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A covert narcissist doesn't do outright aggression but shows hostility passively. For example, giving their partner the silent treatment for days is both aggressive and abusive.
Narcissist is a word that gets thrown around a lot these days – and for good reason, especially if they are a covert narcissist. A narcissist has the ability to destroy their victim’s life, with the damage persisting long after the victim has cut ties with them or they have moved on to another victim. In fact, thanks to increased awareness, the average person is pretty much equipped to identify a narcissist.
However, what most people don’t know is that not all narcissists are the same.
The traits that are typically discussed—like unmistakable arrogance, delusions of grandeur, etc.—make it seem as if all narcissists are overt narcissists. That couldn’t be further from the truth because I was in a serious relationship with another kind, one just as toxic but a lot harder to identify. He was a covert or vulnerable narcissist and I only knew that when I was hopelessly in love with him.
I don’t want anyone else to undergo the trauma I did so here are some signs I personally experienced, signs that one should look out for to unmask the covert narcissist.
Mirroring is a classic narcissist technique to get a person to believe that they have met a kindred soul. After all, everyone needs to feel seen, heard, and understood, especially in a romantic relationship. The narcissist manipulates the victim by pretending to be someone who gets them.
For example, I’ve always been someone who believes in gender equality. My ex was as sexist as they come, but he hid it well by copying my views on feminism. He was very crafty about it, going so far as to weave tales about how sexism in his parents’ marriage had impacted his psyche. I was thoroughly convinced he was a feminist too.
According to psychologist Sadaf Vidha, mirroring is what they use to create a false sense of intimacy in a short period of time. She says: “Narcissists use mirroring to understand and validate your needs, especially those needs that others in your life have failed to meet.”
Mirroring is used by the covert and overt narcissist; the former does it subtly while the latter chooses the grand route. Either way, if it feels too good to be true, it probably is.
Once the narcissist has made someone fall for them, they will show how good they are at promising and never delivering. They are skilled liars. Indeed, they will promise you the world, but never give it to you. Again, the covert narcissist will do this in an understated manner.
For example, mine had promised to quit his old job to get geographically closer to me, but whenever an opportunity actually came along, he conveniently forgot about applying, or procrastinated till it was no longer available, and so on. He always had some excuse or another that seemed believable.
Unlike an overt narcissist, he was never openly dismissive or claimed to know what was better for us. Instead, he chose the passive-aggressive route and the power of storytelling to never even try to quit. Never mind that far more creative and monetarily rewarding jobs in his domain were well within his reach.
It’s not you, it’s them. Sadaf explains: “The covert narcissist is a very good performer when it comes to words. They’ll know exactly what to say but never take action. There will be no actual change.”
Everyone assumes that all a narcissist does is boast about their achievements, whether they are real, imaginary, or exaggerated. Relentless self-promotion is one of their defining traits. It gives them the ego boost they need and “deserve”. All narcissists crave praise and admiration and will do anything to get it. However, this craving manifests differently in the vulnerable kind. Where the overt self-promotes, the covert self-deprecates.
My ex would pretend to not just be humble, but also put himself down on purpose. This approach would ensure he got adequate praise, validation, and reassurance without coming across as a self-absorbed braggart. Fishing for compliments would stroke but not mend his fragile ego. In fact, he couldn’t take any form of criticism. He could dish it out because he was cold and insensitive when it came to other people, but when it came to himself he was suddenly (over)sensitive.
He would typically react to the most constructive criticism by putting the spotlight on me. Sadaf explains why: “Narcissists think they are better than their partner and that their partner is being ungrateful. When they’re criticized, they react by somehow making the whole situation about the partner’s supposed shortcomings.”
The vulnerable narcissist is sly, which is why they are passive-aggressive instead of full-on aggressive. In my opinion, this also enables them to gaslight the victim more easily because it gives them the opportunity to lie without consequence.
In my case, I was given the passive-aggressive treatment when I did not do something according to his preference or when I hurt his false pride. He never raised his hand or yelled at me. Instead, he punished me by avoiding eye contact. Worse, he made false and mean remarks that he later justified as me misunderstanding his intention.
Since he didn’t operate openly like the overt narcissist, it was easy to let him convince me that I was overreacting. But as Sadaf clarifies, “they don’t do outright aggression but they show their hostility passively. For example, giving their partner the silent treatment for days is both aggressive and abusive.”
Towards the end of our relationship, he frequently said he could leave me whenever he wanted and well, that’s exactly what he did. Of course, a relationship is not a binding contract; one can leave anytime. But did he end it respectfully? Not at all. Apart from slander and name-calling, he turned the tables on me and said that I was the abusive partner. At first, I thought this was gaslighting or his usual lack of accountability. Over time, I realized that he truly believed he was the victim.
Later when he had a change of mind and wanted me back, he said that “he would give me another chance if I treated him well”. I told him I didn’t want anything to do with him and our relationship ended permanently. But the slander and name-calling continued. I thought maybe he was having a mental breakdown, but Sadaf clarified that victim mentality is a common trait. “When there is no hope left for the relationship to go on, they end up becoming the victim. I’ve seen this pattern in a couple of clients and their ex-partners.”
Maybe they behave like they were wronged so that they can fool their next victim, or maybe they do it to avoid feeling guilty for their sins. Either way, what they think/say is not your problem because you know the truth.
Probably not. Still, if you think your relationship is worth saving, you must consult a couples therapist. However, know that there is nothing you can do if they don’t want to change. The only thing that is healthy for you in this scenario is to move on.
Published here first.
Image source: a still from the film Tamasha
Mahevash Shaikh is a millennial blogger, author, and poet who writes about mental health, culture, and society. She lives to question convention and redefine normal. read more...
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