A much loved friend of mine came around the other day for dinner. We sat. We ate dinner. We drank coke (like adults who don’t drink alcohol do), and we talked.
We talked about her very much ex-boyfriend. He came back into her life after his then girlfriend left him and has proceeded to spend the last several months in a deep depression, bemoaning how nothing good ever happens to him, and generally getting on her nerves. When she tries to talk to him about any problems she might be facing in her own life, he manages to very quickly turn it around so that they are discussing his problems. When she has (previously and currently) attempted to implement boundaries, he has either thrown a fit of ‘I’m the most horrible human being in the whole world I’m so sorry I’m a monster’ or has agreed to them, ignored her for a while, complied with them for a week or two … and then thrown them out.
We talked for hours. I hadn’t liked him from the get go when she mentioned him years ago, and I liked him even less now. It seemed to me like his pain was so completely overpowering, no one else’s pain existed. It seemed to me like he simply did not care about anyone else.
Granted, I was hearing from only one of two people involved, but this is a friend who is well known for the fullness, accuracy, and lack of embellishment in her retellings in all aspects of life, so I feel comfortable that it is in fact a complete picture of their interactions.
This got me to remembering my “friend” who shat bricks at me when I attempted to establish boundaries, and brought me back to what I had learned only a few months earlier about covert narcissists.
So what is a covert narcissist?
Unlike their more grandiose counterparts who are quite clearly extroverts, covert narcissists are the introverts of the narcissist world. They’re quiet and shy and insecure, but harbour a secret desire to be discovered or realised for their amazing talent, intelligence, compassion, etc. They don’t go around with a loudspeaker proclaiming their amazingness, they want other people to recognise how amazing they are and do the proclaiming for them. They want the world to recognise how amazing they are. They often proclaim themselves to be incredibly misunderstood or emotionally sensitive.
Covert narcissists are more prone to feelings of “neglect or belittlement, hypersensitivity, anxiety, and delusions of persecution“. Sound like anyone you know?
Covert narcissists feel superior to everyone else.
Except they don’t show it as obviously as the grandiose narcissists. Rather, they express this by feeling as though no one recognises their brilliance, or that they are misunderstood, or the victim of constant persecution. They are in fact better than other people, it’s just that nobody knows it, but one day someone will recognise their brilliance, their amazing capacity for love, or their intelligence, or their potential, and everyone will know.
But no one ever does, and they’re so misunderstood because of it. The world is truly out to get them.
Covert narcissists are self-absorbed.
You may get the feeling that they are simply waiting for you to pause in your retelling of a story, or discussion of a topic, so that they can take it over and move it to a topic they want to talk about. They are typically disinterested in anything you are interested in, unless it is a mutual interest, and you may feel like they’re not quite interested in what you have to say about it.
This is often shown with closed or disinterested body language, such things as feet pointing away from you, torso turned away, or more extreme, head turned away. They may be easily distracted. They may fidget, or cross their arms over their chests.
Or they may be overly attentive listeners, too intense, too involved, too judgmental and negative. They are quick to criticise, and never note the good points.
This ties in with both their self absorption and their superiority complex – by belittling others, they are able to imply that they must therefore be superior.
Covert narcissists lack empathy.
Narcissists are narcissists, regardless of whether they’re introverted or extroverted – they just don’t care. They don’t care what you’re going through, they don’t care how you feel, and they certainly don’t care about how their actions make you feel.
For example, you may be discussing some difficulties you are going through, and they will make the appropriate noises and sympathetic words but there’s something … not quite right about them. You don’t quite know what it is, it’s just a feeling in your gut. And then they move the topic to their woes.
Or you may be trying to tell them that their actions have impacted you in some way and they may either avoid it completely, gaslight you, or throw themselves at your feet professing they are sorry, they are such horrible creatures, awful people, and try to make you feel sorry for them and tell them it’s okay, you weren’t that mad in the first place …
Covert narcissists are passive aggressive.
Hell hath no fury like a covert narcissist scorned, criticised, not allowed to get their own way, or just displeased in some way or another. They will out passive-aggressive everyone. This is often quite hard to detect, other than a bad feeling in your gut that something isn’t quite right.
It manifests as sullenness, stubbornness, subtle insults and of course, everyone’s favourite thing: the silent treatment.
One thing a lot of people don’t realise is passive aggressive behaviour is a failure to do tasks they are responsible for. I’m not talking about just innocent forgetfulness here, or forgetfulness from stress, I’m talking about a consistent and deliberate behaviour of failing to do to do a task they are responsible for and leaving other people to pick up the mess.
Covert narcissists are highly sensitive.
Many people are highly sensitive – this doesn’t mean they’re covert narcissists. There’s a difference between being highly sensitive and empathetic and being highly sensitive and narcissistic.
No one particularly likes being criticised, even when it’s done politely, phrased well, and is genuine constructive criticism. It’s just hard to take. The difference between a highly sensitive person with empathy is that they will ruminate on it and alter their behaviour accordingly – sometimes with a complete change, other times with a partial change that is respectful of this new bit of information.
