Covert narcissism can go undetected for months, years, or even decades because it is covert in more than one way. Of course, it is covert because the narcissist hides what he does to his victims from the world at large. But, the real covert narcissism is when the narcissist disguises his behavior so well that the victim doesn’t realize what is being done to them. In my case, it took 33 years for me to figure out exactly what was going on with the help of my counselor. I knew something wasn’t right. I had no idea the depth of what was actually wrong.
This covert narcissist checklist can help you if you think you or someone close to you may be the victim of covert narcissist abuse. While it can’t tell you definitively whether it is covert narcissism, as a general rule, it will give you a pretty good idea. And it will give you the ability to know how to react as incidents come up going forward, whether it is severe covert narcissism or just covert narcissistic tendencies.
If I had a covert narcissist checklist to help find the truth of what my narcissist was doing to me, I would have figured it out so much sooner. The victim of covert narcissistic abuse gives grace, mercy, forgiveness and the benefit of the doubt constantly. As they feel that things are wrong and confront the narcissist, the narcissist will reply that not only did they not do what they are being accused of, but they are deeply hurt that the victim could possibly think he would ever do that to them intentionally.
This blame shifting is so demoralizing to the victim, who now feels guilty for thinking the narcissist did anything wrong–even though they were right all along and they were indeed a victim. But in the evil of covert narcissism, that victim will continue in this offend-confront-deny-blameshift cycle forever until they finally recognize what is going on and put a stop to it. Here is a printable graphic to help you see the cycle more clearly. Just click to print!
So, now that we’ve looked at the cycle of narcissistic abuse in closer detail, let’s take a look at the covert narcissist checklist. You can take a look and click to print right here (the PDF copy is so much clearer than the pic below!):
Table of Contents
How to Use This Form
First, click on the chart above to either download it on your computer or print it, whichever you prefer. You can do the same with your phone, but it will be more difficult. You could always print it from your phone, though, if you have the equipment to do so.
It is a 3-page checklist that contains 26 notable characteristics of covert narcissists. The third page is blank so you can add your own experiences once you can more easily identify covert narcissist behavior. Doing this part of the exercise will open a whole new world to you! And once you know all of this information, you will always be able to see it in any relationship.
Next, as you go through the list, check everything that you feel relates to your relationship with your narcissist. You will be surprised at how similar narcissists’ playbooks are. If you need more specific descriptions, just read them below. I have given a short note and/or example for each of the points in the checklist so you could have a really good picture in your head of what those concepts look like.
When you are done, review what you have and you will have a pretty good idea about how covert narcissist the person you are thinking about is.
Now, let’s take a look at the signs of covert narcissism that make up the checklist in greater detail. Then you can have a better idea of which ones apply to you.
Signs of Covert Narcissism
1. The narcissist is very charming when in public or meeting someone new.
Everybody in the covert narcissist’s circle of influence thinks he’s amazing, at least on the surface. Not so much once they get to know him better. But I’ll get more into that later. Suffice it to say that first impressions and public appearances will almost always go really well with a narcissist. They will suck up to new people to win them over instantly.
On the flip side, behind closed doors, the sucking up and amazingness all go away. He is no longer trying to win anybody over. So no need to focus on anyone but himself.
2. Covert narcissists need to be the center of attention at the same time as being in the background.
This concept sounds so contrary, but it is because the covert narcissist needs to be seen as the best and greatest in the room. But they also need to be seen as the most humble, graceful, cultured. It is such a struggle for them. But they do some pretty good gymnastics to accomplish it. And over time, they become pretty successful at it, usually by having others be their attention seekers on their behalf while they appear to be in the background, mostly for show.
3. Covert narcissists are manipulative while also trying to make you feel like you are in control.
This is yet another seeming contradictory statement, but yet it is exactly the situation that a covert narcissist will master over time. They will have a need to be in control of everything. But they also have a need for those around them to feel like they are in control, or that the narcissist isn’t controlling them. So they will try to put the options in front of you that they want, but in sneaky ways that make you feel like you discovered it.
There are other ways covert narcissists master this technique. They will give you a couple of suggestions so you can choose one. But then they run the risk that you say neither and choose your own thing. That would be tragic for them.
A third trick covert narcissists will do is make it seem like they are insisting you choose something, but then not give you a chance to and act like you gave up your choice to them. At that point they tell you what they really wanted in the first place. But they also make a big deal about how generous you were to give up your choice. Except you didn’t. But you also don’t rock the boat. So you let them get away with it.
