Covert narcissistic abuse refers to a subtle pattern of controlling, manipulative, and hurtful behaviors performed by someone who lives with narcissistic personality disorder (NPD).
Not everyone with a narcissistic personality engages in abusive behaviors. And not all abusive behaviors, covert or not, are a result of narcissistic traits. But some people with covert narcissism do engage in actions that can be considered manipulative and toxic.
Covert means something that isn’t evident, or that isn’t openly displayed. Covert narcissism is one of five types of narcissism and is characterized by “quiet” or non-evident narcissistic behaviors.
Narcissism often refers to traits that fall within a spectrum. Most people have at least some of these traits to some degree. Narcissistic personality disorder (NPD), on the other hand, is a formal mental health condition.
Covert narcissism is also known as vulnerable or closet narcissism. It may present with the same narcissistic traits and symptoms as other narcissism types, only that some of these signs may be less intense or not openly displayed.
In addition to the formal symptoms of narcissistic personality disorder, other traits of covert narcissism may include:
- indications of low self-esteem
- symptoms of anxiety or depression
- shame and guilt
- introversion or social withdrawal
- a tendency to be passive aggressive and defensive
- avoidant behaviors
- tendency to feel or play the victim
- tendency to engage in vindictive behaviors
Someone with covert narcissism will still present signs of grandiosity and have low empathy, but probably act in a more subtle way than someone with overt narcissism.
In contrast to overt narcissism, typically characterized by arrogance, entitlement, and outward grandiosity, covert narcissism is also
- hypersensitivity to criticism
Although covert abuse can be hard to identify, there are signs to look out for. Often, covert narcissistic abuse involves emotional manipulation and psychological games.
Gaslighting is when someone invalidates your experiences and memories and causes you to question your reality.
Someone who is gaslighting you might deny or trivialize something they’ve said or done, or they may misconstrue and change the subject.
Covert narcissists may often engage in gaslighting because it’s a subtle way of manipulating others without making it too obvious.
Example of gaslighting
“Are you sure that happened? Your memory is terrible! You’re lucky to have me to keep you in check.”
The silent treatment
Someone living with narcissistic personality disorder may tend to resent when others don’t give them the status or importance they think they deserve. This may lead them to hold grudges for a long time.
One of the ways covert narcissists may express this resentment is by using silent treatment.
The silent treatment is a form of retaliation that involves ignoring someone else, not responding to direct communication, or not being emotionally or physically available.
Example of silent treatment
You come home late from a night out with your friends and find your partner isn’t speaking to you or responding to your questions.
Playing the victim
Although you might not think of someone with a narcissistic personality as a “victim,” some covert narcissists may play the role when they feel hurt or when trying to get you to do something for them.
Playing the victim may involve saying or acting like you’ve caused them harm and implying that you need to repair the damage. It can be a covert form of manipulation.
Example of playing the victim
“How can you go out tonight after I’ve had such a difficult day at the office? I can never count on you when I need you, even after all I’ve done for you.”
Violence isn’t a formal symptom of narcissistic personality disorder. This means that the condition doesn’t lead to aggressive or violent behaviors but, like anybody else, these are possible under some circumstances.
Covert narcissists may be more likely to engage in aggressive behaviors because of their tendency to interiorize their pain and resentment. This could lead them to act out suddenly and unexpectedly in some situations.
Research from 2021 suggests that people with covert narcissism may be more likely to experience narcissistic collapse and rage, than those with overt narcissism. Emotional dysregulation or difficulty controlling emotions may be one of the reasons.
Narcissistic collapse describes an intense and sudden reaction characterized by bouts of anger, hostility, depression, and shame. It often comes after feeling rejected or put on display.
Yes. If done with the purpose of manipulating or hurting you, passive aggression can be considered a type of covert abuse, particularly if done persistently.
Passive aggression refers to expressing criticism, judgment, or negative emotions in such a way that isn’t easy to pinpoint or describe by others. It’s an indirect and subtle way to be aggressive.
The silent treatment is an example of passive-aggressive behavior. Making a joke at your expense is another example.
If you’re experiencing covert narcissistic abuse in a relationship, you may want to consider some of the following ways to protect yourself.
Identifying the narcissistic behaviors
You may find it difficult to identify and accept abusive narcissistic behaviors that have been carried out subtly.
However, recognizing the signs of covert abuse is important for protecting yourself in the future.
You may want to start by determining which relationship behaviors you’re not willing to tolerate. Then, try to detect patterns of behaviors that make you feel uncomfortable or hurt.
For example, does your partner frequently dismiss your needs and opinions? Do they stop talking to you whenever you don’t do what they want? Do they go through cycles of loving you and then ghosting you?
These may all be red flags when it comes to covert abusive behaviors.
Setting and maintaining your boundaries
People with NPD may find it difficult to
But setting and respecting boundaries are foundations for an emotionally secure relationship. If someone repeatedly ignores yours, it might be time to step away.
It’s natural and important to want to stand up for yourself when you feel someone isn’t behaving respectfully.
However, when protecting yourself from covert narcissistic abuse, you may want to skip direct confrontation. Try to calmly explain how you feel but if the other person isn’t receptive, you may want to end the conversation and consider how you want to proceed with the relationship.
Having a safety plan in place
When dealing with covert narcissistic abuse, or any form of abuse, a safety plan can help protect you if a harmful situation escalates.
A safety plan could include:
- having a paper list with phone numbers and addresses of trusted people
- keeping essential items secured with a relative or friend
- saving money in a secure place that you can access in an emergency
- having a safe place to go at any time of the day and night and knowing how to get there
Experiencing any type of abuse can be painful and naturally overwhelming. It’s natural to feel the way you do. But it’s possible to overcome this hurt. You’re not alone.
Considering professional support
Reaching out to a mental health professional can be a helpful first step toward healing from covert narcissistic abuse.
Therapists who are experienced in working with narcissistic personality disorder can help you:
- identify overt and covert abusive behaviors
- develop coping skills to manage the effects of these behaviors
- treat symptoms of depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, or other mental health conditions
- challenge negative self-talk
- set goals for the future
Maintaining healthy relationships
One of the most common effects of narcissistic abuse may be feeling lonely or having a sense of worthlessness. But you’re not at fault for any abusive behavior your loved one has engaged in. And you deserve to be in relationships that support, comfort, and care for you.
Cultivating those relationships that meet these requirements can help you heal from the hurt abusive relationships may have caused you.
Joining support groups
Other people have experienced narcissistic abuse and have also overcome the emotional pain that comes from it. You can meet some of them by joining a support group online or in your town.
These online communities can help:
- Support For People Affected by Narcissism, a private and free Facebook group
- Narcissistic Abuse Support, a website offering informative resources to people in, and recovering from, abusive relationships
Self-care is essential when healing from emotional pain.
Try to allow yourself to experience your emotions. Whether you feel guilt, confusion, regret, grief, sadness, or anger, your feelings are valid.
The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) suggests the following self-care strategies:
- regular yoga and dance sessions
- art therapy
- listening and dancing to music you love
- using positive affirmations
Covert narcissistic abuse often involves manipulation tactics that are difficult to identify. It can be debilitating and overwhelming.
Even though NPD isn’t a personal choice, you don’t have to tolerate narcissistic abuse. You deserve to feel happy and safe in any relationship.