When many people think of narcissistic abuse, they often think of excessive arrogance, blatant demands for attention, and conspicuous manipulation tactics like love bombing. In some cases, however, narcissistic behavior can be less obvious and, potentially, more damaging. Covert narcissism refers to the passive, subtle expression of harmful narcissistic traits. Many of the forms of manipulation utilized by covert narcissists rise to the level of emotional abuse, or covert narcissistic abuse, and they can cause substantial harm to the individual to whom they’re directed in abusive relationships. If you’re in a relationship with someone who has covert narcissism, it can be helpful to know how they may attempt to control or influence you. Below, we’re going to discuss covert narcissistic abuse—its definition, signs, and associated manipulation tactics.
What Is Covert Narcissism?
Narcissistic personality disorder is typically marked by an outsized sense of self-importance, the desire for attention and admiration, and trouble empathizing with others. Those with NPD or those with a narcissistic personality can, however, express these common traits differently—and possess varying ancillary traits—depending on whether they have overt or covert narcissism. Overt narcissism, also called grandiose narcissism, is the presentation that many people think of when they imagine this personality disorder. Overt narcissists are often more extroverted, and their need for admiration is typically exhibited through bold displays meant to reinforce their abilities and positive qualities. Someone with grandiose narcissism will often try to control others and get their way through more transparent guilt trips or appeals to emotion.
Covert narcissism, on the other hand, is often expressed through less obvious means of manipulation.
Covert narcissists are easily hurt by criticism, which is called a narcissistic injury and are more prone to certain mental health challenges. Studies suggest that vulnerable narcissists experience a greater risk of anxiety and depression than grandiose narcissists. While people with overt narcissism often seem charming, well spoken, brusque, or judgmental, someone with covert narcissism can appear distressed, shy, aloof, or cold.
Some signs of covert narcissistic tendencies are if they are more introverted, with a need for admiration that may be displayed more subtly, through passive-aggressive statements or self-deprecation. They may also use different manipulation tactics than overt narcissists, attempting to control others by feigning helplessness or playing the victim. Because covert narcissism is often less blatant than overt narcissism, it can be hard to detect.
Covert Narcissism And Narcissistic Personality Disorder
Narcissistic personality disorder, or NPD, is a mental health condition experienced by many who have covert narcissism. It is characterized by a lack of empathy, an inflated sense of importance, and an excessive need for admiration. NPD can lead to serious challenges, often affecting an individual’s personal relationships, ability to work, and overall quality of life. Not every person who displays covert narcissistic tendencies has NPD, though—some people’s narcissistic traits do not meet the criteria for NPD, despite their significant impacts. To distinguish NPD from other personality disorders, such as bipolar disorder, there are several specific symptoms or signs that professionals look out for.
Common signs of narcissistic personality disorder related to covert narcissism include:
- Unreasonably high sense of self-importance
- A desire for regular, excessive admiration
- The belief that they deserve special privileges or treatment
- A lack of empathy
- Sense of superiority and desire to be recognized as superior
- Preoccupation with fantasies about success, power, beauty, or brilliance
- Overly critical of people they feel are not important
- Expecting special favors
- Expecting others to do what they ask without question
- Taking advantage of other people to get what they want
- Hyper-sensitivity to criticism
- Envy of others and a belief that others envy them
- Strongly opposed to change
Not everyone with NPD will exhibit abusive behaviors, and with proper support, many individuals with NPD or narcissistic tendencies can lead fulfilling lives with healthy relationships. However, if someone you know is exhibiting abusive or aggressive behavior, such as by manipulating you, giving you the “silent treatment,” or otherwise being harmful, you may wish to seek support yourself.
Covert Narcissistic Manipulation Tactics
Psychological manipulation is typically intended to control, exploit, or otherwise influence another person for one’s own gain. Manipulation is often used by people with covert narcissistic traits to put others down, get what they want, or avoid taking responsibility for their actions.
A covert narcissist’s need for admiration, superiority, and attention, combined with their introversion and low self-esteem, can cause them to utilize passive-aggressive or indirect tactics as well as abusive behaviors to manipulate others and make themselves feel better. Common manifestations of this type of covert narcissistic abuse include gaslighting, deflection, and intimidation. Below, we’re going to review these methods of manipulation so that you may better recognize them if they’re used in one of your relationships.
The term gaslighting refers to efforts to make another person feel as though they cannot trust their reality. For those with covert narcissism, it may be used to preserve a sense of superiority and keep others from questioning their narcissistic behaviors. For example, if someone with covert narcissism makes a self-deprecating remark—another common manipulation tactic—that you later bring up, they may deny ever having said it. They might respond with something like, “I didn’t say that. Are you sure you weren’t just tired?” in order to make you question yourself. This can be a frustrating and emotionally taxing form of covert narcissistic abuse.
People who are vulnerable narcissists usually become defensive when confronted about their behavior. In order to avoid damage to their often-fragile emotional state, they will frequently place blame on others. This can also connect with a covert narcissist’s desire to play the victim in various situations. For example, a covert narcissist may make an error that results in you both losing money. Instead of admitting to their mistake, they might blame you while using the negative financial effects of the error to elicit sympathy for themselves.
A covert narcissist will often go to great lengths to defend themselves from information that challenges their sense of self-importance. They will sometimes accomplish this by avoiding being confronted about their behavior. For example, if you talk to your partner about their lack of effort in your relationship, they may utilize tactics like stonewalling or simply leaving the room. Vulnerable narcissists may also quit certain pursuits or avoid social settings so that they cannot be negatively evaluated. Often, avoidance manifests in a covert narcissist’s isolation from others.
