Lola Pickett, Empath Coach
Would you be able to recognize a covert narcissist?
Much of the online content about empaths and narcissists pit them against each other as though they are exact opposites. But, what if that’s not always the case? What if the lines are sometimes so blurred that someone who claims to be (and even self-identifies as) an empath is actually what’s known as a “covert narcissist”?
Recognizing a covert narcissist is tricky. They know just what to say and how to act in order to come across as empathic. Plus, they sometimes genuinely believe that they ARE an empath themselves. Then, because they’ve convinced themselves, it’s easier to convince others, too.
But, there are a few key indications that can help you uncover whether someone you know (or yourself) is a covert narcissist rather than an empath.
Would you know if a covert narcissist was your closest friend or partner? These five signs will help improve your intuition and discernment for identifying narcissistic habits and patterns.
First, it’s important to identify the differences between a covert and overt narcissist:
Who are covert narcissists?
Overt narcissists are relatively easy to spot given their visible behaviors, but covert narcissists are much harder to identify, especially if you’re emotionally and/or romantically attached to them.
Covert narcissists tend to be shy, introverted, and hyper-sensitive to their surroundings. This type of narcissist knows how it is to be wounded and hurt, and they hide behind elaborate and complicated boundaries; often asking people to jump through hoops just to get access to them.
Even though they may come across as kind, caring and genuine, behind closed doors, you’ll find them to be judgmental, dismissive, and mean.
Many self-proclaimed spiritual “gurus” are covert narcissists, disguised as self-proclaimed empaths. (Their use of the word guru at all is red flag!) I’ve been deeply wounded by someone like this, and it took me years to trust another mentor.
Given how confusing—and potentially damaging—it can be to have a relationship with any kind of unhealthy narcissist, I want to empower you to recognize the signs.
5 Signs to Help You Recognize a Covert Narcissist
When you observe and interact with covert narcissists, you’ll notice that they claim to be intuitive and highly-sensitive empaths. But, if you also notice THESE things, you’re likely in the company of a covert narcissist instead:
1. Blaming others
When bad things happen in a covert narcissist’s life, there’s always something—or someone—else to blame. You won’t hear a covert narcissist take personal responsibility, even if you know they had a direct hand in creating the problematic situation.
Putting the blame on others reinforces their inner superiority complex and conveniently keeps them safe from true intimacy or growth—which feel dangerous to them.
Instead of outright blaming, the covert narcissist will subtly place the blame elsewhere, perhaps even gaslighting you into thinking that it’s all your fault; while simultaneously painting themselves as the hero/victim of the story. Consequently, they’ll receive praise or sympathy and avoid the need to change their behavior.
2. Passive self-importance
Covert narcissists shyly think highly of themselves and express it in a less aggressive way than overt narcissists. You will feel them craving a certain degree of validation when they talk to you. They have a tendency to give back-handed compliments (that simultaneously reflect positively on them) or share their achievements without asking you about your life. You’ll think and feel that they’re emotionally connecting with you, but they’re actually manipulating you into reassuring them of their identity and worthiness.
You’ll also notice that somehow, the conversation always circles back to them. In fact, you might note that it’s nearly impossible to get a word in edgewise—and whatever you do share will be diminished or related to something they are dealing with!
Covert narcissists will procrastinate on anything that doesn’t directly feed into their agenda. Plus, by putting off doing something that’s challenging or vulnerable, they avoid taking risks or failing; things that could harm their self-perception as an expert.
This means that they’ll…
Sooner or later, you may question if they really like your company, or if you’re important to them at all. It’s a valid question, and the answer may be hard to swallow.
4. Unable to delay gratification
Narcissists in general are very challenged to wait for something they want. They will overlook, ignore, or downplay your needs in order to pursue what they want—especially if it’s something that reinforces the version of themselves that they project into the world. Covert narcissists will make it seem as though you’ll get your turn to have what you want, but it never actually comes to fruition—beyond a few meaningless “crumbs” of attention.
They are relentless in pursuing their agenda and expect you to be the same, rather than offering a balanced giving/receiving dynamic.
Seeking what’s in it for them—at every point in a relationship—is a good sign you’re with a narcissist
5. Emotionally unavailable
Covert narcissists often think they are emotionally available and will use all the “right” words to create what seems to be an emotional connection. But, they tend to be disconnected from their feelings… So, while they can rationally sympathize with you, they don’t tend to empathize emotionally. This creates a confusing dynamic where you’re being told what you want to hear, but still feel deeply disconnected from (and devalued by) this person.
Over time, this creates a pattern of over-giving on your part to try and create a real connection with the covert narcissist… Which only serves to boost their ego and leaves you wondering why you are either “never enough” or “too much” for them.
3 things that you can do to protect yourself
These three practices will help you navigate your relationship with any type of narcissist… When you stop playing into their games, you’ll quickly discover whether this is a person who’s willing to learn and grow (some narcissists —particularly covert ones—ARE), or if this is a relationship that’s better off being behind you.
Don’t sell yourself short by sticking it out with a covert narcissist. You have awesome gifts to share and be appreciated for!
1. Create boundaries
Setting boundaries informs people that you have your values… That YOU are valuable. Take a stand for what you want and need. Say what you will and will not tolerate.
A covert narcissist who wants to evolve will do their best to listen to, honor, and make space for your needs. If you notice that they aren’t willing or able to shift out of the 5 patterns named above, then you have the necessary information to choose how—or if—you’ll continue to be connected with them.
2. Maintain a healthy distance
When you’re in a relationship with a covert narcissist, you may feel frustrated and overwhelmed. Because they lack the ability to nurture emotional bonds (but think that they can), there’s a heavy burden on you to shoulder the emotional labor in your relationship⏤either as a friend, a partner, or a family member.
When you start creating a healthy distance between them, you might start to feel better. To maintain your distance, try the following:
Remember not to feel bad about creating the distance. This is for your own good; it’s not something you’re doing “to” them.
3. Advocate for yourself
One of the notable things about narcissists is that they don’t let anyone else take the spotlight. They make sure that the attention will be theirs alone. Hence, you lose your voice along the way.
Over time, you might even forget how to speak up or feel disconnected from your unique perspective. To find your voice again and begin to advocate for yourself, you can do these things:
A covert narcissist may be able to mimic the way an empath speaks or feels. But, I encourage you to look beyond the surface if you feel like something’s “off” with someone who claims to be an empath or a highly sensitive person.
Words can lie, but behaviors and actions usually don’t.
Even a well-practiced covert narcissist will probably exhibit one or more of these signs. If any of this sounds familiar, practice self-compassion and kindness. These people are master manipulators and can easily take advantage of your kind heart.
In conclusion, watch out for gurus, honor your own heart (and intuition), and be willing to listen to inconvenient truths about yourself AND the people in your life. Do that, and you’ll recognize a covert narcissist in record time—saving yourself from some serious heartache and healing down the road.