7 Things Covert Narcissists

7 Things Covert Narcissists, Sociopaths, and Psychopaths Do Differently

“The only truly effective method for dealing with a sociopath you have identified is to disallow him or her from your life altogether. Sociopaths live completely outside of the social contract, and therefore to include them in relationships or other social arrangements is perilous.” – Dr. Martha Stout, The Sociopath Next Door

When many of us think of malignant narcissists, sociopaths and psychopaths, the image of the egotistical megalomaniac is called to mind: overly proud, boastful, arrogant, vain, self-centered, even violent, depending on how psychopathic we think they might be. Yet many of the most conniving and dangerous manipulators are not overt in their tactics – and their violence does not leave visible scars.

Predators who fly under the radar are able to so because they disguise their tactics behind false humility, a convincing façade and an arsenal of underhanded tactics meant to keep their victims bewildered, gaslighted and striving to regain the abuser’s approval. Here are seven ways covert malignant narcissists, sociopaths, and psychopaths differ from their more overt counterparts.

1. They apologize strategically to keep you hooked.

It is a common misconception that those who have narcissistic or even sociopathic tendencies never take accountability for their actions. While it’s true that more overt narcissists rage at any perceived slight and suffer narcissistic injury, covert manipulators are able to keep their contempt in check if it means sustaining a relationship or furthering an agenda. For example, an abusive relationship partner may still apologize and acknowledge what they did wrong if they find it more convenient than to disagree.

They will not, however, actually change their abusive behavior – their apologies, accompanied by crocodile tears or pity ploys – are given out only to maintain the image of accountability, not to actually follow through with their promises to change or improve. As Dr. Sharie Stines (2017) notes, when a narcissist apologizes to a partner, “He {or she} is not truly sorry; he is managing your relationship and managing his appearance to others. He doesn’t care how his behavior has impacted you, and he never will. He just knows that by apologizing he appears to care and he now has a “trump card” or “get out of jail free card” to use if you try to hold him accountable for his behavior.”

This is why the abuse cycle can go on for so long – victims struggle with understanding the true intent behind their abuser’s covert aggression. As manipulation expert Dr. George Simon (2008) writes:

“These individuals are not openly aggressive in their interpersonal style. In fact, they do their best to keep their aggressive intentions and behaviors carefully masked. They can often appear quite charming and amiable, but underneath their civil facade they are just as ruthless as any other aggressive personality…They are very actively aggressive personalities who know how to keep their aggressive agendas carefully cloaked. Dealing with them is like getting whiplash. You don’t know how badly you’ve been taken advantage of until long after the damage is done.”

2. They rage covertly, engaging in underhanded sabotage and put-downs.

Master manipulators are sophisticated in how they rage. They choose when and where to rage (usually with no witnesses involved) in order to further isolate the victim. They also choose who to abuse. Unlike overt narcissists who rage more indiscriminately, covert malignant narcissists usually pick their most intimate partners and loved ones to drop their mask around behind closed doors (Goulston, 2012). While they still leave a trail of victims, these victims are less likely to be believed simply because covert malignant narcissists know how to work a room and dupe the public into believing in their false mask.

Covert narcissists, sociopaths, and psychopaths prefer to rage through their actions rather than outright outbursts. If they perceive that you are moving forward without them, surpassing them in any way, or “daring” to be independent of them, they will strive to regain control. While they appear calm, composed, or happy for you, they will attempt to sabotage you behind the scenes and systematically and diabolically interfere with your well-being to get their own needs met. They may pretend to have your best interest at heart, all while sadistically planning to undermine you.

It is common, for example, for these toxic types to ruin a big celebration or deprive their victims of sleep before an important interview by stirring up chaos beforehand, or to rain on someone’s parade out of pathological envy. They prefer to condition you over time to associate positive events with their punishment so that you are no longer able to feel as fulfilled or joyful pursuing the activities which make you independent of them.

The conniving manipulator also dishes out covert put-downs, chronic degradation, callous comparisons to others and cruel remarks to keep you walking on eggshells and begging for their validation and approval. This is done in a far subtler manner and the effects are long-lasting due to the level of cognitive dissonance this evokes. The victim is forced to sift through the fog of gaslighting and confusion to even determine that they are being abused at all.

Former FBI agent and expert on dangerous personalities, Joe Navarro, describes how these covert put-downs operate to diminish a victim’s sense of self, reality, and self-worth:

“The manipulator will make carefully chosen insinuating comments to evoke an uncomfortable emotional response or even several responses at once. He knows your weaknesses and your hot-buttons, and he will enjoy dropping a bomb like this and watching the fallout. If someone says something that has multiple negative meanings and causes negative emotions while leaving you flummoxed and without a meaningful response, you’ve experienced it.”

3. They set up their victims elaborately, rigging the game while dangling the carrot.

Malignant narcissists, sociopaths, and psychopaths see everything as a competition and a game – and they rig the game early on so they appear to be the winners. Dangling the carrot is one of the ways they maintain control and ensure they come out on top. If they can make their victims believe that they are in for a fantasy relationship or business partnership, they can get their own needs met without having to fulfill their part of their bargain.

