in covert rather than overt ways.


Covert narcissism is characterized by the same behaviors of overt narcissism that are displayed in less obvious, more subtle ways. The exact causes for this are not known, but genetics and early relationships may play a role.

Click Play to Learn More About Covert Narcissism

Overt vs. Covert Narcissism

Covert narcissists are only different from overt (more obvious) narcissists in that they tend to be more introverted. The overt narcissist is easily identified because they tend to be loud, arrogant, insensitive to the needs of others, and always thirsty for compliments.

Their behaviors can be easily observed by others and tend to show up as "big" in a room. Overt narcissists demonstrate more extroverted behaviors in their interactions with others.

Researcher and author Craig Malkin, PhD suggests that the term "covert" can be misleading. In his work, he states that the term covert is often used to suggest that the covert narcissist is sneaky or that their strive for importance is not as significant as an overt (more extroverted) narcissist. In fact, he reports, the traits of the overt narcissist and the covert narcissist are the same.

Both covert and overt narcissists navigate the world with a sense of self-importance and fantasizing about success and grandeur.

Both overt and covert narcissists need to meet the same clinical criteria to be diagnosed with narcissistic personality disorder, whether they are extroverted or introverted. Both have deficits in their capacity to regulate their self-esteem.

Many people have fallen victim to the manipulative behaviors of a covert narcissist without realizing what has happened until they are already in emotional pain. It might be more accurate to suggest that the extroverted (overt) narcissist would be a lot easier to see coming than the introverted (covert) narcissist.

It is not unusual for people to find themselves in long-term relationships with covert narcissists only to be hurt by a sense of a lack of partnership or reciprocity in the relationship.

Signs of a Covert Narcissist

Although there are clinical criteria that need to be met in order for someone to be diagnosed with narcissistic personality disorder, there are some general traits and patterns to look for in everyday interactions if you suspect you might be dealing with a covert narcissist.

Being aware of these traits can help empower you, helping you to recognize and better navigate potentially unhealthy interactions.

Passive Self-Importance

Where the more overt, extroverted narcissist will be obvious in their elevated sense of self and their arrogance when interacting with others, the covert narcissist may be less obvious.

The covert narcissist certainly craves importance and thirsts for admiration but it can look different to those around them. They might give back-handed compliments, or purposefully minimize their accomplishments or talents so that people will offer them reassurance of how talented they are.

The reality for both the overt and covert narcissist is that they have a fragile sense of self.

The overt narcissist will demand admiration and attention, where the covert narcissist will use softer tactics to meet those same goals. The covert narcissist will be much more likely to constantly seek reassurance about their talents, skills, and accomplishments, looking for others to feed that same need for self-importance.

Blaming and Shaming

Shaming is a tactic that narcissists may use to secure their sense of an elevated position in relation to others. The overt (extroverted) narcissist might be more obvious in their approach to gaining leverage, such as explicitly putting you down, being rude, criticizing you, and being sarcastic.

The introverted, covert narcissist may have a more gentle approach to explain why something is your fault and they are not to blame. They might even pretend to be a victim of your behavior or engage in emotional abuse to put themselves in a position to receive reassurance and praise from you. Whether overt or covert, the goal is to make the other person feel small.

Creating Confusion

Although not always sneaky, some covert narcissists can take joy in creating confusion. They may not engage in blaming or shaming, but instead, causing people to question their perceptions and second-guess themselves.

Another way to create leverage between them and another person, the covert narcissist needs to use tactics like this to elevate themselves and maintain power in the interaction. If they can get you to question your perceptions, it allows them the opportunity to manipulate and exploit you more.

Procrastination and Disregard

Because their need for self-importance reigns supreme, covert narcissists will do whatever they need to do in order to keep the focus on themselves. So, where an extroverted narcissist will blatantly push you aside or manipulate you to accomplish their goal, the covert narcissist is a professional at not acknowledging you at all.

It is not a coincidence that narcissists, in general, tend to gravitate toward interacting with caring and compassionate people. The covert narcissist recognizes those opportunities for manipulation as well.

