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How to Spot a Covert Narcissist

Marc Hubs is a writer/researcher on mind, science, and conspiracy. He is the author of "Know Your Enemy: Reflections of NPD."

What Is Narcissistic Personality Disorder?

Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) is characterized by complete and utter self-centeredness combined with outright denial. NPD forms an invisible and virtually indestructible psychological barrier which prevents the afflicted person's true inner turmoil from surfacing.

Covert Narcissism

Undeniably the most damaging, daunting and severe form of NPD that exists is covert narcissism, otherwise known as closet or stealth narcissism. Covert narcissists are highly defensive and extremely hostile individuals who go to great lengths to hide their insecurity and emotional vulnerability.

Although a typical covert narcissist generally possesses the same traits as an overt narcissist (the need for attention, approval, adulation and grandiose fantasies), these traits are not regularly expressed. Due to the ability to repress their behavior, covert narcissists are more difficult to recognize. For some people, it can be several decades before they recognize the narcissist in their lives.

Classical Symptoms of Covert Narcissism

In addition to the standard symptoms of NPD, the covert narcissist is also susceptible to stress and worry. They have a tendency to function inefficiently (i.e., they are dysfunctional) whilst their inner expectations and desires remain unfulfilled.

Covert narcissists repress awareness of their traits due to inner conflict. They find their fantasies to be embarrassing or unacceptable and are usually too afraid to exhibit any of their accomplishments to others. Although their overt behavior projects an innocent, good-as-gold persona which builds them a credible and faultless reputation, they fail to reach their true potential due to self-doubt. Some covert narcissists end up losing all interest in their hobbies and desires and end up deciding to do nothing with their lives, yet they are extremely self-entitled and expect other people to do all the running around for them.

Why Is Covert Narcissism so Detrimental?

The most damaging aspect of covert narcissism is the controlling and manipulative behavior that the individual imposes on the people closest to them. If in a relationship, the narcissist's partner often bears the brunt of the manipulation (though this is not always the case) as family, friends and children, too, will suffer from a lack of empathy.

A female covert narcissist may have children with their partner in order to secure them as nothing more than a resource by inadequately using or intentionally damaging contraception, or by committing paternity fraud. A male covert narcissist may try to control their partner in the same way by purposely not using or damaging contraception and exploiting the emotional bond between mother and child.

Isolation of the Victim

In a typical case, the only person who realizes that there is a problem is the person who is closest to the covert narcissist. These individuals are often unwillingly forced to suffer covert narcissistic abuse (very subtle emotional blackmail, mental abuse and psychological manipulation). Narcissists end up obscuring the truth and twisting literally every little detail back at the victim; they expertly mix the truth with a lie in order to distort the truth in their favor. This abuse is so well-hidden within the communication dynamics of the relationship that the victim often doesn't pick up on it and is left scratching their head wondering, "Is it me?"

When a victim of this type of abuse begins to develop awareness of the manipulation, it gradually dawns on them that they have already been alienated from those that they would turn to for support.

The covert narcissist makes their victim feel like they are the one with the problem whilst projecting a flawless character to everyone around them. By destroying the victim's reputation and making them look bad, the narcissist protects a deluded false sense of self. Narcissists have no empathy and, therefore, have an invisible secret and an advantage as they often obtain the trust, respect and belief of everyone around them while the victim must suffer alone. No one around the victim can see what the deceitful, deceptive, manipulative and controlling covert narcissist is really up to.

Covert narcissists use cleverly hidden emotional blackmail, mental abuse, suggestive techniques and manipulative linguistic patterns to force their partner to question their own sanity. The narcissist is immune from labeling and blame because they have everybody around them fooled thanks to their pathological tendencies. Meanwhile, they continue to drain the psyche and soul of their victim who, over time, becomes depressed, loses self-esteem and feels like their soul is being worn down. Eventually, the victim becomes devoid of emotion. If the victim happens to discover the truth, it will always be denied.