Everything they “set up” for their victims is an elaborate ruse to get them invested in a relationship or partnership with them before pulling the plug or the rug up from under their feet. They engage in hot-and-cold, push-and-pull behavior frequently in order to maintain control over their targets. They harm in order to “rescue” – to get you addicted to their validation and comfort after incidents of abuse.

That is why narcissists in relationships love-bomb and dote on their victims early on, take their victims out on lavish dates, promise their victims the world, plan dream vacations, only to later ruin these plans, abandon and devalue their victims. Victims become so hooked on crumbs and promises that they over-invest in the narcissist, hoping for the positive return. Instead, what they incur are major losses while the covert narcissist rides off gleefully into the sunset.

To add salt to the wound, it is common for covert sociopaths to taunt their victims by giving everything they promised them to another target they’re grooming – simply to sadistically rub it in their faces. First, they dangle the carrot, then they give the carrot to someone else to make you feel like the defective one. This is a form of “triangulation” which heightens their sense of power over the harem of men and women they keep to enable them.

This “dangling of the carrot” can also occur in contexts outside of intimate relationships, like the workplace. Corporate psychopaths “dangle the carrot” of a possible promotion, raise or opportunity to get you to work harder for an outcome that they never plan to deliver on. They may instead reward someone else to make you feel like you were the problem all along. These petty manipulations would never cross the minds of normal, empathic beings, but they are all part of the elaborate mental chess games malignant narcissists thrive on.

These predatory types are always looking out for their own self-interest at the expense of everyone else’s needs or basic rights. They set up their victims for failure, always moving the goal posts so that their victims are left disoriented and unable to fight back. These elaborate set-ups are all just a ploy to get inside your head, plant seeds of self-doubt, and to terrorize and traumatize you.

4. They are convincing pathological liars.

Covert predators are able to lie and deceive with alarming ease, some even to the extent of passing lie detector tests. Yet their lies are not as easily spotted as the lies of your more garden-variety manipulator. That’s because these types lie with a nugget of truth – enough truth to keep their victims off-balance and doubting their own reality.

As Dr. Staik (2018) writes in her article, “15 Reasons Narcissists and Sociopaths Lie,” these lies often serve the purpose of trapping victims:

“Lies are used to lure prey, to emotionally manipulate them, to put them on emotional roller coasters, and to get their hopes up only to later snatch them away, again and again. Lies and illusions big and small are how a narcissist’s props up their false image of themselves as a supreme dream fulfiller — and traps others into believing their “lies,” so much so, that they get others to collude with them, and join in duping and fooling new converts, such as occurs in cults. Predators know what to morph into, what to say, and when. They relish fabricating illusions of promises they never intend to keep.”

Predatory narcissists also experience “duping delight” when they are able to pull the wool over the eyes of their victims – some lie for no other reason than the pleasure of being able to con someone (Ekman, 2009). As master gaslighters, they lie with a convincing amount of conviction and feigned emotion. Their lies are often perfectly tailored towards what they know their victims will want to hear and will want to believe – which is why they get away with their falsehoods for such long periods of time.

5. They hide their double lives with more ease and no empathy.

Murderers Chris Watts, Philip Markoff (the Craigslist Killer), and Scott Peterson were all revealed to have been living double lives which no one would’ve ever suspected them of living otherwise. They all appeared to be eerily “normal.” Emile Cilliers attempted the murder of his wife twice and was also revealed to have had affairs with other women, even to the extent of planning a new life with one of them. His wife expressed shock that he could go so far as to plan her murder. By all accounts, these predators appeared to have happy relationships and were able to fool society with their charismatic public image.

This is common with wolves in sheep’s clothing; they can be pillars of the community, upstanding citizens and doting husbands or wives up until the point where their most violent crimes are exposed.

Yet the lengthy deception involved in these cases will come to no surprise to those who have lived with and have married covert malignant narcissists. The secret lives of covert sociopaths consist of multiple affairs, crimes, and numerous lies built up over time which do not unravel until their most horrific deeds were finally uncovered.

A propensity for double lives is intrinsic to their disorder. Psychopaths are prone to boredom and have a high need for stimulation. The psychopathic brain has been studied to show structural and functional abnormalities in the prefrontal cortex and amygdala, parts of the brain responsible for moral reasoning, empathy, guilt as well as anxiety and fear (Motzkin, et. al 2011).

A lack of moral qualms, an absence of fear and a constant need for thrill is quite a dangerous combination when a psychopath is involved. Extramarital affairs, dangerous activities, risky behaviors are all “food” for a hungry, voracious psychopath who requires larger and larger amounts of danger in order to feel satiated. Their levels of sexual depravity and conscienceless behavior know no bounds – simply because they do not have any boundaries to hold them back.

6. Their facade is very convincing and alluring.

The covert psychopath’s façade is one of the most convincing tools they use in order to bolster their public image and escape accountability for their actions. The most covert sociopaths are able to engage in a great deal of grandstanding and virtue-signaling to create a persona of a good-natured, humble, caring and generous individual in order to mask their true contempt and malice. This allows them to get away with their crimes more easily in public. They can even infiltrate fields like counseling or religious and spiritual leadership in order to access a greater supply of victims, disguising themselves as competent professionals or “gurus” all while hunting for prey.

