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Unmasking the Covert Narcissist: Signs to Look Out For

How to Spot a Covert Narcissist

Are you dating a covert narcissist?

In these times of social media, dating apps, ghosting and gaslighting, the relationship game can be dark and full of horrors. We bump into strangers in bars and swipe right on apps based on just a few photos, and none of them come with referrals or reviews. How do you know if someone is capable of holding a healthy relationship, or if they are about to repeat a toxic cycle with you? When we are over-generous or have an insecure attachment style we can be quick to gloss over any warning signs that aren’t immediately identifiable and obvious. It’s perhaps easy to cut someone off when they are a demonstrable asshole, but what about someone smart enough to know they need to hide their manipulations?

Put another way, how do we spot a covert narcissist?

What is a covert narcissist?

It is not in and of itself narcissistic to put oneself first and prioritise one’s needs over those of a partner. We all have narcissistic traits. Rather, Narcissistic Personality Disorder is characterised by symptoms that include a sense of grandiosity, a lack of empathy, a fixation on how they are perceived by others and a preoccupation with beauty, power and/or success. They can also be resentful and envious, simultaneously believing others should be envious of them. NPD is a pervasive pattern of behaviours stemming from all of the aforementioned personality traits that ultimately impacts all areas of a person’s life and functioning.

Unlike a standard narcissist, a covert narcissist is higher in intelligence and savvy enough to know that their behaviour must be disguised lest society considers them ‘bad’. Overt narcissists tend to be louder, while coverts tend to be passive aggressive. Because the covert's superiority complex actually stems from a sense of inferiority they lack self esteem. This is why, to boost their self-worth, it is extremely important to them that everyone sees them as the ‘nice guy / girl’. Thus they are more subtle in their psychological games and manipulations.

Coverts disguise their mistreatment as well-intentioned. They cultivate their image carefully to ensure no one will believe stories of their poor behaviour. If a narcissist is a 12-gauge shotgun, a covert is a pistol with a silencer attached.

The Facade

Before we go into the signs to look for, it’s important to understand where their behaviour originates from: a deep and urgent need for people to see them as an 'amazing person' at all cost. They are extremely preoccupied with their reputation and thus carefully develop a facade with which to interact with others. The covert's most effective tactic is to play either the victim or the saviour.

The Victim. Being the victim generates the sympathy and attention they receive so they will wallow in self pity for as long as it is advantageous. Their stories have been spruced up to the point you might be shocked at how they have tolerated being so poorly treated by such awful people. They were so generous! So Kind! So taken advantage of! They sigh and mention that they've been treated like this several times. Being the victim also gives them a chance to martyr themselves in a demonstration of sacrifice.

The Saviour. There will be public displays of selflessness and generosity. Would a bad person do all these nice things? Would a bad person do so much for others? Would a bad person be so spiritual? The covert will grandly and publicly step up to save or help others. These grandiose performances are important in building and maintaining their public image. It also helps them wriggle out of any accusations of abusive behaviour from their ex’s.

Early warning signs

  1. They force connection quickly. Some examples include love bombing, mirroring or premature oversharing. This is to create an intense bond in an attempt to ‘lock you in’ far sooner than is normal. If you are dizzied by their romantic gestures, you are far more likely to tolerate their puzzling or abusive behaviour down the road. Narcissists cannot abide being rejected; they need to be the one that leaves, so they overwhelm you with commitment to ensure they are in control of when to end things. Love bombing is when they litter you early on with grand statements about the future, with declarations of adoration and commitment. They talk about a long and happy life together, almost at inopportune moments. You will be amazed, grateful and feel oh-so-lucky that they are falling head over heels for you. It can sound like, “this could be our last relationship”, “our children are going to be so beautiful”, “This is it, you’re the one.” "You should move in with me” or “how many children should we have?” and so on. Mirroring is when they reflect what you say to act as if they share your values, likes and opinions. This is to make you think “wow we have so much in common!”, whereas in reality this is a protocol for synthetic connection in the absence of a meaningful one. Premature oversharing is when the covert tells you deep, dark secrets that should be reserved for the closest of friends and family. This moment of vulnerability is designed to woo you into a false sense of connection, because they trust you! You're different! They've confided in you! They will also make strangely-timed requests for intimate information about you; one minute you’re having a laugh then the next they suddenly gaze into your eyes and ask you when was the last time you cried. It will feel disjointed and inorganic, just not quite at the right moment. The covert had the line in their head and was waiting for an opening to use it on you.

  2. Prematurely buy you gifts or do big favours. Related to love bombing, the covert narcissist will buy generous gifts and do you extraordinary favours far too early in the relationship. Some can be very grand. Perhaps it’s a spa day, perhaps it’s a pair of shoes, or perhaps they volunteer to run a particularly time consuming errand for you. The key here is that it is far too early to engage in this behaviour and usually there is some public element about this (they will gift you in front of your friends, or tell their friends what they do for you). On top of seducing you, this also becomes ammunition they can use against you later. In their recantations you may very well become a ‘user’ or a ‘gold digger’, just like all their exes.

