In general, people who rate highly on the narcissistic spectrum or with narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) can be described as grandiose, arrogant and self-absorbed. They typically have an obsession with a grand sense of power and self-worth and exaggerated belief of superiority over others. However, there is also a different, hidden toxicity that many are not aware of – the underworld of covert narcissism.

Most of us know that narcissists always put their needs first, often displaying self-centred and manipulative behaviour. At the same time, they lack empathy for other people’s feelings. They continuously seek attention and admiration and may behave in a controlling or emotionally abusive way.

According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders-IV (DSM-IV), a person must have at least five of the following traits that remain stable over a long period to be diagnosed as having NPD:

  • A grand sense of self-importance
  • A lack of empathy towards others
  • A tendency to take advantage of others to get what they want
  • An exaggerated sense of being unique and powerful
  • A tendency to exaggerate their talents, skills, and accomplishments
  • Arrogant, overconfident attitudes or behaviours
  • A belief that the world owes them something
  • Fantasies of being famous, powerful, beautiful, successful, and influential
  • An excessive need for admiration and acknowledgement
  • A tendency to exaggerate own abilities

But what is Covert Narcissism?

However, it is not always easy to recognise all narcissists, using the criteria above. Maybe a person you suspect to be a narcissist doesn’t quite match narcissistic traits. Or they only matches a few of them. They aren’t grandiose, in fact, they might even appear quiet, intelligent and humble.

But something isn’t quite right. You might sense that underneath the mask there is… emptiness…nothing. This might mean that they are a covert narcissist (CT).

Narcissistic behaviour, can be divided into two categories:

  • Overt narcissistic behaviours and
  • Covert narcissistic behaviours.

What is the Difference between the Overt and Covert Narcissism?

The main difference between the overt and covert narcissistic behaviour is that overt behaviour is obvious to all. Overt narcissists are grandiose and exhibit stereotypical narcissistic traits. Their behaviour patterns usually involve mood swings and impulsive behaviour with sudden anger and aggression. Their lack of empathy, an inflated self-image and exaggerated belief of superiority, manipulative and self-centred behaviour, and craving for admiration are right out there, in-your-face.

Covert narcissism is quieter, more manipulative and subtle. They are often not obvious to people other than those who live with this person i.e. partners, siblings, close work colleagues and children.

They are the narcissist with the ‘golden mask’. The mask is strongly maintained and defended at all times and very, very important to them.

Their need to be accepted and liked outweighs anything else and they are incredibly careful about who they reveal themselves too.

Whether it is a spouse, family member, friend, co-worker, or boss, only someone who is close to a covert narcissist can genuinely understand how toxic and destructive covert narcissistic behaviour is.

Covert narcissism is little discussed or explored and can be much more dangerous than the overt type because of their, often impressive, ability to manipulate others and remain adored and unrecognised. They are often charming, popular and well liked all the while causing deep pain and division within families and workplaces. Often appearing to be the innocent peacemaker or victim themselves.

Too often, the victims caught in a covert narcissistic cycle of emotional abuse don’t recognise the abuse they have endured for years, sometimes even for decades. Typically they will have been conditioned by the covert narcissist to believe that any issues in the relationship/family/ workplace is all their fault.

With a covert narcissist, there is a façade of normality because they carefully choose who they unmask to (usually the target ‘supply’). Typically, life with a covert narcissist looks perfectly normal on the surface. It may even appear glamorous and exciting. You may live with a covert narcissist for years and not realise it because your partner can seem to be very caring, mirror concern, say all the right things, and seemingly reflect empathy.

However, your intuition may be telling you that something is ‘off’. Maybe the relationship feels ‘empty’ or without intimacy. Perhaps you are physically exhausted with unexplained health conditions. (Many of the clients who come to me for CFS Chronic Fatigue or Fibromyalgia have a toxic narcissist in their life)

Many clients that I work with, more, commonly, are anxious, unhappy and deeply unfulfilled emotionally. Living with an emotional abyss can be exhausting.

But you cannot find out why, or even put your finger on exactly what the issue is. Everyone else around you only sees what’s on the surface – a loving, caring, charming person. But you know, the misery you feel. It must be something wrong with you…..mustn’t it?

If you seek help or advice from family, friends, or sadly, even from professionals, you might only get their doubt, or suggestion that maybe you are the problem. And yet….you feel lonely, without support, confused and deeply unhappy.

How to Recognise Covert Narcissism – The Cycle of Abuse

  • A covert narcissistic partner can be emotionally abusive for months or even years before you recognise it. It can feel like a slow drip feed. On the surface, they may be charming and fun. However, your partner may also be excessively obsessed with themselves, manipulative, and subtly controlling.
  • The relationship may always feel empty and exhausting, but you just don’t know why
  • You may always feel that you are always working so hard to make ‘things better’ but whatever you do is never good enough.
  • You are subtly gaslight. A narcissist believes that he or she is better than anyone else, including you, so they always somehow quietly be in charge. One tactic a narcissistic partner may use is a form of psychological abuse known as gaslighting to create a subtle but constant relationship dynamic where you question your own truth, feel destabilised and they quietly maintain the power and control.
  • Gaslighting typically causes the victim to start doubting and questioning their reality until they lose the sense of their own identity and self-worth. The gaslighter will tell you lies, play with the truth and then deny saying it. They will create constant confusion and have you doubt everything at the same time trivialising your feelings to gain more confusion and power over you. “Why are you always, over reacting? I was just joking”
  • You may also always feel that you need to apologise for things you haven’t said or done because your narcissistic partner will do everything to discredit you, twist and reframe what was said in their favour. This is often done in public, charmingly creating a false narrative that is confusing and exhausting. Over time, the supply will start feeling as though they are unstable or crazy. This may be the sign that you are trapped in the narcissistic cycle of abuse.
  • Because they are quietly self-centred, reluctant to admit their faults and lack empathy, covert narcissists will usually play the victim, causing the supply to feel guilty and try again and again for reconciliation. “If I just try a little harder, maybe things will get better”.

Understanding the difference between overt and covert narcissism can help you to recognise the narcissistic cycle of abuse and take steps to protect yourself, such as establishing strong boundaries and seeking help from someone who believes you and understand the cycle of destructive behaviour.

If you believe you may be in an abusive relationship you can download my free guide HERE or for a free 30 minute consultation you can contact me HERE

Kate is a trauma and embodiment specialist. She is a TRE & EFT Supervising Mentor and is on the Executive Board of EFT International (formerly AAMET) and is a Comprehensive Energy Psychology Practitioner, DipPsych, Master Hypnotist, Master Practitioner of NLP and Time Line Therapy (accredited by the ABNLP) and has been an intuitive body & energy worker for 30 years. While she works with any problem state she specialises in the sensitive areas of Post Traumatic Stress, emotional abuse, chronic pain and anxiety.