Narcissists can be difficult to spot, especially if they are older and more sophisticated. Over time, they learn how to optimally manipulate their victims, and get by with their schemes without anyone questioning them.
What makes it even more confusing is that they don’t all act the same way. Certain patterns of behavior are consistent, such as when they idealize, devalue, then discard their romantic partners. But there are actually three distinct types of narcissists who act very differently on the outside, according to therapist Elinor Greenberg.
One of the toughest sub-types to spot is the covert narcissist, because they blend into the background much of the time. They aren’t a cliché of a grandiose, self-obsessed, “look at me” narcissist, Greenberg said. Instead, they are quietly cruel and behave in a much more passive-aggressive way.
For example, they may appear calm and professional to most people. But to those, they are in a relationship with they are demeaning, cold, and abusive, and they can switch between these Jekyll and Hyde characters with ease.
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People with dark triad personalities thrive off other people’s chaos, so a common game of theirs is to set their romantic partners up for failure all the time, then punish them for doing so. Sometimes they make empty promises, then get a kick out of the reaction when they don’t deliver.
“They do what they want to do when they want to do it,” said Shannon Thomas, a licensed clinical social worker who wrote the book “Healing from Hidden Abuse.” “And then they make themselves look like the victim.”
Some even deny making promises in the first place, gaslighting their partner into think they are losing their mind. Over time, the victim may completely lose touch with reality, known as perspecticide.
Covert narcissists are conflicted
It may stem from covert narcissists wanting to be worshipped. Greenberg said they are conflicted because they think a lot of themselves, but are also incredibly insecure.
“A closet narcissist doesn’t say, ‘I am special,’” she said. “They point to something else — a person, a religion, a book, a dress designer — and they are special, so they feel special by association.”
You may wonder why anyone would be in a relationship with a covert narcissist in the first place, and the answer is complicated. According to Perpetua Neo, a therapist and doctor of psychology, one reason is covert narcissists are highly skilled at sucking their victims in with sob stories. This, she said, is a very effective trap for people who are high in empathy.
“Think about it like the covert narcissist has wormed their way into your heart,” she said. “There tends to be a string of misfortune, like every single ex is a jerk, every single friend they have is unhealthy. Always ask yourself what kind of circle of friends this person has. If they have zero friends, that’s an alarm bell, because the whole world cannot be that unhealthy.”
Spinning tales about their abusive childhood, or their battles with addiction, leads highly empathetic people down a path where they start to feel sorry for the covert narcissist. Further down the line you’ll develop a sense of responsibility over them, Neo said, because you feel “tethered to their potential.”
“But this covert narcissist has no intention of changing their lives,” she said. “It’s all a way of sucking you in and a way of getting attention, and a way of justifying their s****y behavior towards you.”
They manipulate your empathy
The problem is, whether the covert narcissist is a colleague, friend, or partner, if you are their chosen victim, you will already know about their alleged problems. And often they can be hard to ignore. Some even claim they are suicidal, meaning walking away feels essentially impossible for the victim.
“This will be a way to condition you into a sense of fear and walking on eggshells around them, so next time you are not going to hold them accountable,” Neo said. “They may even say this very common statement: ‘I’ve never felt this way about someone before.’”
This, again, gives you this responsibility to take care of them, even to the point you allow them to isolate you from your other friends and family.
With a covert narcissist, their emotions are paramount, but the victim’s needs and feelings are up for debate, Neo said. Everything is a competition, and nothing that happens to you even comes close to what they’ve been through, they say.
They will also never apologize, Neo said. They’ll simply give their victim the silent treatment as punishment until they give up and surrender.
Their lies are sophisticated
Essentially, covert narcissists have a high contempt for others, and anything that threatens their superiority is taken as a direct attack, Neo said. That’s why they are so hung up on being superior and looking down on everyone else.
“People who are above them in any way, in terms of their assets, or their career potential, or their talent, it’ll be ‘privilege,’ or the government’s fault,” Neo said. “Everyone else is just a rich w****r. They had rich parents. There’s always a way of blaming another person. And someone’s fortunes or talents are attributed to something external from them.”
They may appear to root for the underdog, but it’s just a way of making them look better, Neo said. By supporting liberal parties, or defining themselves as a feminist, they essentially trick people into thinking they have morals, when really their integrity is in the gutter.
They commonly tell other lies about their past, like beautiful or famous people they have slept with, or amazing job opportunities they’ve turned down. It’s all lies, Neo said. She added that covert narcissists tend to watch a lot of television because they are trying to mimic behaviors they see, such as empathy (which they are incapable of.)
Escaping the clutches of a covert narcissist is hard because they drain their victims of energy and resources until they find a new target. Thomas calls it an “IV drip of poison” that doesn’t stop until they move on.
It’s not until the covert narcissist is gone that the victim finally realizes what they were going through wasn’t normal. But hopefully they do, and then they can start the process of healing, realizing it wasn’t their fault, and putting healthy boundaries in place to never be a covert narcissist’s resource again.
This article first appeared on Business Insider.