I’ll bet you’ve heard the word “narcissist” used many times, and in a variety of settings. A narcissist is dripping with entitlement, self-absorption, and conceit. While narcissism does include those traits, it’s much more complicated. I’d like to paint a detailed picture of what narcissism looks like in the real world, and how you can protect yourself from these predator personalities. My hope is to present an accurate description of narcissism by exploring the 5 characteristics of a narcissist. The ugly truth must be exposed because of their ability to obliterate the health of those they’re married to, parent and are associated with.
The term, narcissism, comes from the Greek mythology tale of Narcissus, who fell in love with his own image, while gazing into a pool of water. This concept of Narcissism was introduced by Sigmund Freud in 1914. If you’re interested in learning more, you can read his essay entitled On Narcissism.
The stereotypical narcissist is typically viewed as a conceited, selfish, and obnoxious extrovert who thinks only of themselves. Narcissists are arrogant, have an exaggerated sense of self, an extreme sense of entitlement, and a complete disregard for others. They’ll throw you under the bus if it serves them – even if they’re married to you or birthed you. A normal brain can’t wrap itself around this fact, but it is indeed true.
Narcissists can also be very charming and extravagant, showering you with undivided attention and thoughtful gifts – in the beginning. Overtime, their true character, or lack thereof, will be revealed. They are disturbed individuals, who suffered an injury during childhood that was deeply wounding. This wounding arrested their emotional development.
The picture I’ve just painted is that of an overt narcissist. These individuals wear their narcissism on their sleeve for the whole world to see. They’re fairly easy to spot, especially after getting to know them. They can’t NOT show their true colors.
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Table of Contents
Covert Narcissistic Abuse
In this post, I want to address another form of narcissism that isn’t as readily obvious and takes much longer to recognize and uncover. It’s imperative to learn about covert narcissism in order to recognize it and see it for what it is so you can protect yourself. Many victims of this form of narcissism don’t realize what’s happening to them, until they do, which is usually years later when they’ve reached their breaking point, and their health is in the toilet. Familiarize yourself with the destructive tactics covert narcissists commonly use to control those they target.
Covert narcissism is insidious, and the damage inflicted is gradual and often begins subtly, with the aim of slowly unhinging the victim, and making them doubt their own reality. You can learn to spot these destructive and unhealthy people by understanding the purpose behind their motives, which is to control the minds and emotions of others. This sense of control feeds their shallow sense of self, giving them the power they so desperately crave.
To better understand narcissism, let’s unpack its roots. If you’ve never heard the term, “object constancy,” you’ll find this concept fascinating. Also called object permanence, object constancy is a developmental skill that allows a child to see their primary caretakers as trustworthy and reliable, even when that caretaker is out of sight. This skill develops during the toddler years when a child comes to understand that “out of sight” does not mean “Mommy is never coming back.” This, of course, refers to the child’s primary caretaker, which is usually the mother.
When a child lacks object constancy, they lose faith in a safe and secure reality. Object constancy is the belief that the person you love and depend upon will always be there for you. It’s a belief in constancy. A fragile sense of self emerges when a child doesn’t develop this sense of constancy and safety in their formative years. Individuation, and ego formation are aspects of object constancy, that are negatively impacted, when this crucial skill is not developed.
Lack Of Bonding
If a child has formed a strong bond and connection with their mother, or other primary caretaker, they will have a normal sense of object constancy. They will then view the world as safe, and be able to form loving, nurturing relationships. However, if a child grows up with the belief that separation and conflict lead to abandonment and rejection, they’ll have an inability to feel normal emotions and form healthy relationships. Interestingly, this is how a lack of object constancy leads to the conflict avoidance so inherent in narcissism. Narcissists are avoidance addicts.
Narcissism results when a child does not learn this critical developmental skill. This could be due to unreasonable demands being placed on the child, or their needs constantly being invalidated and ignored. At the age of two or three, children are incapable and lack the maturity, of openly resisting parental demands. How do these children cope? They develop coping mechanisms so they don’t feel so helpless. These children learn to resist, but they do so subtly and deceptively. This is how the seeds of narcissism are sown. Narcissism very often stems from a shaky relationship with the mother.
1. Narcissists Lack Empathy
If you’ve ever tried to make a relationship work with someone who doesn’t possess or exhibit empathy, you’re in for a nightmare. Relationships, at least intimate ones, cannot endure when one partner is devoid of empathy. The narcissistic person is there physically, but no one’s home emotionally. It’s like living in the fun house, without the fun or enjoyment.