4. Covert narcissists don’t allow you to be right about anything.
This hit me in the face shortly before my separation from my husband of 31 years. We were in the car and I told him about a story I heard on the news about a police officer in New York City who randomly walked up to a homeless women and beat her senseless. He would not agree with me that it was a terrible thing. He first said I had it wrong and that it couldn’t have happened. Then, when I read it to him to prove it, he said the cop had to have had a good reason. So I re-read the part about random for no reason.
He ended up saying the officer was justified because he was probably just having a really rough day. That was the last subject I brought up to him for casual conversation. I knew I would never again be allowed to be right.
5. If you confront a covert narcissist about anything, he will tell you that he had the best intentions.
I don’t think there was ever a time in the last five years of my marriage that I approached my ex with an issue and he simply said, “Yes, I did that and I am sorry.” There was always some reason why he was justified and I was wrong to bring it up and critical and judgmental for it. He would tell me how hurt he was that I would even think he could do such a thing. His excuses and defenses were literally equivalent to a 5-year-old at the time. Simply maddening.
6. A covert narcissist will always have to on-up you in conversation.
I was almost always confused about this. I wasn’t allowed to be more tired than him, even after having a baby or nursing a baby all night. He would come back with, “I got up at 4 am.” Or, “You can’t be that tired, you hardly did any physical labor today. I…”
He had tons of reasons why I couldn’t be good at anything or have a rough day or anything without him having a bigger, more dramatic experience. Once again, over time I just stopped talking.
7. The covert narcissist will have an exaggerated sense of helpfulness or sacrificial behavior.
A covert narcissist doesn’t want to be the liveliest person in the room, or the loudest. They want to be the smartest, best, kindest, most generous person. Let me give you an example.
We were at church on a Sunday morning. It was near noon as everything was winding down. And it was the first week of our kids’ club that night. As I was speaking with the other two teachers, we realized the curriculum ended up at the wrong house. It was the other two teachers’ sets since I had bought my own. While they were working out how to get things fixed, my then husband walked up and heard what was going on. He immediately said he would drive to one house, pick up the curriculum, and bring it back to the other house. Then he would go back to the original house with their curriculum.
It was totally not his position. Our kids were sitting in the car, hungry and tired. And the other two teachers definitely could have worked it out without him. They even said that. But he insisted. Just so he could save the day.
He constantly did things like this that made our whole family suffer while he injected himself into save-the-day scenarios. All. The. Time.
8. A religious covert narcissist will ask people to pray for you just to reveal perceived or real difficulties.
The point is that he knows he is revealing private things about you and often they are total lies. But if he communicates it as a prayer request and puts on the right sad face, he will fool many people into thinking he is just worried about you and loves you so dearly as to ask them to pray with him for you.
It is absolutely evil when you think about the fact that the religious covert narcissist is invoking God to do such a terrible thing to people he is supposed to be loving the most.
9. The covert narcissist will feign fake concern for you just like the prayer requests above.
This is nearly the same, but instead of appealing for people to ask God to help, he tells people he is concerned for his loved one and so worried, which make him seem like the hero while he is really destroying you. Absolutely despicable behavior.
The good news is that over time, people will realize what is going on, but only if they are emotionally mature and savvy to the bad behavior of narcissists.
10. Covert narcissists will tell you something is really wrong with you.
My ex would tell me this daily for well over a year. It was almost always the same time every day–when he had just gotten home and were catching up on our days. But by this time, we were in marriage counseling and things were unraveling fast. I would try to discuss the current issue of the day, and he would proceed to tell me there was something really wrong with me. Exact words.
I finally told him he had to stop saying that every day. And he actually never said it again. But he did find other ways to insult me and tear me down.
Here are some other articles about covert narcissists/narcissism that I think you will be interested in:
For more article suggestions, check out the list at the bottom of this article.
11. A covert narcissist will have no empathy for you when you are in need. And further, he will then make it all about himself.
You aren’t allowed to have feelings about anything. This includes things that aren’t even between the two of you. His answer for you: suck it up, Buttercup. This isn’t about you. Learn to cope. And realize that whatever you are going through is not nearly as important as what he is going through. Because as much as it is not about you, it is totally all about him. This gets tired really fast.