Their superficial and glib charm is not only part of their diagnostic criteria, it is the driving force behind what makes them so alluring to potential targets of their schemes.

Their devil-may-care exterior actually works for narcissists, rather than against them, when it comes to initial attraction, ironically even for those seeking long-term mates. Research has indicated that even women with a wealth of experience in the romantic arena and a desire for marriage (including those who have knowledge of narcissistic personalities) still preferred narcissists as romantic partners. According to researchers Haslam and Montrose (2015), this was due to their “ability to acquire resources, and {the fact} that they are entertaining and self-assured. These traits are attractive to females in relationship contexts.”

7. They use the pity ploy rather than physical force to cut through the defenses of their victims.

The pity ploy is perhaps the most dangerous weapon in the arsenal of a covert sociopath. Dr. Martha Stout, author of The Sociopath Next Door, writes, “The most reliable sign, the most universal behavior of unscrupulous people is not directed, as one might imagine, at our fearfulness. It is, perversely, an appeal to our sympathy.” Stout notes that if an abusive, toxic person repeatedly tries to make us feel sorry for them after chronically terrorizing us, it is a sure sign we are dealing with someone sociopathic.

Pity disarms us and makes us vulnerable to exploitation. Preying on our sympathy, our conscientiousness and empathy is a common maneuver for conscienceless, sophisticated and covert manipulators because it enables them to get past our defenses. It appeals to the part of us that wants to help, nurture and “nurse” these individuals back to emotional “health.”

That is why covert abusers often bring up traumatic pasts to justify their present violence, use excuses related to life-threatening illnesses, work-related issues or emergencies to divert the focus off of their harmful behavior, and tell sob stories of their “crazy exes” early on in the beginning to manipulate their victims. They use their capacity for cognitive empathy to assess our weaknesses, vulnerabilities, and desires in order to “morph” into the very people we would trust in and believe in – the very people we would want to help (Wai & Tiliopoulos, 2012). Meanwhile, these same malignant types lack the affective empathy and sympathy for their victims – depending on where they fall on the spectrum, they often do not feel anything other than sadistic pleasure at inflicting pain.

Covert manipulators know how to bypass our logic and reasoning by appealing to the most vulnerable parts of us – our empathy and compassion, qualities which they do not possess themselves. This is what ultimately makes them so dangerous – the fact that they can pose as a sheep in wolf’s clothing, with no one being any wiser to their intentions. As Stout also eloquently writes, “’I am sure that if the devil existed, he would want us to feel very sorry for him.”


American Psychiatric Association (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th Ed). Washington DC: American Psychiatric Association.

Ekman, P. (2009, December). Duping Delight. Retrieved November 01, 2018, from https://www.paulekman.com/deception-detection/duping-delight/

Goulston, M. (2012, February 9). Rage-Coming Soon From a Narcissist Near You. Retrieved July 24, 2018, from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/just-listen/201202/rage-coming-soon-narcissist-near-you

Haslam, C., & Montrose, V. T. (2015). Should have known better: The impact of mating experience and the desire for marriage upon attraction to the narcissistic personality. Personality and Individual Differences,82, 188-192. doi:10.1016/j.paid.2015.03.032

Motzkin, J. C., Newman, J. P., Kiehl, K. A., & Koenigs, M. (2011). Reduced Prefrontal Connectivity in Psychopathy. Journal of Neuroscience, 31(48), 17348-17357. doi:10.1523/jneurosci.4215-11.2011

Navarro, J., & Poynter, T. S. (2017). Dangerous personalities: An FBI profiler shows how to identify and protect yourself from harmful people. Emmaus, PA: Rodale.

Simon, G. (2008, November). Beware the Covert-Aggressive Personality. Retrieved November 01, 2018, from https://counsellingresource.com/features/2008/11/19/covert-aggressive-personality/

Staik, A. (2018). 15 Reasons Narcissists (and Sociopaths) Lie. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 1, 2018, from https://blogs.psychcentral.com/relationships/2018/03/10-reasons-narcissists-and-sociopaths-lie/

Stines, S. (2017). When a Narcissist Makes an Apology. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 31, 2018, from https://pro.psychcentral.com/recovery-expert/2017/02/when-a-narcissist-makes-an-apology/

Stout, M. (2004). The sociopath next door: How to recognize and defeat the ruthless in everyday life. New York: Broadway Books.

Wai, M., & Tiliopoulos, N. (2012). The affective and cognitive empathic nature of the dark triad of personality. Personality and Individual Differences, 52(7), 794-799. doi:10.1016/j.paid.2012.01.008

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Learn more about: Narcissistic Personality Disorder

7 Things Covert Narcissists, Sociopaths, and Psychopaths Do Differently


  • Charlie

    Thank you for the very well researched and validating article. From what I have experienced, it is very accurate. I believe the main difference between successful and unsuccessful narcissists and psychopaths is their ability to be covert.

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