A covert narcissist will not. Their behaviour is perfect, because they themselves are perfect, therefore your criticism is wrong.
If you’ve ever asked someone to tidy up after themselves or not leave an empty chip packet in the cupboard and had a wild ride of ‘I’m a monster, I’m so sorry, I’m so terrible, I’m a horrible human being’ or just had a passive aggressive response, you know exactly what I’m talking about. They won’t change their behaviour. They want you to either not comment on it again, or tell them that everything is okay and you weren’t really that mad about it in the first place, it’s fine.
Covert narcissists are the misunderstood special person.
They’re special, they’re amazing, they’re all that and a bag of chips, and no one realises it.
For some covert narcissists, they are this amazing, loving, gentle human being who loves people with such intensity and cares for them so much nothing could possibly be better than them.
For others they are smarter than everyone else, and of course no one else realises it.
This ties in strongly with their superiority complex, self absorption, and (as discussed later in this article), their need to blame everyone else – they are so special, so much more special than other people, and one day someone will realise that and they will flourish so it’s not their fault they’re in the position they’re in, it’s everyone else’s fault for not realising how amazing they are.
Covert narcissists are takers.
It’s very much a one-sided relationship with covert narcissists, as it is with the grandiose narcissist. Their needs and feelings are prioritised while your needs and feelings are dismissed, ignored, or judged overly harshly.
This ties back to their superiority complex, self absorption and lack of empathy. Everything is about them, and they can’t possibly understand that someone else might have an important reason for doing something / not doing something.
For example, if you have to cancel dinner plans with one because you’re sick, they’ll be passive aggressive about it, but if they cancel dinner plans with you because they’re sick, they expect you to fuss over them and dote on them and be understanding.
A relationship with them is a one-way street – you give, they take, and it feels like exhaustion and stress when you even think about talking to them, it feels like discomfort in your stomach as you put your all into supporting them through their latest difficulties, and it feels like not wanting to confide in them despite them confiding in you.
Covert narcissists make you feel sorry for them.
Call them out on their behaviour? They’ll throw such a demonstration you feel sorry for them and tell them it’s okay – without ever having addressed the behaviour you called them out on.
You’re having a bad day? They’ll tell you their story which is way worse.
Your life is bright and sunny? Their life is crumbling down. Nothing ever goes well for a covert narcissist. They are usually always miserable.
And they love it. They don’t want to be happy, because being happy means they can’t complain about things, which means they can’t get your attention and sympathy. They will actively find things to be negative about, or contrive situations to be negative about, and it’s never their fault, there’s always someone else to blame for maximum sympathy.
There is always a marked self-absorption and superiority with regards to their sob stories – it is always about them (never about the other party in the proceedings, although they may mention them in a ‘sympathetic’ manner while saying they themselves are a truly horrible person for doing these things to the other party – there’s no sympathy for the other party, only for them!!), and it is always so much bigger, so much more painful, so much all encompassing than anyone else’s sob story ever. Broke up with someone? So much more painful and horrific than anyone else’s break up ever.
Covert narcissists cannot have deep and meaningful relationships.
Not in the same way that non-narcissists can, in any event. This is entirely down to their superiority, self absorption, and lack of empathy – they simply can’t care about another human being enough to develop those mutual deep bonds.
I must also mention that narcissists by and large are deeply insecure – their behaviours are predominantly around masking those insecurities. A diagnosed narcissist commented that it’s not just that they’re insecure, it’s that they’re so insecure they loathe themselves. They can’t stand the thought that another person could get to see what they are hiding, and so they keep people at arms length, forming only superficial bonds because they have hidden away their depths.
Covert narcissists blame everyone else for their problems.
It’s not their fault they don’t have a job, their previous job was absolute hell and they just had to quit.
It’s not their fault they’ve dropped out of uni, it’s the counselor’s fault for not being available, or it’s the car’s fault because it stopped working and they couldn’t get to uni, or it’s the professor’s fault for setting so much work … the list goes on! I’ve even been blamed for someone’s failure at uni, living literally half way around the world from them and basically being their personal cheerleader!
It doesn’t matter what the problem is, it’s not their fault. They accept no responsibility for their own actions, their own failures, or the consequences of their own actions.
“He/she/they made me do it,” is a common response to why they did a certain thing. “I had no choice,” is another.
If you are dealing with a covert narcissist in your life…
My heart well and truly goes out to you – it is a painful and intensely stressful experience. I myself have completely cut the covert narcissists from my life, and life has improved all the more for it. If you have the opportunity, I would suggest you do so yourself, as they will not change and will only drag your mood down.
They are also likely to do similar things to grandiose narcissists, such as isolating you from family and friends, and talking badly about you to other people so they dislike you (which is admittedly also an isolating tactic). This makes you more reliant on them, and so when they go from the love bomb phase into the narcissistic abuse phase (something I’ll discuss in a later post), you are less likely to leave and more likely to take the abuse and be their ‘supply’.
If you are feeling isolated, or suspect you may be the ‘supply’ for a covert or overt narcissist, my inbox is always open.
It’s okay, you are not alone.