12. The covert narcissist constantly uses passive aggressive behavior to get under your skin or just to show you that he can mess with you anytime he wants.
What makes this even worse is that while he is doing crazy things to you behind closed doors, he is the picture of innocence in front of others. And he is expert at making you look like the crazy or wrong one. And in yet another twist, he will excuse away his passive aggressive behavior as the most generous, kind, loving, sacrificial behavior. But you have just totally misunderstood him and ascribed untrue motives to him. This is all your fault. You are so wrong and he is always right.
13. Covert narcissists have an inability to actually hear what you are saying.
This isn’t about the level of sound his ears can hear. It is about actually paying attention to your words and your thoughts. And understanding you as a person. The covert narcissist, and any other narcissist for that matter, are unable to see you as a person, so to hear you is even more impossible. Everything you say is taken in by them as how they are going to use it to get what they want out of you. It is just a means to getting their narcissistic supply.
14. You never know what is going to instantly anger a covert narcissist.
I don’t have much else to say regarding this point. It pretty much speaks for itself. Over time, your whole household will learn to walk on eggshells so as not to upset the narcissist. Better to tread lightly than to awaken the bear. Seriously, so many idioms in one place! Sorry, but they were so appropriate to my thoughts!
But to conclude this point, it is always a good time to let your guard down and relax when the narcissist is not around because you don’t have to guard yourself for fear of saying or doing a random “wrong” thing that really isn’t even wrong.
15. Covert narcissists will “punish” you for something that bothered them when you were out.
Whether you are at church, shopping, a community event, or even just out with friends, your covert narcissist doesn’t like to be embarrassed. You must make sure he is represented in the best light possible. I actually did this most of the time. And the few times I didn’t it wasn’t intentional. But I still paid for it.
If I said or did a wrong thing, it would be considered reflecting poorly on my family and that I just wasn’t quite good enough. Ever. As the years went on, it became more of a thing. But toward the end, it no longer bothered me. Because it was pure fiction. I didn’t spend any time with him at this point. So I could walk away and not worry about his endless rants and threats.
16. Covert narcissists are overly sensitive about even the most gentle criticism.
I was confused about this in my marriage for years. Tell me if this is familiar to you: your spouse says that they want to do something that is really out of character and way above their pay grade. You tell them you’re not sure that’s a good idea because it doesn’t seem like a good fit. And then they get angry with you because you were supposed to say that was a good idea and you think they would be amazing at it. Even though they wouldn’t and they know it. Because in their mind at the moment, they are looking to do what they want to do, not what is best for them.
Irregardless, the whole point here is that they want to do what they want, when they want, how they want to. There is not thought to what they should be doing or that your wisdom could help them be better or more successful in the long run. There is no common sense.
17. Most covert narcissists have very few close friends and almost no long-term friends.
Narcissists, covert or overt, seem on the surface to have a large number of friends. But it is all superficial. They don’t really have any friends that they can go to and talk about their deepest thoughts, dreams, fears. But then, they wouldn’t do that anyway.
I do remember over the years my husband telling me that he had no friends and felt isolated from the world. I now understand why he felt that way. He could never confide in a close friend or invest in them enough to have a more than superficial relationship. But yet he could see others have those kinds of friendships around him.
I was honestly surprised that he could see that and recognize that he didn’t have it but wanted it. But on the other hand, it was his own behavior that prevented it from happening. He could have had it.
There are a few friends from way back in his Facebook. And a few that think he is a super nice guy that was a poor victim of a bad marriage. I am somewhat astounded that one of his friends from back in the day that supports him and feel so sorry for his divorce was a woman that was abused by her first husband and divorced. Unfortunately, she married another abusive man, a covert narcissist who is a preacher. So she sees my ex in the same way as her current husband. She is unable to see the narcissistic abuse, just the amazing Christian words hiding what is really going on.
The vast majority of the other “old friends” on Facebook are people he rarely if ever talks to, and certainly doesn’t spend any time in real life with them. Social media is a good way to show people you are something that you really aren’t in reality. And narcissists are adept at playing that game.
18. Covert narcissists seem very humble around others.
If you are in public at a church meeting or other community meetup, your covert narcissist will always have words of humility so that everyone will feel so built up and encouraged by him. And that is how he gets his reputation as an all around great guy and humble person. It is also how he gets his narcissistic supply.