Reflection and Projection Tactics of the Narcissist

When arguing with a covert narcissist, a victim will usually be left at a dead-end as they are often outwitted. If the challenger is a significant other, then the narcissist will go on to state how they "saved" their partner by taking them under their wing. The victim will feel like they are forever in debt and that anything bad that has happened was imagined.

Covert narcissists are the sort of people who have multiple partners, secret affairs (sometimes within their own family) or sometimes even an entirely secret life with someone else. They recruit friends and family who are fooled by the innocent persona they project to defend their false self by convincing others of paranoia or suspicion. The narcissist often uses special occasions such as Valentine's Day or their partner's absence due to a funeral, for example, as an opportunity to get away with their infidelity (times when the victim least expects it).

When a narcissist's deceit has been discovered, every little detail gets twisted back onto the true victim. The victim is then the one being accused of the abuse, lies and/or cheating. This is a defense mechanism which lacks logic and merely works to uphold the pathological self.

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Narcissists come up with one-line defense mechanisms rather than offering any logical explanation for their behavior. Here are some examples of mock deflective statements:

  • "It's all in your head."
  • "You're paranoid."
  • "That didn't happen."
  • "I think you need to see a doctor."
  • "I don't know what you're talking about."
  • "I never said that."

On certain occasions (in private), the narcissist may give their partner an ultimatum. They make it clear that everything is about them whilst their partner's feelings, needs, wants and desires are completely disregarded. They will discard their partner in the process with no empathy whatsoever, heartlessly and sadistically. However, covert narcissists are usually nowhere near as sadistic as malignant narcissists who tend to have a very nasty sadistic streak.

Narcissistic Tendencies Towards Denial

Anyone who knows about a covert narcissist's secret life is sure to be blackmailed or manipulated into keeping quiet. Even when a narcissist does slip up, they may claim that they have a communication problem. The narcissist will deny their secrets until the day they die even if they've already been discovered—they will attempt to make others question the evidence.

It's also important to understand that a covert narcissist also suffers. Although on some level they are aware of some of their abuse, mind-games and manipulation, their tendencies are pathological. Narcissists still know the difference between right and wrong and good and evil but deep down inside they just simply don't care.

A covert narcissist may understand that they have a problem but don't care and are unwilling to do anything about it even if that means losing the people closest to them. Again, this is usually an intermittent behaviour. Narcissists have no empathy but seem to go through intermittent (but rare) phases of self-reflection and self-acknowledgment. These phases are also short-lived.

Narcissistic Abuse

Covert narcissists can be extremely flirtatious if in a party setting, though they often use occasional shock tactics whilst any further promiscuity is kept under cover. They may strategically pretend that they were too drunk to have been in control and conscious of their acts or blame their behavior on the alcohol while making further arrangements in private regarding sexual endeavors and love affairs.

A covert narcissist attempts to secure their primary resource (their partner) early on in a relationship. They ultimately suck up all the finances within the relationship, cut off their partner's contact with family and friends and damage or lose their partner's official forms of identification claiming it was an accident. Withholding resources makes it impossible for the victim to leave.

Narcissistic ideology shines clearly through such a relationship to the partner because they are often the only person that recognizes the problem. When attempting to seek help, family and friends often accuse the victim of twisting everything around. It's a double-blind consisting of nothing more than projection and reflection.

Covert narcissists attempt to brainwash their victim by convincing them that their observations of abusive behavior are delusional and attributed to mental health problems. Of course, the narcissist has already built their army of support forcing the victim to repeatedly keep questioning their own sanity.

Narcissist Victim Syndrome

Ultimately, victims of long-term covert narcissistic abuse can experience severe health symptoms such as post-traumatic stress disorder. They experience nightmares and flashbacks whilst their mind is subconsciously piecing the parts of the puzzle and abuse together. This is the brain's way of healing itself and, in extreme cases, it can be decades before this realization happens.

When this happens, the victim may begin to figure out what has been occurring over the years (or decades), though they usually still have to suffer the consequences of the abuse alone. Often times, the victim's life falls apart but they are still believed to be the problem by friends and family.

