3 Ways To Spot Covert Narcissists Before They Strike

They're the most dangerous type.

  • Susan Sparks

Written on Apr 15, 2022

man looking in mirror ArtOfPhotos / Shutterstock

The one good thing I can say about being married to a classic narcissist for twenty years was that he was so bold and so arrogant about his behavior and narcissistic abuse, that he would actually tell me what he was going to do before he did it.

I know it doesn’t sound like such a good thing, but having those desperately needed minutes to prepare before he would act was often life-changing for me.


This type of inflated and egotistical behavior is typical for the classic, or overt, narcissist, and is what we have come to think of when we hear the term.

A narcissist is defined as "an extremely self-centered person who has an exaggerated sense of self-importance."

People with narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) "have an inflated sense of their own importance, a deep need for excessive attention and admiration, troubled relationships, and a lack of empathy for others. But behind this mask of extreme confidence lies a fragile self-esteem that's vulnerable to the slightest criticism."

RELATED: If He Does These 6 Things, Yikes! He's A Covert Narcissist


I liken overt narcissists to people we have seen in the news and are unfortunately way too familiar with, like OJ Simpson, Scott Peterson, and Ted Bundy. They are charismatic and charming and love being the center of attention. They are the giant shark you see swimming right at you, and they shove that fin as high and as prominently out of the water as possible.

If they could find a way to blast the theme song from the movie Jaws while swimming in for the attack just to make sure you saw them, I have no doubt … it would happen.

But what is a covert narcissist then, and why should we be especially concerned about relationships with them?

According to Craig Malkin, Ph.D., — a clinical psychologist, researcher, lecturer for Harvard Medical School, and author of Rethinking Narcissism — in an article published in Psychology Today, "The term 'covert narcissism' (aka hypersensitive or vulnerable) was coined to capture the pattern in narcissists who aren’t loud, vain, chest-thumping braggarts, but are still — as their partners discover soon enough — just as arrogant and argumentative as people with the prouder, more outgoing brand of extraverted narcissism (aka overt or grandiose)."


The word covert is literally defined as "not openly shown."

In this way, the covert narcissist becomes exponentially more threatening because the nature of their disposition is to hide the tell-tale signs of narcissism you know to look for when dealing with the classic, overt narcissist.

They are the shark without the fin that you’ll never see coming — and this is exactly what they are counting on.

According to therapists quoted in an article from Business Insider, "The covert narcissist [... blends] into the background much of the time. They aren't a cliché of a grandiose, self-obsessed, 'look at me' narcissist. [...] Instead, they are quietly cruel and behave in a much more passive-aggressive way."


The article goes on to explain, "With a covert narcissist, their emotions are paramount, but the victim's needs and feelings are up for debate. [...] Everything is a competition, and nothing that happens to you even comes close to what they've been through. [...] They will also never apologize. [...] They'll simply give their victim the silent treatment as punishment until they give up and surrender."

The danger is not only their ability to quietly strike at their victims with little to no warning but their cold and calculated approach to finding their victims and infiltrating their lives. Escaping the clutches of a covert narcissist is hard because they drain their victims of energy and resources until they find a new target. Like an "IV drip of poison" that doesn't stop until they move on.

RELATED: 8 Ways To Identify A Covert Narcissist (It's Easier Than You Think)


So what can you do about this silent threat of covert narcissistic abuse?

You learn how to spot them before they enter your life, before they attack, and before they have the chance to exhaust you to the point where getting away can become an overwhelming struggle.

Dr. Malkin, in another article about covert abuse, also goes on to say, "As you might suspect, it takes a cold, calculating approach to target people secretly with the sole intent of undermining their emotional and physical health. It takes someone who views others more as pawns than people, who treats them as objects to be toyed with and tossed aside — and indeed, that’s what most research suggests."

3 Ways To Spot Covert Narcissists Before They Strike

1. Covert narcissists are conflicted.

Look for the person who seems overly confident — and at the same time insecure. They may surround themselves, or identify, with expensive items or people to get a sense of self-worth.


2. They manipulate your empathy.

Watch out for someone who has an overwhelming tale of woe and who comes to quickly depend upon you — possibly saying you have changed or saved their life, and they now can’t live without you.

3. Their lies are sophisticated.

Covert narcissists commonly tell impressive tales about jobs they have had, or celebrities they have known or associated with, that are not true. They may watch a lot of television on a regular basis to gather material for their own stories.


I lived with a classic narcissist and domestic abuse for twenty years. I’ve been on the other side for six. And, I can tell you what it feels like to be stuck in a situation that you really, desperately, want to get out of.

I also know that there are ways to avoid getting stuck in the first place — if you keep your eyes open, watch for the signs, and move away quickly when you see them. Understanding the covert narcissist, it’s fair to say that spotting one may prove to be much harder, so it becomes our job to become that much more aware.

They may come in quietly, but still, in the end, all sharks still look like sharks once you see them up close.

If you are a victim of domestic abuse or domestic violence or want further information, call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233. You can also visit their website for more information, help, and to make a plan for your safety.


RELATED: If He's Bad At These 3 Things, He's Likely A Covert Narcissist

Susan Sparks is a twenty-year victim and six-year survivor of domestic abuse (SODA™) who has been featured on national media, including The National Domestic Violence Hotline, and whose book, Sparks in Love, she hopes will serve as both an educational and cautionary tale.