What Is Covert Narcissistic Abuse? Gaslighting, Manipulation, And Intimidation
Content/Trigger Warning: Please be advised the below article might mention trauma-related topics that include violence, which could potentially be triggering. If you or someone you know is or may be experiencing abuse, please call the National Domestic Violence Hotline, available 24/7, at 1.800.799.SAFE (7233) or text "START" to 88788. Live chat is also available on the National Domestic Violence Hotline website.
Covert narcissistic abuse often goes unnoticed — at least initially. It refers to subtle patterns of manipulative, controlling, and hurtful behaviors used by a person living with narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) or narcissistic tendencies. This term is generally used when discussing intimate partner violence, but it can also apply to domestic violence between two people living together.
While you'll find a variety of sources discussing NPD at length, the symptoms of this mental illness are often compressed, exaggerated, or used to describe someone who is not clinically ill. This language can obscure the symptoms and warning signs of NPD and related narcissistic abuse.
This guide explores narcissistic personality disorder and covert narcissistic abuse to help you recognize the signs. We'll also explore how online therapy can help you recover.
Narcissistic Personality Disorder: A Definition
Narcissistic personality disorder, or NPD, is a complex personality disorder often diagnosed alongside other mental illnesses. It results in behaviors such as a lack of empathy, a pattern of grandiosity, and a need for admiration. In addition, people experiencing NPD may experience difficulty maintaining personal relationships and regular work.
Symptoms of narcissistic personality disorder include:
Unreasonably high sense of self-importance
A desire for constant, excessive admiration
The belief that they deserve special privileges or treatment
Expecting to be recognized as superior and thinking they are superior to others
Exaggeration of achievements and talents
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
An inability or unwillingness to recognize the feelings or needs of others
A lack of empathy
Envious of others and a belief that others envy them
Arrogant behavior (e.g., bragging)
Demanding the best of everything (e.g., the best car or office)
People experiencing NPD or narcissistic traits may also struggle to handle criticism. When confronted with certain situations and behaviors, such as comments they view as critical, a person with NPD may:
Become impatient or angry about not receiving special recognition or treatment
Have difficulty interacting with others
Easily feel slighted
React with rage and try to belittle other people
Have difficulty managing their behavior and emotions
Struggle to cope with stress or adapt to change
Withdraw from or avoid situations in which they could fail
Become depressed and moody about not being perfect
Harbor and hide feelings of insecurity, shame, humiliation, and fear of failure
NPD symptoms may be "overt" or "covert," depending on how the individual experiences and expresses them. However, neither presentation is recognized as a subset of narcissistic personality disorder in the current edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders — the DSM-5-TR.
For example, overt symptoms may cause the person experiencing them to seem grandiose, charming, articulate, exploitative, or moralistic. Conversely, covert symptoms could cause the person experiencing them to seem chronically bored, inattentive, doubt-ridden, shy, overly humble, deeply envious, forgetful of details, and cold. Covert symptoms may also be more challenging for others to recognize.
What Is Covert Narcissistic Abuse?
Covert narcissistic abuse isn’t officially recognized by the American Psychological Association at this time. However, it may be in the future.
Regardless, people with NPD or narcissistic tendencies may exhibit covert expressions of abuse. Common manifestations of this covert narcissistic abuse include gaslighting, manipulation, and intimidation.
The term "gaslighting" comes from the 1938 play "Gas Light." In the play, the main character's husband systematically attempts to convince her she is experiencing mental instability to cover his scheming and crimes. The husband isolates his wife from contact with and support from others, hides items that she has set down and claims she has lost them, humiliates her by openly flirting with his maid, and claims his wife has done things he has done himself.
These tactics are examples of what gaslighting is — an attempt to destabilize someone's sense of reality. And it may be used by people with NPD to preserve a sense of superiority and encourage others to doubt their perception of narcissism and its accompanying behaviors.
Psychological manipulation is typically intended to control, exploit, or otherwise influence another person's behavior to one's benefit. And it may be used by people with NPD or narcissistic traits alongside behaviors like lying, cheating, and stealing.
In the case of covert narcissistic abuse, this might manifest as behavior or speech designed to lead, guide, and twist the words and actions of those around them to fit the narrative they have created. For example, they may put themselves down to manipulate others into complimenting them.
Intimidation is another behavior a person with NPD or narcissistic traits may display. You might easily recognize the intimidation if the person becomes verbally or physically aggressive and confrontational.
However, if the person becomes defensive, tears others down, dismisses the frustration of those around them, or gaslights their partner by refusing to acknowledge transgressions, it might be more challenging to identify. Subtle manipulation might also involve silent treatments (e.g., refusing to speak to someone one is upset with), covert threats, and passive-aggressive behavior.
If you are facing or witnessing abuse of any kind, the National Domestic Violence Hotline is available. Call 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) or text "START" to 88788. You can also use online chat.
Therapy For Narcissistic Abuse
Healing may take time and professional intervention (e.g., therapy) if you are a survivor of narcissistic abuse. And for many, the first step is reaching out to a licensed mental health professional for help.
The same is true if you are experiencing domestic or intimate partner abuse. Leaving situations like this may be and feel challenging, but no one deserves to stay in an abusive relationship.
In-person and online therapy are equally effective options, and both can help you decide how to leave an active abusive relationship or heal from past abuse. Online therapy has many benefits, including a broader range of professionals and no need to travel to an office. It may also be more discreet for those still in an abusive situation.
Research has shown that online therapy is viable for those experiencing trauma and post-traumatic stress symptoms. It can help reduce depression and anxiety, common comorbid conditions, and improve patient treatment outcomes. And it's more effective than being put on a waiting list by an in-person specialist.
While the DSM-5-TR doesn't officially recognize covert narcissistic abuse and covert narcissism, the experience is real and valid for those who have experienced it. Recovering from the common behaviors involved in this form of abuse — gaslighting, manipulation, and intimidation — usually requires time and emotional healing. And online therapy offers an accessible place to begin this journey.
At BetterHelp, we'll match you with a licensed mental health practitioner based on your needs and preferences. Once matched, you can have appointments on your schedule via in-app messaging, voice chat, or video calls. You'll also be able to message your provider anytime, and they'll respond as soon as possible.
"Audrey has helped me through a very tough time in my life. When I was in a slump coming out of a toxic relationship, Audrey gave me tools to make it out to the other side. I was able to discover my self-worth and realize the tangled web I was in! I'm thankful I did not go through my life in a cycle of hurt."
Other Commonly Asked Questions:
1. How do you outsmart a covert narc?
There are a few ways you can outsmart covert narcissist 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. 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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