In extreme cases, the victim may have even been left with physical health symptoms such as a heart murmur or an anxiety disorder. Stress-related illnesses resulting from extreme narcissistic abuse can sometimes result in the death of the victim (i.e. heart attack). Stress can be dangerous.

When a narcissist can see that their victim is tired, worn down, and in a weak, vulnerable state, then they know the victim is exactly where they want them. It offers a chance for more emotional and mental abuse to be perpetrated, and the narcissist will inevitably kick their victim while they're down.

Narcissistic abuse feels cruel, cold, calculated and extremely twisted for the victim. The most significant concern of this personality disorder is that victims of abuse can be twice as likely to suffer from stress-related medical problems including depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, heart attacks and stroke. NPD is not something to be taken lightly and can sometimes result in what I refer to as psychological murder.

The author of this article was a victim of narcissistic mind control for over ten years and aims to create awareness of NPD and to dispel many of the myths and misconceptions about Narcissistic Personality Disorder.

Narcissistic Exposure Quiz Question 1

Narcissistic Exposure Quiz Question 2

Narcissistic Exposure Quiz Question 3

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.

© 2010 Marc Hubs


William Ansley on December 17, 2019:

Mist excellent analysis !!!

Derek on October 13, 2019:

Thanks for this fantastic article, from one who has lived these horrors, this details my exact experience as close as I have ever read. As I understand myself I was raised by a covert narc and therefore programmed to become the tool of an assortment of covert narcs in my personal and professional life until I solved the puzzle a little over five years ago. Nothing stated here is an overstatement about what these people do, their intentions, or what they are capable of. I remember one of these CNs telling me after she shared this horrible story of mind**king a younger sibling - I told her what she did was disgusting - her response to that was a sly grin and "at least I'm okay with my behaviour". I am an atheist but if there is a hell, these people have absolutely earned an eternity or two of torture there. You simply can't get far enough away from these people once you see them for what they really are: disgusting, unredeemable lower life forms not worthy of your time or attention. For fellow victims, it is very important for you to acknowledge, respect and honour your anger feelings as they are the way your self is trying to tell you what was done to you was horribly wrong. If you are surrounded by toxic people they no doubt will judge and shame you for your anger like they did to me so be very careful who you involve to help sort these issues out for you (I, like many others, involved the wrong people and paid the price.) Also be very cautious about people trying to talk you in a "forgiveness' direction especially as narcs will try to self servingly manipulate you in this direction anyways so they can maintain their belief about you as a lesser than who deserves their derision. The opposite is true, of course, but they will die before they admit the truth. If you have been victimized by narcs / covert narcs and are the forgiving type (many of us are overly so), google an article by Dr Jonice Webb about forgiveness and when it is inappropriate, and read it before you decide what to do. I wish I read it years before I did. I felt pushed into it by religious types and by people who simply had no interest in dealing with my feelings and/or people who just wanted me to shut up and go away. We should not be listening to these types of people as they do not speak with our best interests in mind. She affirms that true forgiveness can only be achieved when the abuser fully admits their wrongdoing and forgiving these people without them being held to account is fundamentally a betrayal of self. She speaks on exactly how we should respond in these cases - by focusing on supporting ourselves and finding others who support us exactly as we are and exactly as we have experienced.

Jennifer Lowry on December 10, 2018:

Trying to teach communication and safety to my two teen daughters as his behavior has tripled unto the kids since we are in midst of divorce. I was already subconsciously separating friends etc... 2 years ago. I’d like to expose him publicly but fear he would kill me or my children.

Wes Walter on July 25, 2018:

Excellent writing as always Sparkster. Keep up the good work exposing these demonic creatures!

Maria Setiabudi on July 24, 2018:

This exactly amazing accurate to describe covert narcissism. I’ve been there and done that lived with that kind of person. I just wish till I die that God will destroy these evil souls.

