Understanding the motivations of a covert narcissist, and how to get help if you are in a relationship with one

motivations of a covert narcissist

It’s hard to recognize when your loving relationship turns into a controlling one. Unfortunately, sometimes emotional withdrawal and subtle manipulation from partners confuse individuals. If you notice that these patterns have become the new normal in your relationship, you might be dealing with a covert narcissist.

In general, Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) isn’t common and about 0.5-5% of the US population is diagnosed with this condition. However, some individuals don’t show off their narcissistic tendencies, manipulate them quietly, and make it harder to spot the signs. Not surprisingly, this negatively affects the other person’s well-being and damages the relationship.

Thus, it’s important to understand what covert narcissism is, what are their motivations, and how to get professional help if you notice that your relationship has turned into a cycle of emotional pain and confusion.

What is Covert Narcissism?

Covert narcissism is a form of Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) that is often referred to as  “closet narcissism” or “introverted narcissism.” The reason is that, unlike the traditional understanding of narcissism, which involves a grandiose sense of self-importance and seeking admiration from other people, covert narcissism is characterized by passive-aggressive behaviors that still aim to control and manipulate other individuals.

Therefore, covert narcissists may appear to be introverted, sensitive, and insecure individuals who quietly seek validation and admiration. This internal struggle often leads them to manipulate relationships subtly but effectively.

Although covert narcissism isn’t recognized as a separate mental health condition from classic NPD in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), the motivations of covert narcissists are similar to those of overt narcissists – to gain a sense of superiority, seek validation, and control other people. Considering that the tactics covert narcissists use are harder to spot, it’s important to know how to recognize specific signs of covert narcissism and understand their motivations.

Signs of Covert Narcissism

Some of the typical traits and behaviors of covert narcissists include:

  • Passive superiority – Covert narcissists believe that they’re better than others but usually, they’re too shy to state this out loud.
  • Self-victimization – They often portray themselves as the misunderstood or underappreciated victim which serves the purpose of gaining sympathy and manipulating others.
  • Sensitivity to criticism – They react poorly to feedback and often perceive it as a personal attack.
  • Emotional withdrawal – Covert narcissists pull away emotionally and use this silence as a mechanism for control or manipulation.
  • Being constantly jealous – Being jealous or envying others’ success or relationships is common for covert narcissists. These people usually believe they deserve what others have.
  • Inconsistent public and private lives – One of the key characteristics of covert narcissists is that they appear nice and kind in public because they know how to hide their insecurity and make others think they can control their emotions. However, their behavior is different when they’re alone.
  • Lack of boundaries – They usually fail to respect others’ limits and believe that their experiences are more important than others. As a result, people in relationships with covert narcissists have to set healthy boundaries.
  • Tendency to project their insecurities onto others – They often shift their own insecurities and flaws onto other people to gain an advantage and make them feel uncomfortable.

Motivations of a Covert Narcissist

The motivations of a covert narcissist are related to seeking validation, power, and admiration. However, these desires are not always obvious and they usually manifest in more subtle, indirect behaviors compared to overt narcissism.

That’s why it’s important to understand the motivations behind covert narcissism to avoid their impact on your relationship before it’s too late:

1)   Seeking validation from others

Covert narcissists crave acknowledgment and approval. For this purpose, they try to create situations where they can get admiration without appearing overtly attention-seeking. For example, they might make up stories to receive compliments or expressions of sympathy.

2)   Feeling superior and special

Despite a facade of modesty, covert narcissists believe that they’re unique and superior to other people. Although they don’t always show it, this internal sense of being special makes them seek situations and relationships that affirm this distorted self-perception.

3)   Controlling others to fulfill their own needs

One of the main goals of covert narcissists in relationships is to manipulate situations and relationships to ensure their desires and demands are prioritized, often at the expense of others’ needs. This often results in damaging their partner’s confidence over time and making them more dependent.

4)   Avoiding criticism

The self-esteem of covert narcissists is especially fragile. They’re sensitive to criticism and would do anything to avoid it. This might involve shifting blame, creating excuses, or even withdrawing emotionally to protect their self-image.

Psychological Impact of Being in a Relationship with a Covert Narcissist

Narcissism, in general, has significant interpersonal costs (Wright et al., 2017). Not surprisingly, being in a relationship with a covert narcissist can have a significant psychological impact on both the relationship and the quality of life of the partner involved. For example, individuals in such relationships may experience increased anxiety, depression, and even symptoms of PTSD.

Studies show that covert- narcissism is negatively associated with self-esteem and self-efficacy (Brookes, 2015). This might indicate that covert narcissists might use their manipulation tactics and emotional withdrawal to reduce their partner’s self-esteem.

Furthermore, covert narcissism is associated with relational aggression (Ghim et al., 2015), which means that these people may use subtle forms of hostility within relationships, such as silent treatment, backhanded compliments, and social exclusion.

Even though covert narcissists act subtly, their abuse might have a long-lasting effect on a partner’s mental health and hinder their ability to engage in future healthy relationships.

How to Deal with a Covert Narcissist

If you notice that the signs of covert narcissism seem familiar in your relationship, you should start protecting your well-being as soon as possible. It’s true that you can’t control their actions and intentions but you can develop strategies that will help you reclaim your sense of self and save your relationship.

Here are some things you can do to deal with a  covert narcissist:

  • Don’t take their comments personally

Covert narcissists often use negative comments and remarks in order to make other people feel uncomfortable. But you shouldn’t take this personally because these criticisms or manipulative remarks stem from their own issues. It’s not a reflection of your worth or actions.

  • Acknowledge their true motivations

Most of the time, the behaviors of covert narcissists are driven by their insecurities. They either need to feel validated or superior to other people and that’s why they try to belittle your abilities or project their insecurities onto you. Knowing the motivation behind their actions will help you respond effectively and remind you that you’re not inferior — it’s just what they try to make you believe.

  • Set healthy boundaries

Having boundaries with a narcissistic partner is the only way to protect your values and well-being. Try to be as clear as possible about why you’re setting these boundaries. Even if they can’t understand your needs, you need to be sure about things that are important to you to protect your self-esteem.

  • Don’t take part in their lies

Narcissists often live in a false reality. Avoid engaging with their fabrications because disengagement denies them the victory they seek in manipulation and deceit.

  • Seek professional help

Finally, if you can’t manage to use any of these strategies, don’t feel discouraged because it’s not easy to deal with a covert narcissist on your own. Seek professional therapists or counselors, as they can help you rebuild self-esteem and develop healthy relationship patterns.

Getting Help from Professional Counselors

If your partner displays signs of covert narcissism, it’s important to get professional help as soon as possible. Therapists can offer guidance, support, and strategies to cope with the manipulation and deal with its emotional impact.

Our licensed counselors at Health for Life Counseling are trained to help both individuals and couples overcome relationship challenges, including understanding the motivations of a covert narcissist and dealing with them. With us, you can get both individual and couple therapies to navigate through such relationship dynamics.

Contact us at our offices in Grand Rapids, MI, or Ada, MI, or schedule online sessions, and get the professional support you deserve.

Note that to make our services accessible, we accept a wide range of health insurance options, including ASR, Priority Health, Golden Rule, Optum, and many more.

Learn more about the Trauma-Informed Counseling Center of Grand Rapids

Learn more about Counseling and Therapy services at Health for Life Counseling Grand Rapids

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