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

Updated October 5, 2022 by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Covert narcissistic abuse often goes unnoticed—at least initially, which is a bit different from overt narcissism, which is more out in the open when it comes to being able to pick up on signs and symptoms. While narcissism has been discussed at length in news articles, news stories, online forums, and other sources of discourse for years, the signs and symptoms of the condition have often been compressed, exaggerated, or used flippantly, to describe someone who is not clinically ill, but who is self-absorbed, cold, or selfish. Although this is fathomable, language and understanding always change as it enters large public consciousness—it can obscure the actual symptoms and warning signs of narcissism and narcissistic abuse. So, what exactly is covert narcissism and covert narcissistic abuse? The answer begins with narcissistic personality disorder.

Narcissistic Personality Disorder: A Definition

Understand The Signs Of Covert Narcissism, And What To Do

Narcissism is a blanket term most commonly used to describe the symptoms of narcissistic personality disorder. This disorder is not a mood disorder, but a personality disorder, and requires treatment to minimize or resolve symptoms and heal. Unfortunately, in many cases, the disorder has a self-protective mechanism that does not allow individuals with narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) to recognize their pitfalls and shortcomings, which can be an obstacle to treatment. Fortunately, many families, friends, and others close to the narcissist recognize symptoms and can bring those symptoms to the attention of the narcissist. This may give them more of a chance to seek treatment. These symptoms include:

  • An exaggerated sense of their importance. Individuals with narcissistic personality disorder might think they are the most talented person, the most attractive person, or the most vital contributor to their workplace. Narcissists consider themselves a cut above everyone else.
  • A deeply seated need to have the attention of others on them or admiration. Sometimes, this is displayed through “working the room” or intentionally drawing attention to themselves. Sometimes, though, it is not as readily discernible as someone standing and shouting, “Look what I did!” but is instead done through continually pushing to outshine others.
  • A lack of empathy. Narcissists care about themselves, almost to the exclusion of all others. Although they are not incapable of forging bonds or creating relationships with people they love, they may be unable to forge these relationships in a healthy, respectful, and considerate way. They might not have the same goals in a relationship as their partners and may have many partners throughout their lives.
  • Difficult, tempestuous, or rocky relationships with others, romantic or otherwise. Narcissists may be able to make friends wherever they go but are far less capable of retaining them.
  • Preoccupation with fantasy. Narcissists often live in their heads. Rather than grounding themselves in the world or people around them, narcissists prefer to imagine the day when they will have unlimited power, money, romantic relationships, or other outward displays of grandeur.
  • Envy directed toward others, or the certainty that envy is frequently directed toward them. Narcissists may feel as though they are entitled to everything they want and feel angry when others are successful or valued, or they may feel as though others are constantly envious of them.

The symptoms for a covert narcissist are not quite as simple, though; while an overt narcissist is often over-the-top or flagrant in their behaviors, a covert narcissist is better able to disguise their behavior and may fly under the radar for much longer than someone who is overtly narcissistic.

What Is A Covert Narcissist?

Although the term “narcissist” is getting plenty of time in the sun, the term “covert narcissist” is not as well known. Covert narcissists are individuals who possess narcissistic traits but do not display them as clearly or openly as an overt narcissist might. Although the term “covert narcissist” is not a recognized subset of narcissistic personality disorder, it is a manifestation of the disorder that is gaining traction and gathering more attention. This is due, in part, to the greater attention and awareness given to narcissistic personality disorder as a whole; as the disorder becomes more prolific, both in diagnoses and in public awareness, the many faces of the disorder begin to present themselves, including the covert narcissist. Some symptoms of covert narcissism that seem to work directly against typical symptoms of overt narcissism include:

  • Putting themselves down. Although this can also mark someone with low self-esteem, a covert narcissist specifically uses self-directed putdowns to build themselves up. This is accomplished in a manner similar to the following: “I’m unlovable.” “Oh, my gosh, no! You’re not! I love you so much. You’re one of the most incredible people I know!” Rather than using negative speech to convey concern, fear, or feeling honest, a covert narcissist uses speech to manipulate their way to a compliment.
  • Covert narcissists may appear to be extremely humble. They might downplay their achievements, express shock at the prospect of being found attractive, or behave as though they are foolish or unintelligent. This allows covert narcissists to develop closer relationships and ensures a constant, steady drip of encouragement, praise, or validation from others.
  • Shy behavior. Although loud, attention-seeking behavior is often a symptom of overt narcissists, covert narcissists are usually shy or reserved. They may not reach out to talk to others, might not try to dominate conversations, and could be uncomfortable being the center of attention in large crowds or meetings. Nevertheless, covert narcissists do want attention. 

Gaslighting is a term derived from a 1938 play, titled “Gas Light.” In the play, the main character’s husband systematically attempts to convince her she is losing her mind to cover his scheming and crimes. His offenses against his wife include isolating her from contact with others and support, hiding items about the house that she has set down and claiming she has lost them, humiliating his wife by flirting with his maid openly, and claiming his wife has done things he has done himself. All of these tactics are examples of what gaslighting is. In short: gaslighting is the attempt to destabilize someone’s sense of reality.

Gaslighting And Covert Narcissists

Gaslighting and narcissistic personality disorder seem to go hand in hand. Because much of what a narcissist does is preserving a sense of superiority, narcissists, both overt and covert, often rely upon gaslighting to encourage others to doubt their own perception of narcissism and its accompanying behaviors. For instance, covert narcissists might offer a backhanded compliment, such as, “I wish I could sit around and do nothing. I envy your ability to relax.” When called out on the inappropriate nature of the comment, they might claim, “I didn’t mean it like that!” or “I was just trying to compliment you. Why are you so hostile toward me?” This turns the individual on their head and makes them feel as though they are at fault. This is an overt behavior they may express at times.

How Covert Narcissists Use Manipulation

While manipulation might not be as rare as it ought to be, as even children indulge in manipulation from time to time,the manipulation of a covert narcissist is formidable. Manipulation is, arguably, the hallmark behavior of narcissism, as a covert narcissist’s goal is to behave in a way that leads, guides, and twists the words and actions of the world around them to fit the narrative they have created and continue to spin. This can be seen in narcissists who speak unkindly about themselves to manipulate others to compliment them, or narcissists who goad others into retaliating, then shrink back and cry foul. Manipulation is one of the most important aspects of covert narcissists, as it maintains the NPD status quo.

Intimidation And Covert Narcissists

Intimidation is another tactic often employed in covert narcissism. Intimidation tactics may be easy to see, as is the case when someone grows aggressive and confrontational. Intimidation does not have to be physical, though, and does not have to involve yelling or a physical altercation. Instead, intimidation by a narcissist might look far more akin to defensive lashing out. For instance, if a friend goes to a covert narcissist and says, “Hey. You mocked me in front of everyone yesterday, and I was upset by it. It was not an appropriate thing to do,” the covert narcissist may then respond, “It was a joke! Can you not take a joke? I didn’t know you were so sensitive.” This tears the other person down, dismisses their frustration, and paints the narcissist as nothing more than an entertaining jokester who is just a little bit misunderstood.

Covert Narcissists And Abuse

Understand The Signs Of Covert Narcissism, And What To Do

Narcissism is a very serious problem, both for the person who is showing symptoms of narcissism and for those who are close to the narcissist. Being in a relationship of any kind of narcissist, whether it is an overt or a covert narcissist, often leads to a rash of emotional abuse, fear, and confusion. Although the abuse perpetrated by a narcissist does not always involve physical harm, and very often does not include physical harm as it may be too easy to trace back, it is very real and it takes a toll on the lives of its survivors.

Manipulation, gaslighting, and intimidation are all forms of abuse commonly used by covert narcissists. These tactics allow covert narcissists to systematically break down the people around them and to maintain a show of superiority. In overt narcissism, this show of superiority often comes in the form of loud boasts and attention-grabbing behavior. Still, in covert narcissism, the process is often less easy to recognize. Through putting themselves down, downplaying their talents, and continually twisting the story, covert narcissists cause severe trauma to others. If are a survivor of a covert narcissist’s abuse, healing may take time and professional intervention. Whether you seek help from a counselor in your area or seek the help of an online therapist, such as those from BetterHelp, healing from covert narcissistic abuse is possible and reaching out for help is the first step.

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 the online chat.

If you’re curious about trying online therapy, it will probably be helpful to know how online therapy compares to traditional therapy. Researchers have been asking that question as well and have some answers, particularly in regard to post-traumatic stress disorder. A recent study looked at how well a type of common talk therapy worked for generalized anxiety disorders and determined that this therapy is just as effective in reducing anxiety as it is in a face-to-face interaction and is more effective than being put on a waiting list for a patient’s well being.

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