My personal growth journey has led me down some pretty unexpected paths. I’ve been on a quest to learn to love myself, support other women, and embrace the concepts that led me to my relationship with my husband.
But I would have never gotten to 35 years old and thought I’d be asking myself, “Am I a covert narcissist?”
It was hard to admit to myself that I was a covert narcissist, at least through my twenties. Thankfully, things in my life changed me for the better.
So I want to share with you my own personal journey through realizing that I was a covert narcissist and what changes I’ve been to let go of that mentality I used to have. Let’s start with some personality traits and how to recognize covert narcissism in yourself.
Am I a Covert Narcissist?
If you’re asking yourself this question, I want to thank you. Not many people have the courage, authenticity, or vulnerability to look at themselves this deeply.
So kudos to you!
I would have never thought to ask myself if I was a covert (or vulnerable) narcissist had there not been a chain of events in my own life that led me to my discovery.
My hope is that you are able to see some of yourself (or NOT see yourself!) in my journey and that it helps you to learn more about covert narcissism and how you can turn that lens on yourself in a more gentle and loving way.
Let’s begin with traits of covert narcissism.
Traits of Vulnerable Narcissists
A narcissist is someone who thinks quite highly of themselves in order to try to combat their crushing insecurity. They’re trying to convince others (and themselves) that they’re worthy, but really what they’re doing is building walls that prevent themselves from having to face their insecurities.
Covert, or vulnerable, narcissism puts the emphasis on the insecure part. They’re not shoving the fact that they think they’re better than you in your face… they’re much more subtle about it and it’s all rooted in their belief that they aren’t worthy.
These traits of covert narcissism are not all-encompassing, but they will help you look at what it really means to have this specific kind of narcissism.
- deep-seated insecurity
- anxiety and depression
- inability to take criticism
- holds grudges
- emotionally manipulates others
- superiority, putting themselves above others
- grandiose fantasies
- lack of empathy for others
Noticing Covert Narcissism in Others
Here’s the thing: no one will be able to convince you of being a covert narcissist if you’re not willing to open your eyes.
And sometimes our eyes are pried open when we realize we have other people in our lives or pasts who were/are also narcissists.
There had always been a few people in my life who I knew were overt narcissists. But when I realized that there were several (yes, several) other people in my life that met the traits of covert narcissism, it was a huge revelation.
Especially since I related so strongly to these people and felt so many commonalities between myself and them it really made me turn a critical eye on myself.
Once I learned the term covert narcissism based on the research that I did on those people, I started to look into my own traits and habits to see if maybe I also fit the bill.
How Do You Know If You’re a Covert Narcissist?
Here are the signs that made me realize I truly was a covert narcissist.
1) I realized that I was highly judgmental
I did NOT realize until recently just how judgmental I was, both to myself and to others.
I catch my reflection in the mirror, and I’m immediately criticizing my posture, my skin, my smile, my weight, my clothing choices, and so many other things. Although I never fell into the narcissistic stereotype of loving my own reflection, I certain did spend a lot of time looking at myself and criticizing everything I was seeing.
I still do this to some degree, although I’ve been so much more accepting of myself and my body since having children.
With others, it was not at all different. I judged everyone. I knew that gossip was bad, and I never considered myself to be caddy. But the more I look back on my time in high school and college, the more memories resurface of me talking about other people behind their backs.
I judged other girls and women because of their clothing choices, their priorities, their boyfriends, their hair, their sexuality, their parents’ income level (yes, really), and all kind of other manner of things.
I thought that because I genuinely cared about them, judging them was okay, because it was all in the name of love!
What I didn’t realize, is that true love is the absence of judgment. Really caring about someone means accepting them for who they are.
2) I was unable to take anyone else’s suggestions
For me, as a covert narcissist, it was my way or the highway. That was the rule in relationships, in friendships, or even in working in projects in school.
When someone would make a suggestion to me, I dug my heels in. I felt that it was my duty to explain why I did something the way I did, or why I expected something to be a certain way, and I would talk to prove myself until the other person’s ears bled.
For a long time, I justified this because I just had “strong values.” But isn’t this true of everyone?
Holding strong to your values doesn’t mean being unflinchingly rigid. I was not able to meet anyone else where they were. I expected others to meet me where I was. And when people were not able to do this, I dismissed them as being selfish. (See #1 and #3.)
3) I put myself above others
This goes back to #1 and being judgmental. There were many methods that I used to think of myself as better than others.
- I was morally superior because I had never cheated or lied.
