covert narcissism

Emotional Abuse and 7 Signs of Covert Narcissism

Sharing is caring
  • 13

Covert narcissism is very difficult to put your finger on.

Many people waste years of their lives with covert narcissists trying to figure out the unusual dynamic they’re experiencing in their relationship. Once they discover that it could be covert narcissism, they waste further time questioning if that’s really the case or not.

The reason for this is that many of us do not have a clear definition in our minds of what constitutes abuse.  We often think of abuse as being only physical and do not have a clear definition of what emotional abuse is.

On top of this, covert narcissists are very good at covering up emotional abuse, denying that they are being emotionally abusive, and actually projecting it on to you to the point where you doubt your own instincts and start to believe that it is you who has the problem.

Covert emotional abuse is very real and once you have identified it you must treat it with the same severity as you would physical abuse.  Learn more in today’s article and video…

Faulty Programming Leads to Soft Boundaries

We may not clearly recognize emotional abuse for many reasons. These reasons may include not having a strong sense of self, which is common in empaths and highly intelligent self-taught people, growing up to put other people first, being covertly emotionally abused as a child, or simply not having our unique abilities nurtured and valued.

There are many reasons we become vulnerable to emotional abuse, but all of these reasons have the same result… having no boundaries (or having flexible boundaries) and a tendency to put other peoples’ needs first.

Highly intelligent and successful people often fall victim to covert abuse because of flexible boundaries.  Flexible boundaries are common in intelligent people who like to keep an open mind, not be judgmental, and who often learn and grow by doubting and questioning themselves and the environment around them.

In addition to this, covert abusers are experts at probing, testing, and reducing personal boundaries little by little over large periods of time.

Following, I will cover how we develop boundaries and give some examples of techniques used by covert emotional abusers to test and reduce boundaries and signs of covert narcissism.

Boundaries and emotional abuse

Let’s start by looking at what personal boundaries are.

Personal boundaries should be established when we are children.  Unfortunately, we were taught not to trust our instincts.  We learned by the examples set around us of what type of behavior is acceptable and just how much we should tolerate in given situations.

Instead of being taught to have very strong personal boundaries, we were taught that it is better to forgive, to give people the benefit of the doubt, to be understanding, and to accept that everyone makes mistakes.

These are all valuable and important qualities and should always be employed with other people who share the same values.

However, something that we are not taught is the very sad fact that there exists a growing number of people in society who cannot feel love, who do not have empathy, and who use these qualities in other people to their advantage.

This, of course, does not mean that we should not continue to have these human values and qualities, but it does mean that we have to start recognizing the importance of personal boundaries in conjunction with these qualities and to realize immediately when those boundaries are being crossed.

Putting boundaries in place and not allowing people to cross them is the development of self-respect. This starts by recognizing that your qualities are valuable and are not to be squandered on people who will not value them and then recognize very early on when you are being abused.

Narcissists, sociopaths, and psychopaths will, without exception, push people’s boundaries to the limit, break them, extract what they need from the person, then leave them feeling as if they have no self-worth and obsessing about the person who did it to them.

If these individuals come across a person who has strong boundaries they will either have nothing to do with them, as they cannot extract what they need from them, or they will see it as their greatest challenge and set to work at chipping them away, thus providing them with the buzz of a lifetime if they succeed.

Breaking down a confident, successful person with strong boundaries is the ultimate in narcissistic supply.  It is, however, quite hard work and so they will be working on an easier target simultaneously or on targets who are at different stages of being broken down.

Once a person is completely broken down, they will abuse them until they have nothing left to give or offer, then leave. They often return when their target has begun to heal or has something further to give or something further to break down.

You should not underestimate the danger of having one of these types of disordered persons in your life and the damage that they can cause.

It is important to recognize them, name them, and keep them away from yourself and the people that you love.

7 Signs of Covert Narcissism 

1 – There’s something empty about them that you can’t quite put your finger on

Covert narcissists may look good on paper, but there’s an emotional abyss inside them that often peeks out during their interactions with you and other people.   

For example, on rare occasion, I have a random narcissistic individual sign up for a coaching session.  I can always tell right away that there is something off about them.  They’re able to skillfully talk about how they’ve been in therapy, are being abused by a partner or family member, and how their friends worry about them.  

Only, there’s no emotion behind their words.  It’s literally as if they’re reading from a script…or, trying to speak a foreign language to be able to communicate a message, but in a particularly emotionless manner.

Their speeches and diatribes are often rather monotone because they don’t feel anything when they are communicating their message.  They seem almost robotic.