  3. All their exes wronged them. While overt narcissists will trash their ex’s without nuance, the covert narcissist is clever enough to throw in one or two generous comments towards their ex, so the covert doesn’t look unreasonable. Look out for whether all of their ex’s wronged them somehow, and whether the covert describes them contemptuously. "She was a really nice girl, but really self conscious because she wasn’t as educated as me and my friends.” It could look like “I can’t blame him for using me for my money, he wasn't used to having any.” It can take the form of a compliment; "oh you’re so good at cooking! My ex wasn't. She just didn't have that sense.” Why do this? Because you will want to prove you are nothing like their ex's.

  4. They’re ‘not like the other guys/girls’ The covert narcissist isn’t like all those other painfully average or awful people. They’re better than them! They’re nicer! Funnier! More sensitive! Unique! This desire to outflank rival men or women stems from their innate insecurity, which is conveyed as a superiority complex.  It can include them saying they are deeply empathetic, spiritual, an ally or a tomboy, and include a great deal of therapy-speak; but always includes not being like ‘the others’. Notice when they make dismissive criticism of a group of people or if they like to point out that they are a unique flower in a sea of mud. It could sound like, "oh she wasn't used to being treated well by guys until she met me."

Warning Signs in a Relationship

What if you’ve progressed past the dating stage and you’re in a relationship? It can happen to the best of us. For those of us who glossed over the warning signs it’s often because we talked ourselves out of our gut instinct. Maybe you’re in a vulnerable place right now, or maybe the covert triggered an insecure attachment style. Either way, here’s what to look out for:

  1. They can’t stop lying. They say all the right things but their actions don’t quite match their words. You keep catching them in small insignificant lies. They might tell you that they love you but they avoid holding your hand in public. There are exaggerations, bragging, and stories that make them look like a hero or a victim, but you find out later they weren’t quite true. They might squirm or ‘not remember’ when you ask them to be straightforward or to clarify a few details. Their lies might be complete fiction or based on a half-truth. Their actions leave you feeling confused and uncertain, and if this is paired with them telling you that you’re imagining things it can be very unsettling. It’s within these lies that the covert uses devaluation, gaslighting and triangulation to create the crazy in you. Phrases they might say: “I never said that”, “I don’t remember that”, “I think you have memory issues, you get confused really easily”, “wow your recent trauma has given you some real trust issues, you keep imagining I’m lying!”

  2. They insult you in a roundabout way. Smart coverts won’t insult you or others directly, they’ll use other peoples voices to do so. At first they may say that their friends are uneasy about you, then move to more overt criticisms ‘from their friends’. You will be unsure why their friends have a negative view of you, and you won’t be able to think of any moments you've offended them. But the covert will tell you they're on your side against all their friends who dislike you. They might use your past against you ("Oh! I didn't think someone like you would date women like that. That's surprising"). Now you've become deeply insecure and desperate to keep this relationship afloat, against all the unwarranted criticism. Phrases they might say: “Katie is concerned about me. She thinks you’ve moved too fast”, “Gary thinks you have anger management issues” , “Jana thinks we should break up”, “my friends have noticed you’re really insecure”, “none of my friends like you, even though I tell them how great you are.”

  3. They dismiss your concerns. If and when you bring up an issue, share a need or express that they have hurt you, they scoff and say the issue is imagined. They may say it’s not a big deal or they dismiss it altogether. If you persist, they may say that you are responsible for their reaction, so really it’s your fault. You might have heard of the narcissist’s prayer? That didn’t happen. And if it did, it wasn’t that bad. And if it was, that’s not a big deal. And if it is, that’s not my fault. And if it was, I didn’t mean it. And if I did, you deserved it. - Dayna Craig Phrases they might say: “I didn’t realise you were so sensitive,” “I’m sorry that you misunderstood me,” “you’re overreacting,” “Oh I was just joking. I guess I’ll never joke around you ever again,” and “I only did xyz because you made me do xyz!”

  4. They’re surprisingly judgemental. For someone that fronts as empathetic and kind, they sure are critical about others. These comments can seem out of place or overly harsh and disguised as comments from other people. Usually they are reserved for anyone the covert is jealous of. They’re obsequious and overly-humble to important people (a boss, for example), but horrendously rude and dismissive to ‘unimportant’ people (a retail worker). Again, the covert insults people through others voices. Phrases they might say: “Oh, I heard only sluts are friends with Trish,” “Some people say Dave doesn’t deserve his job,” or “I’ve heard people say Tim isn’t a good leader.”

  5. When they mess up you comfort them. When they are in the wrong they become so self-deprecating that you end up comforting them (or even apologising!) instead of having them apologise to you. Did they get caught in a lie? It’s your fault because your response to their lies is ‘too much’ so they’re now afraid to be honest. Did they ditch an important event? You just don’t understand their stress levels right now, in fact you’re stressing them out. Did they stand you up? Well now they feel like the worst person in the world, and they're just miserable that you're upset they wronged you. At first you might think “wait why are they upset at me? didn't they make the mistake?” but as time goes on and your self-esteem begins to crumble, you may find yourself apologising to them for causing them stress, or trying to comfort them so they don't feel like a 'bad person' for wronging you. It might sound like: “Oh I guess I’m just the worst person in the world then,” “I only did that because I was scared of your reaction,” “I’m disappointed you have such a low opinion of me,” “I try so hard to be the perfect partner but I guess I’m just a terrible person.”

  6. They weaponise therapy. They seem like such sensitive souls. They’ve shared intimate details about their emotional pain, vulnerability and fears. They’ve done all the self-help work, read all the books, attended therapy and even joined self-discovery workshops. They have an extensive therapeutic vocabulary. They have harnessed the language of therapy to insult, shame, control and gaslight you. They act sensitive and fragile to distract you from the lies they are spinning or the damage they have done. They will demand a non-negotiable respect for their boundaries but have minimal or zero respect for yours. They throw around ‘bipolar’ to silence you. They use the secrets you’ve confided in them against you. They will use the entire dictionary to convince you that you are completely insane and need help just so they can get away with their lies. And if they can't squirm out of it (i.e. been publicly busted) then they will tell you that they need you, and ask you to be responsible for their progress. It might sound like: “you always think I'm lying, it shows how severely you need therapy." "You believe Steve over me? You are really broken and have trust issues." I never said that, you made that up - you have a lot of self-reflection and work to do.” “You need to fix yourself before you date.” “You need to keep me accountable. Will you help me become a better person?” “I’m really disappointed you asked for a time out during our fight. I guess you don’t trust me enough to talk about issues.”

  7. They try to obliterate your reputation, friendships and finances. When the relationship gets rough or you go through the 'break-up and make-up' cycle, they will tell anyone and everyone that you are crazy, a user, an abuser, a gold-digger, bipolar, and the list goes on. They will beg you to never leave them, then they will tell others that you're refusing to move out of their home. Some of these lies will be complete fiction, others might be based on a half-truth. You’ll start to wonder why their friends are so unfriendly. You'll have discovered your partner said something terrible (and untrue) about you to several people, but when you confront them they deny all knowledge of it. This can include trying to paint you as mentally unwell amongst their social circles, as violent, or even try to sabotage you to people who know your colleagues and clients in an attempt to ruin you financially. Their dream is to be so influential that your clients fire you, mutual acquaintances choose the covert's side, and you lose all future potential love interests.

  8. You’re engaging in reactive abuse. 'Reactive abuse' happens when victims are provoked until they react in kind to their abuser. It can look like yelling, being insulting and contemptuous, or even physical assault. Coverts want you to react so they enact warfare and push you to your limit to get you to snap, which they will then use to label you the abuser and they the victim. The covert will stay calm in an argument and act superior and condescending. They will not raise their voice (because how can it be abusive if they never raised their voice?). They will instead rely on devaluing tactics such as cruelty, insults, sarcasm and mockery. They will take your words and twist them beyond your recognition. They will tell you that you have imagined what they said or did. When you begin to raise your voice, the covert has won. Now you’re yelling at them! Now you’re being abusive! You’re irrational! You’re hysterical! They weren’t even yelling, and you can’t be reasoned with! You’re crazy! This abuse is insidious because it is difficult to identify and describe. The covert will never show this in public where they are the model of a great partner. They believe that as long as they speak softly no one can call them abusive. This can look like physically looming over you, asking non-stop for you to slap them and blocking you from leaving. But once you react, even slightly, they have the ammunition to tell everyone you beat them to the floor. Now you’re the violent one.

Woah I think I’m dating a covert narcissist!

If you think you are in a relationship with a covert narcissist, know that you are not crazy. Keep in mind that coverts try to lower your sense of self-worth so it becomes hard for you to leave them, because you feel you have nothing without them and would have no one without them. Covert's actually have a strong fear of abandonment; they want to be the ones that leave when they’re done with you (I’m sure you’ve noticed they come crawling back if you break it off first) so stay strong in your resolve to end it.

If you need help ending a toxic relationship you can contact me for therapy centered around relationship wounds and break ups. We will do the work to raise your self-esteem, perform assertiveness training and look into your childhood family dynamics to understand what about your past experiences leave you vulnerable to toxic relationships. You can also reach out to your friends and family, rebuild your community (such as starting or re-starting hobbies) and journal what a loving and healthy relationship looks like to you, so you know what you do want.

When to seek counselling

If you find your feelings of sadness, hopelessness and apathy are overwhelming you then counselling would also be beneficial. If sad feelings start disrupting your daily life (cancelling plans, withdrawing from friends, calling in sick to work) or if you cannot see a way through this then counselling can also help. Counselling can help you build your self-worth to make it possible for you to choose yourself. It can help you lead a happier and fulfilling life by building your confidence and mapping out how to build a social support network.


This blog is not intended for those in dangerous situations where one's physical safety is compromised or at risk. If you are in danger please delete this blog from your browser history and contact a trusted friend, law enforcement official, lawyer or charity for help. You can also click here for a list of women’s shelters in Hong Kong.

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