Georgiagirl18 on March 08, 2018:

I have only just found some of your articles in these past few moments, and they have been spot on. Now I've been married for 23yrs, dated for 7 before hand- the whole dated in HS, then through college. Then got married a year and a half after college. Dating was great, he was kind and sweet. Even the first several years seemed alright when I look back. - as I'm only VERY recently reevaluating EVERYTHING that has gone on in my marriage because about 2 years ago I found out about some lies regarding finances. Him not really making $, so to cover that he took out a loan &ccard in MY name, he also had completed raided a savings account that was in MY NAME ONLY! When I was still sleeping he'd go in my wallet, take my debit card and transfer $ to the checking account on days he was supposed to get paid! He also set up direct withdrawal out of that account to pay bills. He didn't have access bc went through an issue 12yrs before where it was very severe due to lies & deceit & I felt safer keeping this just in my name. Told the bank not send statements bc I knew temptation would be there and we weren't using this $.I never knew. statements were sent, he took them out of the mail & hid them from me. I thought we have 2 kids that will be going to college, it was a start. Instead of getting a second job, or a new job he just took the $. It was never $ he earned, it was gifted by my father. I have a terrible back from an injury at work 20yrs ago that just got worse over time despite several surgeries. Needless to say, workers comp send me 2 minimal checks a month- a fraction of what I was making 20yrs ago(no cost of living increase. He has even taken those out of the mail, forged my name and put them in the bank- as if I'm not capable- not to mention it is illegal!! I do take some medicine for my back, wish I didn't have to. I have a tendency to not take it at specific intervals during the day but when all of a sudden, my back is dying and I look at the clock and I'll say something like"whoa, I should have taken that 2 hours ago, no wonder I've been hurting" he gets on me about taking it more often. Then other night I'm laughing with my kids, tears coming down laughing and he comments " how much medication are you on tonight." And I turned and told him Fuck you, don't ever do that. Why such a reaction? The night before, I was talking with my daughter and she was telling me how when she was in middle school, her father would always talk to her about me...?? why I said. She said that he told us you were always on medicine and if you weren't happy it was because of the medicine. Then he even got her to believe (& my mom/dad who do not live near us) that he picked her up every day after school (my mother thought it was the morning as well). So in my conversation to my daughter, it struck me so sad, I cleared up the "drug thing" with her (more of that to follow.) Then I had her sit and think about getting picked up from school, running to the car with the friend we car pooled with, were was the car always parked, was there ever a stop anywhere sometimes on the way home, what about music in the car, stuff like that.She then looks at me and says, he messed with my memories! You always picked us up and a couple times a week you took us for ice cream after school! She was stunned. She looked so confused and asked my, why did I ever think it was always dad? Because that's what he wanted you to believe.. He did pick you guys up on a very rare occasion. But to him his parents. My parents, friends, it sounds better for him if he's picking up- combine that with the drug comments, I sound like I was not capable of driving a car! The fact of the matter is he lies about EVERYTHING!! It could be something innocuous that you would wonder what would even be the point, then there's everything else from saying someone asked him to step up and fill a volunteer position and create an entire story around him being asked- when I already knew the truth, he volunteered. Anything to make himself sound better, important, needed, wanted. There was an incident 2 1/2yrs ago where my daughter alerted me to him and my clearly narc younger sister talking outside. She went on to slam me literally almost exactly like one of these article says and every bit was a bold faced lie. I went on the balcony to tell them to stop, once I heard them, I stood directly over them in full view & they spoke very loudly and very familiarly about the subject of me- that I don't love my dad, don't care about my mom, not a good mother (she's never been in an adult relationship at 36yrs old), the doozie was...I'm a drug addict, because I broke my back 20yrs ago ,I should be over it already. It's not like I lost a limb or have cancer. All the while my husband sat there, never once disagreeing with her. There was so much more said, but she ended the conversation by saying, she's dead to me..My husband like a coward saw my face as I was consoling my kids because my daughter, unbeknown to me at the time, had gone out on the balcony also but stayed back so I wouldn't see her, and heard it all. What ended up is NOBODY, NOT MY MOM OR DAD believed my sister said those things. My other sister & BIL texted my husband the next day that they were there for him if he needed anything they were rooting for him. I thought my head was spinning! Those two sat & said the worst possible things about me and no one believes me and my other sister is rooting for him? Clearly I have missed some major goings on...but at that moment, I was concerned with my parents understanding that I have never lied to them and would not lie to them and hat them questioning me on this, when I was clearly so distraught was heartbreaking, was both my parents when this happened, my husband drove home at 1am without telling anyone. My mother questioned my sister, she lied, said my husband and I got in a fight & he left- how did she know he had left when my mom spoke to her in the morning. Trying to get their stories straight. My sister lied to everyone, said nope, I was just crazy, must be the drugs. I didn't want to bring her into it, but I tell my mother, my daughter was on the balcony & I didn't know, but they were so loud the houses on either side could have heard, so she heard it all. Ask her again and tell her do not trie to discredit my daughter the way she's doing to me don't mess with my kids! Well my sister said she said all of it, finally. It literally took me begging my mom almost daily for 4mnths to get her to say that what my sister did was wrong & still doesn't ever want to say it yet says she said it right away, & another sister reminds her that she didn't. In the mean time, my husband, he took part in the whole conversation, made up little lies, things like he offered to pick something up and then he was saying I was too lazy I couldn't get off my ass to pick it up myself. So my own home became tense, that $ issue was 7 months before this. If anything came up, my husband was happy to bash what my sister did, and I'd look at him bewildered, what about you? The conversation never would have happened if you'd had a backbone and stood up and walked away instead of partaking in bashing me. My eyes are open, I'm figuring how to get out, I've uncovered many more lies. I can't imagine what I'll never know. He continues to try to twist words/thoughts of me and the kids & push the drug comments, that I thought solely came from my sister, I believe he had a big part. Those two and 1 other sister talked about me,about 8x that he cops to. There is absolutely no drug abuse, however he is a big bing drinker and have been trying to get him to stop that for many years. Until my daughter was about 13, she thought drinking=blacking out nice! There's the constant need for a "job well done"on doing kids chores! My kids are better than that. When drunk or confronted about a lie, he is ugly. Neighbors think he's the greatest. Trying to confide in 1/2 friends. Did kick him out for a bit due to the never ending lies, which was lovely & peaceful. Came back without asking & nowhere to go -how abt his parents, their " golden child" as they always called him.