They have no problem letting you know that you are not important.

Rather than explicitly telling you that you're not important, they might stand you up on a date, wait until the last minute to respond to texts or emails, always show up late, or never make confirmed plans at all. There is no regard for your time or interests, leaving you feeling small, unimportant, and irrelevant.

Giving With a Goal

In general, narcissists are not givers. They find it difficult to put energy into anything that doesn't serve them in some way. A covert narcissist might present themselves in a way that looks like they are giving, but their giving behavior is only demonstrated with the intent of getting something in return.

A simple, everyday example could be something like putting a tip in the jar at your local coffee shop. A covert narcissist would be much more likely to put their tip in the jar when they know the barista is looking, in order to help facilitate some kind of interaction that allows them to be praised for giving.

The intent of giving for a covert narcissist is always more about them and less about those to whom they are giving.

Emotionally Neglectful

Narcissists are inept at building and nurturing emotional bonds with others. The covert narcissist is no different. So, although they may appear kinder and less obnoxious than their extroverted counterpart, they are not emotionally accessible or responsive either.

You will likely not receive many compliments from a covert narcissist. Remembering that they are always focused on staying elevated to maintain their sense of self-importance, it is easy to understand how a covert narcissist would find it difficult to compliment you. There is usually little regard for your talents or abilities—usually, a narcissist has no regard for these things at all.

Just as with an overt narcissist, you will likely find yourself doing most of the heavy emotional lifting in a relationship with a covert narcissist. Although the covert is more likely to appear emotionally accessible, it tends to be a performance and usually done with intent to exploit or eventually leave the person feeling small through disregard, blaming, or shaming.

Since one of the hallmark traits of narcissistic personality disorder is lack of empathy, the covert narcissist is not going to be emotionally responsive to their partner in a healthy way.


Covert narcissists often behave in passive-aggressive ways. They disregard others while exaggerating their own importance. They also blame, shame, and ignore the feelings and needs of other people.

What Is a Malignant Narcissist?

How to Deal With a Covert Narcissist

You may currently be in a personal relationship with a covert narcissist, whether it be a family member, co-worker, or significant other. Although you cannot control what a narcissist does, you can control how you behave and interact with them. There are steps that you can take to protect yourself when having to deal with a covert narcissist.

Avoid Taking It Personally

When dealing with a narcissist, whether covert or overt, their manipulative behavior can feel very personal. The lack of regard, sense of entitlement, patterns of manipulation, and deceptive behaviors can feel very personal when on the receiving end.

No matter how painful the behaviors might feel in the moment, it's important to remember that they have nothing to do with you.

A narcissist behaves in negative ways because of something unhealthy within them—not because there is something unhealthy about you.

It is OK to look at the situation and the interactions in regard to how you contribute to them. However, it is very important when dealing with a narcissist that you let them "own" their part.

Narcissists want you to take it personally because that is how they maintain leverage. Remember, a narcissist feels small, so they have to make themselves "big" somehow.

Set Boundaries

Narcissists do not have healthy boundaries. Because covert narcissists lack empathy, have a strong sense of entitlement, and exploit others, boundaries are something that gets in the way of their goals. The more you can practice setting boundaries with a narcissist, the more consistently you are conveying to them that their tactics are not working.

Setting boundaries can be very difficult, particularly with a narcissist. Remember that boundaries are just a way for you to let someone else know what your values are. Consider what is important to you, what your values are, and work to create boundaries to support them.

Understanding why you are setting particular boundaries can help you have more confidence in establishing them and can keep you on track if someone attempts to violate or disregard your boundaries.

Advocate for Yourself

When interacting with a covert narcissist, it can be easy to lose your voice. Because the patterns of interaction are so manipulative, it may take time for you to realize that you're not advocating for yourself.

Take time to tune back in with yourself, who you are, and what you are about. Take stock of your values, your goals, and your talents. Strengthening your relationship with yourself is key in being able to speak up during interactions with a narcissist.

