We’re all familiar with loud, bold, and overly confident overt narcissists. These types of narcissists are visibly grandiose, aggressively posturing their superiority for all to see. They may be vain and somatic, overly focused on their appearance, or they may be on the more cerebral end, contemptuously putting down anyone and everyone who threatens their so-called intellectual superiority.
Fortunately, overt narcissists are usually easy to spot and hopefully easier to avoid investing in. Covert narcissists, on the other hand, present new challenges; they can appear meek, innocent, shy, charitable, even humble at first glance. They can be disarmingly seductive, even loving, personable and gracious.
Yet beneath their quieter nature and seemingly sensitive façade lurks a contempt and sense of entitlement that is ultimately even more harmful simply because it is so startling and traumatizing to the victims who bear witness to it. Their tactics work to diminish, demean and sabotage their victims behind the scenes – which is why their manipulation and exploitation can leave their loved ones blindsided and reeling from the unexpected psychological violence they subject them to. Here are three manipulation techniques that covert narcissists use and tips on how to stay grounded if you encounter one:
1. Mixed put-downs, double meanings and coded language.
A mixed put-down occurs when a covert narcissist is threatened by someone else’s intelligence, accomplishments, status, appearance or any other resources he or she may covet. It involves throwing the victim off the pedestal while also offering potential for getting back on it. In order to put their victims down while still evading accountability, the covert narcissist will first provide a sweet compliment, followed by a backhanded “slap” of sorts (ex. “Wow Mary, you’ve really lost weight! Too bad about the sagging skin, huh?”).
This can also occur vice versa – the narcissist may first attack with an overly critical stance, only to seemingly ‘soften’ the blow with a crumb of a compliment to create confusion in the victim (ex. “You do know you’re completely wrong about that, right? Well, you’re hardworking, at least, I’ll give you that.”). This will allow their put-down to appear more like a legitimate critique rather than an excuse to tear you down unnecessarily. It “trains” and conditions the victim over time to seek the narcissist’s approval and validation.
Covert narcissists can even get creative and send a mixed message by contradicting their seemingly innocuous words with a devious undercurrent. For example, this may include giving you a compliment with a condescending tone of voice, relaying a humorous “joke” at your expense with a contemptuous look, using a startling gesture or provocative facial expression or saying something that can easily have two meanings (one innocent, and the other, abusive). Of course, they will do everything possible to convince you that they never “meant” to communicate the more malicious meaning, but the underlying undercurrent of something deeper is always present in such an interaction.
They may also engage in what I like to call “coded” language. This can involve putting you down in front of others by poking fun at something they know you’re sensitive about, but others may not realize is a vulnerability of yours.
Much like an inside joke, the knowledge of how this comment affects you is shared between you both, but unlike an inside joke, it is meant to undermine you rather than build rapport. It also serves to evoke reactions in you that may seem excessive to any outsider looking in. This is a way for them to get away with their abusive behavior and provoke the victim to react in public. They then use their victim’s reactions to prove the victim’s “instability” while casting themselves as the innocent party.
To understand why covert narcissists employ these methods, remember that their ability to prey upon a victim’s uncertainty allows them to create a sophisticated “Gaslighting Effect.” In her article, “Effects of Gaslighting in Narcissistic Victim Syndrome,” psychotherapist Christine Louis de Canonville describes how this effect is amplified over time:
“The gaslighting, as a harassment technique, starts with a series of subtle mind games that intentionally prays on the gaslightee’s limited ability to tolerate ambiguity or uncertainty. This is done in order to undercut the victim’s trust in their own reality and sense of self. Even when the victim is bewildered and left wondering, “What just happened there?”, there is reluctance to see the gaslighter for what they are…it is this denial that is the cornerstone of the gaslighting relationship.”
Essentially, the victim reduces his or her own cognitive dissonance and confusion by choosing to “believe” in the abuser’s version of events. Slowly but surely, these covert put-downs, coded messages and ambiguous comments become integrated into a warped reality that the covert manipulator creates for his or her victim.
When encountering a put-down like this, avoid reacting to the narcissist’s hypercriticism as much as possible. Instead, validate your own accomplishments and leave the conversation as soon as possible. The more emotionally reactive you are to a put-down, the more likely the covert narcissist will store that information and use the same exact tactic again in order to provoke you.