Mitch Free1 on January 30, 2018:

I believe, my ex-wife is BPD/CNPD. I'm not a health professional, but the symptoms described for both PD's fit her very well --with a few exceptions: she does not rage, is good with money, not a risk taker and a few others. We dated for four years, seeing one another every weekend and talking on the phone daily. She was very in tune to my needs and I was enamored. There were several oddities of behavior that were perplexing and a few that were unsettling, but I was "in love" and there was an immense amount of good.

I told her that after I retired we could get married, my mistake, and she was on it the moment I announced it. She proposed we could combine it with a graduation present for her son to the Bahamas, which after I had agreed to go with them she asked her ex-husband and his wife to join us. I let her know that it was not an option.

I get along with most people, but her ex made me very uneasy, to say the least. He would talk about himself, his toys, vacations, money he made and his wisdom incessantly. Her two children were also very odd. The oldest, SC, was adopted from infancy and was a black sheep, with reasons to follow. The younger, GC, was unsettling and I couldn't put my finger on it, but he felt dangerous.

SC would tell total fabrications of accomplishments which caused me to research the behavior, because I thought it was so bizarre. I bought a book on narcissism and concluded he was a delusional narcissist. I offered the book to them and they nonchalantly declined, as if they couldn't be bothered--again I was perplexed.

