What is narcissism?
"Narcissism" is a catch-all phrase for people who demonstrate the traits of Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD). People with NPD are preoccupied with their own success and have a grandiose sense of self that impacts their daily decision making and relationships. They tend to find it diffcult to connect with others because of their lack of empathy.
While one may think of narcissists as people who are very self-involved or self-centered, NPD is much more complicated than that. It encompasses a broad spectrum of behavior that demonstrates a variety of potential traits. However, experts agree there are four distinct types of narcissism — including covert narcissism.
What is covert narcissism?
In psychology, behaviors are described as either overt or covert. Overt behaviors are easily observed by others and generally well-known as traits of a specific disorder, while covert behaviors can fly under the radar — they are less obvious and perhaps less readily tied to a certain disorder.
As a result, covert narcissists often demonstrate fewer external signs of "classic" NPD. They still meet the criteria for an NPD diagnosis, but may demonstrate traits or behaviors that aren't traditionally prescribed to NPD, like shyness or sensitivity to what others think of them.
So, how can you spot a covert narcissist?
Signs of covert narcissism.
Here are 15 subtle but visible signs that someone may be a covert narcissist. If they demonstrate a combination of these traits, they are even more likely to fall in line with the diagnosis.
1. A high sensitivity to criticism.
Covert narcissists' entire personalities are constructed around their incredibly high sense of self. They are incredibly sensitive to anyone questioning or crumbling that construction, and can react in a volatile way to criticism or any form of feedback.
2. Feelings of inadequacy.
Covert narcissists tend to swing back and forth between delusions of grandeur and concerns that they don't match the image of themselves they have in their head. They are obsessed with their success and incredibly touchy about making sure they are always the best and most beautiful versions of themselves. This can make them hypercritical of themselves and foster extreme feelings of inadequacy.
3. A tendency to put themselves down.
As a result of the insecurity described above, covert narcissists can put themselves down pretty regularly. They are particularly apt to do so when they are around a hospitable audience who will reconfirm their high feelings of themselves.
4. A tendency to hold grudges.
Narcissists are the center of their own self-important worlds. As a result, they tend to take perceived transgressions incredibly personally and hold on to negative feelings. They may act on these grudges with passive aggression to make the other "pay" for what they've done.
5. Passive aggression.
Speaking of passive aggression, covert narcissists often aren't outright about their desire to control and dominate others. Instead of being traditionally aggressive like those who demonstrate psychopathic behavior, they tend to be passive aggressive — biting comments, gossip and small slights "behind-the-scenes" tend to be common.
Narcissists must be the best in all spheres of life. If they're not, they're incredibly uncomfortable. Their envy is deep-rooted and can sometimes result in outward behavior, like searing comments or passive aggressive behavior.
7. Self-serving 'empathy' or attempts to connect.
Narcissists struggle with empathy — unless that empathy serves their end goals. They may make lame attempts to come across as the supportive teammate or shoulder to cry on when it is politically savvy to do so, or use their surface-level charisma to appeal to others in order to build influence and get ahead.
8. Self-serving 'humility.'
Narcissists are the time to humble-brag. They may be self-effacing to get compliments or to secure opportunities for themselves — it's all a part of their schtick of being likable and relatable to get an edge on the competition.
9. Shyness or withdrawn behavior.
Unlike traditional narcissists, covert narcissists tend to be withdrawn or a bit shy. They have a fragile sense of self that they are concerned about presenting or potentially fracturing in the public sphere, so they may keep a distance, shirk social events and keep interactions curt and surface level.
10. Grandiose thoughts.
Narcissists feel that they are special and at a level above the general member of the population. They are the type of people to say they know they're "born for greatness" or that they "achieve their goals by whatever means necessary." They may express feelings that they are "special" and "can't relate" to others.
11. Procrastination or lack of regard.
Narcissists are so sure of their abilities and talents that they may procrastinate or lack regard for tasks, thinking they will be able to effortlessly check that box at a time that suites them — no matter how short the deadline. A covert narcissist may be good at coming up with excuses for their lack of attention or tendency to complete things five minutes before they're due, but be warned: They think many tasks aren't worthy of their abilities.
12. Passive self-importance.
Covert narcissists may make subtle comments about their extreme importance to your task, team or company. They may believe a task could never be completed without their experience or that they're holding a team on their back. They may say it jokingly or with intense seriousness but either way, it is an expression of their narcissistic sense of self.
13. Exaggeration about their abilities or impact.
Narcissists have delusions of grandeur. They may occasionally exaggerate about their own talents, skills or impacts in a way that doesn't align with the reality of a situation. This is truly how they feel: On another plane from reality.
14. Gaslighting or manipulative behavior.
Narcissists need to feel superior to the people around them and need to feel they're successful. As a result, they have no struggle manipulating friends, family and coworkers to achieve their ends. Narcissists are the type to lie or gaslight others for a laugh, to manipulate others with some of the tactics listed above, or to throw even well-established relationships under the bus to get their way.
15. Difficulty being flexible or going off-script.
Just as narcissists have a perfect vision of themselves in their head, they also have strict visions of situations and their expected outcomes. They are perfectionists who are sure everything will happen as thought because they themselves, the actors, are perfect. As a result, narcissists struggle to improvise or to adjust to changing situations. They tend to be rigid and get anxious when plans change — from something as small as a conversation going in the wrong direction to travel plans changing.
About the Career Expert:
Una Dabiero is an editor at Fairygodboss, where she's spent the last three years reading, writing and editing thousands of career advice articles. Before working at Fairygodboss, she was a culture reporter. She earned a B.A. from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.