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Understanding Covert Narcissism: The Hidden Side of Narcissistic Personality

When most people think of narcissism, they envision a brash, self-centred individual who demands attention and admiration. This stereotype aligns with what is known as overt narcissism. However, there is another, less obvious form called covert narcissism, which is equally damaging yet harder to detect. Covert narcissism manifests in subtle and insidious ways, making it crucial to understand its characteristics and impacts.

What is Covert Narcissism?

Covert narcissism, also known as vulnerable or introverted narcissism, is characterised by a more hidden, reserved, and self-effacing demeanour. Unlike overt narcissists who are outwardly grandiose and attention-seeking, covert narcissists present themselves as shy, humble, or even insecure. Despite their outward modesty, they harbour deep-seated feelings of superiority and entitlement, often coupled with a hypersensitivity to criticism and a chronic sense of unfulfillment.

Key Characteristics of Covert Narcissism

  1. Sensitivity to Criticism: Covert narcissists are highly sensitive to any form of criticism or perceived slight. They may react with intense defensiveness, withdrawal, or passive-aggressive behaviour. Their fragile self-esteem cannot tolerate the idea of being seen as flawed or inadequate.

  2. Victim Mentality: Covert narcissists often see themselves as perpetual victims. They feel misunderstood, unappreciated, and unfairly treated, which fuels their sense of resentment and entitlement. This victim mentality allows them to rationalise their manipulative and self-centred behaviour.

  3. Passive-Aggressive Behaviour: Instead of overt confrontation, covert narcissists express their anger and frustration through passive-aggressive actions. This can include giving the silent treatment, making sarcastic remarks, or engaging in subtle sabotage to undermine others.

  4. Fantasy and Daydreaming: To cope with their dissatisfaction and lack of fulfilment, covert narcissists often retreat into rich fantasy worlds. They imagine themselves achieving great success, receiving admiration, and being recognized as superior. These fantasies provide temporary relief from their pervasive feelings of inadequacy.

  5. Envy and Resentment: Covert narcissists are often envious of others who receive the attention and admiration they crave. They may downplay others' achievements, gossip, or attempt to discredit those they feel threatened by.

  6. Lack of Empathy: Despite their outward appearance of modesty, covert narcissists struggle with genuine empathy. They are primarily focused on their own needs and feelings, often at the expense of others. Their interactions are typically transactional, based on what they can gain rather than mutual understanding and support.

Impact on Relationships

Covert narcissism can have a profound and detrimental impact on relationships. Partners, friends, and family members may initially be drawn to the covert narcissist's seemingly humble and sensitive nature. However, over time, they may find themselves walking on eggshells, constantly trying to avoid triggering the narcissist’s hypersensitivity and passive-aggressive behaviour.

Relationships with covert narcissists often involve a cycle of emotional manipulation, where the narcissist's victim mentality and passive-aggressive actions create confusion and distress. This can erode trust and emotional intimacy, leaving their partners feeling drained and unsupported.

Recognising and Addressing Covert Narcissism

Recognising covert narcissism can be challenging due to its subtle nature. However, understanding the underlying traits and behaviours is the first step in addressing the issue. For those in relationships with covert narcissists, setting clear boundaries and seeking professional support can be crucial in managing the impact of their behaviour.

For the covert narcissist, self-awareness and professional therapy are key to addressing their deep-seated issues. Therapy can help them develop healthier coping mechanisms, improve their empathy, and build more genuine, fulfilling relationships.


Covert narcissism is a complex and often hidden form of narcissistic personality. By understanding its characteristics and impacts, individuals can better navigate their interactions with covert narcissists and seek appropriate support and intervention. Recognizing the signs is the first step towards healthier and more authentic relationships.


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