2 – Impersonal and aloof relationships

A relationship with a covert narcissist often feels like the person in front of you is simply going through the motions. 

When it comes to moments that touch your heart or would cause most people to feel emotional, the covert narcissist can only pretend…or exhibit an aloofness that you find rather odd.

The covert narcissist is not comfortable with displays of emotion or even simple cuddling.  You may find that you always sit on opposite sides in the living room or sleep in separate bedrooms.  This may manifest as the covert narcissist’s insistence on keeping a separate sleep schedule as you or their narrow focus on self-absorbing work.  

For instance, I once knew a covert narcissist who would spend hours a day during the summer tending their garden, only to let it rot at the end of every season.  This same individual also spent an inordinate amount of time supposedly writing a book (that never got published)…all to minimize wider human interactions.

3 – You feel less than and belittled, but you can’t really explain why

A covert narcissist can emotionally assault you even though they may not be doing anything outwardly obvious.

If you were to try to explain the situation to an outsider, you might feel a little silly because when you say it out loud, you realize it doesn’t sound like the narcissist is doing anything wrong.

But your body knows they are.  Your body tells you when you aren’t emotionally safe with someone.  It might be their cold indifference on a special occasion even though, according to appearances, they are being “just a normal person”.  

Perhaps you feel like a total dunce simply riding beside them on the way to dinner.  That’s because they are emitting this kind of energy based on the fact that they truly believe you are their subordinate and less intelligent than they are.

How does your body respond when you’re around them? Do you feel free to be your authentic self? Do you feel cared for? It’s not about how they’re communicating with you.  They might be saying kind things to you, but you feel like they’re a total fraud.  You know, based on your history with them, that they are just paying you lip service and don’t really care about you aside from how you make their own life more convenient.

4 – You feel emotionally starved

No matter how long you’ve been with them, you realize you have felt alone since the beginning.  Sure, there may have been a period of love-bombing, but that ended abruptly and you were left to figure out why their feelings changed with no warning.

While things may appear normal on the outside, you realize you’re being kept at arm’s length on an emotional and energetic level.  You understand that there are unspoken barriers that you are not to cross.  The idea of a spontaneous hug or truly romantic walk in the park is something you only experience in your imagination.

5 – Passive-Aggressiveness

The covert narcissist is often long on words, but short on action.

Since covert narcissists prefer to keep their inflated egos to themselves, they generally won’t outwardly argue with you. If you offer an idea, they’ll simply agree or say, “Great suggestion!” They will wax poetic, going into great detail about the idea, and then completely disregard it.

When you ask why they didn’t follow through, they’ll brush it off and give you no real explanation.  To further their self-serving agendas, they will call you a nag for bringing it up.

6 – They’re repelled by your desire for intimate encounters

Covert narcissists are often very good lovers in the beginning.

However, just like the short-lived love bombing phase, it quickly becomes apparent that they are not at all interested in your needs or desires to be intimate.

If you try to talk to them about this sensitive subject, they will accuse you of being selfish, only caring about your own needs.  There may be long periods of abstinence in your relationship.  Ironically, you discover that they are only concerned with their needs and the only time you are intimate is when it’s something they want…and not a moment sooner.

7 – They never smile with their eyes…unless they are putting you down

Covert narcissists don’t really get excited or feel warm fuzzies the way the rest of us do.

Not all narcissists, however, have the dead-eyed smile of the covert narcissist.  

I’ve seen even malignant narcissists express varying levels of short-lived happiness in their eyes…but the covert narcissist has a dead stare that leaves you feeling uncomfortable, even when they are smiling.  

The only time you see their eyes light up is when they have successfully belittled you.  Extra points if they can achieve this while pretending to behave normally.  

The First Step to a Healed Life is Recognition

You do not need the narcissist’s permission, validation, or recognition to leave the relationship.  You do not need to submit proof that you are being hurt. You do not need closure from the narcissist, who will withhold it anyway.

You do not need to prove to yourself that you know how to handle the narcissist, you simply need to get far away from them so that healing can begin. 

Like all new beginnings, it starts with the first step and the first step is recognition of the signs of covert narcissism.

If you are at the point where you have started to realize that you are tolerating abuse, that you have handed your power to another, it’s time to honor yourself with the first step towards healing. Have faith that you can leave the relationship and trust that the pain will pass.

Celebrate this lonely time, because it is the first step in taking back control of your destiny. It’s time to begin the journey to discovering the joys and the life that is waiting for you just out of sight.

And take hope from those that have succeeded because you have the opportunity and potential to be next.

