What Is Covert Narcissistic Abuse? Gaslighting, Manipulation, And Intimidation

Updated March 17, 2023by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Content/Trigger Warning: Please be advised the below article might mention trauma-related topics that include violence, which could potentially be triggering. If you or someone you know is or may be experiencing abuse, please call the National Domestic Violence Hotline, available 24/7, at 1.800.799.SAFE (7233) or text "START" to 88788. Live chat is also available on the National Domestic Violence Hotline website.

Covert narcissistic abuse often goes unnoticed — at least initially. It refers to subtle patterns of manipulative, controlling, and hurtful behaviors used by a person living with narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) or narcissistic tendencies. This term is generally used when discussing intimate partner violence, but it can also apply to domestic violence between two people living together. 

While you'll find a variety of sources discussing NPD at length, the symptoms of this mental illness are often compressed, exaggerated, or used to describe someone who is not clinically ill. This language can obscure the symptoms and warning signs of NPD and related narcissistic abuse. 

This guide explores narcissistic personality disorder and covert narcissistic abuse to help you recognize the signs. We'll also explore how online therapy can help you recover. 

Narcissistic Personality Disorder: A Definition

You Do Not Have To Tolerate Domestic Abuse

Narcissistic personality disorder, or NPD, is a complex personality disorder often diagnosed alongside other mental illnesses. It results in behaviors such as a lack of empathy, a pattern of grandiosity, and a need for admiration. In addition, people experiencing NPD may experience difficulty maintaining personal relationships and regular work.

Symptoms of narcissistic personality disorder include: 

  • Unreasonably high sense of self-importance

  • A desire for constant, excessive admiration

  • The belief that they deserve special privileges or treatment

  • Expecting to be recognized as superior and thinking they are superior to others

  • Exaggeration of achievements and talents

  • Preoccupation with fantasies about success, power, beauty, or brilliance

  • Overly critical of people they feel are not important

  • Expecting special favors

  • Expecting others to do what they ask without question

  • Taking advantage of other people to get what they want

  • An inability or unwillingness to recognize the feelings or needs of others

  • A lack of empathy

  • Envious of others and a belief that others envy them

  • Arrogant behavior (e.g., bragging)

  • Demanding the best of everything (e.g., the best car or office)

People experiencing NPD or narcissistic traits may also struggle to handle criticism. When confronted with certain situations and behaviors, such as comments they view as critical, a person with NPD may:

  • Become impatient or angry about not receiving special recognition or treatment

  • Have difficulty interacting with others 

  • Easily feel slighted

  • React with rage and try to belittle other people

  • Have difficulty managing their behavior and emotions

  • Struggle to cope with stress or adapt to change

  • Withdraw from or avoid situations in which they could fail

  • Become depressed and moody about not being perfect

  • Harbor and hide feelings of insecurity, shame, humiliation, and fear of failure 

NPD symptoms may be "overt" or "covert," depending on how the individual experiences and expresses them. However, neither presentation is recognized as a subset of narcissistic personality disorder in the current edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders — the DSM-5-TR.

For example, overt symptoms may cause the person experiencing them to seem grandiose, charming, articulate, exploitative, or moralistic. Conversely, covert symptoms could cause the person experiencing them to seem chronically bored, inattentive, doubt-ridden, shy, overly humble, deeply envious, forgetful of details, and cold. Covert symptoms may also be more challenging for others to recognize.

What Is Covert Narcissistic Abuse?

Covert narcissistic abuse isn’t officially recognized by the American Psychological Association at this time. However, it may be in the future. 

Regardless, people with NPD or narcissistic tendencies may exhibit covert expressions of abuse. Common manifestations of this covert narcissistic abuse include gaslighting, manipulation, and intimidation.


The term "gaslighting" comes from the 1938 play "Gas Light." In the play, the main character's husband systematically attempts to convince her she is experiencing mental instability to cover his scheming and crimes. The husband isolates his wife from contact with and support from others, hides items that she has set down and claims she has lost them, humiliates her by openly flirting with his maid, and claims his wife has done things he has done himself. 

These tactics are examples of what gaslighting is — an attempt to destabilize someone's sense of reality. And it may be used by people with NPD to preserve a sense of superiority and encourage others to doubt their perception of narcissism and its accompanying behaviors. 


Psychological manipulation is typically intended to control, exploit, or otherwise influence another person's behavior to one's benefit. And it may be used by people with NPD or narcissistic traits alongside behaviors like lying, cheating, and stealing. 

In the case of covert narcissistic abuse, this might manifest as behavior or speech designed to lead, guide, and twist the words and actions of those around them to fit the narrative they have created. For example, they may put themselves down to manipulate others into complimenting them.


Intimidation is another behavior a person with NPD or narcissistic traits may display. You might easily recognize the intimidation if the person becomes verbally or physically aggressive and confrontational. 

However, if the person becomes defensive, tears others down, dismisses the frustration of those around them, or gaslights their partner by refusing to acknowledge transgressions, it might be more challenging to identify. Subtle manipulation might also involve silent treatments (e.g., refusing to speak to someone one is upset with), covert threats, and passive-aggressive behavior. 

If you are facing or witnessing abuse of any kind, the National Domestic Violence Hotline is available. Call 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) or text "START" to 88788. You can also use online chat.

Therapy For Narcissistic Abuse

You Do Not Have To Tolerate Domestic Abuse

Healing may take time and professional intervention (e.g., therapy) if you are a survivor of narcissistic abuse. And for many, the first step is reaching out to a licensed mental health professional for help.

The same is true if you are experiencing domestic or intimate partner abuse. Leaving situations like this may be and feel challenging, but no one deserves to stay in an abusive relationship. 

In-person and online therapy are equally effective options, and both can help you decide how to leave an active abusive relationship or heal from past abuse. Online therapy has many benefits, including a broader range of professionals and no need to travel to an office. It may also be more discreet for those still in an abusive situation.

Research has shown that online therapy is viable for those experiencing trauma and post-traumatic stress symptoms. It can help reduce depression and anxiety, common comorbid conditions, and improve patient treatment outcomes. And it's more effective than being put on a waiting list by an in-person specialist. 


While the DSM-5-TR doesn't officially recognize covert narcissistic abuse and covert narcissism, the experience is real and valid for those who have experienced it. Recovering from the common behaviors involved in this form of abuse — gaslighting, manipulation, and intimidation — usually requires time and emotional healing. And online therapy offers an accessible place to begin this journey. 

At BetterHelp, we'll match you with a licensed mental health practitioner based on your needs and preferences. Once matched, you can have appointments on your schedule via in-app messaging, voice chat, or video calls. You'll also be able to message your provider anytime, and they'll respond as soon as possible. 

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