GC was a scary kid that would seem to be every parents desire at a cursory glance. He was an excellent student, well dressed, well groomed and goal oriented. I once saw a study schedule he made up that was in 15 min. increments starting from his morning wakeup alarm to going to sleep. This kid would be smiling at me having a conversation and I'd have the distinct impression he was formulating my demise. Before I met him, his mother warned me that he was very judgmental, critical and adverse if he didn't like you, which was contingent on the unquestionable acceptance of his entitlement, superiority and power.

My ex transitioned from a charming, kind, warm, understanding, personable woman to a cynical, heartless, cruel, impersonal thing. Initially she would go out of her way to be gracious to strangers, which I saw as being a genuinely wonderful person and I felt immense gratitude having her choose me. Furthermore, when we ran into people that "knew" her they would laud her on being such a wonderful person. I believed it and felt so very, very fortunate to be me in the "us".

After we got married it was like going down the other side of a steep mountain, 4 years up one side in bliss and 5.5 years down the other into a dark abyss. I witnessed gas-lighting, ranting, months of silent treatment, disassociation, and much more. I was in a state perplexed shock and anger from a feeling of being duped. At the same time, I wanted the person back that I thought existed before we were married, but she was the illusion, this was the reality and I was in denial.

About three years into the marriage we started seeing a therapist, PHD. I became aware that my wife was not being forth rite, my denial was falling apart and reality was rearing its head. I asked PHD how a kid became narcissistic

PHD confirmed that my wife was responsible for her son's narcissism. After that it felt like she dummied up and started to dismiss, discount and mislead my observations. I continued to see PHD, because talking helped me become clearer. I started to refer to GC as the "golden boy" and SC as the "black sheep". I then realized on my own that her ex was an overt narcissist, which led me to reading posts on the web.

I came across an article on covert narcissism, Nov. 29, 2016 and freaked out, because it was so her. I was so extremely anxious and made an emergency appointment to see PHD. I asked if she knew what a covert narcissist was and she said "no". I didn't believe she was as clueless as she portrayed herself, but knew she was a major "HACK". My friends had asked me to move in with them from the start of my divorce and I moved in that night.

I told my PHD I felt she was misleading and discounting my feelings and she said that if I didn't trust her that we should end our sessions, but I said I needed them.

Then in one post it referenced a "Golden Child and Scapegoat" and then I knew I wasn't nuts, my so called therapist was diffidently misleading me and something clinical was present.

I called for an appointment and got the answering machine. She called back and left a message that we had a nonexistent phone call about a conflict of interest between me and my soon to be ex. She's an older person with some senility issues, I think, or major issues of some kind.

Thankfully I found Al-anon, which has helped me immensely. I had been reading about BPD and while many characteristics where present some things did not fit. She had an aversion to losing her temper, she rarely got angry and when she did I think it upset her more that she got angry than the actual incident. She is very conservative with money. She has not had very many relationships. She takes some physical risks, but not extreme life risks. Then a few months later, I saw an article that talked about the four personalty types: waif, witch, queen and hermit. In that article it mentioned that those that had queen traits would control their negative emotions. So, I labeled her with that and got on with Al-anon to heal myself.

13 months after reading the covert narcissist article I revisited it and do believe with a high degree of certainty that she is BPD/cNPD. It just fits, feels right and doesn't leave me asking any questions.

Being in a relationship with a cNPD is devastating. but the ultimate responsibility for being in that relationship is mine. If I had been healthy I would not have been in that relationship. I see these people as having a serious mental illness and have sympathy for them as I would for anyone with an illness. The xPD's I've been exposed to have been initiated by a parent or parents on a child that ends up passing it on like a genetic defect.

I have the most sympathy for SG. I've thought about how it came to be for him to become who he is. I see him as a kid that had a overt NPD dad, a BPD/cNPD mom and imagined her looking at him, with a look that could elate you or shrivel a plant, from infancy to adulthood. The thing is I can't really imagine that, because I experienced the elation from 51 to 55, a combination ending in total vehemence 55 to 60yo and I was a complete mess.

Best of health and recovery to all!