For extra support, take advantage of our Spring savings on our Narcissistic Abuse Recovery Program.  Start when you’re ready and have lifetime access.  This course has been vetted by numerous psychologists and neuroscientists, so you can rest assured in its effectiveness!  Includes a 30-day guarantee, so there’s nothing to lose.  Enroll today at $30 off!  Click the image and scroll down to see your savings.  We’re keeping a spot warm for you…

Your healed life starts with one step...

Join thousands of others who have signed up for the free Email Recovery Course and Healing Roadmap. Includes expert advice and tips for encouragement and support. * Seating in my masterclass: 7 Proven Steps to Defeat Narcissistic Abuse PLUS +* How to Ease Anxiety * 16 Empowering Beliefs to Live By + more!

Powered by ConvertKit

Sharing is caring
  • 13

Leave a Comment:

Jerry H. says April 28, 2019

My Ex. has EVERYONE of these traits. Six years clean now! LOL It is an addiction being with one of these beings. They are very ugly and evil. Now I know the signs! Thanx for your articles.

Jerry H. says April 28, 2019

This article hit home for me. I KNEW there was something about my wife, but I could not figure it out until I took Psychology classes at my Community College.

Mary Bondar says April 25, 2019

This article hits home!! And i’m thinking of specific people as I read it (who are no longer in my life thankfully). It’s so great to feel validated in my decision to leave those narcs and know that my gut instincts and BODY were reacting correctly around them. Thank you so much for this article!! Saving it since it’s definitely one i’ll come back to often.

Anonymous says April 24, 2019

How do you leave when there is little children 3 to count and 1 with a disability involved. Very difficult and scared

Nan says September 8, 2018

I’m in the middle of a divorce with one of these. I I just recently came to the conclusion that he is a covert emotional abuser. He doesn’t fit neatly into the frame of abuser. He’s slick about it and most likely has no real awareness of his actions or motives. I wasted so much time trying to understand him when I should have been more focused on myself and protecting our son from his influence.

Multiple affairs, virtually ignored me except when he needed something. I was his woobie blanket for when he eventually did something self destructive that caused blow back. We have an adult son who lives with him and idolizes his dad but without me around to temper his father’s behavior he’s starting to see the destructive nonsensical behavior. His father lies without much thought and is a hypocrital ass (kind of ironic since stbx loves to point out other people’s hypocrisy).

Recently, my stbx learned that his girlfriend of two years (who was his side piece) is pregnant. He was also just recently fired and I think there is more to the story than what was told (there always is). Who did he call when he needed a friend to lean on – me. I started to get sucked into his crazymaking vortex again but I’ve been working on my boundaries and eventually put them back into place.

It’s frustrating and I feel shame that even knowing everything I know, everything I’ve experienced that I still feel a love attachment, it still hurts.

My own crappy childhood issues make me an easy target for his type (I won’t be dating until I can get more attuned to my own needs). So I’m doing all I can to fix me…therapy, reading, writing, getting a better understanding of my actions, feelings, and motivation.

It’s going to take a long time to recover but better to work toward recovery than to continue living in his alternate universe.

Katherine says January 25, 2018

Covert is the operative word here. Their crazy making is unreal. I have Masters degree and was trying to prove myself to a person who thought he was successful because he had a place to stay, a car, and a gym membership. Any attempts I made to improve myself freaked him out. These people are afraid of everything, needing someone else to practically nurse them through life. The sugar tit was removed, within 5 months he is engaged. He was hell bend on making me miserable and doubt myself so that I could be controlled into the ground. It’s not working.

    Kim Saeed says January 25, 2018

    Glad to learn you’ve taken control of your life, Katherine! Wishing you all the best!

    Kim XoXo

J says December 29, 2017

I am currently trapped in our apartment, trying to find a way to leave the state he brought us to 5 years ago. He left with our only car last night and I locked him out. He has started making disparaging remarks, not just to and about me, but our son now as well. He is getting scarier and angrier because I confronted him with covert narcissism a couple of months ago. He said he’d get help, then didn’t. Now he says he won’t get help from anyone licensed. He has kept me isolated for a decade. I have no job, very little money (enough to leave, but not enough to live anywhere), no friends, and no family. I have no idea what to do. I’m terrified.

    Anonymous says January 27, 2018

    You need to get away from him. Take your son and both of you go to a domestic violence shelter. Be sure your GPS is not tracking your cell phone. If you are not sure, power it off. The hardest and best decision you can make is to leave him and never go back. The shelter will help you with everything you need. The most important thing is your safety and well-being right now. You can do it!

kelly says September 25, 2017

My ex was a covert narc, and it seems like I was his only “victim”. He has friends and kids, neither of whom he was abusive with. Maybe because I attempted to set boundaries with him? Actually, as I write this, I guess his kids offer pretty steady supply because he rarely says no to them, so they don’t have much to respond angrily to.

