Recognising a Covert Narcissist

Do you know someone who often appears quiet and withdrawn but regularly leaves you feeling manipulated, exploited and used? Will they use personal information against you and engineer situations to make themselves look good or get praise? Do they only care about themselves and aren’t interested in your life or feelings at all? If so, you may know a covert narcissist.

Covert narcissists usually seem friendly and at times appear to take others’ feelings into consideration, but they’re motivated by the same need for attention and recognition that drives a traditional narcissist. They want to be thought of as impressive people, although they usually aren’t comfortable with the grandiose displays typical to overt narcissists. Instead, they try to elevate themselves through artificial modesty, passive-aggressiveness, backhanded compliments, ‘jokes’ that are meant to be hurtful, and gossiping in ways calculated to work to their advantage. They can create conflicts between people and moments that make them look good to earn the praise and approval they’re incapable of giving themselves.

Because their hostile behaviour is typically very subtle and can seem unintentional, you may wonder why you’re hurt by the way they treat you. You may blame yourself for being too sensitive or think you’re acting in a way that causes this kind of behaviour. But how a narcissist treats you isn’t about you – it’s about them. Understanding how their minds work can help you to not take their behaviour personally, avoid being manipulated, and to recognise their ways of seeking approval for what they are.

All types of narcissists – covert and overt – can negatively impact your mental health if you don’t understand their motivations. Narcissism is a condition that affects all interactions with others, as well as their relationships with themselves. Being aware that narcissists follow different rules and will mistreat anyone can help you be less affected by their behaviour. You can also take measures to discourage them from targeting you.

Covert Narcissist

Covert narcissists are able to blend in so they aren’t always noticeable, but they’re still dangerous

What is a narcissist?

Calling someone a narcissist for being self-centred or insensitive is quite common, but there is a difference between people who are egotistical or don’t take others’ feelings into account and true narcissists.

Narcissistic Personality Disorder is a professionally-recognised condition. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the handbook used by the majority of health care practitioners world-wide, defines narcissism as: a pervasive pattern of grandiosity (in fantasy or behaviour), a constant need for admiration, and a lack of empathy. Their condition causes narcissists to believe they are far more important, intelligent, and deserving than the vast majority of other people. It’s possible for people to have narcissistic qualities without being true narcissists – they may be self-centred but still capable of empathising, or crave attention from others but have the ability to regulate their emotions. They’re usually less impactful and damaging than true narcissists, but they’re still often frustrating, challenging to get along with, and capable of harming your mental health.

Narcissists believe they deserve success in all forms, including personal, professional, romantic, and material. They do very little to prove themselves, yet are frustrated that their greatness and potential goes unrecognised. However, they are highly sensitive to criticism, perceive even imagined slights and insults as personal attacks, and are very jealous of people they believe have the success they deserve. This combination of a lack of empathy, an inability to regulate their emotions or give themselves praise, and a belief in their often-unrecognised greatness causes narcissists to become highly manipulative and skilled at using others.

Despite believing they’re superior to others (and in some overt cases, the appearance of having supreme confidence), narcissists are almost always very unhappy people. While they might not accept how unhappy they are, since self-reflection is difficult or impossible for narcissists, many suffer from depression because their emotions depend entirely on other people. They can’t cheer themselves up when they’re upset and if no one is telling them how smart, important, accomplished, etc. they are, they feel worthless. They’re also often lonely and isolated because they can’t form intimate relationships and the way they treat others keeps most people at a distance.

While both overt and covert narcissists share these ways of thinking and patterns of behaviour, they differ in how they behave to receive validation from others. Overt narcissists tend to be very showy – they dominate conversations, belittle or talk down to people they think are beneath them (which is most people), and can use very obvious tactics like bragging or telling made-up stories about themselves to secure devotees and appreciation. Therefore, overt narcissists are often quite easy for most people to recognise.

Covert narcissists are driven by the same need for external validation. They differ from the overt narcissist by using far more subtle techniques to get praise and recognition, such as strategically criticising themselves or being easily upset so someone will console them. They can also appear fragile and vulnerable. Therefore, they’re rarely as easy to identify and present as far more sympathetic.

While some of their methods are more gentle than overt narcissists, a covert narcissist’s goals are to control situations so they can be used to their advantage; this typically requires controlling other people. Because they do this through methods such as manipulation, gaslighting, exploiting emotions and setting others up, their behaviour is hurtful and damaging.

However, they often think of themselves as targets of manipulation and hostility, despite being creators of it. They believe they’re the victim and are always being treated unfairly, so whatever questionable behaviour they might have done was justified.

How can you tell if someone is a covert narcissist?

Although their nature makes identifying them difficult, if you know the patterns of behaviour and the motivations to watch out for, you may be able to tell if someone has qualities of a covert narcissist.

However, observing that someone you know engages in several, or even all of these behaviours shouldn’t be considered proof they’re a narcissist. True narcissists are very rare – only about one to five percent of the global population has the condition. Diagnosing someone with a mental health condition or personality disorder can only be done by a professional. They may have narcissistic traits or behave in narcissistic ways without having the condition. Most people will at times display narcissistic tendencies in certain circumstances. People can act like narcissists without actually being narcissists.

