Have you ever met someone who presented themselves as a highly empathetic person but the more you got to know them, you realized this was only a facade, more like a mask and in reality their intentions and actions were self-serving? Let me introduce you to the covert narcissist.
If you know about narcissism, you probably already know that narcissists are notorious for their sense of entitlement, their extreme need for approval, and this feeling of grandiosity around them. At the same time, they show little empathy for others. The covert narcissist has all these elements and traits, but, at the same time, they hide it very well. They play with humility, and they are, of course, very sensitive to what other people think of them.
The People pleaser vs The Covert Narcissist
Before understanding what covert narcissism is, let’s differentiate the covert narcissist from the people pleaser. There is a little overlap between both personalities as both try to please others. If you are a people pleaser, this stems from your need to please others and your fear that you will be scolded or held responsible if you are not there to support others. The people pleaser also gets emotionally and mentally drained because they spend all their energy on others.
Meanwhile, the exact opposite happens with covert narcissists. A person dealing with a covert narcissist is the one that ends up feeling emotionally drained because of the emotional manipulation the narcissist engages in. The person eventually ends up feeling upset, overwhelmed or frustrated especially when they were initially sharing their own struggles but found themselves comforting or praising the narcissist. The person eventually finds themselves in the complete opposite position from what they intended with the conversation; instead of being comforted, they end up comforting the narcissist.
Overt Narcissism vs Covert Narcissism
The overt narcissist enjoys bragging about their achievements and accomplishments. No amount of praise and approval from others is ever enough. The covert narcissist is the exact opposite. They tend to minimize their achievements and put themselves down. The covert narcissist praises you, but their intention is that you offer them the reassurance that they are also talented, smart, or competent. And they do so in a very subtle way. For instance, covert narcissists tend to say things such as: “Oh I wish I could do it like you,” or “You are so much better than me.”
6 Traits and Symptoms of Covert Narcissists
So what does it really mean if you meet somebody who is a covert narcissist and what are some typical behaviors they exhibit? Here we summarize the most common traits of covert narcissists.
They Play The Victim
Covert narcissists like to pretend to be the victim. During conflict situations, they try to adopt the victim role and persuade others that they are just being misunderstood and that they did not have ill intentions; that all they ever did is try to help. They try to persuade others that they are very caring and that it is not their fault if other people didn’t see their intentions. This way, they subtly shift the blame and responsibility onto others. By playing the victim role, they create a protective wall around them. After all, who would hurt somebody who is already sad, regretful, and had the best intentions in mind?
They Are Sensitive To Feedback
Covert narcissists are very sensitive to feedback, and they perceive it as criticism. They tend to not allow others to continue sharing their feedback. They will not directly stop you, but they will play the victim role and take on a sad face to try to make you feel bad about giving them feedback. Or, sometimes they will hear what you are saying but not actually listen. They might nod and state that they understand, but they do not elaborate as they are not actively listening. They do not ask questions in order to see how they can help or learn what steps they can take to improve the relationship. Similarly, they will try to shift the conversation and try to make the other person believe that they are the one in the wrong. They might express that the other person is simply being too sensitive or misunderstood them and that now they are the ones actually hurting them.
They Are Passive-Aggressive
Covert narcissists tend to act in a passive-aggressive way. They do not communicate openly and directly state how they feel. They prefer to take on a sad face and manipulate others into feeling bad because they seemingly hurt them. So through this manipulative passive-aggression, they succeed in adopting the victim role once again. If you try to share feedback with them, after the conversation they might state that everything is alright, but you are left with the lingering feeling that it is not and that the narcissist is holding a grudge. They might engage in the silent treatment or not act as relaxed or comfortable as they did before the feedback. This way they are trying to send the message that you hurt them by sharing your thoughts and that they will make you pay for it. Even if you ask if everything is alright, they will reply that everything is good, and you should not worry. But you will feel them detaching and disconnecting from you.
They Lack Empathy and They Rationalize
Covert narcissists are unable to resonate with how people feel, an important feature of empathy. They utilize passive-aggressive tactics to emotionally manipulate others into feeling bad for them, instead of meeting the other person halfway and understanding their feelings and needs. Due to their lack of empathy, covert narcissists tend to rationalize everything. For example, if you voice your feedback or dissatisfaction with something in the relationship, they will disregard the emotional component of the issue. They will fail to understand the feelings and pain of the other person and visualize the whole issue in a cold way. They will rationalize by stating that they do not agree, that they are entitled to their opinions and to sharing them. By doing this, they shift responsibility and make the other person seem like someone who is trying to suffocate them and not allow them to have an opinion. While the real root of the discussion is forgotten. That is why covert narcissists tend to be lonely people that keep others at a distance. If they come too close to a person and then the other person tries to voice their thoughts about their relationship, they can easily detach from the person.
