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Recognize The Signs Of Covert Narcissism And Emotional Manipulation

signs of covert narcissism

Have you ever met someone who seems quiet and reserved, yet somehow they always end up center stage in every problem? It may be that you’ve met a covert narcissist. Unlike the overt narcissist, who is easily identified by their grandiosity and attention-seeking behaviors, covert narcissists can be harder to identify, tending more towards self-deprecation and self-sacrifice. In today’s blog we will explore what covert narcissism is, where it comes from, how to recognize it and how to deal with it—whether it’s an aspect of your own personality or a loved one’s.

Understanding Covert Narcissism

Covert narcissism, or vulnerable narcissism, is characterized by an introverted, self-absorbed personality with a heightened sensitivity to criticism. These individuals often harbor a deep sense of inadequacy and insecurity, masked by a facade of humility or self-deprecation. Unlike their overt counterparts, covert narcissists don’t openly seek admiration, instead attempting to draw it from others with displays of martyrdom. For example, a covert narcissist may make a big show out of conceding to do something a loved one wants to do, while making it clear they don’t want to do it. They will cast their opinion as unimportant and insignificant, often causing a loved one to feel guilt, to reassure them with praise, or to reverse their decision.

It is important to note that traits like narcissism are a spectrum: an individual may be a little narcissistic or very narcissistic. Likewise, one’s expression of narcissism may swell or fade depending on circumstances. For example, being around one’s mother may exacerbate narcissistic tendencies as an individual struggles to feel seen or validated. Identifying the qualities of a covert narcissist in oneself is not a life sentence or permanent condition.

Recognizing Covert Narcissism in Others

Identifying covert narcissism in others requires a keen eye, as their traits are not as blatantly obvious as those of overt narcissists. Here are some subtle signs:


      • Sensitivity to Criticism: Covert narcissists are highly defensive and cannot handle criticism, often perceiving it as a personal attack.

      • Social Anxiety and Difficulty Fitting In: They struggle to empathize and connect genuinely with others, leading to social discomfort.

      • Self-Deprecating Behavior: Covert narcissists often use self-deprecation to seek sympathy and attention.

      • Passive-Aggressive Behavior: They may not express anger openly but resort to passive-aggressive actions to express their displeasure.

      • Covert Narcissism Disguised as Altruism: Their acts of kindness or generosity are often driven by a need for recognition or self-gain.


    passive aggressive behavior


    Roots of Covert Narcissism

    Covert narcissism is often rooted in traumatic experiences during childhood. For example, if a child is often ignored or their feelings aren’t taken seriously, they might start to think they only matter if they get special attention or praise from others. Similarly, if a child sees their parents acting in manipulative ways, they may model those behaviors. 

    These early life experiences can instill deep-seated feelings of loneliness and misunderstanding. A child may unconsciously adopt narcissistic traits as a defense mechanism, a way to shield themselves from the vulnerability of emotional neglect and to create a facade of self-sufficiency and confidence. This adaptive behavior, while serving as a coping mechanism during challenging times in their youth, can manifest in adulthood as covert narcissism, impacting their relationships and interactions.

    Dealing with Covert Narcissists

    Dealing with covert narcissists requires a delicate balance of empathy and self-protection. While it’s important to remember that their manipulative actions often come from a deep-seated sense of insecurity, it’s equally crucial not to excuse these behaviors or let them go unchecked. Establishing firm boundaries is key. This might mean clearly communicating your limits, deciding which battles are worth fighting, and knowing when to walk away from a situation that’s harmful to your mental health. It’s also beneficial to maintain a strong support network of friends or family who understand your situation and can offer objective advice and emotional support. Remember, taking care of yourself isn’t selfish–it’s necessary when navigating the complex waters of a relationship with a covert narcissist.

    Covert Narcissism in Relationships

    The insidious nature of covert narcissism in relationships often makes it difficult for partners or family members to pinpoint the exact problem. The covert narcissist’s subtle emotional manipulation can create a dynamic where their partner constantly questions their own feelings and perceptions. This type of gaslighting can be hard to identify because the partner’s perceptions may not be called into question directly, but only through the lens of the covert narcissist’s emotions.  

    Lack of empathy on the part of the narcissist means that the emotional needs of their partner or family members are frequently overlooked or dismissed. This can exacerbate feelings of loneliness and confusion in the relationship. Furthermore, the narcissist’s incessant need for validation can place an undue burden on the other party, who may feel pressured to constantly affirm the narcissist, often at the expense of their own emotional well-being. Navigating these relationships requires not only a deep understanding of the narcissist’s behavior but also a strong sense of self and the courage to prioritize one’s own emotional needs. If you’re in a relationship with someone you suspect is a covert narcissist, it may greatly benefit you to learn more about relationship counseling.

    Covert Narcissism Treatment

    Covert Narcissism is not a permanent personality trait, although it can take a lot of hard work to change it. Treatment for covert narcissism usually involves cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT). In CBT, individuals with covert narcissism are encouraged to explore and reflect on the underlying thoughts and beliefs that drive their behavior. This introspection helps them recognize patterns of negative thinking and unrealistic self-perceptions. Therapists work with them to develop more balanced and realistic ways of thinking about themselves and others. This process often involves challenging deep-seated beliefs and gradually replacing them with healthier, more adaptive ones. (Want to learn more about CBT? Click here to learn how CBT works)

    Furthermore, CBT focuses on developing skills for better emotional regulation and empathy, enabling individuals to respond to situations in a more thoughtful and less impulsive manner. By improving self-esteem in a genuine and grounded way, therapy can reduce the need for external validation and manipulative behaviors, leading to healthier interpersonal relationships and a more fulfilling life. The goal is not just to address the symptoms of covert narcissism but to foster a deeper, lasting change in how individuals relate to themselves and the world around them. To learn more about therapy, read the most common questions people have about therapy, answered.

    Recognizing Covert Narcissism in Yourself

    It’s essential to self-reflect and recognize if you exhibit traits of covert narcissism. Increasing self-awareness and the ability to self-monitor can significantly decrease the expression of narcissistic traits. Here are a few signs you might be a covert narcissist:


        • You often feel misunderstood and unappreciated.

        • You engage in self-deprecating talk to gain sympathy.

        • You struggle with feelings of inadequacy despite your achievements.

        • You have a passive-aggressive approach to conflicts.

      What You Can Do

      If you find yourself on the spectrum of covert narcissism, seeking professional help can be a significant first step. Therapy can offer insights into your behavior patterns and provide strategies to develop healthier interpersonal skills. Remember, narcissism is a scale, and not everyone falls into the severe category. With effort and awareness, it’s possible to manage and improve these traits.

      Covert narcissism, though challenging, is not a life sentence. With understanding and the right approach, both those who suffer from it and those affected by it can find ways to cope and improve their relationships. Remember, recognizing and acknowledging the problem is the first step toward change and improvement.

      Our team at the Truism Center is ready to provide you the support you need. Call (616) 209-9295 or click here to get started finding the counselor that’s right for you.



      Robb Kornoelje is the owner of The Truism Center, a relationship counselor, and the creator of the “30-Day Relationship Challenge.” This 30-day email course offers gentle guidance to identify behaviors causing trouble, find ease with emotions, and enhance self-awareness. With a focus on stress-free communication, the challenge encourages a stronger connection with others, nurturing compassion, and fostering forgiveness. Join Robb on this journey to improve the fabric of your relationships—one day at a time.