Although this is not a complete list and everyone has unique behaviour, the most common tactics and traits of covert narcissists – or people with covert narcissistic qualities – include:

Belittling themselves: although narcissists do suffer from self-doubt, self-criticism is strategically used to get sympathy and praise from others and is rarely genuine.

Constant jealousy: narcissists are intently focused on what others have that they don’t. But they’re never satisfied with what they acquire or accomplish because there will always be someone with more or better. They’re also never grateful for what they have because there’s always the possibility of having more.

Inability to take criticism: any and all forms of criticism, real or imagined, is intolerable to a narcissist. When they feel criticised, they can lash out and react angrily or defensively and become hurtful, although covert narcissists can also become very emotional and need plenty of reassurance. However, even small or accidental compliments can send their mood soaring.

Suffering from stress and anxiety: because narcissists’ moods are based on how others treat them – becoming furious or devastated by an insult and then thrilled by a compliment – they spend a great deal of time waiting to find out how someone is going to make them feel, which causes tension.

A secret belief in their greatness: covert narcissists usually seem quiet or even timid, but a trait of narcissism is harbouring a belief that they are better than others. While overt narcissists tend to be more upfront about how great they think they are, these beliefs are typically concealed by covert narcissists.

Indecisiveness: not all narcissists have this trait, but some will struggle to make decisions because they don’t want to face the consequences if they’re wrong. This includes reactions from others who are upset with the decision they made, and how badly they’ll feel imagining what others must be thinking about their mistake.

Dissatisfaction with the efforts of others: this trait is most easily observed in covert narcissists who are in positions of authority, such as managers or parents. They will never be happy with your accomplishments or efforts, will compare you unfavourably to others, and get upset if you ask for help or another chance.

Refusing to be vulnerable or honest: because narcissists use other people’s secrets and insecurities to their advantage, they believe that others will do the same to them and are therefore defensive and secretive.

Only interested in relationships that benefit them: relationships that don’t have any advantage are exhausting to a narcissist, so they tend to be short-lived.

One-sided conversations: narcissists are only interested in talking about themselves and don’t ask follow-up questions to what others tell them; instead, they shift the conversation to themselves because even mundane facts about their lives are more interesting than what’s happening to you. They will also refuse to give compliments unless it benefits them in some way, such as obligating you to return the praise.

Behaving in ways designed to earn them compliments: there are many different ways a narcissist can do this, such as being kind or helpful when they know it will be noticed, taking credit for other people’s’ work or ideas, or announcing their plans for donating to popular causes. While there isn’t a specific form of behaviour to watch out for to observe this trait, considering the motivations of someone you suspect is narcissistic or has narcissistic qualities can help you find revealing patterns in their behaviour.

Asking yourself if there’s a pattern to their behaviour and operating with the belief that someone you know may be a narcissist, or recognising that they have narcissistic qualities (which is more likely), can help you approach them and their behaviour in a way that will help prevent you from being hurt.

Why are covert narcissists harmful?

If you know someone you suspect is a covert narcissist, you probably already know that they can make you feel hurt and upset. People with narcissistic qualities aren’t mentally healthy, so spending too much time with them can have negative effects on your wellbeing. They can undermine your sense of self, make you doubt your abilities, shake your self-confidence, betray your trust, share your secrets, criticise you, and more. Narcissists don’t follow the same rules as other people so they can hurt you deeply without even feeling bad about what they did.

If you’re too close to a narcissist, you risk believing the lies they tell you about yourself. Because narcissists want to feel superior to others, they’re often intentionally hurtful to the people around them. They can make you believe you’re worthless, incompetent, ugly, needy, and more.

Even when they’re not trying to be hurtful, narcissists are very insensitive so they can be cruel without meaning to. They can even think they’re being kind by pointing out your mistakes and flaws, which are obvious to them.

A relationship – platonic or romantic – with a narcissist can feel rewarding at times since narcissists are usually excellent manipulators who are able to make people feel valued. But these feelings aren’t genuine and receiving this type of treatment depends on you giving them what they want. If they believe the relationship isn’t meeting their needs, they will quickly change. This gives them the ability to hurt you deeply if you’re too emotionally attached. If you have a relationship with a narcissist, you shouldn’t ask yourself if they care about you – you should ask yourself if you’re getting your needs met. If you aren’t, consider how this makes you feel and if the relationship is doing more harm than good.

If you’re going to spend time with a narcissist, keeping their behaviour in context by reminding yourself they operate differently than most other people can help you to be less affected by the callous and shocking ways they can behave. This can be accurate for people who aren’t true narcissists but have narcissistic qualities. You should remember:

  • They will ignore your emotional needs
  • They thrive on comparison so their goal in most interactions is to make who they’re talking to feel small so they feel better about themselves
  • All of their interactions have end goals, so you can’t just have a conversation or share thoughts and ideas
  • They can act compassionate and it may feel real, but this isn’t genuine
  • You may feel like they care about you, but this is deliberate and can be ‘turned off’ at any time

Although covert narcissistic behaviour doesn’t always seem damaging, they are able to do real harm to your mental health.

