Introduction to Covert Narcissism

Most of us have some idea of what narcissism looks like – the person who speaks only about themselves in grandiose terms, who holds up a line of traffic to get that perfect parking spot, who blames other people for their problems, who lacks empathy, yada yada. Narcissists are a great caricature and we could probably identify a few on the national scene and some homegrown narcissists we might have in our backyard as well.

Many people, however, have no idea what covert narcissism (CN) is and are therefore caught unaware until the effect of their behavior takes a devastating toll on the people around them, and very few people can even identify what happened.

The charm of a covert narcissist can be overpowering. When they are in the lovebombing stage, they wear their heart on their sleeves. It seems like the world has been against them for a long time, and they seem so caring, so likeable, so empathetic.  They often come with a very pitiable tale of woe, much of which is not exactly the whole picture, which you don’t find out until later, if at all. A CN can seem so likeable, and they want to spend time with you and find so many ways to do so. At this point, they are observing you and imitating you. All their attention is so flattering and refreshing. It’s easy to let your guard down with someone who is so seemingly kind and charming. At some point, the CN will let their own mask down, when they tire of you, find another victim, or they feel they are losing their emotional control of you as you set good boundaries or begin to take care of yourself again.

woman covering face with leaf
Photo by Allef Vinicius on Unsplash

The discard phase is like being hit by another vehicle in a fog – you couldn’t see it coming and the destruction can be severe. Sometimes you hear of a seemingly happy marriage and then one spouse tells the other that they never loved or were interested in the other spouse, even after the rejecting spouse last week took both of them on a fabulous anniversary cruise. Or it might be a coworker who acted like your best friend and then started lying about you to a boss or another coworker. It could be a parent who looks like parent of the year to everyone else, but at home calls you names and denies you basic necessities of love, attention, and basic material goods.  Or it could be that “perfect”  friend who then turned everyone in your group against you, and you can’t understand why and it just doesn’t make any sense.

When the discard phase happens, it’s up to the victim to pick up the pieces and process what just happened. Besides dealing with the emotional cost of being in a relationship with a CN, it is not uncommon for victims to have to deal with financial strain, broken relationships, effects of smear campaigns, and sometimes even physical destruction left by a CN in their life. This can make it doubly hard for the target to know where to begin.

The first step is to get help for the emotional pain you have been in. Find a counselor who understands what covert narcissism is and begin the hard work of therapy. Most CNs engage in lying and gaslighting. It’s important that you be able to take back your reality with the help of a trained mental health therapist who can help you to see yourself for the good, honest, caring person that you really are.

Sometimes we are lucky enough to be able to walk away from a CN, but if you are married to one, have a child with one, or work with one, it’s not so easy to just walk away. Whatever the case, it’s a good time to learn to set good boundaries for yourself, both physically and emotionally.  Too much has been taken away from you, and  now it’s time to take your power back. Read books on boundaries, watch videos or find someone you know who seems to hold good boundaries with others and ask them for advice.

Take really good care of yourself. Don’t be too hard on yourself. If you were taken advantage of, don’t beat yourself up over it. Targets are often smart, caring, and confident people. Don’t change a thing about who you are, because that is what makes you  you. Find the little and big things that give you pleasure and begin to enjoy a beautiful, fulfilling life once again.

Over time,  you will be surprised to find joy in your life again as you recover and move on. You will grow stronger and learn from all of this. You will see yourself as good, capable, loving, and caring once again. This is a good time to invest in  yourself and follow your dreams. If you can survive a relationship with a CN, you can do just about anything you set your mind to. You are now stronger, wiser, and more confident. You can do this!