While someone with covert narcissism may experience feelings of insecurity, they may also use this lack of self-esteem to play on the emotions of others. Self-deprecation can be used to elicit validation; for example, a covert narcissist may repeatedly talk about how bad a meal is so that you’ll praise their cooking. This can help build them up while also manipulating your emotions. They might also use self-effacing remarks to get what they want; for example, if you note that a covert narcissist is ignoring your wishes in a relationship, they may respond by talking about what a bad person they are.
Research suggests that covert narcissists are more likely than overt narcissists to experience narcissistic rage. Narcissistic rage refers to intense anger and hostility in response to situations where a narcissist is challenged, or their sense of entitlement is undermined. According to one study, covert narcissistic rage is thought to be the result of “underlying feelings of shame and inferiority”. When an individual with vulnerable narcissism is challenged, they may attempt to control the situation by raising their voice, adopting an aggressive stance, and utilizing other tactics meant to intimidate.
For example, if your partner is a covert narcissist, and you express disappointment because they have not been contributing to housework, they may attempt to push you down until you take back your criticism. This can be one of the more recognizable signs of covert narcissistic abuse, as well as one of the most difficult to experience.
How Online Therapy Can Help
Studies show that online therapy can help those who are living with mental health challenges that may have arisen out of covert narcissistic abuse. For example, in a study published in the journal BMC Psychiatry, researchers found that online therapy can effectively reduce trauma symptoms in participants. The study also mentions that online therapy can help reduce depression and anxiety—common comorbid conditions of post-traumatic stress disorder—and improve overall treatment outcomes.
If you’re experiencing trauma or other emotional challenges due to covert narcissistic abuse, know that help is available. With an online therapy platform like BetterHelp, you can participate in therapy remotely, which can be helpful if you’re not comfortable discussing traumatic experiences in person. BetterHelp works with thousands of therapists, working across a range of specialties, so you’ll have a good chance of matching with someone who can help you process your emotions related to covert narcissistic abuse or similar concerns.
Because covert narcissism is often more difficult to detect, covert narcissistic abuse can be an even more harmful presence in relationships. For those with narcissistic partners, it is important to understand how a narcissist thinks.Understanding common tactics that vulnerable narcissists utilize to control others—including gaslighting and self-deprecation—can help you avoid engaging with their behavior. If you’d like to address the emotional challenges of a relationship with a vulnerable narcissist, consider reaching out to a licensed mental health professional online. With the support and guidance of a therapist, you can nurture healthy relationships and take the next steps on your mental health journey.
Other Commonly Asked Questions:
1. How do you outsmart a covert narc?
There are a few ways you can outsmart covert narcissistic abuse tactics, including giving this person the silent treatment or taking care of your own mental health and well being. When you don’t maintain connections with a narcissist, this may cause them to feel like they have lost control of you. They will have no power over you, which is something they would like to avoid.
2. What are some common phrases used by covert narcissists?
An individual with covert narcissism will say things that indicate that they are the victim, in most situations. They may also say things that are manipulative or help them get what they want. Pay attention to the message they are trying to convey instead of the words. When they never show empathy for you or other people, they could be a narcissist.
3. How does a covert narcissist act when confronted?
Anytime a narcissist is confronted, they may become hostile. This is one of the signs of manipulative behavior. For example, they may indicate that they haven’t done anything wrong, take no responsibility, and say another person is to blame. On the other hand, they could say mean things, act out once you confront them, or exhibit other overt behaviors towards you.
4. Who are covert narcissists attracted to?
Covert and overt narcissists are attracted to those that are unlikely to notice that they are being controlled or people that are able to be controlled. They may be showing you in subtle ways that they are a narcissist, but you aren’t picking up the signs. This is okay, but if you think that you are in a relationship with a narcissist, you should do some research online to find out more about the symptoms of this condition.
5. What upsets a narcissist the most?
Generally, a narcissist will have a great sense of self importance, so they will not be able to respond well when someone says they have done something wrong. It can be problematic for them because they may also have an issue with self doubt that they don’t want others to know about. When they are criticized, it can weigh on this doubt.
6. How does a narcissist react when they can’t control you?
If a narcissist feels like they can’t control you anymore, they may start being more manipulative and hurtful towards you. They may also try to hurt your feelings in a number of different ways. If you think that you are being controlled by a narcissist, it is a good idea to keep a healthy distance between you and them. You can also give them the silent treatment, where you don’t talk to them or respond to their messages on social media. This way, they will be less likely to affect your well being and control you.
7. What happens when you ignore a covert narcissist?
When you ignore a covert narcissist, they may become upset that you are acting in a different way. Your behaviors could cause them to change the way they are acting, and start being more overt in their treatment. For example, they might start engaging in more manipulative behaviors, to get you to notice them.
8. Are covert narcissists aware of their behavior?
In some cases, a covert narcissist knows how they are acting and affecting others around them, although not all of them do. However, even when they are aware of their behavior, they may not care. In other words, they won’t feel that they are to blame for anything. This is different than those that express overt narcissism, where they may not be aware of their treatment of others at all.
9. How can you tell if someone is a covert narcissist?
If someone is a covert narcissist, there are a few traits you may notice about them that might be present. For instance, they may have a need for frequent admiration, an inflated sense of self-importance, and they might feel superior to others frequently. If you notice these signs in someone you know, pay attention to how they treat others. Behaviors that are of a passive aggressive manner to other people can also be a sign of narcissism.
10. What happens when a covert narcissist knows you figured them out?
Once a narcissist understands you have figured them out, this means that they likely know that they are unable to control you further and any practices of covert narcissistic abuse may subside. This could cause them to lash out and say hurtful things or do hurtful things to you. They might start to behave in a more overt manner as well.
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