How to protect yourself

You can resist a great deal of the effects of narcissistic behaviour by taking mental and practical measures to distance yourself.

The best ways you can be less affected by a narcissistic personality is not taking anything they do or say personally. This can be very difficult since their behaviour can feel incredibly personal. Because they’re so likely to use personal information to hurt you, you should never tell a narcissist anything you wouldn’t want used against you.

Understand that their insults are often a reflection of their own worries and insecurities. When they’re feeling upset or self-conscious, they’ll look for someone to transfer these feelings to, no matter if there’s any truth to what they’re saying – if a narcissist feels fat, they’ll tell you that you need to lose weight.

Set firm boundaries. Boundaries are telling people how you want to be treated and establishing consequences when a line is crossed. Boundaries are important in all relationships, but they can be especially useful with narcissists. A boundary could be leaving if they do something you told them not to do, such as bringing up a partnership that ended or pointing out what they consider your flaws. Narcissists are unlikely to respect boundaries because they obstruct their goals, so enforcing your boundaries is important to show them that ignoring your boundaries is also an ineffective way of getting what they want.

Try not to take their bad behaviour too seriously. Although it may be difficult, try to find the humour in their excuses or what they tell you they deserve whenever possible. Some people who spend a great deal of time with a narcissist make a game out seeing how many times they’ll shift a conversation back to themselves, no matter what the discussion is about. However, be honest with yourself about how they make you feel. If they hit a nerve and upset you, don’t ignore or suppress your emotions.

Creating a healthy distance between yourself and a narcissist is sometimes the best way to protect your mental health. This could be avoiding functions and get-togethers you know this person will be attending, asking to be reassigned or moved to a different area if you work together, or spending less time with a narcissistic friend or family member. Find out how much time with a narcissist is too much and limit your interactions to a safe amount. If you can’t completely distance yourself, taking breaks can help.

You can have a relationship with a narcissist that doesn’t harm your mental health if you establish rules – with the narcissist and yourself – about how you refuse to be treated. You also need to have realistic expectations about what the relationship will be like, especially understanding that it will always be one-sided, your real or perceived flaws will never be accepted, there won’t be vulnerability or sharing, and that they won’t think of you as an equal.

By understanding the thought processes of narcissists, you can insulate yourself from the effects of their behaviour. Be aware that the often-hurtful and sometimes shocking ways they treat you aren’t a reflection of what you deserve and that their motivations aren’t necessarily to harm people, but to meet their own needs.

Can a covert narcissist change?

Although it’s very rare, because the nature of their condition makes self-reflection and recognising the need to change very difficult, narcissists are capable of improving their behaviour, often with professional help.

Narcissists’ belief in their own grandeur and infallibility makes accepting that they could benefit from changing very difficult. But some narcissists are capable of realising that they aren’t living their best possible lives and they can feel better if they learn new ways of thinking and behaving. If appropriate, you can suggest a narcissist gets professional help, but you shouldn’t count on a narcissist changing even if they do agree to get treatment because you’re very likely to be disappointed.

People with narcissistic qualities, rather than personality disorders, are more likely to be able to change, although they can also be affected by the same confidence and denial that makes changing so difficult for true narcissists. Making genuine and long-lasting change is difficult for the vast majority of people, and it’s only possible with a great deal of honesty, self-reflection, effort and patience.

If you’ve been hurt by someone (narcissist or not), you might benefit from talking to someone about your experience. This could be a compassionate friend or relative who can help you realise that the way you were treated wasn’t your fault. You can also talk to a mental health professional, especially if what you experienced still feels very private. Talking about an experience and questioning if you deserve to be feeling the way you do can be very powerful in helping you feel less affected and begin healing.

Professional help can be useful to people who are suffering, but most narcissists don’t realise they’re in pain so they’re unlikely to accept treatment.

Covert Narcissist

How covert narcissists present themselves isn’t the way they actually feel

The ways that people with narcissistic personalities – whether they have a diagnosable personality disorder or display narcissistic traits – affect the people around them and can be highly damaging.

Covert narcissists may seem relatively harmless, but you shouldn’t underestimate the amount of damage that can be done by someone who doesn’t respect your emotions or care about hurting your feelings, wants to control people to gain power over them, and craves praise from others.

Spending time with someone who has a narcissistic personality isn’t easy – it can be frustrating, discouraging, and painful, but you don’t have to be severely affected. No matter the type of relationship you have with a narcissist, whether they’re a friend, relative, partner, boss or colleague, you can benefit from learning how to protect yourself from their worst habits while being less personally affected by the ways they treat you. This isn’t easy, and you may have to challenge a number of beliefs and accept that your relationship likely can’t be easier or more fulfilling.

You may be able to do this on your own, or you might have more success if you work with a mental health professional. But you can recover your sense of self and undo emotional damage caused by a narcissist through realising that their behaviour is about them – not you – and emotionally distancing yourself from their actions and behaviour.

Narcissists are able to harm your mental health if you don’t understand their behaviour and motivations. But if you’re familiar with how narcissism affects people, you can take measures to protect and distance yourself from these very damaging types of behaviours.

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