A covert narcissist will study people to be able to know what flattering words they respond to best. And they will use that flattering language to the end. Here are some examples:
- “I could never be as good as you at ______.”
- “When you ______, it warms my heart so much.”
- “I am so encouraged by your willingness to help and sacrifice in such a big way.”
You will notice a couple of things in these examples. First, they are legitimate things that normal people will say. Just hearing those words from someone doesn’t mean they are lies or narcissistic. And second, they are pure projection on the part of the narcissist. They are what the narcissist wants to be seen as. So he says them to the other person, hoping for some reciprocation back, and hence, some narcissistic supply thrown his way. All while convincing people of his humility, which doesn’t really exist.
19. Covert narcissists will seem very kind around other people.
Once again,when in the public forum, a covert narcissist will always use words and body language to appear kind and loving to those he knows are watching him. A covert narcissist knows the right body language, words, and actions to make people think of them as kind. That means that if they wanted to, they could actually be genuinely kind and loving to others. Except that they are too self-centered to care.
Covert narcissists can use all the right words and body language because they study people. They study every detail so they can turn around and use them to get what they want out of others. While we all know that being kind and courteous to others, no matter how close or distant the friendship, is a great way to relate to others and will bring you blessings in return, we don’t do it exclusively for our own good. We do it for the good of us as well as all others around us. But narcissists don’t function that way. Everything they say and do is a means of getting themselves to where they want to be, to getting everything they can.
Every relationship, personal or otherwise, to the narcissist is simply a business deal. I remember learning this in marriage counseling. After several weeks of back and forths, our counselor mentioned to us that it seemed our marriage was more like working out business deals back and forth. I agreed wholeheartedly and recognized it had been that way since the beginning. My ex agreed as well but went further to say he didn’t understand why it was a problem. He gives me something to get something in return. But that was all it was about for him. Everything was “even.” Or he wasn’t going to have a vested interest in it. There was no way he was giving his family something without expecting a payback in return.
20. Covert narcissists have little to no self-awareness–unless they are trying to impress someone.
The truth is, I think that covert narcissists are actually deeply self aware. And terrified that someone else will see what they see in their distorted shameful view of themselves.
But because of this self awareness of unbearable shame, there has to be a mask to cover how they really feel. And an act for people to see so they will think the covert narcissist is an amazing person. To make this bad situation even worse, the covert narcissist is keenly aware that if the mask slips or the act is seen for what it is, everyone will know what he really is and the jig will be up. This is a very stressful and sad life to live. And so unfortunate that the covert narcissist doesn’t realize that if they could work through the shame and deep insecurity, they could live a life of peace and joy without having to put on an act and fool everyone they meet.
21. Your covert narcissist’s needs will be more prevalent than yours.
It will never matter what your needs are or how pressing they are. If your covert narcissist perceives that he has a need, he won’t be able to see anything else until his need has been taken care of.
If you try to make your need clearer, the narcissist will accuse you of being selfish, uncaring, and maybe even narcissistic. They will make sure you feel bad for having expressed your need in the first place.
I believe maybe part of that is because the narcissist feels that if their partner has a need, it shows that they are seen as not taking good enough care of their family. It is narcissistic injury. And it is an example of the narcissist being overly sensitive to even the slightest criticism. Except that the criticism didn’t even exist in this case. But he felt it because he felt that if someone near him has a need, it showed that he had not met the need well enough. Someone would see him as less than perfect.
22. A covert narcissist will belittle you in order to make themselves look better.
Any narcissist, covert or overt, will belittle you to make themselves look like the best person in the room. But their methodology will be drastically different. An overt narcissist will destroy a person in front of everyone. They don’t care what people think, as long as they see that the narcissist will take anyone down that gets in their way. The same is not true for the covert narcissist.
The covert narcissist must belittle people in secretive ways, often even unbeknownst to the victim themselves. So, in order to belittle you in this way, the covert narcissist will communicate the insult as a compliment with a but attached at the end. Or it will be something like, “It would be so much better if instead of ______, you do this.”
He then points out that doing the original thing is so stupid or ridiculous. They make you feel so bad for what you are doing, that you have to change it. You feel that if someone else sees you doing what they criticize, you will be embarrassed. So you work hard to be the person they want you to be because you do care what others think of you and want to do the right thing.