- I was better than rich people because I didn’t care about money. (“Money is the root of all evil.”)
- I was better than poor people because I had a work ethic. (That good old lie that “poor people are lazy.”)
- I was better than my friends because _____. (I was healthier, thinner, more mentally stable, etc.)
- I was better than other women because I wasn’t girly.
- I was better than other women because I hid my sexuality.
- I was better than other women because I was pretty without trying.
- My family was better than the rest of my extended family because my parents were the only ones who weren’t divorced, etc.
As you can see, there were so many ways that I built walls between myself and others, primarily putting myself on a pedestal. I did this especially with other women and my girlfriends. (How I managed to get through high school with a few friends left is absolutely beyond me.)
Many people throughout my life had commented on how they thought I was stuck up, and I never understood why. Now, after realizing that I was a covert narcissist, I absolutely agree with them.
All I saw was how insecure I was, but in trying to build myself up, I was hell-bent on tearing others down. (Even if only in my head. You don’t have to do it out loud to be a narcissist.)
4) I was highly sensitive to criticism
Like #2 above, if someone’s “suggestions” rose to the level of criticism, I couldn’t handle it. I would immediately deflate and wilt like a sad balloon.
This became a huge point of contention in my first real job (as a high school choir director) because the principal and parent board would make suggestions/criticisms about my job performance and I would waver between exhausting myself trying to shove it back up their asses and absolutely going limp and lifeless, unable to drag myself out of bed.
In this particular case, it did happen to be a conflict in values (I saw the pursuit of a higher quality of music as having merit in its own right, and the administration of the school thought music should be “recess” for the students), I handled the situation with no decorum.
I had no emotional regulation or communication skills, and while the best thing that could have happened did (I was asked to resign), I could have handled this a lot better if I had not been a covert narcissist.
5) On the other hand, I loved to “fix” others
I am a fixer. If someone feels sad, worried, overwhelmed, hurt, angry, or frustrated, it was always my own personal responsibility to smooth the situation over.
Even more, if someone close to me was depressed, in serious need of help, or dealing with a really shitty situation, that thing became my own personal project.
Just as I expected myself to be “perfect” (because how else was I able to judge others unless I was perfect?), the people around me needed to be pretty as a picture as well. I was responsible for making others around me put on a good face or mask for the world.
This especially manifested in my first marriage. I married someone who was in deep pain and I made it my personal project to bring him up so that I would be worthy of being loved. (This is a terrible way to use someone, and he deserved better than that. Make sure you read my next article: How to apologize to your ex.)
6) I was deeply depressed and hated myself.
All of this back and forth, this criticizing myself and expecting myself to be perfect, it was always going to take a toll on my mental health. And it did, in pretty big ways.
Starting from the age of about 14, I was in and out of depression. I only really went to see a professional about it a handful of times, but there were certain times of my life that I truly thought of suicide as a viable option to take away my pain.
I hardly remember any of college because I was so depressed. When I left college and worked my first job (mentioned above in #4), I spent a great deal of time daydreaming about what it would be like to consume everything in my medicine cabinet (hoping that it would kill me right away and not just send me to the hospital.) Thankfully, I never made that daydream a reality.
If you are depressed and have been thinking about suicide, please call someone and get help right away. Don’t wait.
But this intense insecurity and belief that you are worthless is a big sign you might be a covert narcissist especially when coupled with some of these other signs.
7) I thought I was always right and refused to budge in an argument.
Since I was about 27, these traits started to slip away for me as I was doing more work on myself and really putting a priority on my personal growth.
But this one trait clung on for dear life, and it was really the one that caused me to realize how I was a narcissist.
The tipping point was an argument with my husband. My husband and I have excellent communication and support each other unconditionally, and we hardly ever argue.
But when our second son was about a year old, he was still occasionally sleeping in our bed. My husband had been against co-sleeping from the beginning, but he was lenient because he knew that both the baby and I slept better when I was still breastfeeding at night.
Eventually, his frustration with the situation boiled over. He expressed just how he had felt belittled when I failed to take his needs or opinions into account. Something needed to change in order to make the situation better.
I had been fighting him on this, trying to justify why I had allowed the baby to continue to sleep in our bed and pushing aside his feelings. My world practically split open when I realized that I was holding onto something that I really didn’t need to be.
Why couldn’t I just listen to him? My actions had hurt him, and I was in the wrong. Period.
Continuously trying to justify my actions and prove myself was a habit that I had had for a long time. In that single moment, I realized that true love meant stopping trying to justify or prove myself and just listen.