If you react to their hurtful tactics and coded language in public, rest assured they will use your reactions as “proof” that you are somehow unstable. Keep your cool in public whenever possible and if possible, address it to them in private (though, it is likely they will never own up to it) if you have to.
If you are feeling baffled as to whether or not you’ve experienced a covert put-down, compare the way the narcissist has reacted to your success to the way other, healthier people in your life have. Chances are, the healthy people in your life congratulated and celebrated you in whatever arena the narcissist is currently putting you down in. This is a sign that the narcissist’s criticism stems not from helpfulness, but rather from their pathological envy.
2. The great diversion.
The covert narcissist does whatever is possible to distract you from the fact that they are putting you down in the first place. That means that they will create all sorts of diversions to get you from staying grounded in your own sense of what has just happened. This serves to disguise their malicious intent to gain control and power over you by keeping you in a state of perpetually walking on eggshells. Instead of focusing on holding them accountable for their behavior, they get you to refocus on your own behavior, personality, or fabricated flaws.
One second, they may be making a harsh, cruel comment about your body, and the next second, they’re being disarmingly sweet and complimentary about how slender you are, as well as how you “read too deeply into things” when you express your confusion about the sudden “switch.” Another minute, they’re planning a romantic evening out with you, and the next, they’re blaming you for expecting that of them in the first place – even if it was their idea to treat you in the first place. By intermittently switching from pain to pleasure, from dissatisfaction to loving admiration, they are able to hide the fact that they’re constantly shifting blame onto you.
This is how they “divert” from the fact that they’re putting you down and setting you up for failure by constantly shifting the goal posts. It is also how they change the subject rapidly when they are confronted on their shady behavior. Phrases such as, “I am not going to argue with you,” or “This isn’t worth pursuing” is common when they are called out on their insidious tactics. No matter what you do or don’t do, the narcissist will rarely be satisfied and you will never be satisfied by their inability to ever take responsibility.
Stay true to what you experienced and observe the long-term patterns of behavior rather than what the narcissist claims to be doing or not doing. A narcissist’s longer-term predatory behavior will tell you far more than their contradictory words ever will. When a narcissist tries to “divert” you from the main topic by pointing out something irrelevant you did or said, or tries to stonewall you by ending the conversation even before it’s had a chance to begin, repeat the facts, stay focused on the issue and end the interaction without giving into their gaslighting attempts.
3. Tunnel vision minimization.
This is when the narcissist develops “tunnel vision” by hyperfocusing on something irrelevant or unrelated to minimize something you’ve accomplished, are proud of or something they know is considered an asset of yours. If you’ve graduated with a Master’s, the covert narcissist might start demanding to know when you plan to get your Ph.D; if you recently signed the lease on your dream apartment, they might change the subject to something in your neighborhood that seems unsavory or mundane. To a narcissist, there is always a way to get under your skin and inside of your head.
The presence of minimization can usually help you identify who the narcissist is in a group setting; while others are congratulating you on a job well done, the narcissist is often lurking in the corner, sulking and ready to burst your bubble like a needle to a balloon with a backhanded compliment, excessive critique or a “helpful” obnoxious reminder of something they perceive you’re lacking.
Remember: when a covert narcissist causes you to feel insecure, uncertain and unbalanced, it is often because they don’t want to deal with their own emotional issues and the fact that they may not be as special or unique as they desperately want to believe. This is where the narcissist continually passes off any unwanted feelings onto their victims. Minimization and projection act as self-serving tactics for the narcissist to avoid the discrepancy between the grandiose, false self and the true self.
Resist the minimization and maximize your self-validation. Instead of focusing on the narcissist’s envious attempts to minimize you, refocus on the people who are celebrating you. Realize that in the narcissist’s minimization is a secret confession of their own sense of ineptitude and entitlement; they want to be exactly where you are and have what you have but they know they never will. You really are that threatening to their false sense of superiority.
Most importantly, celebrate yourself. Self-validation and self-love are two of the most powerful tools you can have when conquering the sabotage of a covert narcissist.