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How to Spot, Handle and Test a Closet Narcissist


Have you ever met someone who constantly tells you how “sensitive” and “introverted” they are, or act seemingly shy when all you actually see is a selfish and egotistical paradox? The answer is probably an emphatic “yes”! However, the hidden narcissist is more complex harder to identify and thriving in society today. The biggest concern though is, how dangerous they can be to others.

The Oxford Dictionary explains narcissism as an excessive interest in or admiration of oneself and one’s physical appearance. In psychology, narcissism is defined as extreme selfishness, with a grandiose view of one’s own talents and a craving for admiration, as characterizing a personality type. In psychoanalysis, narcissism is depicted as self-centeredness arising from failure to distinguish the self from external objects, either in very young babies or as a feature of mental disorder.

To some, the notion of a narcissist conjures up images of “Trump-like behavior”, that is, aggressive, vain, extraverted, self-confident, and with the need to be the center of attention. In fact, according to Dineen Tallering, President and Co-founder of, there have been some interesting people in history who exhibited strong narcissistic traits, ” Mahatma Ghandi, Napoleon Bonaparte, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Bill Clinton, Henry the VIII and Alexander the Great all had strong, pronounced narcissistic traits. Unfortunately you can say the same for Muammar Qaddafi, Adolf Hitler, Pol Pot, Stalin and most dictators”.

Leaders and Narcissism
Tallering indicates that narcissistic tendencies are often self-serving, “Narcissists have vision; but then again so do people in psychiatric hospitals. The basic definition of a leader is someone whom other people will follow; narcissistic leadership is a leadership style in which the leaders’ main goal is serving self-interest at the expense of their people or group members. Narcissists tend to be appealing and quite adept at attracting followers. They often do so through language and believe that their inspiring speeches can influence people. Narcissistic leaders are accomplished and charismatic speakers.” Tallering also makes the point regarding codependency when it comes to narcissists, “Although most people think that followers need their leader, it is also true that narcissistic leaders need their followers. A narcissist seeks and indeed, needs praise and admiration from his admirers.”

Think of Winston Churchill’s wartime broadcasts or JFK’s “Ask not what your country can do for you” inaugural address. The admiration that followed these speeches reinforced the self-confidence and beliefs of the speakers. Typically, as the narcissist becomes increasingly self-assured, he or she becomes more spontaneous and feels freer from previous constraints. They not too uncommonly begin to think they are invincible. Their stronger confidence and increased energy further increases their followers’ enthusiasm. Unfortunately, the admiration that a narcissist demands can have a significant negative effect. As he grows in power, he listens even less to words of caution or advice from his subordinates or from his people. He does not try to persuade those who disagree with him but instead he ignores them (or their advice) or in the case of some dictators, has them deposed or otherwise gotten rid of. The result is sometimes brazen risk taking that can lead to catastrophe of historical proportions

Enter Hidden and Covert Narcissists
Many use the term narcissist quite casually to describe anyone or anything who is the slightest bit self-centered, but Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) is something else entirely.There are other narcissists that take a more stealth approach and their true personalities may not be evident at first, second, or even third glance. This type of narcissist upon first glance, may come across as charming sensitive types who seemingly suffered a lot at the hands of people who (per them) misunderstood them, failed to appreciate them, or harshly judged them for going against the tide.

There are challenges to identifying the “hidden” or “covert” narcissist who has been studied beginning with Henry Alexander Murray, an American psychologist who taught at Harvard University. During World War II, he left Harvard and worked as lieutenant colonel for the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), where he participated in the selection of secret agents at the OSS during World War Two, where he helped complete the now famous Analysis of the Personality of Adolph Hitler, commissioned by the OSS in 1943. Murray’s identification of core psychological provided the theoretical basis for the later underpins of competency-based models of management effectiveness, Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, and ideas relating to positive psychology.

Murray and his colleagues identified various types of “hidden” narcissists and although every individual has a specific set of personality traits associated with their behavior; it is interesting to note that many narcissists possess aspects of the various types of hidden tendencies. In fact, what both the Oblivious and Hypervigilant narcissists have in common is a feigned and well-honed image. Some might even consider their behavior to be very well rehearsed. But there are differences of style.

The Oblivious Narcissist
The Oblivious narcissist is typically insensitive to others. They are continually afraid of feeling unadorned and are attention seekers. They also seem to have a sense of emptiness, something missing that you can’t quite put your finger on. They are also extremely stubborn. They rarely apologize unless they want something from you (this is called narcissist supply). They are often entirely self-centered; they are the center of their own universe. They also exhibit a victim mentality and are continually afraid of feeling unadorned and are attention seekers.

The Hypervigilant Narcissist
Interesting enough, the Hypervigilant narcissist is in fact extremely sensitive to others they interact with. However they are fearful of rejection, and while they seem to avoid any attention at all, they may actually silently yearn for the light to be secretly shone on them. They tend to sometimes be expert liars; charming, hypnotic, a master of manipulation, with a strong inability to form intimate relationships and a greater inability to feel genuine remorse. The Hypervigilant narcissist also has an extreme lack of empathy.
Covert Narcissism in Relationships

When arguing with a covert narcissist, a victim will usually be left at a dead-end. Their logic appears to be incompatible with that of the narcissist and they always get outwitted. If a relationship partner, then the narcissist will go on to state how they took that partner into their life and ‘saved’ them when they needed it and will make the partner feel like they are forever in debt to them. The narcissist makes the victim believe that anything bad that happened was all in their imagination and that they are paranoid; it wasn’t real. The most damaging aspect of covert narcissism is the controlling and manipulative behavior that covert, or stealth, narcissists impose on the people closest to them. They show a very real lack of empathy towards their partner and in many cases also towards their children, if they have any.

