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Covert Narcissism: Understanding and Healing from Its Effects

Covert Narcissism: Understanding and Healing from Its Effects | Annie Wright, LMFT | www.anniewright.com

My four-year-old daughter absolutely loves Taylor Swift. 

(I’m not joking.)

The first time she ever heard “Shake it Off” she wiggled her little body around the whole house. 

Covert Narcissism: Understanding and Healing from Its Effects | Annie Wright, LMFT | www.anniewright.com

Covert Narcissism: Understanding and Healing from Its Effects

So, despite the fact that I didn’t really listen to Taylor Swift while growing up, we’re now a full-fledged Swiftie household with her albums on repeat on Spotify.

When she came out with her most recent album – Midnights – there was one song in particular that grabbed my attention when I streamed it for my daughter: Anti-Hero.

In it, Taylor croons:

“Did you hear my covert narcissism I disguise as altruism

Like some kind of congressman?”

The first time I heard it, I paused and restarted the track. 

Did she say covert narcissism? 

She did!

That was easily the biggest platform I’ve seen highlighting that term and yet many individuals who read this blog or come to relational trauma recovery therapy with me cite the covert narcissism of their parents or spouses as a source of pain and confusion they want to heal from. 

And so, today, I want to devote this essay to exploring what covert narcissism is, how it shows up, what the impacts of it can be, and why it matters to talk about this, especially for those of us who come from relational trauma backgrounds.

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Covert Narcissism: understanding and healing from its effects.

Narcissism is a term that is, more than ever, commonly used in our everyday language. 

However, it’s important to bear in mind that the definition of narcissism can vary based on the context in which it is used. 

In my field, narcissism is defined and characterized by an excessive love or admiration of oneself, often to the detriment of others. 

Within this definition, it’s important to realize that actions and behaviors resulting from narcissistic tendencies encompass an extensive spectrum – from overt, grandiose expressions to more covert, unobtrusive forms.

Covert narcissism, a subtle and often insidious form of self-absorption, often lurks undetected beneath the surface of seemingly cordial interactions which is how and why it can be so difficult to spot but yet still so impactful.

In this essay, I’ll explore what exactly covert narcissism is, share examples of covert narcissistic behavior, how to recognize covert narcissism, probable causes of covert narcissism, the impacts of having someone with covert narcissism in your life, and, most importantly, how to heal from its effects.

What exactly is covert narcissism?

Delving into the topic of covert narcissism, it becomes increasingly evident that this subtle form of narcissism is complex. 

Characterized by a person’s inclination to cloak their narcissistic traits, covert narcissism stands in stark contrast to its overt counterpart, which is marked by grandiosity and attention-seeking behavior. 

It may seem paradoxical that covert narcissists often portray themselves as introverted, shy, or even selfless individuals when in reality, their motivations are deeply rooted in an ardent desire for admiration, attention, and control within their relationships. 

Some examples of covert narcissism.

While covert narcissistic behavior can be challenging to spot, some of the common signs and signals might include:

  1. Playing the victim: Covert narcissists often position themselves as the victim in situations, seeking attention and validation from others including from their children.
  2. Gaslighting: Covert narcissists may manipulate others into doubting their own experiences or perceptions, often to maintain control and/or influence over them.
  3. Lack of empathy: People with covert narcissism may struggle to understand or acknowledge the feelings and needs of others, instead prioritizing their own feelings and needs.
  4. Passive-aggressive behavior: Covert narcissists may use subtle tactics, such as withholding affection or giving someone the silent treatment in order to control and manipulate them.
  5. Projection: Covert narcissists may project their own faults, insecurities, and shortcomings onto others, often to avoid taking responsibility for their own behavior and vulnerabilities.

And these are just a handful of the ways that covert narcissism can manifest.

What are the causes of covert narcissism?

Most of us in our relational trauma journeys will, at some point, ask the question, “Why is this person the way that they are?”

When it comes to covert narcissism, the origins are complex and unique to every individual in the same way that any constellation of manifested mental health symptomology is a complicated confluence of variables. 

But, speaking in broad strokes, a myriad of factors can contribute to the development of narcissistic tendencies, with childhood experiences often taking center stage. 

For instance, in an attempt to navigate through the pain and insecurity arising from traumatizing events or neglect, some individuals may turn to narcissism as a coping mechanism. In other words, it results from wounding.

On the other end of the spectrum, a hyper-affectionate upbringing involving overly generous praise and inappropriate coddling may inadvertently breed an inflated sense of self-worth, ultimately manifesting as narcissistic behavior. 

And while it can be helpful to ask the question of what causes covert narcissism in someone, I think the more important question by far is “What are the impacts of having been raised by a covert narcissist? How did this impact me?”

What are the impacts of having been raised by a covert narcissist?

This may go without saying, but growing up with a parent who has covert narcissism can have a significant impact on a child’s development and well-being. 

Although the effects of covert narcissism can be subtle, they can be just as damaging as those of overt narcissism. 

