Also known as 'closet narcissists', they're really good at faking empathy.
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HUMP DAY: What Is a Covert Narcissist?
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DEAR DR. JENN,

When I read your column about different types of narcissists, I got stuck on the covert one. My boyfriend isn't super loud or outwardly entitled or arrogant like your typical narcissist. In fact, he tends to come across as shy and modest! But lately, it feels like I'm always being emotionally manipulated and he always plays the victim. He's also extremely passive-aggressive. How can I tell if this is actually the behavior of a covert narcissist? —Dating a Sneaky Narcissist?

DEAR DATING A SNEAKY NARCISSIST,

It is easy to be tricked by the covert narcissist because unlike the classic narcissist that many of us have learned to recognize with their charm, flash, attention-seeking ostentatious presentation, the covert narcissist is stealth.

These people tend to be more introverted and subtle, so they can be easy to miss. Their self-serving behavior is better covered and more controlled. As you mentioned, they can come across as shy, down-to-earth, and caring! Yet, they will manage to manipulate you without you even knowing. You will end up providing them with exactly what they value the most — the narcissistic supply of love and admiration.

Here are more traits to look out for if you think you might be dating a covert narcissist — and what to do about it.

What Is Covert Narcissism?

To recap, The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM–5), the handbook therapists use to diagnose personality disorders, identifies the nine traits that make up Narcissistic Personality Disorder:

  • Grandiose sense of self-importance
  • Preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love
  • Believes that he or she is special or unique and should only associate and can only be understood by high-status people
  • Requires excessive admiration
  • Has a sense of entitlement
  • Is interpersonally exploitative
  • Lacks empathy
  • Is often envious of others and believes people to be envious of them
  • Is arrogant or haughty

While the DSM does not break down narcissism any further officially, knowing the various forms it can take, or types of narcissists out there, can help spot someone who may not fit the traditional mold you may think of.

Covert narcissism is one of those under-the-radar types. Also known as vulnerable narcissism or closet narcissism, a covert narcissist is generally someone who has narcissistic personality disorder but does not display the blatant grandiosity and entitlement that one would expect from a narcissist. This type of person tends to be passive-aggressive but comes across as helpless and self-effacing.

One of their greatest powers of manipulation lies with their ability to play the victim — they are quick to cry, stage a crisis, or feign illness to make you feel bad for them, and use their vulnerability to manipulate you and make you feel guilty for not doing what they want. Because this type of narcissist does not want to be seen as a bad person, they tend to deal with perceived criticisms or attacks in a more passive-aggressive way. They are more likely to stonewall, hold a grudge, or get quiet revenge.

Importantly, like other types of narcissists, they do not have empathy for others, even if they know how to fake it and look like they do.

How to Identify the Covert Narcissist 

In the past decade or so there has been an increase in studies about the covert narcissist. Two things, in particular, stand out from this research:

The first is that people with covert narcissism have a very high level of neuroticism. What does this mean? People who score high on the neuroticism scale tend to be more sensitive to their emotions. People with this trait tend to handle stress poorly, get overwhelmed by minor frustrations, and can perceive ordinary situations as being threatening. Consistent with that, covert narcissists tend to get their feelings hurt very easily because they take a lot of things personally. People who score high in narcissism also tend to worry excessively — about everything from health to employment to relationships. As a result of all of this, they tend to struggle with anxiety and/or depression.

The second trait is poor self-esteem. In general, narcissists have a fragile sense of self and as a result, spend a lot of time thinking about how others perceive them and how they are faring in life. Covert narcissists, in particular, are insecurity-driven and focused on impression management. As one study described it, "… vulnerable narcissism actually is narcissism proper, a behavioral adaptation to cope with and to mitigate the suffering imposed by insecurities about oneself."

When it comes to spotting a cover narcissist, the most important thing you can do is to trust your gut. All too often I have heard clients or friends who are dating a covert narcissist report that they felt something was off or had a bad feeling in their gut. Sometimes you can't quite put your finger on it but you know something is wrong. Listen to that. Your gut is always telling you something.

In addition to that, here are a few signs to look for.

  • They perform passive-aggressive behavior like eye rolling, sighing out loud, or fake yawning in order to dismiss you.
  • You find yourself spending a lot of time reassuring them, stroking their ego, and lifting them up.
  • They are emotionally fragile, hypersensitive, and easily wounded.
  • They constantly play the victim.
  • They handle stress poorly and will lash out in anger or aggression as a result.
  • They may bounce back-and-forth from job to job or project a project because they are always trying to do things that will impress others, instead of following their own passion or talent.
  • They struggle with mood issues, depression, anxiety, or self injury.
  • They are emotionally manipulative in order to get what they want.
  • They are lacking in empathy.
  • They are self-effacing, often times in order to get other people to complement them.
  • They hold grudges.
  • They are envious of others and resent when others succeed and they do not.
  • They lie or gaslight in order to manipulate.
  • They feel entitled to be taken care of.

Narcissism occurs over a continuum. We all need to be a little bit narcissistic, otherwise, we would not put ourselves together and walk out the door looking presentable. But when someone's narcissism has crossed the line from healthy into pathological, dating them can be a nightmare. If your boyfriend displays these characteristics, you may want to do some soul-searching to figure out if this is something you want to sign on for in the long term.

In Hump Day, award-winning psychotherapist and TV host Dr. Jenn Mann answers your sex and relationship questions — unjudged and unfiltered.