8) I had performative empathy
If someone had asked, I would have said I was a highly empathetic person. But the truth was that I liked to think I had empathy, but when push came to shove, I struggled to be empathetic at all.
For example, when confronted with a situation in which someone was struggling or in need of compassion, I had a tendency to victim-blame. I would say things like, “Well, they did it to themselves,” to imply that something they did caused this suffering. I refused to believe that everyone suffers and deserves compassion. (This also shows my entitlement.)
Once I had really experienced suffering in my life, I realized that regardless of whether someone “did it to themselves” or not, they deserve to be treated with love.
Can a Covert Narcissist Change?
Yes, they can.
If you’ve been asking yourself “Am I a covert narcissist” and you find the answer to be yes, then don’t freak out! Don’t despair!
Admitting that you’re a covert narcissist is a huge step. Since my own revelation about this, I’ve been able to work on myself and change these narcissistic traits about myself.
Here are a few things that I’ve learned about covert narcissists changing:
- a covert narcissist can only change when they want to (you can’t make someone else change)
- they have to be ready to make actionable changes in their life
- they need motivation to continue those changes (for me, that’s my husband and sons)
- they need time for regular self-reflection so they can observe things changing
- it works best with a support system of unconditional love to hold up a mirror and point out the toxic things that they’re doing (again, this is my husband)
- recovery is not a linear path (sometimes you might be great at recognizing these things, and other times, you may slip back into those narcissistic habits)
3 Ways a Covert Narcissist Can Change
1) Fix your relationship with yourself first
The number one thing that you need to see is that you’re worthy regardless of anything. In the words of Julieta Madrigal, “You have NOTHING to prove!”
Because covert narcissists don’t really love themselves, they take that disappointment out on the world. When we flip the script and start to love ourselves, we’re able to process our pain and be a better catalyst for joy, love, and support in our world.
Personally, I love affirmations because they can help you change your mindset. These affirmations for narcissists can help you if you find yourself needing to work on your relationship with yourself.
2) Work on your relationships with others
One thing covert narcissism does is degrades our relationships with the people in your life. So after you work out ways to love yourself, you need to make sure you’re showing up for others, too.
Start catching yourself when you’re judgmental to others. Start meeting people where they are. Be there for them unconditionally. Listen to what they have to say. Not everything is a personal dig against you.
The depth of your relationships will absolutely flourish once you start letting go of all of these defense mechanisms you’ve been holding onto: trust me!
3) Find an outlet for all your pent up emotions
In deciding to make a change, this is going to be letting out all kinds of bottled up emotions that you’ve been carrying with you and protecting for a long time.
I had been so concerned about the face that I was putting on to the world that I didn’t take care of all the emotions and concerns that were underneath. When I finally started uncovering all those emotions, it was incredibly painful. And exhausting.
I felt broken.
But I was breaking down my old way of being in order to build a new foundation of self love and self compassion that I could use to help support others.
But during that process, I was very raw and vulnerable. (And I still am.)
I highly recommend that you make sure you have a good support system… multiple people who love you unconditionally who don’t mind being a shoulder to cry on. You should also have several outlets for your emotions, including movement and creativity.
Moving your body can really help you clear out emotions, and it’s even really helpful with trauma that is stored in the body. (Check out somatic therapy. It’s really mind-blowing.)
Finding some way to put your emotions into your creativity is important too: painting, writing poetry, playing music, acting, or whatever creative pursuits float your boat.
Narcissism in Pop-Culture
While this video isn’t specifically about covert narcissism, I found it to be extremely helpful. They discuss narcissism through the traits of Batman in the Lego Batman movie.
I absolutely love Cinema Therapy and highly recommend their videos.
Are you a covert narcissist?
Only yourself and a licensed therapist can answer that question.
I can tell you that after admitting that I am a recovering covert narcissist, I’m starting to see my life for what it truly is. Accountability can been difficult, but honestly, taking responsibility for myself (instead of other people’s problems) has been the best thing I could do for my mental health and for the quality of my life.
Covert narcissism sounds nasty, but when you break it down, it just gives you a really good look at how you need to love and support yourself instead of being so critical.
You don’t have to live this way. It’s possible to have healthy relationships with others and yourself, and it all starts with compassion!
Lastly, remember that recovery is not a straight line. You’re going to do great for a little while, and then something will happen to make you slip back into those old habits of judgment and insecurity. But keep your eyes open and keep focusing on unconditional love, both for yourself and others around you.
So tell me… do you think you are a covert narcissist?
Drop me a comment below!