“If it walks like a duck and talks like a duck, it’s a duck. But if it walks like a duck and talks like a swan, it’s a narcissist.”
It’s almost like narcissists lack a soul. Empathy and compassion are the defining characteristics of emotional intelligence. There is no emotional intelligence without empathy. Narcissists are certainly not candidates for marriage as they are incapable of forming intimate bonds, and marriage and family life require a high degree of emotional intelligence. Nor does it help matters that narcissists turn your valid concerns into criticism that their fragile egos can’t handle.
Loving, nurturing relationships require trust, respect, appreciation, and compassion. Narcissists don’t possess these qualities. They’re much too selfish and self-absorbed to think of anyone but themselves. Lacking empathy is the ultimate game changer for any type of relationship, but particularly intimate ones. The book below is an eye opener, and will show you how to take back your power in the wake of narcissistic abuse. The audiobook is also available.
“Becoming the Narcissist’s Nightmare: How to Devalue and Discard the Narcissist While Supplying Yourself”
Lack Of Connection
Narcissists cannot engage and connect, and they’ll never be able to because of their arrested development. Don’t fool yourself into thinking you can love them enough to change them and teach them empathy. The truth is, you cannot, it’s not possible. Also, don’t think covert narcissists are easy to spot. This form of narcissism may remain undetected for years. Those they live with have a difficult time putting a name to the stealth and strange behaviors. They know something is off, they just can’t put their finger on it.
A covert narc could be the nice man or woman down the street who everyone loves. These people appear to be “normal” unless you’re close to them Realize, that covert, means hidden and covered. What goes on behind closed doors in the covert’s home may be quite a different story. It’s commonly the intimate and family relationships that suffer from this not-so-obvious form of narcissism, which is just as dangerous as the overt form.
Also referred to as closet narcissism or hypersensitive narcissism, these people can dish out cruelty, but when the same is directed at them, they fall apart. Because of their childhood wounds, covert narcissists are ultra-sensitive and insecure inside. The suave exterior belies the fragile ego, shallow sense of self, and insecurity that is their true nature.
Covert narcissists can be compared to a bomb just waiting to go off. Their calm and collected demeanor does not convey the seething anger lying just beneath the surface. This anger is not overt and obvious, but is passive-aggressive in nature. This brings us to our next destructive characteristic of this disturbed personality type.
2. Passive Aggressive Manipulation
Have you ever been the target of passive aggression? Count your blessings if you’ve escaped it. The covert makes everything your fault. Though not as obvious and identifiable, passive-aggressive people are every bit as destructive as their aggressive counterparts. Passive aggression is still aggression, and a dangerous form of manipulation, dominance, intimidation, and control. When passive aggression is directed at you, you’ll feel judged, accused, and defensive while not knowing what your crime was.
In this type of aggression, there’s a disconnect between what the covert narcissist says and his/her actions. They don’t appear angry, yet they’ll use tactics to exact revenge, and use whatever tools they have at their disposal to achieve their objectives. Narcs are masters of avoidance and adept at sweeping their destructive behaviors under the rug. Because of this need to avoid conflict, they’re masters at making harmful situations appear innocuous, failing to validate the severity of a situation that needs to be addressed. This avoidance lets them off the hook; no need to address a problem if there isn’t one.
Covert narcissists are uncomfortable using overt aggression to get what they want, so under the guise of pleasing others, they’ll use their deceitful and subtle tactics to meet their own needs. This leaves everyone baffled and wondering what happened. Some of their favorite manipulative tools are avoidance, forgetfulness, and procrastination.
Lack Of Emotional Intelligence
Because narcs lack the skills to maturely express their feelings of hurt and disappointment, like normal, emotionally healthy adults, they indirectly express their feelings by acting out, but in a passive aggressive way.
Suave, smooth, yet seething, pretty much sums up a covert narcissist. Find out more in this book about passive aggression:
“Overcoming Passive-Aggression: How to Stop Hidden Anger from Spoiling Your Relationships, Career, and Happiness”
Passive aggression can look like this: A wife, innocently does something her covert husband doesn’t like. It could be anything large or small. There was no malicious intent on the wife’s part.
She apologizes, says she’ll try harder, and she does try harder. The narcissist says he isn’t mad, and everything’s okay. Life proceeds as normal, until… Watch out, inside the narcissist is seething, and conjuring up ways to make his spouse pay for her crime.
Yes, it would have been easier to discuss the problem openly, and deal with it in a mature way. This doesn’t happen with narcissism on the scene because the covert lacks the necessary emotional skills to address and overcome conflict. A negative cycle of avoidance and revenge then ensues. It’s a cowardly way to live.
