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Dealing with a narcissist is incredibly draining. Whether you’re currently in a relationship with one or trying to heal from a past narcissistic relationship, you’re often left with deep emotional scars.

While narcissists, in general, are a nightmare, covert narcissists are a whole separate beast. They’re especially dangerous because they’re often not immediately recognizable as narcissists. It’s very possible to get so far into a relationship that you don’t even realize your partner is a covert narcissist until you’ve already been dealt severe emotional blows.

Spot a Covert Narcissist

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To help you protect yourself from a relationship with a covert narcissist—or to discern whether you’re already in one—I’ll share nine telltale signs of a covert narcissist.

1. They’re introverted, withdrawn, or shy

The first thing to know about covert narcissists is that they’re shy and introverted. They‘re profoundly insecure and afraid of others seeing their failures and inadequacies. Rather than mask that with a sense of bravado as other narcissists do, covert narcissists withdraw from situations and relationships that might expose their faults. If the situation they’re in doesn’t highlight their strengths, they’ll avoid it at all costs.

2. They suffer from depression and anxiety

Covert narcissists are more likely to suffer from depression and anxiety than other narcissists. This is because they greatly fear their insecurities and perceived failures being exposed.

Additionally, being introverted means they aren’t as openly boastful as other narcissists. A lack of confidence can mean they receive fewer compliments and appreciation—something all narcissists crave—leading to resentment and depression.

3. They put themselves down

All narcissists crave admiration from others, relying on compliments to build their confidence and self-esteem. Many narcissists will openly brag about themselves to get compliments from others. However, covert narcissists differ from other narcissists in that they fish for compliments by putting themselves down. Their ultimate goal is for others to contradict their statements by showering them with praise.

4. They give backhanded compliments

Another way covert narcissists try to build their self-esteem is by giving backhanded compliments to those around them. For example, if you meet a covert narcissist at an event, they may say something like, “Oh, I never would have guessed you’d be invited to something like this!” or “Don’t worry, not everyone here is rich and fancy. I’m happy to explain any rich guy jargon you might hear tonight.”

By giving backhanded compliments, narcissists build their confidence by putting others down and making themselves feel witty at the same time.

5. They falsely display empathy

Narcissists have little to no sense of empathy, but covert narcissists are talented at faking it. They’re great at displaying empathy, but it’s all a show. Their ulterior motive is to win admiration and approval.

For example, you may witness a covert narcissist making a show of dropping a tip in the tip jar at their favorite coffee shop when the barista is watching. If you live with one, they may clean up the room you’re in, hoping you’ll watch them and tell them how wonderful and thoughtful they are.

6. They become bitter and resentful when they feel jealous

Narcissists feel that they deserve to be given the world on a silver platter. When they come across someone who has something—more wealth, a better career, a bigger house—that they feel they should have, they get envious.

Other narcissists are open to talking about how they deserve what someone else has. It’s difficult to negotiate with a covert narcissist because they are much more likely to bottle up their feelings of envy and instead harbor resentment and bitterness towards that person.

7. They’re highly sensitive to criticism

While no one likes being criticized, narcissists have an extreme aversion to any criticism. It makes them feel humiliated and angry. Criticism is the exact opposite of the kind of attention they thrive on.

Covert narcissists have a particular way of responding to criticism: on the outside, they’re often dismissive and use hurtful, sarcastic comments to deflect criticism away from themselves. They may act as if they’re above the critical remarks, like it couldn’t possibly apply to them. Above all, they’ll try to hide the way it makes them feel. They won’t show rage, even though that’s what they feel inside because they’re afraid of ruining their “perfect” reputation.

8. They revert to childish behaviors

When covert narcissists feel wronged, they’ll turn to childish, passive-aggressive behaviors. These behaviors can range from giving the silent treatment or backhanded compliments to being cruelly sarcastic and mocking others. They won’t be as in-your-face about their behavior as other narcissists, but they’ll still make it clear that their victim is beneath them.

9. They gaslight others in an understated way

Gaslighting is a hallmark of any narcissist. Whoever their victim is, a narcissist will try their best to make them feel confused, hurt, and small while making themselves seem both intelligent and sympathetic.

A covert narcissist is a unique brand of gaslighter. They prefer to do it in a subtle way, often making it look like they’re coming from a place of concern. Here are some examples of gaslighting from a covert narcissist:

  • “You’re really packing on the pounds. I think you should go on a strict diet and hit the gym twice a day. You want to be healthy, right?”
  • “You forgot the sunscreen? Maybe we need to have you checked out by a specialist. You’re always forgetting everything.”
  • “No, no, no. I never forced you to go on that diet. We agreed that you wanted to be healthy and fit for me and the kids! I would never do something that wasn’t in your best interest.”

Covert Narcissists: Dangerous Partners

Covert narcissists are master manipulators in every way. They’ll make you think they care for you while slowly chipping away at your self-esteem to raise themselves up. While all narcissists want to keep the spotlight on themselves, covert narcissists are often so good at mimicking empathy that you don’t even realize your emotional balance is in the negatives until you’re far into the relationship.

If you’re dealing with the consequences of most or all of these signs in your partner, you are more than likely in a relationship with a covert narcissist. Don’t let them destroy your sense of self-worth—it’s time to get out and find help to learn how to divorce a covert narcissist.

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