Before you can identify a covert narcissist, you require a solid sense of Self. This means that you need to establish a conscious and comfortable presence alongside your emotions, mind and spirit. When you focus inside, you need to feel that you can manage a state of equilibrium. Emotions can rise and fall, thoughts can come and go, complexes can appear and disappear, but you remain unchanged. Most of all, you need to be conscious of how this equilibrium is altered by outside influences.
Identify how the narcissist makes you feel
You identify a narcissist when you sense the following:
- A burning feeling of shame: This gets triggered by specific and targeted verbal attacks. It can be ‘joke’ about you, a remark about what did or did not do correctly, a comment about your decision-making or your inability to please the narcissist.
- A dull sense of despair: You feel psychologically trapped, and will slowly lose grip over your sense of Self. By controlling the conversation, creating drama after drama or lashing out and playing the victim, the narcissist will snatch your conscious focus from you and keep it planted on them. If you have a solid sense of Self to begin with, you will notice the dark shadow of despair descending as soon as the narcissist goes to work on you.
- A sense of pointlessness and emptiness: Your True Self might come with all kinds of uncomfortable emotions, but it also is a source of life energy and warmth. The longer you connect with it, the more purpose your life has and the more grounded you feel. When you spend an extended amount of time with a narcissist, you will feel all of that dissolve. What’s left is a lot of words and actions but very little substance.
- A lack of solid ground: When two people are grounded in a solid sense of Self, they can spend time together and just bathe in the warmth of mutual connection. It is like laying in a warm spa with someone and enjoying the moment. The narcissist’s world is all about doing and saying. This smokescreen can blind you, and you can lose consciousness of the fact that you are hurtling down a rabbit hole with no end.
Spot the narcissist’s behaviours
Because covert narcissists cannot publicly claim greatness like overt narcissists, they resort to string-pulling and manipulation in order to enforce their ‘superiority’. Overt narcissists aim for large shots of narcissistic supply by obtaining recognition and affirmation whereas covert narcissists get tiny jolts with each successful manipulation of another person. Overt narcissists go big, covert narcissists play the long game. Some classic signs are:
- Intense, unflinching eye-contact: Their pupils contract and dilate in unnatural ways, almost hypnotising you. Beneath the surface, the covert narcissist pays you total attention (pupil dilates), which makes you feel valued. They then ‘zone out’ at a random time (pupil contracts), often when you are the most engaged and open to them, from which you subconsciously pick up their loss of interest. This forces you to become self-conscious and more desperate to regain their attention. This power play is subtle but extremely powerful, allowing the narcissist to keep you on a string, and lays the foundation for the entire ‘relationship’. With just a look they can take you on a ride between shame, doubt, certainty, affirmation, and everything in between.
- Verbal information dropping: The covert narcissist pays attention to your interests, and will randomly mention that they too are into such things, and they do so without proof. You are a vegan? One day they mention they had a vegan dinner. Do you like to go jogging in the evenings? They went for a jog last night. And so on. These bits of information are simply peppered into the conversation without any further detail or show of enthusiasm. The goal is to get deep inside you, to the place where you care about and value life, the place where you can most be influenced and manipulated.
- The cliff drop: Whenever we converse with people, we inject a decent amount of energy into the interaction so that it can have enough momentum and bring value to the other person. A narcissist will begin a conversation with you, and just as your enthusiasm for a topic grows, they will suddenly disengage. They will use uninterested eye contact, will look away briefly, or they might snicker and just wait with eyebrows raised. Once you sense they have checked out, you get extremely self-conscious and walk away with a burning sense of shame. If you are not careful, you might internalise this as you being stupid or annoying, which over the long-term can damage your self-esteem.
- Invitation bombing: Invitation after invitation to do something, even if you have no interest in the activity. If you say no, the covert narcissist remains unfazed, presenting another option later on. Most of these things never come into fruition, they just create the illusion that you are close and who do things together, or rather, could potentially do things. They also test your boundary setting. Do you seriously entertain every invitation? Do you politely say no? Do you outright say no? Or do you say yes every time because you desperately need company? The covert narcissist can gauge all these things.
Above all, it is important to pick up such signs in the flow of the relationship. If you assume the person you are connecting with is on the same page as you, you learn to brush away these subtle signs, hoping to maintain the momentum. In doing so, you risk allowing the covert narcissist to a) gradually destroy your self-esteem, and b) gradually groom you to behave how they want.
The term ‘covert’ exists for a reason; the narcissist wants to dominate you without you even realising it. Being the empathic human being with healthy shame that you are, you try not to judge people too soon. Meanwhile, the damage is being done, and it is not until you are spat out do you begin to ask questions. In every relationship, you should trust the other person but verify their intentions. We all make mistakes in how we treat people, but usually these slip-ups are accompanied by obvious reasons (a bad mood, fatigue, a blind spot in a person’s social map).
Judge based on your inner radar. If things feel off, that’s because they probably are and there is a reason for it.
Check out How To Kill A Narcissist (ebook/print/audiobook) to begin with the basics of recovery from narcissistic abuse, or take a look at Narcissism To Rebirth (ebook/print) to find out how to immunise yourself from further abuse.