To learn to recognize a covert narcissist, we need to look beneath the surface. To begin with, a covert narcissist is referred to as a ‘vulnerable’ narcissist for a reason. They have a dilemma. On the one hand, their True Self is wounded. Being exposed and vulnerable is unbearable to them, and the tiniest trigger in the present resonates with the trauma they experienced in childhood. For this reason, they maintain a tightly layered and carefully balanced persona, the purpose of which is to gain them narcissistic supply while keeping them insulated from hurt. It is here that we get the classic crazy-making behaviour of covert narcissism.
The covert narcissist aims to maintain control over others while keeping that person oblivious to the fact. In day to day life, we interact under the golden rule: Treat others as you would like to be treated. This requires you to see others as equal to you, to respect their boundaries, and to be mindful of their feelings. The covert narcissist, in their attempt to keep you engaged while themselves remaining safe, will constantly bend this rule. That is, they do not blatantly disrespect and mistreat people, but rather do so using subtext.
The covert narcissist’s hidden language
On the surface, an interaction with a covert narcissist seems as normal as any. However, something else is being communicated on the unconscious level. For example, someone might say to you: “That’s an interesting shirt you’re wearing.” All things considered, it seems like a neutral statement — possibly even nice. On the subtext level, however, you might be left asking what “interesting” means? The person might also say it with a slight smirk, which subliminally communicates a level of amusement. Is there something wrong with the shirt? Suddenly you are questioning yourself and generally becoming self-conscious. Without being aware of what is going on, you might ask: “is it?” while waiting for more information. The covert narcissist in this situation might continue to smirk all-knowingly and simply refuse to elaborate. Another example might be them pointing out a speck on your face.
The covert narcissist might fake concern for you, or go out of their way to ‘support’ you. They shoosh you when you question yourself, and tell you what you should do rather than support you in finding a solution for yourself. They remind you about an appointment which you have not forgotten, or take care of a task which you set out to do. In all such cases, the surface act demonstrates love and support. The underlying message, however, is that you are too weak or incompetent to handle daily life yourself. Any sign of pressure you experience in life comes with a look of pity and concern, which forces you to question what could possibly be wrong with you?
Talking about others in the third person is another common tool the covert narcissist uses. For example, they might say: “Every time we go out, so and so walks super slow.” While it might seem to be a neutral comment, the subtext here is that a) you do not belong in the conversation, and b) you are an object of concern.
Subtext manipulates your emotions while keeping the focus on you. Meanwhile, the person doing the talking, i.e. the covert narcissist, avoids accountability. Before you can detect such covert manipulation, however, you need a radar. And the best radar is to have a solid sense of Self. This requires you to sharpen your consciousness and be in tune with your feelings. In doing so, you can pick up spikes of emotions as they happen in real time, which are the clearest indicators of the damage being done through subtext.
Recognize how the covert narcissist makes you feel
You identify a covert narcissist when you sense the following:
A burning feeling of shame
Shame is an unpleasant emotion. At its mildest, it is a slight ache in the chest and a loss of vigour and energy. At its most potent, it physically deflates you – your head sinks into your shoulders, your shoulders slump, and your body crumples. It emotionally stunts you – your brain feels foggy and sluggish, you question yourself, you lose heart, you hold back your feelings and opinions. It’s an emotion that reduces your mental capacity – you draw a blank and can’t think or come up with any ideas. If you notice these things happening to you when in the presence of a certain person, it could very well be that they are a covert narcissist who has been slowly wearing down your self-esteem through subtext.
A dull sense of despair
You feel psychologically trapped. A covert narcissist will give endless monologues, which allows them to dominate your conscious focus 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.
Spot the covert narcissist’s hidden behaviours
Because covert narcissists cannot publicly claim superiority like overt narcissists, they resort to string-pulling and hidden manipulation to demonstrate it. Overt narcissists aim for big 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
The covert narcissist’s 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 favour. 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 without proof that they too are into such things. You are a vegan? One day they slip in that 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, 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 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 to fruition; they just create the illusion that you are close and that you do things together, or rather, could potentially do things. The covert narcissist also tests 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 recognize the covert narcissist’s manipulations in the flow of the relationship. If you assume the person you are connecting with is adhering to the golden rule, you learn to brush away your doubt, hoping to maintain the momentum. We all want to believe in the best of people, and to give our budding relationships the best chance of succeeding. In doing so, however, we risk allowing the covert narcissist to a) gradually wear down our self-esteem, and b) gradually groom us to behave how they want.
The term ‘covert’ exists for a reason; the narcissist wants to dominate you without you even recognizing it. Being an empathic human being with healthy shame, you try not to judge people too soon. Meanwhile, the damage is being done, and it is not until you are spat out does the full weight of what happened hit you. In every relationship, you should trust the other person but verify their intentions. We all make mistakes in how we treat others, but usually these slip-ups are accompanied by obvious reasons (a bad mood, fatigue, a blind spot in a person’s social map, etc..). Judge based on your inner radar. If things feel off, that’s because they probably are, and there is a reason for it.
To better understand the covert dynamics between a narcissist and their target and recover from narcissistic abuse, check out the following books: