What Is Covert Narcissistic Abuse? Recognizing Manipulation Tactics

Medically reviewed by Nikki Ciletti, M.Ed, LPC
Updated November 1, 2023by BetterHelp Editorial Team
Content Warning: Please be advised, the below article might mention trauma-related topics that could be triggering to the reader. Please see our Get Help Now page for more immediate resources.

When many people think of narcissistic abuse, they often think of excessive arrogance, blatant demands for attention, and conspicuous manipulation tactics like love bombing. In some cases, however, narcissistic behavior can be less obvious and, potentially, more damaging. Covert narcissism refers to the passive, subtle expression of harmful narcissistic traits. Many of the forms of manipulation utilized by covert narcissists rise to the level of emotional abuse, or covert narcissistic abuse, and they can cause substantial harm to the individual to whom they’re directed in abusive relationships. If you’re in a relationship with someone who has covert narcissism, it can be helpful to know how they may attempt to control or influence you. Below, we’re going to discuss covert narcissistic abuse—its definition, signs, and associated manipulation tactics.

What Is Covert Narcissism?

Narcissistic personality disorder is typically marked by an outsized sense of self-importance, the desire for attention and admiration, and trouble empathizing with others. Those with NPD or those with a narcissistic personality can, however, express these common traits differently—and possess varying ancillary traits—depending on whether they have overt or covert narcissism. Overt narcissism, also called grandiose narcissism, is the presentation that many people think of when they imagine this personality disorder. Overt narcissists are often more extroverted, and their need for admiration is typically exhibited through bold displays meant to reinforce their abilities and positive qualities. Someone with grandiose narcissism will often try to control others and get their way through more transparent guilt trips or appeals to emotion. 

Covert narcissism, on the other hand, is often expressed through less obvious means of manipulation.

Though someone with covert narcissism, also called vulnerable narcissism, will likely have a sense of superiority, they may simultaneously have low self-esteem, which can cause them to frequently seek validation or make other people feel inferior. 

Covert narcissists are easily hurt by criticism, which is called a narcissistic injury and are more prone to certain mental health challenges. Studies suggest that vulnerable narcissists experience a greater risk of anxiety and depression than grandiose narcissists. While people with overt narcissism often seem charming, well spoken, brusque, or judgmental, someone with covert narcissism can appear distressed, shy, aloof, or cold.

Some signs of covert narcissistic tendencies are if they are more introverted, with a need for admiration that may be displayed more subtly, through passive-aggressive statements or self-deprecation. They may also use different manipulation tactics than overt narcissists, attempting to control others by feigning helplessness or playing the victim. Because covert narcissism is often less blatant than overt narcissism, it can be hard to detect. 

Covert Narcissism And Narcissistic Personality Disorder

Narcissistic Abuse Can Lead To Complex Emotions

Narcissistic personality disorder, or NPD, is a mental health condition experienced by many who have covert narcissism. It is characterized by a lack of empathy, an inflated sense of importance, and an excessive need for admiration. NPD can lead to serious challenges, often affecting an individual’s personal relationships, ability to work, and overall quality of life. Not every person who displays covert narcissistic tendencies has NPD, though—some people’s narcissistic traits do not meet the criteria for NPD, despite their significant impacts. To distinguish NPD from other personality disorders, such as bipolar disorder, there are several specific symptoms or signs that professionals look out for. 

Common signs of narcissistic personality disorder related to covert narcissism include: 

  • Unreasonably high sense of self-importance
  • A desire for regular, excessive admiration
  • The belief that they deserve special privileges or treatment
  • A lack of empathy
  • Sense of superiority and desire to be recognized as superior
  • 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
  • Hyper-sensitivity to criticism
  • Envy of others and a belief that others envy them
  • Strongly opposed to change

Not everyone with NPD will exhibit abusive behaviors, and with proper support, many individuals with NPD or narcissistic tendencies can lead fulfilling lives with healthy relationships. However, if someone you know is exhibiting abusive or aggressive behavior, such as by manipulating you, giving you the “silent treatment,” or otherwise being harmful, you may wish to seek support yourself. 

Covert Narcissistic Manipulation Tactics

Getty/Vadym Pastukh

Psychological manipulation is typically intended to control, exploit, or otherwise influence another person for one’s own gain. Manipulation is often used by people with covert narcissistic traits to put others down, get what they want, or avoid taking responsibility for their actions. 

