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15 Weird Things Covert Narcissists Do That Drive Us Nuts

He can’t be a narcissist – he doesn’t even like attention.

You may not know this, but not all narcissists are overtly controlling or domineering. Covert narcissists exist, and they have some bizarre ways of treating those around them.

The term ‘narcissist’ and ‘narcissism’ has become widely used both in formal therapeutic circles and on social media, with people often using it as a description for selfish people or those who only care about themselves. In reality, narcissism is more than a label we slap onto people who we feel only do things that benefit them.

Narcissism is a trait belonging to an actual psychological disorder that researchers believe affects up to 5% of the population in the USA. It’s believed that one in 200 people have Narcissistic Personality Disorder, or NPD – a condition that has been linked to abuse, violence, and extensive trauma in millions of people worldwide.

But is it really that bad?

What’s The Actual Definition of a Narcissist?

Far from just being about selfishness or self-centeredness, narcissism is about how you view yourself and relate to those around you. The term itself can be used to reference vanity and arrogance in a person, and as a standalone trait, it is also fairly common in certain personality types.

However, NPD is a different kettle of fish; it’s a personality disorder that the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) recognizes as an all-encompassing pattern of grandiosity, a constant need for admiration, and a lack of empathy toward others. 

If that sounds a little confusing, here’s a simplified breakdown of how professionals identify NPD. 

Close up image of a covert narcissist woman with her eyes closed puckering her lips and pointing to her face
weird things covert narcissists do

NPD Criteria:

  • A warped sense of self and an exaggerated sense of their own importance
  • Over-the-top sense of their abilities and ‘specialness’ 
  • A sense of entitlement and belief that they deserve to get whatever they want – and others should agree
  • A need for constant admiration
  • Exploits and takes advantage of others for their own benefit
  • A lack of empathy and unwillingness to understand the needs of others
  • Arrogant and haughty attitude and behavior
  • Envious and jealous of those who appear to be ‘doing better’ than them – and, conversely, a belief that everyone is envious of them.

This sounds pretty terrible. While many of these can appear as human traits we all sometimes have – or as variations in personality traits – when all of these things combine in one person, the result is chaotic and often very damaging to those they are in a relationship with.

It’s essential to identify what isn’t toxic narcissism because, as I’ve mentioned, many of these traits are pretty common in isolation. 

For example, we may all believe that we are the best at what we do or that we deserve only the best in life. But these things generally balance out again with the realization that others also deserve the best and that we may be excellent at something, but that it doesn’t entitle us to special treatment. 

This differs from the way true narcissists live their lives: with the belief that they deserve to be set apart, and treated differently. To be the center of attention for those around them.

While people with NPD are generally overtly loud and proud of these beliefs (they are often charismatic and likable), there are also those with NPD who aren’t quite so easy to identify.

Enter the covert narcissist.

How Are Covert Narcissists Different?

Covert narcissists are only different from classic narcissists in that they don’t express the traits of NPD outwardly.

These folks are more introverted and don’t make a big show of how important they believe they are. But they do still think they are superior and deserve to be treated as special. 

Whereas classic narcissists are loud, assertive, and even aggressive in their self-presentation, overt narcissists are more subtle.

They won’t advertise their thoughts, but they still have the same desires and goals – to be elevated above others, to be admired and adored, and to have everything their way. 

Despite coming across as shy, withdrawn, or introverted, the covert narcissist still believes they are intrinsically superior in some way, and they think they should be lauded for this.

They want to be the focus of attention, to be held in high regard, and for others to want to be like them. Most importantly, they also lack empathy and don’t prioritize the needs of those around them.

But, instead of being showy, loud, and openly controlling, covert narcissists will withdraw or become passive-aggressive if they don’t get their way. 

How Does Someone Become A Covert Narcissist?

It’s not entirely known what causes narcissism, but experts feel a combination of the following factors is likely:

What most likely determines whether narcissism manifests as classic or covert pertains to personality and temperament. Narcissists who are more withdrawn, conservative, or shy are likely to have a covert form of the disorder. 

How does one recognize a covert narcissist? Are there tells and signs that can help to identify them?

If you’re interested in early warning signs to get a head of a situation with someone you suspect is a covert narcissist, check out this video:

15 Weird Things Covert Narcissists Do (And Why They Do Them)

I often tell clients that the primary goal of a narcissist is to ‘have it their way,’ and ‘their way’ is a broad way of saying that the narcissist wants everyone else’s lives to revolve around them.

Not only should they be the most loved, admired, and respected of anyone else, but their needs should be pandered to – everything gets done on their terms.

Narcissists react negatively when they feel they aren’t treated like this.

