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The subtle signs of Covert Narcissism - what to look out for

Updated: Jul 12, 2023

As a Counselling Psychologist specialising in narcissistic abuse I have seen and heard many stories and descriptions of the distinct characteristics of the narcissist. One of the most helpful things I advise my clients to do is to arm yourself with as much as information as necessary so that you are more able to recognise narcissism before you find yourself in an abusive relationship with one.

Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) is a Cluster B psychiatric condition as defined in the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders; 2013). This is characterised by long-term patterns of behaviour that reflect pathological self-importance, a distinct disregard for others and lack of empathy. Narcissists tend to have a preoccupation with power, achievement, success, money and material or status gains. They are highly manipulative and emotionally damaged. That said, they do not experience genuine emotions or authentic relationship connections in the way most people do.

The core features of Narcissistic Personality Disorder include:

  • Core issues of personal identity: Narcissists have a pathological need for admiration and attention from others in order to regulate their self-esteem and sense of self.

  • Grandiosity and exaggerated sense of self-importance, status and achievements.

  • Displays of selfish and self-seeking actions and behaviours.

  • Arrogant and haughty behaviours.

  • Sense or belief that he/she is ‘special’, ‘different’ or ‘unique’.

  • Strong sense of entitlement.

  • Interpersonally highly manipulative and/or exploitative.

  • Distinct lack of empathy.

  • Lack of taking or accepting personal responsibility.

  • Addictions - often Narcissists have issues with excess and addiction.

  • Inability to form and maintain long-term or meaningful relationships.

  • Fear of and/or inability for real emotional intimacy and/or commitment.

  • Aggression / aggressive behaviours. Difficulty controlling anger and rage.

  • (DSM, 2013).

What we then tend to see are two generally distinct type of narcissist presentation. Overt narcissism is arguably easier to spot than covert narcissism.

Overt narcissism describes the more stereotypical narcissist. The gregarious, self-confident and charismatic (male or female). They tend to be larger than life, seemingly good fun, humorous, romantic and spontaneous. The overt narcissist has the power to make those around them feel wonderful - however they also have the power to abuse.

Many clients I see in my private practice have been well able to arm themselves with spotting the more overt and obvious kind of narcissist and this is often something that will put a person in good stead for the future. When you are able to spot this then you are much less likely to be pulled into any increasingly damaging and dangerous relationship dynamic. Learning to spot covert narcissism however can be a bit trickier and takes a certain level of specific awareness and vigilance.

Covert Narcissists share the same core pathology as the more obvious overt narcissist however the covert types are usually more willing to show their ‘vulnerability’. However, please note, that in line with the manipulative and self-seeking actions of any narcissist, this will be with the aim of serving their own needs and gains. They can come across as sweet and innocent, softly spoken, caring, sensitive, shy, complimentary and/or helpful. They may also appear open about their vulnerabilities - however, unlike most people, this is ultimately with an aim of control and manipulation. Their core deep-seated shame and fears and their focus on meeting their own needs are masked by an array of more subtle control and manipulation techniques than are typically observed in the overt narcissist.

You can help yourself to identify potential covert narcissism from the following sub definitions I have outlined below from my clinical experience and research. Again, these are a little harder to detect than the out and out overt, arrogant, grandiose overt type of narcissist more often outlined in the mainstream. They are however, in many ways more dangerous due to the subtle and conflicting nature of their actions.

The Achievement-Focused:

The achievement-focused covert narcissist is the kind of narcissist who deliberately seeks out those with particular social or employment status or connections. What matters to them is who you are, who you know, what you have or what they can get from or via you. Partners of the achievement-focused narcissist tend to be exhausted, stressed and burnt-out, in part because their partner will be encouraging their longer working hours, the earning of more money and the gaining of more material purchases. These things will sadly take priority over a partners mental, physical or emotional wellbeing. The achievement-drive-focused narcissist will ignore or simply not acknowledge their partners stress or fatigue, their physical ailments or emotional needs. Instead they will only acknowledge or praise the accomplishments or efforts to achieve or gain material or status successes.

How to spot: What seems important and a priority to them? Are they genuinely caring for your wellbeing? Or are they pushing you to be more and do more? Do they show their disappointment in you not achieving or meeting their high expectations? Do they withdraw or withhold care, affection or support at these times?

A sense that is specific to your relationship that leaves you feeling like you are not good enough, not doing enough or can never get things right (in their view) is almost always a warning sign you are in a toxic relationship.