3. False Sense Of Entitlement
Covert narcissists have an extreme sense of entitlement. The rules don’t apply to them, but everyone else has to follow them to the tee. The narcissist is special in every way, deserving of treatment and privileges others don’t deserve. Their arrogance and grandiosity feeds these unreasonable expectations. Narcissists don’t understand “give and take” like emotionally mature people do. Narcissists are takers. That’s how they’re wired.
What does entitlement look like in real life? Entitlement demands appreciation for even the smallest of favors. When you do something nice for the narcissist, don’t expect nary a thank you or one hint of recognition in return. Narcissists don’t like talking about other people’s interests and ideas. Their dreams and desires are all that matter. An inflated sense of admiration for themselves feeds this behavior. You can learn more about entitlement by reading this audiobook:
If you’re married to a narcissistic spouse, don’t be surprised when they invite out-of-town friends to stay the weekend without telling you, much less asking your permission. They’ll never understand why you would want to know that you’ll be hosting guests for two days. Don’t expect them to get how their selfish decision could possibly affect you. This is one way their passive-aggressive tendencies playing out.
When confronted with why they didn’t inform you, they’ll smugly state they simply forgot, and they’ll say it with a stupid grin on their faces. There will be no apology extended, no remorse, and not one iota of concern for your frustration or feelings. They will then act as if nothing happened, while you’re left angry, fuming, and confused.
4. Gaslighting And Stonewalling
If you haven’t experienced gaslighting and stonewalling, you’ll be amazed that these damaging tactics even exist, and that someone can be so heartless. These behaviors are an extreme form of emotional abuse, with the intention of causing the victim to second guess themselves, and question their sanity, while slowly degrading their self-esteem. This gives the narcissist their “supply” which they so desperately crave.
|Lack of empathy||Shallow and superficial||Are in denial||Arrogant and egotistical|
|Entitlement||Emotionally cold and distant||Use blame and manipulation||Irresponsible|
|Exploitation||Will never say “I’m sorry”||Live in an alternate reality||Will cheat and lie|
Gaslighting is a form of psychological manipulation and mind control. Most people are probably familiar with the 1944 film, “Gaslight,” starring Ingrid Bergman and Charles Boyer. The term “gaslighting” originated from this movie. if you’re interested, you can watch the trailer here.
Why would someone want to gaslight, or control, another person, and supposedly, one that they purport to love? Unfortunate, but true, most gaslighting behavior is, commonly directed, at the narcissist’s spouse and family members. The narc would never engage in this behavior at work or with friends because they’re too hung up on their reputation and public persona.
Narcissists aren’t dumb (hmmmm?), they know who and who won’t put up with their mentally-deranged behavior. They save it for those that depend on them. Narcissists gaslight out of their own distorted sense of self. They also fear being exposed for who they really are. At some point, their narcissistic mask will slip, and their true nature will be exposed. The mask, which is their false self, always slips. It’s just a matter of time.
The distortion and fear they create in their victims give the covert the ammunition they need to continue their psychological games. The sense of control they derive from these manipulative tactics increases their sense of control and superiority, which all narcissists crave. This is called narcissistic supply. And they will seek it at all costs.
If a narc can make you doubt your own perceptions, constantly questioning what you saw and heard, they have succeeded. You have now become more dependent on them because you’ve lost trust in yourself. “The Search For The Real Self: Unmasking the Personality Disorders of our Age” is a great read on understanding personality disorders.
The Subtlety Of Gaslighting
How do narcissists cause you to question your own reality? First let me say, gaslighting is subtle in the beginning. At first, the narc will create mild confusion and anxiety in those they target. The victim knows something isn’t right, but can’t name it. This is how the narcissist hooks those they abuse. If you’ve ever heard the analogy of the frog in the frying pan, you’ll better understand this method. The heat is so gradual, you don’t realize you’re being burned, until you’re fried.
It’s not until the abuse has continued for years, that the poor unfortunate souls who are gaslighted, lose their own grasp on reality. Please be aware of how gaslighting is used so you’re not victimized. Suspect you are being gaslighted if you are consistently lied to, accused of things you didn’t do or say, constantly dismissed, contradicted, and told that you are crazy. Or if your spouse looks at you with unveiled contempt. Narcissists have a lot of contempt.
Most importantly, if you start to question your own perceptions, and feel destabilized much of the time, there’s a good chance you’re being gaslighted. Learn more about gaslighting and what it looks like. There are many nuances to it. Realize that you’re an intelligent person and don’t fall for it.