After all, they believe this is the correct way. So, you not fussing over them in the ways they demand is seen as disrespect, a willful slight that they react to in a manner designed to ‘get you back in line’ and remind you that you should be fawning over them. 

So, what does that look like for the covert narcissist?

#1 They Act Like ‘The King’ (Or Queen)

Narcissists believe they are inherently just better than anyone else. It doesn’t even apply to a specific skill.

They think something sets them apart and makes them more deserving than others. As a result, they will often talk a big game and tell anecdotes and stories that highlight how much more important they are than others.

This looks like a celebrity recognizing them in a mall or someone important phoning them up for advice.

#2 They Blame and Shame (But Differently)

Whereas the classic narcissist will openly shame and badmouth others to make themselves look better or paint themselves in a better light, the covert narcissist is more likely to subtly infer that they aren’t to blame for their failure and that someone else is.

This looks like, “John may have more experience than me, but it’s not my fault I didn’t have the advantages of being the CEO’s son to get special treatment.”

#3 They Sow Chaos and Confusion

I’ve long said that the primary weapon of the narcissist is instability.

The narcissist is at their best when you are kept on your toes, not sure of what comes next or how they will react today.

There isn’t much consistency to their behavior on a superficial level, but it all boils down to how they can get you to respond to them immediately.

This looks like there always being crises or drama in their lives, especially when you are already busy or dealing with other things. (This is a classic codependent dynamic with a narcissist).

The expectation is that you drop whatever you’re doing to help them with their crisis – after all, their getting mugged is a much more critical issue than your work deadline.

#4 They Minimize

Covert narcissists will remind you time and time again that they are more important and that your needs are much lower on the priority list.

Whether they are downplaying something important to you or brushing off your requests for them to do something for you, they won’t explicitly tell you that you’re not important, but their behavior will.

This looks like them not confirming plans, procrastinating on helping you, arriving late or standing you up, or even saying, “You didn’t expect me to cancel my plans for your parent’s visit, did you?”

#5 They Use Strategic Sabotage

One of the easier things to spot is how strategically a narcissist will derail things that matter to you.

I remember a client who sobbed her eyes out to me because it was the sixth birthday in a row that her partner missed. They sometimes forgot a gift or the date, but often, there were parties planned, trips organized, and even hotels booked, but every year something would come up.

Significant events and special occasions that matter to you detract from the attention they believe they deserve. Expect them to sabotage. 

In addition to deliberately forgetting, this looks like the narcissist suddenly having to work late despite your dinner plans, their phone ‘getting stolen’ on your anniversary, or their car breaking down on their way to you.

I heard, “I have a lot on my mind.  You can’t expect me to remember everything,” in response to my partner’s missing my 30th birthday. 

A covert narcissist male with a beard and sunglasses stares off into the distance
how to spot a covert narcissist

#6 They Employ Goal-Focused ‘Kindness’

Lacking empathy and not being capable of identifying the needs of those around them means that if and when a narcissist is doing something for someone else, they do it with an agenda.

Chances are good they will get praised for their kindness, and having the attention drawn to them will achieve what they want: admiration. 

This is also often the complete opposite of what those near and dear to a narcissist will experience.

Because they are expected to be kind to their loved ones, narcissists can’t rely on their “nice” actions for the attention they so desperately need – instead, help, kindness, or generosity is directed at others since that will more likely result in them being lauded for it.

This looks like charity work, giving up their time to help a stranger, or donating money to a cause, all with the aim of acknowledgment. The same kindness is rarely extended to family and friends. 

#7 They Use Passive-Aggressive Responses and Manipulation

Whereas classic narcissists may react to situations they don’t like with aggression, outbursts of anger, or even abuse, the covert narcissist takes a more subtle approach.

Instead, they may respond to their friend or family members by withdrawing and giving them the silent treatment or making snide remarks. 

It’s also common for them to use jokes or mocking remarks to ‘punish’ others should they feel they are not being treated correctly. Passive aggressive statements are also used to manipulate others into doing things the way they want you to.

This looks like “I wouldn’t expect someone like you to get it right,” or “Smart people would do it my way.”

Said in a calm and reasonable tone, statements like these can be particularly devastating since what’s implied with the derision is said so “nicely”.

#8 They’re Either the Victim or Hero 

One of the lines I used most in counseling is that narcissists are only ever two characters in any story: the victim or the hero.

Since they believe they are superior, they will often exaggerate their abilities. And if this isn’t realized, they instantly become a victim of events beyond their control. 

What this looks like is either them saving the day (“I was the only one who knew how to do it, so of course, I stepped in and fixed it”) or being thwarted in their noble cause (“I was in the lead for the award but you know how they hate people like me”). 

#9 They Act Like a Politician

Narcissists are very intentional with the people they choose to surround themselves with.

They have delusions of grandeur, meaning they have a false impression of their importance. To emphasize this belief, they will add people to their circle who build that up: lawyers, doctors, leaders in their field, wealthy people, celebrities, and those they think are most attractive.

Not only do name-dropping and fame-by-association feed into their belief that they deserve to be in such circles, but they also choose these people for their usability.

This looks like being surrounded by people who can contribute to their delusions through wealth or connections and who will stroke their egos and feed into their sense of importance. 

#10 They Must Win At All Costs

Every narcissist I’ve ever met or dealt with has been intensely competitive. Covert narcissists are no different.

They have to be the best at something. They are known to be viciously focused on winning as a rule, and covert narcissists may only be different in that they don’t outwardly display the drive to win or the dissatisfaction with losing. 

A great example of how this looks comes from a family I counseled years ago.

The father was a covert narcissist who was a dancer by trade, but he was getting on in years. He refused to retire. He competed every year for almost a decade until he managed to take first place. He announced his retirement from the podium, securing the title never to be ‘taken’ from him.

#11 They Fish For Attention

Another weird thing covert narcissists do is switch up how they get attention from others. They are less in-your-face about getting it than traditional narcissists. .

Instead, they use false humility and self-deprecating comments to trigger praise and reassurance from those around them. They fish for attention by giving backhanded compliments or using sarcastic remarks to prompt you to tell them how wonderful they are.

This looks like statements such as “I guess people want to see the popular choice on the podium, and not someone with actual skill,” which most would react to by fawning over their skill and how they were short-changed.

#12 They’re Hypocritical

Covert narcissists are hypocrites. They will easily criticize, judge, or badmouth someone they feel is a threat to them, even if they are also guilty of doing what that person is doing or even if their professed views are entirely different in general.

This looks like an unfaithful husband raging against the partner of his mistress, calling him immoral and a terrible person, purely because his mistress chose to end their relationship instead of leaving her partner to be with him. 

#13 They Gaslight

Another buzzword these days, gaslighting is one of the narcissist’s most destructive weapons and, when wielded by a covert narcissist, feels even more effective since there is no outward display of rage or violence that can hint at how manipulative it is. 

Gaslighting is a subtle way narcissists remain in control by lying or twisting the truth to make it seem like you are either crazy or remembering it wrong.

This can look like them trying to convince you that reality is different from how you remember it or twisting the situation so that you end up apologizing, even if you weren’t in the wrong. 

# 14 They Weaponize Incompetence

Feigning ignorance or pretending they can’t do something is another manipulation tactic narcissists use to get you to do what they want you to do.

It seems counterintuitive because a narcissist would never admit not being competent. But this pales in comparison to their desire to be doted on, waited on, and pandered to.

Weaponized incompetence can be layered with belittling or degrading remarks, which can look like this:

“I didn’t realize you could pack the dishwasher like that, but I guess you’d know better since this is your domain” which simultaneously relegates their partner to domestic tasks and gets them out of their responsibility. 

#15 They Say Things Like, “I’m Sorry, But…”

Narcissists rarely admit they are wrong, so getting an apology is unlikely. Rest assured that if you ever get an apology, it will likely be issued as a form of manipulation (to get you to do something they want) or as a means of shifting blame and absolving them of guilt.

This looks like “sorry/but” apologies: “I’m sorry it ruined your day, but you should’ve told me you needed me to do it. It’s not my fault if I didn’t know.”

How To Handle The Covert Narcissist In Your Life

Now that you have some pointers to identify whether someone is a narcissist, covert or not, you’ll need to know how to deal with them.

For the most part, applying these rules should help you to minimize the impact a narcissist has on your life:

  • Set boundaries: Depending on your relationship with them, ensure they stick to boundaries that don’t afford them too much access. This can be challenging if it’s a family member or partner, but having rules about what is allowed is vital.
  • Don’t take it personally: You’ve learned that this is a disorder, so don’t blame yourself for their actions. 
  • Use statements like “Our realities are clearly different” if they try to gaslight or manipulate you – and cut the conversation off. The best way to win with a narcissist is not to play, so don’t engage unless you have to.
  • Get help: For you and the narcissist, seeking therapeutic intervention is essential in dealing with trauma and equipping yourself to improve the negative behaviors that can be so damaging.

But most importantly, take care of yourself and make sure your needs are met. Dealing with all the weird things covert narcissists do is irritating, for sure. But you can break free. And if you need help, don’t be afraid to take that leap.

If you’re struggling right now, feel stuck, or don’t know what to do next, talk therapy can help. Getting started with BetterHelp is easy!

  • Answer a few questions.
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