Q: “What Is a Covert Narcissist? And Was I Married to One?”
Covert narcissists play the role of the victim. They often seek outside approval and lament how other people take advantage of them. Initially, covert narcissists can be charismatic. But when you set boundaries or otherwise challenge them, problems arise.
Q: “I’m recovering from a divorce. Our therapist said my ex-husband might be a covert narcissist. How is that different from being a narcissist? And how can I recover from narcissistic abuse?”
Narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) is a mental health disorder marked by a pattern of grandiosity, fixation on power fantasies, need for admiration, and lack of empathy, according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM–5).1
NPD falls under the umbrella of Cluster B personality disorders, which include antisocial personality disorder, histrionic personality disorder, and borderline personality disorder. 2
Individuals with NPD may have an inflated sense of superiority and entitlement, exhibit arrogant behaviors and attitudes, and manipulate others to get what they want. They may be overly sensitive to criticism, though they may hide their fragile self-esteem behind a self-important exterior. 3
Covert Narcissist vs. Overt Narcissist
The two subgroups of NPD, overt and covert, share similar symptoms but can manifest differently. They are not yet official subtypes of NPD in the DSM-5. They are guidelines for the types of narcissists you may encounter. When you think of someone with NPD, overt narcissism (also called grandiose narcissism) typically comes to mind. These individuals command attention, demand admiration, and display bold, loud behaviors that exaggerate their strengths.
Covert narcissism can be much harder to identify. A covert narcissist may often quietly seek outside approval and talk about how other people take advantage of them (e.g., “No one appreciates me at work” or “The boss is unfair.”). A covert narcissist may come across as self-deprecating, or they may play the role of the victim.
[Self-Test: Narcissistic Personality Disorder]
But when you set boundaries with a covert narcissist, it can trigger narcissistic rage or stonewalling. After experiencing this behavior, you may become concerned about setting it off again. You may be “walking on eggshells,” trying not to upset the toxic person. They will eventually get irrationally angry again — it’s just a matter of time. The cycle of abuse will continue— love-bombing, a buildup of tension, an explosion, and back to love-bombing again.
A covert narcissist may try to manipulate others with tactics like gaslighting or stonewalling (where someone refuses to talk or interact with you). They will sit in front of you at the breakfast table and seemingly look right through you. While stonewalling or gaslighting, covert narcissists will want you to clamor for their attention. Toxic people get a high from seeing how much their behavior can upset another person. They get dopamine hits from gaining power and control over people. Ultimately, they want to control the narrative of the relationship and feel superior and will use whatever tactic they can — gaslighting, denial, guilt, blame — to achieve it.
Recovery from Covert Narcissism
Walking away from a relationship with a covert narcissist can be extremely difficult. If you have children with a toxic person, it’s crucial to work with a family law attorney who understands the tactics that narcissists and their counsel use.
If you have children with a toxic person, therapy will provide them a much-needed outlet to talk about stuff that is too hard to discuss with parents. Sometimes a narcissistic person will find a new target or narcissistic supply and seemingly move on. The resulting sense of abandonment can be devastating for adults and children. Play therapy is a constructive way for little ones to work through their feelings even if they can’t express them in words.
[Free Resource: What Is Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD)?]
Keep in mind that a narcissist will try to reconnect with you at some point. It is called hoovering when someone tries to get you to break no-contact or suck you back into the relationship. Resist the urge to reconnect or rekindle your relationship, as you will most likely encounter the same abuse as before.
Co-parenting with a toxic person can be incredibly stressful. Everyone should get the support services they need — including you. Make sure you attend regular therapy sessions with a licensed mental health professional (MHP). You may need to interview a few MHPs to find the best fit for you. Some MHPs specialize in helping people with ADHD who have experienced narcissistic abuse.
There are online and in-person narcissistic abuse support groups. You can share stories and build camaraderie with people who have had similar experiences. Realizing you’re not alone can be healing and cathartic. Ask your mental health provider for recommendations. Remember that confidentiality cannot be wholly guaranteed in a support group.
Consider volunteering as part of your healing process. Volunteering helps you reconnect with your community, meet new people, and get involved with a cause that is important to you. Volunteering also improves self-esteem and can reduce depression, anxiety, and grief symptoms.
Remember that it’s okay not to be okay. You can rebuild and have a life filled with joy and meaning. It does take some time. If you feel you might hurt yourself, please call 988 or visit 988lifeline.org.
Covert Narcissist: Next Steps
- Free Download: 9 Conditions Often Linked to ADHD
- Self-Test: Histrionic Personality Disorder in Adults
- Self-Test: Borderline Personality Disorder
- Self-Test: Avoidant Personality Disorder
- Self-Test:Self-Test: Antisocial Personality Disorder
- Read: “What Happened When I Stopped Walking on Eggshells in My Relationship”
The content for this article was based on questions submitted by live attendees during the ADDitude ADHD Experts webinar titled, “Gaslighting, Love Bombing & Beyond: How to Recognize (and End) Toxic Relationships with ADHD” [Video Replay & Podcast #410] with Stephanie Sarkis, Ph.D., which was broadcast live on July 7, 2022.
Thank you for reading ADDitude. To support our mission of providing ADHD education and support, please consider subscribing. Your readership and support help make our content and outreach possible. Thank you.
1American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). 669,670,671. https://doi.org/10.1176/appi.books.9780890425596
2Dixon-Gordon K.L., Whalen D.J., Layden B.K., Chapman A.L. (2015) A Systematic Review of Personality Disorders and Health Outcomes. Can Psychol., May;56(2):168-190. https://doi.org/10.1037/cap0000024
3American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). 671. https://doi.org/10.1176/appi.books.9780890425596