The Victim:

The victim-type covert is quite content with showing and sharing their ‘weakness’ and ‘vulnerabilities’ with others. They are the kind of person who will constantly be complaining about how badly they have been treated by others; their family, exes, colleagues, strangers… They tend to have a history of ‘psycho’ exes and failed relationships, bad bosses, crap therapists, people who haven’t understood or are unskilled. Regardless of what has happened, they portray themselves as the victim every time. In true narcissistic style - any issues are everybody else’s fault and never theirs - they rarely have a part in it. The ‘victim’ covert will suggest they are the abused in the current relationship. They will point the finger at their partner and complain about all the things their partner is doing or not doing. They will suggest that they are the ‘victim’ of the other persons anger, insecurities, ‘issues’ and so on. The victim-type covert tend to rely on guilt-tripping partners as a means to manipulate and also aim to try and pull others into a ‘rescue’ position. This only further serves their reluctance and avoidance to take full responsibility for themselves.

How to spot: Do you notice they seem to have interpersonal difficulties and fall outs with people on a regular basis? Do they accuse you of being an abuser, without taking responsibility for themselves or their part? Do they claim this is usually everybody else fault? Or are they able to take responsibility for their part in it. Familiarise yourself with Karpmans ‘drama triangle’ and see if you can recognise the victim role or if/when the ‘victim’ tries to pull you or others into a ‘rescuer/fixer’ position. This insight and awareness can be powerful and help stop you being pulled blindly into unhealthy relationship dynamics. Awareness is key.

The Rescuer/Carer/Saviour:

This particular presentation of narcissist is actually one I see and hear a lot about in my private practice. The rescuer/saviours seem to almost always appear at a time of our vulnerability - perhaps at a time of a recent break-up, divorce, bereavement, change in job or other significant life change. They appear ready to care (arguably over-care), protect, look after and rescue. They are the knight in shining armour. The early phase is effectively care-bombing - a kind of love-bombing that serves to seduce a new partner in the early stages. This ‘care’ though, unfortunately invariably turns into a form of control and abuse before long. As with many guises of narcissistic abuse, it is often subtle, progressive and difficult to spot. Even more so when we have been overwhelmed with the initial romance and saviour in the ‘knight in shining armour’. If this has come about a time of our own personal vulnerability or trauma then even more confusing for us to work our way through.

The Addict:

Many narcissists are active addicts and this is something that is usually fairly easy to spot. A key feature in this issue is a difficulty in sitting with uneasy emotions such as anxiety, neutrality, boredom or shame - this can fuel addiction. Active addiction is also arguably selfish and self-seeking in nature and manipulation and lies are often a part of supporting the gaining and use of whatever the drug of choice is. Narcissistic addicts will often seek partners or others to clear up the various forms of mess that their addiction creates. This also ensures they continue to avoid taking responsibility for themselves - which is not healthy for any relationship.

How to spot: Addiction can be identified by noticing the actions and watching out for drinking, drugs, gambling, sex/porn addiction, workaholism and so on as well as their behaviours around it. Are they secretive, attempting to hide or cover it up? Do they shift into a victim position or attempt to guilt-trip in order to manipulate you or others?

The Psychosomatic:

The psychosomatic narcissist uses aches and pains, illness and health anxieties - either real or imagined - to ensure the focus and attention is on them. Illness and complaints of symptoms are used in order to control and manipulate or even to keep partners from leaving them.

“When I came to terms that I was in a relationship with a highly needy and manipulative partner I set about making pans to leave them. Whenever I did though, they would feign or actually even get very sick. It was only when this happened at the 5th or 6th time I tried to leave them that a friend pointed out this was a clear pattern. They had even arranged surgery on one occasion. They were seeking to guilt-trip me into not leaving each time, however when I saw this very manipulative pattern I left immediately and never looked back!”


Some narcissists will oscillate between overt and covert varieties. By the way, either kind of narcissist behaviour will likely tend to have a history of having ‘psycho-exes/friends/colleagues’ and therefore make out they have consistently been the victim. However if this relationship disaster/victimhood pattern exists, I would argue that there is one common denominator in the mix! That is the one to steer clear of.

Covert narcissists can may be very generous, buying gifts, offering funds as they use financial status to gain power and control. They will manage to shame others in a variety of subtle and indirect ways. Feigning or using illness or health concerns (real or imagined) to elicit sympathy, care and concern, or guilt-tripping others as way of gaining control and getting their own needs met. Finding subtle and indirect ways to receive attention, sympathy or admiration. This can also include using love or sex as ways to control or manipulate. The covert narcissist can be quite the silent seducer. All techniques are ultimately used in order to ultimately satisfy their own narcissistic supply needs.

The covert narcissist is often the martyr who sacrifices their own needs for others (and if only everybody could see and appreciate this!). The covert narcissist will find it easier to willingly portray their ‘weaknesses’ or ‘vulnerabilities' than the overt narcissist. They will therefore happily relay stories of how they have been victimised, treated poorly by others, misunderstood and explain how hard done by they are and how it’s everybody else fault. Again, this is all with the end goal of manipulating and controlling in order to receive the attention, affection and sympathies they so desperately need for their fragile ego state.

A practical self-help guide for recovery to narcissistic abuse and toxic relationships)

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