A female covert narcissist may have children with their partner in order to tie them down and to secure them as nothing more than sources of narcissistic supply, they may even manipulate the children out of him by failing to adequately use or intentionally damaging contraception or perhaps even by committing paternity fraud.

A male covert narcissist may try to tie their partner down in the same way by purposely not using or damaging contraception and exploiting the emotional bond between mother and child.
Covert narcissists are the sort of people who have multiple partners, secret affairs (sometimes within their own family) or sometimes even a complete secret life with someone else. They recruit friends and family who are fooled by the innocent persona they project to defend their false self by convincing them that their discovered secrets are just a result of paranoia or suspicion, yet they use special occasions such as Valentine’s Day or even while their partner is away at funerals in order to get away with their infidelity; times when the victim least expects it.

When a narcissist’s deceit has been discovered, it is not unusual for every little detail of their behavior to get twisted back round on to the true victim. They are then the one being accused of the abuse, lies and/or cheating. It’s a plain and simple defense mechanism which offers no logic or information on the subject and has to be kept secret in order to uphold the covert narcissist’s pathological self.

Narcissists come up with one-line defense mechanisms rather than offering any logical explanation for their behavior (e.g. “it’s all in your head”, “you’re paranoid”, “that didn’t happen”, “I think you need to see a doctor”, “I don’t know what you’re talking about”, “I never said that”).
Statements like these are an instant sign of guilt and make it clear that they’re not willing to even talk about it; they are not willing to take the risk of slipping up. However, on certain occasions (in private) the narcissist’s attitude towards their partner may change to “either let me get away with it or get out of my life” although this is usually short-lived and denial and repression kicks back in. They make it clear, intermittently, that everything is about them whilst their partner’s feelings, needs, wants and desires are completely disregarded and they will discard their partner in the process with no empathy whatsoever, seemingly being heartless and sadistic. However, covert narcissists are usually nowhere near as sadistic as malignant narcissists who tend to have a very nasty sadistic streak.

A covert narcissist may make it clear to the person closest to them that they understand they have a problem, that they simply don’t care that they have a problem and that they are not willing to do anything about it even if that means losing the people closest to them in their life. Again, this is usually an intermittent behavior. Narcissists have no empathy but seem to go through intermittent (but rare) phases of self-reflection and self-acknowledgement – these phases are also short-lived. (Courtesy of Sparkster via Hub Pages)

Testing for Covert Narcissism
The biggest challenge with testing Covert narcissists is that many do not believe they have a problem and so they tend not to be interested in professional help. However, online testing is available as a start. Perhaps then, recognition of a problem would be the start for them to seek help although many in this category have a pathological challenge to face.

The fundamental distinction between overt and covert narcissism in the normal range of individual differences finally has become accepted in personality and social psychological research. These two factors or “faces” of maladaptive narcissism were named Grandiosity-Exhibitionism (overt) and Vulnerability-Sensitivity in 1997 and thus was constructed a new scale by correlating items from Murray’s Narcissism Scale with a composite of the two measures of covert narcissism from the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory (MMPI), which is the most widely used and researched standardized psychometric test of adult personality and psychopathology. is very focused on expanding our research and technology with regard to this work. In fact in an Amazon Mechanical Turk survey of 420 adults, the expanded version of the MCNS test had a higher reliability and the new testing showed very similar correlations with the Big Five testing aside from a more modest correlation to the Big 5’s conscientiousness. is using IBM Watson to expand our analysis of these personality traits.

How to Deal With A Covert Narcissist
The first step to dealing with a covert narcissist is to spot them and to be sure that they are displaying signs of covert or shy narcissism. Once you are certain of their psychological condition or personality disorder, you need to prepare yourself emotionally, mentally and physically so you can manage your actions and reactions in their presence.

The one thing that narcissists survive on is by feeding on others’ actions and reactions. When those actions and reactions are in their favor or as they desire them to, they would grow stronger. Whenever they don’t get the reactions or trigger the actions that they want to be a part of or a recipient of, they would suffer a blow to their confidence. This is what you need to do when you deal with a covert narcissist.

A covert narcissist will always try various ways to become the most important person in a given situation and would want everyone to swoon over him or her without any apparent reason. The reasons would be all manufactured or a manifestation of their imagination. When these manifestations, imaginations or manufactured situations don’t work, they would be compelled to take a step back. The moment you respond to these gestures or vested moves, you are giving in to the desired and needs of a covert narcissist and then he or she would take control of your thoughts and make their own selves the most important presence in your life. If you have already given in to their actions or plans, then you need to take a step back and draw yourself out before it is too late.

The biggest challenge in dealing with a covert narcissist is that one would feel sorry for the person. A covert narcissist is often pessimistic, depressed, shows signs of low self-esteem and would also suffer from anxiety. There can be a cloud of gloom and doom around them and they will lack the zest for life. It is these attributes that draw people to pay attention to a covert narcissist and their needs. Instead of attending to those needs, intervention must be sought so the problem can be managed without falling for their idiosyncrasies.

  • Annette Barnett

    Hi there – I’m interested in knowing which on line tests you might recommend for someone who is hesitant to seek professional help, but *may* be willing to take an on line test.