Narcissists are skilled manipulators. Whether they’re romantic interests, friends, bosses, or coworkers, they know just how to push your buttons, control you, and make you think you’re crazy. It’s why you don’t realize you’re dealing with a narcissist until you’re in too deep and struggling to break free.
Unfortunately for unsuspecting victims, particularly empaths who instinctively want to help others, some narcissists are more treacherous. Despite common behavior among them, most notably a pattern where they idealize, devalue, and discard their victims, Debbie Mirza, author of “The Covert Passive-Aggressive Narcissist: Recognizing the Traits and Finding Healing After Hidden Emotional and Psychological Abuse,” points out covert narcissists embody a lengthy list of unsavory characteristics and engage in insidious behaviors, making them the worst because they’re so difficult to identify.
Unlike grandiose narcissists, who boast how wonderful they are, and malignant narcissists, who have a propensity for stalking and violence, covert narcissists paint an unsuspecting picture of themselves. According to Rebecca Zung, Esq., a divorce lawyer who created the popular course S L A Y Your Negotiation™ With a NARCISSIST on how to successfully divorce a narcissist and author of “Negotiate Like YOU M.A.T.T.E.R,” there are ways to pick them out of a crowd so that you can avoid them.
Covert narcissists appear nice.
The most disarming characteristic of covert narcissists is that, on the surface, they seem nice. Covert narcissists, Zung says, “don’t go around telling everyone how amazing they are,” even though inside they are just as damaged as their more overt counterparts — insecure with a fragile ego.
Instead, covert narcissists (and all narcissists) use a tactic called love bombing. They shower you with endless attention and compliments, telling you precisely what you want to hear. They may also conform to the image of the person they know you find most attractive, luring you in even further.
They harbor a lot of resentment.
Covert narcissists are angry and jealous. Life hasn’t gone their way. They may lead you to believe they’re ambitious and successful as a result. But that’s not how they feel inside. They haven’t reached their goals, and it’s all because of others’ actions, not their own. The whole world, they tell you, is against them.
“As you get to know them better,” Zung says, “covert narcissists will give you a glimpse into the emptiness and depression their failures cause them, blaming everyone, and probably you, for how they feel.” While doing so may make them feel better, at least for the time being, you’ll feel worse, maybe even conflicted. After all, you should feel sorry for them, which is exactly what they want.
They’re skilled at playing the victim.
Covert narcissists need to be the center of attention and know how to pull at your heartstrings to get yours. Often shy and reserved, covert narcissists disarm their prey by sharing their experience battling depression or other illnesses.
They’ve had or are having a rough time at work, with relationships, with money — or so they want you to think. Once again, you should feel sorry for them. And you do, until you start realizing that their vulnerable demeanor doesn’t match other parts of their personality and behaviors.
What happened to Mr. Nice Guy or Ms. Nice Girl, you’re wondering. Are you too sensitive? The answer is: probably not.
Covert narcissists are notorious for engaging in subtle behaviors designed to devalue you. “Taken in isolation,” Zung warns, “these acts, like asking you what you want from the grocery store and never bringing it home for you, don’t seem like much.” Even mentioning it out loud to others makes you feel silly.
Put these incidents together, however, and you may be deep into the covert narcissist’s devalue phase, designed to keep you on your toes as you wait for the return of those nice moments, which become less and less frequent. Covert narcissists know what they’re doing.
They’re masters at hiding their manipulation.
Call those covert narcissists out, and they’ll find a way back into your good graces, making you seem like the bad guy or girl in the process. Using a tactic called gaslighting to undermine or negate their victim’s feelings, covert narcissists will tell you they forgot or that you misunderstood or come right out and tell you you’re crazy for saying or thinking what you are.
Become too much of a problem, and you may be in for a few surprises. Covert narcissists need an endless supply of people around them to tear down so they can build themselves up. Question them, or worse still, let them know you’re onto them and see their flaws, you’ll cause a narcissistic injury, for which you will pay dearly. They’ll rehabilitate themselves publicly at your expense, including turning your allies against you using a method known as triangulation, before discarding you altogether.
Left to pick up the pieces, you may blame yourself. If only I had behaved better, you think. Untrue, it’s what the covert narcissist wants you to believe.
Though you can’t count on exactly how covert narcissists will react to outing them and standing up for yourself or how badly their behavior will be, there’s one thing you can count on once they’re gone: that they’ll be back. And when they return to hoover and suck you in again, whether it’s weeks, years, or decades later, Zung says you need to be ready — “with strong boundaries and an understanding that it wasn’t you who was abusive, it was them.”
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