    Nan says September 8, 2018

    My stbx loves having our 20 year old son around as a narc supply. I think he’s holding our son back from growing and prospering because he knows he’ll lose the supply.

S says March 24, 2017

I am trying to come to terms with my partner treating me this way. I have given in so many times…who wants to believe it?! Everything is good when I bolster his frail ego. If I dig my heels in, everything turns to sh!t. He gaslights me, everything is my (or someone else’s) fault. He has no shame in being a massive hypocrite. He treats my emotions like dirt and justifies his actions. He turns disagreements into character assassinations. I have had several very traumatic life events in the past few years before we got together, yet he uses me as an emotional dumping ground. I unconditionally gave him everything I had and he took me for granted. I have lived in hope that he will change his ways. I don’t want to accept that he won’t, even though deep down I know this is true. It destroys me that he can treat me this way. He says he loves and needs me and wins me round. I have never come across anyone so selfish and immature. I truly wish that I had never met him as I struggle to see a way out.

    Anonymous says September 3, 2017

    I really feel for you and hope you recover. Am going through the same thing right now. Best and only thing to do is to get out. Everything says that. It will do you no good to stay and hope for him to change back to his old self. That person does not exist.

    Becky says January 25, 2018

    I so completely understand every bit of your comment. 🙁 To face the reality that this person you at one time fell so in love with and thought loved you really doesn’t and won’t and can treat you with unbelievable disrespect without giving a damn at all hurts beyond words can describe. Even knowing the facts and reading all the descriptions of who they in reality are , I still find myself allowing him back in and close enough to hurt me over and over. Why even when we know what they are doing and who they are do we not run like hell and why can’t I let go of being sad about not being able to make it work . For God sakes the horrible things he says and does to me and other women he uses for supply when I try to be strong and not give in , I can’t stand that I would so anything other than spit in his face and never look back but for some reason It not easy like that. I keep trying to research info and find strength within myself to get back my self worth I know I should have to not allow him a part in my life at all ever again but so far I have not succeeded at this and it just makes me lose more respect for myself for allowing him to continue this abusive cycle that destroys me. He hates me having any friends or family that may be supportive of me so he works hard to destroy any and keep me isolated and alone without him. He disgusts me yet I fight to try and win his love and approval even if it for a day before he treats me like unwanted trash he cares nothing about. I don’t understand myself anymore or why I can’t turn my back on him for good. So frustrating and shameful feeling to battle. I am grateful to read others go through similar things cuz I have read some useful info or knowledge but really I hate anyone else goes through it at all. I just desperately want the strength to get on with my life and never look back at the memory of him again . I will succeed one day if it the last thing I do. I wish you the same and hope you know your not alone ……

puameliaclinic says May 4, 2015

Reblogged this on It's All In The Head.

Dealing With the Fallout of Emotional Abuse | Unrevandalized says May 4, 2015

[…] friend just sent me this article. I don’t care if you don’t finish reading this post, please just read the article! So […]

irene says May 4, 2015

This was really helpful. I’ve been a long time member of a group that has been meant a lot to me . A few years back the leadership changed and gradually things started to go down hill. It took a while but I finally began to “see” some of what was happening. The new leader seemed really nice but had a hidden, ugly side…drove me crazy cause i kept questioning myself and what I was seeing.many friends have left and I’m angry at his actions..wondering if I’m being stupid, but I want to hold him accountable for what he’s doing..we have a group that handles complaints/evaluates people in leadership…wondering if it’s worth the ugliness, but frustrated that he’s getting away with psychologically hurting/messing with so many people.

Anna says May 4, 2015

I went no contact 6 and a half months ago. I made sure my abusive ex would have no way to contact me. However, everyday I have this deep fear of him coming back around, of him finding a way to contact me or find me. We were never married and have no children together. But literally everyday I still live in fear that it isnt over, that he isnt truly gone.. One of the last things he said to me was. “You don’t decide when this relationship is over, I do!!” When do you know that you are truly free and can stop living in fear everyday?? I know there may not be an answer to that but it plagues me on a daily basis.

    Danita says December 10, 2016

    Hi, three days ago I did the no contact with my ex. We were married but no children. I also live in fear that he will hunt me down. My ex raped me after he walked out for the 8th time during our time together. I tried to keep an emotional distance from him, thought I was looking at him with eyes wide open. But he still wore me down emotionally. I have put my story put there to let other woman know the are not alone. Its a struggle everyday not to fall into old patterns. I have to remind myself that I am worth it, my feelings do matter, I deserved to be loved. Your not alone and one day you will realize there is no more fear. DLM

      soria says February 25, 2017

      Lawyer up and fuIle a rape report. He will pee in his pants when you take all of his moneyvin the divorce while he gets to warm up Bubbas bed.

Lisa G. says May 3, 2015

Excellent post and so informative and true. Thank you Kim ~

    Kim Saeed says May 3, 2015

    Thank you, Lisa! I’m glad it resonated with you…

anonymous says May 3, 2015

I totally resonate with this post. They also use others to gain information. Trust few… even those you thought you could trust are often turned and play into their game.. only those that have mistreated someone will continue behind your back to find out information when there is none, to make you appear the disordered one….

Angie says May 2, 2015

After 28 years, I am just now discovering and realizing that is what I have been living with for 28 years. I have three beautiful children whom are sadly being emotionally abused by my covert Narcissisist. I am so sad for them, they didn’t have a choice, I did. Hopefully my learning will help prevent a repeat generation of this chaotic mess!

    Mary says May 3, 2015

    I hope someday there is a way to either treat this disorder or better yet, make this a criminal offense. The damage that is done is mind boggling.

    Silvia says May 3, 2015

    Hi Angie, I am about to seperate from my N. after been married 19 years. As Mothers we have the responsibility to protect our children from abuse, also the emotinal one. We had 5 children. 2 of them did suicide. He thinks he has nothing to do with that, says it was there own choice. But that they have been emotinaly damaged through toxic thinking, his toxic behaving,…I will not close my eyes from this anymore. Finally I woke up and now I can see clearly what is EVIL. I will not spent the rest of my life with him cause he takes no responsibility. Just demands that we would forgive and forget. No remorse ever. I understood about N. to late, thought I could fix things. They were already screwed up and his sister got mental ill. I will not be an enabler anymore. Wish you the best.

      M.C. says March 11, 2017

      I’m just trying to admit to myself that I married a narcissist 15 years ago and had 5 children with him. I’m so scared to walk away, and I don’t really know where to start. I have felt crazy for years, been on depression meds, and now my thyroid and adrenals are not functioning healthily. I know my husband wants the world to believe I’m evil, crazy, ungreatful, spoiled, and a terrible mother. And sometimes I believe him. I’m scared to face divorce and famity court, as he will sabatage me. How do I get out and get free? I am emotionally and psychologically drained, but even scarier, I am completely financially dependant on him, as I have been a stay @ home mom for almost 14 years.

    Robbie says June 10, 2015

    Oh the pain to watch my 2 grown children be emotionally abused by my ex. 22 years I protected them without knowing that was what I was doing. They sort of “get it”.

Deb says May 2, 2015

I am still married to mine. I wish I had known this information years ago. Things would be very different now.

Karin says May 2, 2015

*Shudders* So insidious and incredibly difficult for a normal, compassionate person to identify, let alone comprehend. NC is the only way and to allow oneself the full measure of the grieving process. For me, it was for both men, the one I knew and the one I thought I did. Life does go on.

K says May 2, 2015


This is another one of your awesome, therapeutic, and relevant ” works of art”. It is so spot on technically that it should be a PSA! Please keep your blessings flowing to us out here that you are touching every day. May you receive double in return!

JR says May 2, 2015

I am currently 1 week NC. So many silent treatments ,push and pull,putdowns and lies. I literally can not understand how someone can pretend to love you so convincingly and fool a person into giving the most sacred part of themselves knowing it’s all a fraud. Thank you for these blogs Kim, you are a gifted writer and you are helping so many people that have gone through this insidious abuse. As usual the timing of this piece was perfect.

    Anonymous says January 30, 2016

    I agree. Good job nc!! It’s hard. .

Mary says May 2, 2015

Better late to learn this than never. No matter how much love you have for them. As I stated a long time ago in an email to my ex narc, “abuse is abuse whatever form it takes, and I cannot tolerate it ever”. I unfortunately let him suck me back in, and he went for the jugular, with a smirk on his face, and the onslaught was amazing. I never knew anyone so ruthless, even my ex husband who would beat the liver out of me on any given occasion. The ex narc, who never physically abused me, played mind twisting games that literally blew my mind. I’m still struggling with this, it’s hard to get away but after over 6 months NC it’s easier to realize what a devil spawn this guy really is. I feel for his new victim(s) but I suppose it’s their turn to begin to learn this very hard lesson.

Add Your Reply