Below are some common impacts of growing up with a parent who has covert narcissism:

  • Difficulty establishing boundaries: Children of covert narcissists may struggle to establish healthy boundaries, as their parent may have manipulated and controlled them throughout their childhood leaving them with a lack of or distorted understanding of their boundaries and the boundaries of others.
  • Low self-esteem: Covert narcissists may project their insecurities onto their children, leaving them feeling inadequate or unworthy.
  • Lack of emotional support: Covert narcissists may struggle with empathy, making it difficult for them to respond to their children’s emotional needs. This can leave children feeling isolated, unsupported, and mis- and un-attuned to.
  • Gaslighting: Covert narcissists may use gaslighting tactics to control and manipulate their children, making it difficult for them to trust their own experiences and perceptions as they move through the world.
  • Emotional manipulation: Covert narcissists may use emotional manipulation to control their children, leaving them feeling guilty or responsible for their parent’s feelings and behavior.
  • Invalidation: Covert narcissists may invalidate their children’s emotions and experiences, dismissing or minimizing their feelings and needs, effectively teaching a child that they don’t matter.
  • Intense criticism: Covert narcissists may be highly critical of their children, leaving them feeling like they can never meet their parent’s expectations.
  • Fear of abandonment: Covert narcissists may use threats of abandonment or withdrawal of affection to control their children, leaving them feeling anxious, insecure, and insecurely attached.
  • Difficulty forming healthy relationships: Children of covert narcissists may struggle recognizing healthy, functional behavior in others and instead be drawn to familiar, templated examples of covert narcissistic behavior in their friends, romantic relationships, and more.

And this is just a sample of the impacts that a child raised by a covert narcissistic parent can experience.

So why does any of this matter? Why talk about covert narcissism?

Because, as readers of my blog have long heard me say, when we can name a thing plainly and see it more clearly, we become more aware of ourselves and others and are more equipped to make better more functional choices in our lives. 

Choices like getting ourselves into therapy to heal from the impacts of having grown up with a parent who was covertly narcissistic.

Choices like strengthening our boundaries – including who we let into our life, what kind of communication we allow towards us, etc.

Choices like being mindful of our own communication patterns, being conscious of not replicating the poor patterns we saw modeled while growing up.

And, moreover, talking about covert narcissism and seeing it more plainly should anyone in our childhood or adult life present in this way, allows us to grieve what we didn’t receive and stop proverbially going to the hardware store for milk.

All of which is critical to our relational trauma recovery journeys.

So, if you resonated with today’s article, if a lightbulb went off for you as you read about what covert narcissism is and what it can look like, and you recognize yourself in the list of impacts, I’d love to encourage you to seek out professional mental health support. 

Being raised by (or currently partnered to) a covert narcissist can have damaging impacts, yes, but change is possible until the day we die if we’re willing to do the work of grieving, meaning making, and re-learning any missed developmental milestones.

And helping individuals do this work is what I do as a trauma clinician and, indeed, it’s what my team of 18 clinicians at Evergreen Counseling (the boutique trauma-informed therapy center I founded in downtown Berkeley, California) also do day in and day out. 

My team and I are a highly trained group of clinicians who are dedicated to helping those who lived through relational trauma resolve the impacts of their past with evidence-based trauma treatment modalities.

So, if you live here in California and if you would like to book a 20-minute complimentary consultation call with my center’s clinical intake coordinator to learn more about my team and I can be of support to you personally, please reach out.

And, if you don’t feel quite ready to begin therapy with a trauma therapist, that’s perfectly fine. 

You are the expert of your experience and only you know when the best time for this might be.

In the meantime, I’d love to invite you to read any of the 175+ essays I’ve written over the last eight years here on this blog – all dedicated to aspects of recovering from a relational trauma recovery journey. 

My hope – through this essay, all of my other essays, and through my clinical work in the world – is that by learning more about trauma and the multifaceted aspects of trauma recovery, you will feel more seen and more supported in your own healing journey. 

If today’s essay resonated with you, if you learned something new from it, I’d be delighted to hear from you in the comments below.

And until next time, please take such good care of yourself. You’re so worth it.

Warmly, Annie

Medical Disclaimer

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  1. M says

    Although I do experience what is a common reaction to some of these early childhood experiences of, “Yes. That’s them. That’s what they did.”, this, this “covert narcissism” is one I feel also responding with, “You… you do this yourself now”. Which is a bit of a shock to the system. Thankfully I have no children to pass on my potential harms to, but nevertheless I still ache with shame that I might do it, have done it, to anyone I know, love. ~sigh~ Everything is so much harder (and complex) than the antagonist/protagonist movie franchises make it look.

    • B says

      From what I’ve read in other articles certain aspects of narcissism can be passed onto you from your parents. Doesn’t mean you’re going to be your parents as you get older, but it can have an affect on you.

  2. B says

    Thank you for writing this. I’ve recently started going to therapy again and my therapist recommended I look into covert narcissism. It’s given me a lot of insight of how I was raised and how it’s formed who I am as a person today. This is one of the most concise and information articles I’ve come across and I appreciate you sharing your knowledge.

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