When advocating for yourself, the narcissist gets a chance to meet the part of you that is aware and knowledgeable of their tactics, making it less appealing for them to keep trying those things with you.

Create a Healthy Distance

Being in a relationship with a covert narcissist can feel frustrating and overwhelming. There are times when it can be difficult to create distance between you and that person, such as with a family member or co-worker.

Limiting personal interactions, asking to be moved to a different location in your office, taking breaks at a different time, or simply cutting off contact might be what is necessary if you are being hurt by someone's narcissism. The goal of creating distance is not to hurt the other person; the goal is to protect yourself and create space for you to heal.

When to Seek Help

If someone you know shows signs of covert narcissism that are creating distress or affecting areas of your life, encourage them to talk to their healthcare provider. A doctor or therapist can recommend treatments that can help address these symptoms and improve their ability to cope.

There are also resources available for people who are in a relationship with a covert or overt narcissist. Consider visiting the Narcissist Abuse Support organization to find information and resources. 


A covert narcissist is someone who has the symptoms of narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) but displays these behaviors in more subtle ways. Symptoms include a lack of empathy and a need for admiration. 

While they may lack the obvious grandiosity and self-importance that people with overt NPD exhibit, their behavior can still be harmful to others. If you know someone who is a covert narcissistic, your relationship with them may be challenging, but there are ways to protect your well-being.

A Word From Verywell

Covert narcissism may be less apparent than overt narcissism, but this doesn't mean it is any less harmful. If you know someone who is a covert narcissist, take steps to protect yourself and your emotional well-being. Learn to recognize the signs, don't take their behavior personally, and create distance between you and that person to help establish clear boundaries.

You may also find it helpful to talk to a therapist about your experiences. A mental health professional can help you understand the behavior and develop coping skills that will help.

The Best Online Therapy Programs We've tried, tested and written unbiased reviews of the best online therapy programs including Talkspace, Betterhelp, and Regain.

Thanks for your feedback!

Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.

  1. American Psychiatric Association. Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. 5th ed. Washington, DC: doi/appi.books

  2. Cleveland Clinic. Narcissistic personality disorders. Reviewed June 19,

  3. Brummelman E, Thomaes S, Nelemans SA, Orobio de Castro B, Overbeek G, Bushman BJ. Origins of narcissism in children. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. ;(12) doi/pnas

  4. Caligor E, Levy KN, Yeomans FE. Narcissistic personality disorder: Diagnostic and clinical challenges. Am J Psychiatry. ;(5) doi/appi.ajp

  5. Baskin-Sommers A, Krusemark E, Ronningstam E. Empathy in narcissistic personality disorder: From clinical and empirical perspectives. Personal Disord. ;5(3) doi/per

  6. McCullough ME, Emmons RA, Kilpatrick SD, Mooney CN. Narcissists as "victims:" The role of narcissism in the perception of transgressions. Pers Soc Psychol Bull. ;29(7) doi/

  7. Kacel EL, Ennis N, Pereira DB. Narcissistic personality disorder in clinical health psychology practice: Case studies of comorbid psychological distress and life-limiting illness. Behav Med. ;43(3) doi/

COWARDLY COVERT NARCISSISTS: How to Move On From Passive-Aggressive Covert Abuse

The Covert Passive-Aggressive Narcissist

  • Covert Narcissism

  • Signs of a Covert Narcissist, Ways to Protect Yourself from Their Manipulation and How to Deal with Their Narcissism
  • By: Louisa Cox
  • Narrated by: Heidi Baker
  • Length: 1 hr and 44 mins
  • Unabridged
  • Overall

  • Performance

  • Story

Covert narcissism is a hidden and concealed form of narcissism, making it all the more difficult for the abuser to be confronted or "outed" for their behavior. Covert narcissism is a passive-aggressive, hostile, and toxic form of abuse that makes victims feel hopeless, unheard, hurt, and confused by the abusers' behavior.

  • 3 out of 5 stars
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  • By David Little on

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