23. Covert narcissists will triangulate you with others.
For those of you who are not familiar with triangulation, the official definition according to PsychCentral is that “triangulation is when a toxic or manipulative person, often a person with strong narcissistic traits, brings a third person into their relationship in order to remain in control. There will be limited or no communication between the two triangulated individuals except through the manipulator. It may appear in different forms, but all are about divide and conquer, or playing people against each other.”
The insidious nature of covert narcissism means that when the narcissist is using people against each other, none of them even realize it until the damage has been done, if ever. I didn’t learn about things that had been said or done in isolation until over 30 years later in some cases.
Once I knew what was going on, it was much easier to get past. It was as simple as keeping everyone in the loop so there could be no miscommunication. Toward the end of our marriage, my ex triangulated me and our family, our counselors, and our church leadership against each other. The counselors saw it right away when issues came up in counseling. And they solved it quickly by having all the groups meet to get on the same page every couple of weeks. And nothing was said without being in writing or in the presence of witnesses. The triangulation was over in that arena. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work like that in the world at large. Just be aware of it going on and don’t let yourself get caught up in it.
24.Covert narcissists must always be seen as the victim.
In spite of the fact that we had over a hundred people over the course of a few years that tried to help our marriage and family, my ex would never let go of the narcissism. He wasn’t willing to do the extremely difficult work of getting through his own early childhood abuse. And that probably made it easier for him to excuse all of his behavior as everyone else’s fault.
As things spiraled out of control and we eventually ended up divorced, he always insisted he was the victim and everyone else had wronged him. Because triangulation was no longer an issue, we knew he couldn’t get away with the lies that made him the victim in all of the avenues that counted. But he found his own people to believe his victimhood lies.
In the defense of those who fell for his victim act, he was expert at making himself look like a victim while only saying mostly kind words about those he was abusing. Or he would say that we were all unbiblical and he didn’t understand why we would treat him this way. Not that many people fell for it. But enough to make life miserable for those that did understand what was really going on. Some of his defenders were quite cruel in their defense of him/attack of us.
Side note: You can check out some of my best resources by clicking here. These are the very same resources that I used to heal from my narcissist. Check them out and watch your healing skyrocket!
25. Covert narcissists placate people instead of engaging in honesty and genuine relationship.
In this final sign in the covert narcissist checklist, I want to share with you how covert narcissists placate people instead of engaging in honesty and a genuine relationship. As I mentioned above, covert narcissists do not bond well with people. But they do study them to see exactly what words and actions speak to them. For the narcissist, this is all about finding a new instrument and learning to play it to get the result they want out of it.
Unfortunately, there is little to no humanity involved. It was always about what the narcissist can get. And it doesn’t matter who he gets it from, as long as he gets what he wants. A narcissist will never seek out true relationship.
So, can you agree to be in relationship as long as both of you are getting something from it? I don’t think an emotionally healthy person could ever agree to live that way, although a few people have.
Sam Vaknin is an Israeli writer and professor of psychology, and just about the most famous admitted narcissist in the world. He is married and has an agreement with his wife about how to work their relationship out. They say it is not perfect but it works for them. And it makes them money because Mr. Vaknin writes books and has a website and YouTube channel.
Speaking of YouTube, you need to check out this video by Jesús Enrique Rosas, also known as the Body Language Guy. He is a therapist that helps people to understand the situations they find themselves in by learning how to evaluate body language. You will be intrigued by what he has to say about the body language of covert narcissists. And you will love that once you know about it, you can fend off any narcissist! Check it out here:
It is disheartening to see the depths a narcissist will go to in order to “win” what they wanted. The destruction they lay out on the family they were supposed to love forever is horrific. And for some victims of narcissism, the end will be nowhere in sight.
Do you think you may be involved with a covert narcissist? You can take this short but informative covert narcissist quiz to know for sure!
Now that you have hopefully had a chance to go through the checklist as you read through the corresponding points in this article, I hope you have gotten a good picture of what is going on in your life or relationship. You may have been comforted to see that things aren’t as bad as you thought. Or you may be overwhelmed that it is just as bad or worse than you thought. If that is the case, know that you can get past this. You can be well, emotionally and physically!
I would love for you to share where you are in your journey. And I hope that this article and website will help you as you recognize the issues and move through healing. Feel free to leave a comment below!
Blessings and hugs,
If you found good value in this article, I think you will love how helpful the following articles are as well!
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