Covert or more vulnerable narcissists betray the traditional depiction of what we assume narcissists look like. They can appear more hypersensitive, shy, and even innocent. This is ultimately what makes them so dangerous – you rarely ever see them coming.
Appearing vulnerable, innocent, humble, and preying on your sympathy early on.
As psychologist Dr. Martha Stout notes, “The most reliable sign, the most universal behavior of unscrupulous people is not directed, as one might imagine, at our fearfulness. It is, perversely, an appeal to our sympathy.” She goes on to say that if the devil did exist, he would likely want us to feel sorry for him. There’s no bigger “victim” than a covert narcissist – even if the people they target have complex trauma histories that could easily “surpass” theirs. What lures their potential victims in so effectively is the façade covert narcissists put on. At the beginning of the relationship, they may express that they are insecure, fragile, depressed, anxious, struggling, and searching for true love. They might pretend to be humble, even though they’ll later become contemptuous and condescending toward you, lashing out at any perceived slight or threat to their need for superiority. They will ask you to play the smallest violin for them as they orchestrate long-winded monologues about the heartbreaking betrayals they’ve experienced at the hands of their exes (betrayals you later found out were either actually instigated by them or represent a severe distortion of what truly happened). Just as serial killer Ted Bundy used a crutch and faked an injury to bait his victims into helping him, the covert narcissist pretends to be a wounded bird to get you to nurse him or her back to health – only to find out that they lash out and punish those who show them kindness.
Acting like they’re the bigger person, even after committing the most heinous transgressions.
Unlike a grandiose narcissist who smugly puts you down overtly and aggressively, a covert narcissist derives status from being holier-than-thou and appearing to be the “bigger and better” morally superior person – especially if you ever “dare” to exhibit normal human imperfections or react to their chronic abuse. That is why they’ll regularly and callously violate your boundaries with cruelty, only to look down on you for holding them accountable or fighting back. They may claim that you are operating out of bitterness, are unforgiving, and cannot “let things go.” They might accuse you of “playing games” when they were the ones manipulating you all along. These double standards and hypocrisy become glaringly absurd to survivors who have experienced cruel and abusive tactics from the covert narcissists in their lives, only for these covert narcissists to label them immoral or immature.
If, for example, the covert narcissist spent most of the relationship attempting to control you, police your movements, and isolate you from others due to their jealousy and controlling nature, they will quickly turn the tables if you ever dare to question them on legitimately suspicious behavior, calling you immature for expecting basic respect and transparency from them. They will minimize their own pattern of controlling behavior and highlight your legitimate concerns as problematic, pathologizing your reactions to discrepancies in their claims. Or they may rage at you throughout the relationship but claim that you are aggressive the minute you express any valid anger toward them. They may also pretend they “only want the best for you,” as a way to present themselves as loving and compassionate, even if they’ve been anything but throughout the relationship. As they position themselves as the more “mature” party in the relationship, they will depict you as morally impoverished if you begin treating them with even an ounce of the same disrespect as they treated you with. In the covert narcissist’s mind, only they are entitled to violate you, after all.
Causing chaos and harm behind the scenes, only to come to the rescue.
Covert narcissists frequently play “hurt and rescue.” They investigate your past traumas and insecurities and deliberately set up scenarios they know will harm you and provoke a reaction in you. For example, a covert narcissistic friend may spread rumors about you to others, only to console you when you hear about them – while they pretend to be none the wiser about the source of the slander. Or a sadistic covert narcissist might dole out covert put-downs about an insecurity they know you have, only to comfort you when you become upset. Your covert narcissistic partner may deliberately provoke jealousy in you, only to gaslight and rage when you call them out, and then pretend to be the “bigger person” in tolerating your “insecurities.” This allows them to play both the victim and the villain, taking on the “hero” role so they can condition you to seek their validation and approval after distressing events they caused themselves. Such hurt-and-rescue methods also traumatically bond you to the narcissistic abuser, making it more difficult to leave them.
Sabotaging you underhandedly because they’re pathologically envious.
Grandiose narcissists may cockily assert their dominance and superiority to overpower those they deem threatening to their ego, but covert narcissists are far stealthier in the way they express malicious envy. They suffer a massive narcissistic injury when they see others surpassing them – whether it be in looks, talent, success, or popularity. In order to regain power and control, they go out of their way to try to underhandedly sabotage people who have what they most covet. They “rage” more quietly and plot ways they can dampen your joy, celebration, and sense of healthy pride. Whether that means centering themselves, exploiting your resources, comparing you to others, or minimizing what you’ve achieved, covert narcissists take pleasure in taking you down a peg or two, especially if they perceive you’re out of their league.
If you are in a relationship with a covert narcissist, you are not alone and help is out there. You may find that being in this type of relationship has eroded your self-esteem, identity, and sense of agency over time, has burdened you with cognitive dissonance and emotional whiplash, or even caused PTSD symptoms. This was not your fault, as abusers can use manipulation tactics that overlap with the torture tactics used on prisoners of war. It takes great strength, resilience, and power to survive this type of psychological violence. It’s important to speak with a mental health professional to process your traumas and detach from this toxic person. You deserve to heal.