Their Words Don’t Match Their Actions
Another way covert narcissists show their passive aggression is through the fact that their words don't match with their actions. For example, they might say something like: “I fully support you, and I am going to be here for you.” But, then they do not follow through with their words as they are not givers. They might make promises that they will not keep, and they will not help you through your hard times. You might see them making grandiose gestures of kindness in front of others, but then they will fail to follow up; they will forget to call to check up on you or include you in something.
They Are Poor listeners
Covert narcissists are also poor listeners. Before someone can start explaining something, they will jump in to explain their own opinion and neglect to listen to the opinions of others. This is a trait that highlights their self-absorption. They tend to think about their own needs, feelings and interests, and disregard others’ opinions.
How To Deal with Covert Narcissists
Now that you have learned how covert narcissists behave, perhaps you are thinking that you might know somebody who is a covert narcissist. If you want to have a conversation with this person about their actions or your relationship, follow the steps below.
First, make sure that you know which behaviors are the ones of a covert narcissist so that you will be prepared for their reactions and tactics. Preparation is key and as you get prepared remember that you can easily be confused by their emotional manipulation. So prepare to not get entangled in their world of arguments and, most importantly, do not forget what it was that you initially wanted to say.
2. Keep it short
When you are in a conversation with a covert narcissist, do not go too far. Keep it simple and short. Explain your position and why you are sharing your thoughts with them. So, if they said or did something that hurt you, try to always take the conversation back to it. You can state something along the lines of: "I am sharing this with you because I was hurt, and I want you to know there is nothing wrong with my feelings. This is a relationship we want to build, and I am sharing this with you because I think it is important that you know how I feel, and there is nothing wrong with me sharing my feelings."
3. Create boundaries
This is the most important rule for dealing with a covert or overt narcissist; create very clear boundaries. Do not overanalyze, say what you want to say, and stop there. It is very easy for narcissists to confuse others with their arguments. So, again, keep it short, stop, and repeat it over and over again. If they do not get it or try to distract you in other directions, return to your initial argument by saying something along the lines of: "I am sharing this because I was hurt. Do you understand? I was hurt when you said this, and I would like you to understand how I felt and put yourself in my shoes/position."
4. Do not let them shift responsibility
Distinguish when they are trying to shift responsibility. For instance, when you are talking about something that they did or said that hurt you, there might be a moment where they will try to shift the responsibility. They will try to shift it to be about you hurting them with your feedback or criticism, or with you misunderstanding their intentions. If this happens, stop it there. Try to make them see what they are doing. You can say, "Look what you are doing, I am actually coming here to tell you that I am hurt, and you are making me feel bad about sharing my feelings." This way you will confront them with the reality of what is happening at the present moment.
5. Remind them of the consequences
Remind the narcissist of the consequences of their actions. Express that it is important to you to be able to share your feelings because if you don't, then the narcissist will continue hurting you and damaging the relationship. Remind them that you do not want that to happen, that this is an important relationship for you, but that if they keep acting in this way, it will be severely damaged. This way you will highlight the consequences of their actions and this is something they cannot negotiate.
6. After the conversation
So, what if you tried to hold this conversation with the covert narcissist, but they remain unchanged, and you realize that the relationship is more toxic than it should be? Then it is a good idea to keep a healthy distance from this person and, at the same time, lower your expectations. Do not expect that this person will be able to change drastically and that they will be able to maintain a healthy conversation or attitude towards feedback. Try to maintain realistic expectations in the relationship while keeping your boundaries and protecting yourself.
Can Covert Narcissists Change?
Keep in mind that covert narcissism and narcissism, in general, are not black or white. It is not the case of either you have it or you don't. We are all narcissists to a certain extent, so what we have to do is find the degree of narcissism each one of us has. It is a continuum, some of us are a little narcissistic but some of us can be more toxic narcissists with unhealthy relationship patterns. So, let's not try to walk around labeling everybody around us that exhibits these traits and cutting them out of our lives. There are people with narcissistic behavioral patterns that when confronted actually listen. Oftentimes you set your boundaries, explain to them that they can actually change, and they understand the meaning of the conversation. They then make an honest and successful attempt to change. So, allow other people to sit next to you, even if they exhibit these behaviors, but always remember to protect yourself and your boundaries.
Also, remember that we are not born narcissistic. We become narcissists for some reasons, and the reason can be a very valid one. Narcissism is a coping mechanism that arises oftentimes because of severe traumatic experiences, emotionally overwhelming events, abuse, or abandonment. So, keep in mind that a person who becomes a covert narcissist is a person who is afraid of others, and this is why they resort to using protective armors. Therefore, if a covert narcissist in your life is somebody who also has positive qualities, and you want them in your life, try to explain to them that this is a behavior that they have learned for some reason, but it does not serve their purpose anymore. Discuss that this behavior is no longer helpful in their lives, explain the spectrum of narcissism, and that their actions are a way for them to cope with their own insecurities and fears. But, most importantly, protect yourself, set boundaries, and safeguard your energy and feelings. And, if this is a person that cannot change and is harming your mental or physical health, make the difficult decision to take a healthy distance from this person. Your wellbeing comes first.
YOUR SIGNIFICANT OTHERS.