Covert narcissists can have an extra set of tactics they use to gaslight you since they specialize in hiding their narcissism under a veneer of normalcy. True to the nature of narcissism, they seek control, they manipulate, show little empathy, and hold themselves as superior. But true to the nature of covert communication, they can be slippery and evasive in the process.

Narcissists, in general, maintain an ongoing edge of agitation, but covert narcissists have reasoned that it is in their vested interest not to be too vulnerable as they act upon their aggressions. That being the case, it will be advantageous to know their passive tactics as they attempt to unburden their damaged emotions onto you.

So, let’s focus on twelve of the most common passive aggressive tactics covert narcissists employ with the presumption that your knowledge of their mannerisms can become the beginning of detaching from the confusion they wish to spread.

Tactic #1. General lifestyle non-cooperation.

Knowing how you prefer their coordination on a broad range of matters, covert narcissists can express disregard via behaviors like procrastination, half-hearted efforts, lack of availability at key moments, and predictable tardiness. This is their way of conveying how much of a nuisance you are to them.

Tactic #2. Expressing a desire to help, yet becoming sidetracked.

Initially, they can express interest in matters of importance to you, openly expressing a willingness, and even an enthusiasm for assisting you. Yet when the time comes to deliver the effort, they are no-shows. Later, they have a good excuse, but experience eventually reveals that this is an ongoing pattern of their tactics. Their promises are empty.

Tactic #3. Responding to confrontations with perplexion.

If you attempt to hold the covert narcissist accountable regarding miscalculations or disappointments, they can express confusion, or they speak in a quizzical fashion. “I’m not even sure what you mean,” or “How did you arrive at that conclusion?” True to the goal of aggression they desire to make you look or feel problematic, and in the meantime, they sidestep accountability.

Tactic #4. Telling you what to do via questions.

Narcissists have a strong desire to control, and they often rationalize if they can add shame to their efforts, they have greater leverage. So, they may ask loaded questions in the attempt to make you look or feel foolish. “Why are you being so resistant?” “Don’t you think we should have included him in our plans?” It reveals their not-so-hidden condescension toward you.

Tactic #5. Playing the role of the victim.

Covert narcissists carry lots of tension due to others’ not meeting expectations, so they announce frustration about being misunderstood or mistreated. Being needy, yet also having an entitled ego, they feel chronically underappreciated. Being a victim allows them to gripe while also hoping to garner sympathy.

Tactic #6. Running a smear campaign behind your back.

Since covert narcissists like to maintain a friendly veneer, they are not inclined to confront you directly, but instead will speak poorly about you to other people. They can portray themselves to others as a good person who has to endure unnecessary hardship. It is a form of unloading their frustration about you, but with no accountability toward you. And if your reputation is sullied in the process, all the better.

Tactic #7. Paying you a compliment while also complaining.

You may have good fortune, but the covert narcissist will respond with a comment like, “It must be nice for you, but I’ve never had such good luck.” Or they might say something like, “You can be really helpful when you put your mind to it.” This reveals how envy or contempt is ever-present, even as they attempt to keep up a quasi-encouraging presence.

Tactic #8. Not including you in activities.

Often you will learn that the narcissist has participated in meetings or in social circumstances that would have been appropriate for you. As a way of passively expressing disdain, they exclude you, knowing it would bother you, but not caring about the impact. Without words, they convey how they have a low regard for any connection with you.

Tactic #9. Brazenly ignoring you, then feigning innocence.

As an add-on to tactic #8, after shunning you, a narcissist may realize that you have felt offended, so in an attempt to appear concerned, they may express surprise that you were not included in an activity or decision. You may hear something like, “I thought you already knew…” or “I was under the impression you had other plans.” This has the effect of making you look like an ingrate or a whiner.

Tactic #10. Holding onto a moral high ground, but passing judgment.

Feeling superior, narcissists can easily find fault in you. But wanting to seem virtuous, they can fall back onto explanations invoking strong ethics or morality. For instance, they may claim a desire to be coordinated with you, yet they appeal to a prior mistake you made that would disqualify you. Criticism is constant, but it can be portrayed as seeking excellence.

Tactic #11. The classic silent treatment.

Often, the covert narcissist will feel great frustration, but instead of speaking directly with you about it, they will punish you with silence or withdrawal. The goal is to create awkward feelings inside you. They can refuse to look at you. The narcissist may not return text messages. They can walk past you as if you are not there. Their behavior conveys a deep contempt for you being you.

Tactic #12. Appearing willing to please, yet holding grudges.

True to the narcissist’s need to seem appealing, covert narcissists can behave in friendly and helpful ways. Yet later, you can learn that they feel unappreciated. They convey to others that their goodness is hardly ever reciprocated. In doing so, they illustrate how they keep score (inaccurately) of their good deeds, and your lack of reciprocation.

With each of these tactics, the covert narcissist seeks to maintain the highest amount of control with the least vulnerability. Their attitudes of superiority and entitlement set them up for harsh feelings toward you, yet their need to have an unblemished false persona sets them up to be oblique and dishonest in their expressions.

Knowing their tactics, you can drop the effort to reform the covert narcissism. That would only play right into their manipulation games. Instead, find your north star and hold onto your resolve to be wise and self-preserving as you remain true to yourself. The narcissist is bogged down in unresolved anger, but that is not your problem to solve.

Your best way to respond to a passive aggressive covert narcissist is to move on. And when you learn the narcissist is displeased…it simply illustrates why you need to proceed.

~Les Carter, Ph.D.

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