Narcissism is a distinct pattern of life that has predictable traits: self-absorption, entitlement, a strong need to control, exploitative behaviors, low empathy, an attitude of superiority, pathological defensiveness, and alternate reality.

In many individuals the presence of narcissism is so overt that little is left to the imagination. These people make no pretense about being anything other than privileged and superior. Their haughtiness is quite evident. They are quick to remind you that you are supposed to know your place in their pecking order.

Many narcissists, however are more covert. While they still have the same predictable traits as their overt counterparts, they do not display their delusions in the same outlandish ways. In fact, it may take a significant time for the pattern to show itself. All the while, these narcissists are nonetheless positioning themselves over you. Once you detect their narcissism, it will not turn out well.

Knowing that many covert narcissists exist, how can you discern it?

The easiest, most accurate way to detect covert narcissism is this. Their outward public persona is very different from their private tendencies. Narcissists, by definition are committed to maintaining a self-serving False Narrative. Beginning early in life, they reckoned that it is in their vested interest to keep others from knowing their many insecurities, mistakes, differences, or controversies; so, they became masters of disguise. They yearn for dominance and unique deference; yet all the while, they have developed tendencies that keep others from knowing their true motives.

Examples of a covert narcissist’s practices abound. For instance, they may publicly portray themselves as ethical and morally upright, yet behind the scenes they disdain propriety and accountability. Or outwardly they may make a show of support for you, yet behind your back they are dismissive of you. Or it could be that to your face they give the impression of being on your team, only for you to learn later that they have hidden jealousies or resentments. Perhaps they publicly portray themselves as a devoted family member. When in fact at home they are quite disinterested in such a role.

There, of course, are other possible scenarios, but you get the idea. Covert narcissists are keepers of secrets, and they refuse to admit the discrepancies between their public and private selves. Their egotism won’t allow them to admit their phoniness, which means it is more difficult to detect.

  • They remain loyal only as long as you seem utile.
  • It is difficult for them to sustain a relationship that is anything but superficial or merely functional.
  • They live for the praise and admiration of others, but when it is given, it is never quite enough.
  • They truly don’t care what you think or feel. Empathy is sorely lacking.
  • They cannot use analytical or reflective thinking when pressed to examine personal problems.
  • Instead, they fall back on a Victim’s mindset when interpersonal tensions are present.
  • Conflicts cannot be resolved. They will not receive input, nor will they compromise for the good of the relationship.
  • Covert narcissists can privately be emotionally volatile, though they are careful to hide this tendency in the public domain.
  • They insist that others are responsible for making their stress go away.
  • They constantly yearn for the favored position, whether it means receiving special treatment, sidling up to someone prominent, or belonging to a “right” social clique. It’s as if the world owes them something.
  • They consistently exaggerate personal positives while minimizing the negatives.
  • If they are clearly caught making serious mistakes, they declare themselves rehabilitated or absolved far too quickly.

As long as you are connected to a covert narcissist, there will be one major requirement of you:

It becomes your task to prop up that person’s false public narrative. You are never, ever allowed to call out the narcissist. Of course, when you protest, it will turn ugly quickly. And inevitably you have made many efforts to make that person see the light, only to be thwarted time after time.

At some point, after you detect how entrenched the narcissist is in this pattern, you will probably decide that your self-respect will not allow you to lay down and be walked upon any longer. And when you let that be known, the narcissism will predictably become more overt. That is when it will be evident that changes in the relationship will be very necessary, perhaps even bringing it to an end.

Covert narcissists are committed to a life of deception and false portrayals, but you don’t have to remain as that person’s prop. Being an enabler has no place in a healthy way of life.

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~Dr. Les Carter