Written by Dr. Perry, PhD
Don’t be fooled by the title. There is nothing cute or innocent about this stealthy narcissist, also known as the covert narcissist. A covert narcissist is a narcissist who suffers from low self-esteem. He or she is seeking the same glory and power as the classic narcissist but does not possess the same outwardly bravado. They have all the attributes of an overt narcissist but hide behind many masks. In my clinical experience, those who permit a covert narcissist into their lives later spend years unraveling the chaos that has been spun around them. Unfortunately, the red flags are harder to spot than that of an overt narcissist. The easiest way to identify them is in close quarters when they are not pretending to be someone else. Here is a list of ways to identify a covert narcissist but please note that the list is not all-inclusive.
Here are 5 ways to spot a covert narcissist:
1. The Great Pretender
“All the world is a stage, and all the men and women merely players. They have their exits and their entrances. And one man in his time plays many parts …” ~Shakespeare
A covert narcissist is a chameleon. He or she is able to convey to the world the image that is necessary for them to get what they desire. They may exude the image of a loving, kind and generous person. They are people who many might consider a pillar of the community. Others play the role of a passive victim to strategically lure you in. They have similar qualities as overt narcissists. They are aware enough to know better than to show their true colors. They are master adapters. Their only dilemma is that they cannot as easily hide from those who truly know them. This can be loved ones, close friends or significant others. Covert narcissists thrive on being able to deceive and pretend to be someone else with the sole purpose of getting what they want.
2. Lack of empathy
“You lost your job? Now how am I going to get that new car you promised me?!” ~Anonymous
A covert narcissist is not able to empathize with anyone’s feelings or needs other than their own. Their sole purpose is to satisfy their own needs at the expense of everyone else no matter what it takes. They often prefer to stay isolated and withdrawn. Compassion and empathy are completely foreign to them. They will avoid you if you are sick and want you to take care of them if they are ill. Their lack of empathy allows them to prey on nearly anyone. They are unable to see their spouse or children as independent beings. They see their loved ones as objects and extensions of themselves to be possessed and used however they see fit. They are dismissive of others thoughts and feelings. Covert narcissists have no regard for anyone else’s time. Once a covert narcissist gets what they want from someone they can easily discard or discredit them.
3. Shallow surface personality
“They muddy the water to make it seem deep.” ~Nietzsche
Like a mannequin wearing a suit, a covert narcissist lacks the characteristics that make them truly human. To a trained eye, they appear empty as if missing something. However, it is difficult to pinpoint what it is. Covert narcissists tend to have shallow personalities and are susceptible to boredom more than most. They are unable to maintain meaningful relationships because of an inability to trust and depend on others. Covert narcissists are highly materialistic and can easily be consumed by envy of others talents, possessions and relationships. It is not uncommon for covert narcissists to lack depth in their interests and skills. They may only be able to recite one or two things about a subject that supposedly interests them. Covert narcissists tend not to have a fixed personality and can easily switch personalities or positions to gain favor when necessary. Their moral values are flexible, constantly changing depending on the circumstance. It is as if covert narcissists are encased in a block of ice. They can see us and we can see them, but they are unable to feel or give any genuine warmth.
4. False humility
“Humility is often a false front we employ to gain power over others.” ~François de La Rochefoucauld
Unlike the bravado of the overt narcissist, the covert narcissist is quiet and insecure. They are withdrawn and self-centered and tend to appear shy and vulnerable. It is not uncommon for covert narcissists to be pathological liars. They can easily disguise themselves with humility, pretending to put others ahead of themselves. Covert narcissists are experts at playing the victim and are excellent at the “poor me” game. They tend to use the role of victim or martyr to lure you in to later exploit you. Covert narcissists seek power and control quietly. In many ways, they are far more dangerous than the more obvious overt narcissist. Even though covert narcissists are more cunning in their delivery, they still experience a similar sense of grandiosity as the overt narcissist. Spending time with a covert narcissist will have you feeling drained psychically and emotionally.
5. Highly sensitive to criticism
“The trouble with most of us is that we would rather be ruined by praise than saved by criticism. ~Norman Vincent Peale
The covert narcissist is unable to take any form of criticism. They are hypersensitive and unable to accept that someone would see them as anything less than perfect. Unlike the classic narcissist who reacts aggressively to any critique, the covert narcissist pretends it does not bother them while fuming over it internally. Some covert narcissists will defend against a perceived slight by exhibiting an increased sense of superior smugness and dismissiveness about the criticism while other covert narcissists may sullenly retreat into being a victim. The covert narcissist may even display passive-aggressive behavior when criticized. They will “forget” to perform a task or deny that they ever even committed to completing the task.
This article is not meant to diagnose or be a guide for self-diagnosis. The sole purpose of this article is strictly for educational purposes.
Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology
M.A. in Clinical Psychology
B.A. in Psychology
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