A covert narcissist’s need for admiration, superiority, and attention, combined with their introversion and low self-esteem, can cause them to utilize passive-aggressive or indirect tactics as well as abusive behaviors to manipulate others and make themselves feel better. Common manifestations of this type of covert narcissistic abuse include gaslighting, deflection, and intimidation. Below, we’re going to review these methods of manipulation so that you may better recognize them if they’re used in one of your relationships.


The term gaslighting refers to efforts to make another person feel as though they cannot trust their reality. For those with covert narcissism, it may be used to preserve a sense of superiority and keep others from questioning their narcissistic behaviors. For example, if someone with covert narcissism makes a self-deprecating remark—another common manipulation tactic—that you later bring up, they may deny ever having said it. They might respond with something like, “I didn’t say that. Are you sure you weren’t just tired?” in order to make you question yourself. This can be a frustrating and emotionally taxing form of covert narcissistic abuse.    


People who are vulnerable narcissists usually become defensive when confronted about their behavior. In order to avoid damage to their often-fragile emotional state, they will frequently place blame on others. This can also connect with a covert narcissist’s desire to play the victim in various situations. For example, a covert narcissist may make an error that results in you both losing money. Instead of admitting to their mistake, they might blame you while using the negative financial effects of the error to elicit sympathy for themselves. 


A covert narcissist will often go to great lengths to defend themselves from information that challenges their sense of self-importance. They will sometimes accomplish this by avoiding being confronted about their behavior. For example, if you talk to your partner about their lack of effort in your relationship, they may utilize tactics like stonewalling or simply leaving the room. Vulnerable narcissists may also quit certain pursuits or avoid social settings so that they cannot be negatively evaluated. Often, avoidance manifests in a covert narcissist’s isolation from others.  


While someone with covert narcissism may experience feelings of insecurity, they may also use this lack of self-esteem to play on the emotions of others. Self-deprecation can be used to elicit validation; for example, a covert narcissist may repeatedly talk about how bad a meal is so that you’ll praise their cooking. This can help build them up while also manipulating your emotions. They might also use self-effacing remarks to get what they want; for example, if you note that a covert narcissist is ignoring your wishes in a relationship, they may respond by talking about what a bad person they are. 


Research suggests that covert narcissists are more likely than overt narcissists to experience narcissistic rage. Narcissistic rage refers to intense anger and hostility in response to situations where a narcissist is challenged, or their sense of entitlement is undermined. According to one study, covert narcissistic rage is thought to be the result of “underlying feelings of shame and inferiority”. When an individual with vulnerable narcissism is challenged, they may attempt to control the situation by raising their voice, adopting an aggressive stance, and utilizing other tactics meant to intimidate. 

For example, if your partner is a covert narcissist, and you express disappointment because they have not been contributing to housework, they may attempt to push you down until you take back your criticism. This can be one of the more recognizable signs of covert narcissistic abuse, as well as one of the most difficult to experience.

Narcissistic Abuse Can Lead To Complex Emotions

How Online Therapy Can Help

Studies show that online therapy can help those who are living with mental health challenges that may have arisen out of covert narcissistic abuse. For example, in a study published in the journal BMC Psychiatry, researchers found that online therapy can effectively reduce trauma symptoms in participants. The study also mentions that online therapy can help reduce depression and anxiety—common comorbid conditions of post-traumatic stress disorder—and improve overall treatment outcomes. 

If you’re experiencing trauma or other emotional challenges due to covert narcissistic abuse, know that help is available. With an online therapy platform like BetterHelp, you can participate in therapy remotely, which can be helpful if you’re not comfortable discussing traumatic experiences in person. BetterHelp works with thousands of therapists, working across a range of specialties, so you’ll have a good chance of matching with someone who can help you process your emotions related to covert narcissistic abuse or similar concerns.


Because covert narcissism is often more difficult to detect, covert narcissistic abuse can be an even more harmful presence in relationships. For those with narcissistic partners, it is important to understand how a narcissist thinks.Understanding common tactics that vulnerable narcissists utilize to control others—including gaslighting and self-deprecation—can help you avoid engaging with their behavior. If you’d like to address the emotional challenges of a relationship with a vulnerable narcissist, consider reaching out to a licensed mental health professional online. With the support and guidance of a therapist, you can nurture healthy relationships and take the next steps on your mental health journey.

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