Stonewalling Is Emotional Abuse
Stonewalling, at its most basic level, is a refusal to validate another person’s perceptions, concerns, or feelings. It also involves a total lack of self-awareness, and an inability to behave normally and rationally. Those who stonewall don’t self-reflect or question their own behavior.
They’re always right. Stonewalling fits in seamlessly with a lack of empathy, passive aggression, entitlement, and gaslighting. Stonewalling is a common tactic used by covert narcissists to emotionally and psychologically abuse their victims.
Essentially, stonewalling is behaving like a bully – a grade-school bully. It is deliberately refusing to communicate. It’s premeditated and intentional. Narcissists stonewall to control, manipulate and get their own way.
Refusal To Negotiate
Narcissists would never contemplate listening to or understanding another person’s opinion or point of view, much less appreciate any thoughts or feelings that oppose their own twisted thought processes.
Protecting their own disturbed reality is the narcissist’s top priority, and they don’t care what hostages are taken in the process. How could they possibly care when they lack empathy? That’s why I put a lack of empathy as the top characteristic distinguishing a narcissist. It plays in to all the other chilling and unnatural traits. Narcissistic stonewallers will stubbornly stand their ground during an argument and refuse to budge. It’s a matter of pride.
They’ll refuse to negotiate or reach a reasonable conclusion that satisfies all parties. Stonewalling has a lot in common with the silent treatment most of us are familiar with and have even experienced. However, stonewalling has a more cruel intent, and get this, it can last for years. You heard me right, stonewalling can continue for years.
Can you imagine the emotional and psychological damage that’s inflicted by these emotional midgets?! If these people are called out on their behavior, you’ll witness a smug sense of satisfaction and superiority on their cruel faces. There’s absolutely no point in trying to communicate or reason with them. Your only course of action should be to protect and remove yourself from any person that uses gaslighting and stonewalling to advance their purposes.
5. A Lack Of Emotional Connection
It’s impossible for narcissists to form loving relationships, to nurture, to attach, and to create connection. That would require empathy and self-awareness, which the narcissist lacks. Emotional connection isn’t possible when you’re consumed with yourself. Narcs don’t see others for who they are, hence the lack of validation and concern.
“A narcissist will use the phrase “GET OVER IT,” because to them your feelings are trivial. If it is not about them, then they’re not interested.”
Arrogance and entitlement don’t help matters. Forget all thoughts of having a genuine relationship if you’re married to a covert narcissist. You’ll always be the enemy (think mean mommy). You’ll kill yourself trying to form the intimate bond you crave. Narcissists don’t have it in them. Nourishing, authentic relationships are not possible when dealing with this cluster of symptoms.
I would even venture to say that narcissists don’t feel, unless of course, that’s anger, envy, and contempt. These deranged individuals are devoid of normal, positive emotions like respect, admiration, and concern. This is why they find the emotions of others so disdainful. Since they don’t feel these emotions themselves, they can’t relate. They have contempt for heartfelt sentiment.
Emptiness And Loneliness
The over-riding emotion a spouse feels who is married to a narcissist is emptiness. Loneliness comes in at a close second. Trying to communicate with a narcissist is comparable to talking to a brick wall. You’ll exhaust yourself trying, and receive nothing in return, not even a bread crumb. Don’t expect the narc to ever “get” it. They absolutely will not. This personality type doesn’t change. Change requires conviction of wrong doing, in order to initiate the process of change. Narcissists have no such conviction of wrong doing, much less remorse for the harm they have caused.
When you can’t engage, connection is simply not possible. This is confounding to healthy people that feel normal emotions. You’ll see dysfunction in the sexual arena, as well. Narcissists don’t equate sex with love, connection, care, and bonding. A degree of emotional intelligence is required to feel these positive and nurturing emotions. To narcs, sex is viewed, more in terms of power, entitlement, manipulation, and control. Loving emotion will not be part of the equation.
If you’re married to a narc, and are planning to stay in the marriage, this book is full of useful tips on how to disarm a narcissist: “Disarming the Narcissist: Surviving & Thriving With The Self-Absorbed.” The experiences in this book are shared by real people, who are currently in a relationship with a narc, or have been in one previously. You’ll learn effective strategies to better handle the exasperating narcissistic behavior you’ve been subjected to, and perhaps a new perspective in which to view it.
If you’re in a relationship with one of these two years old, at some point, you will come to your senses, and try to extricate yourself from your prison. Realize that you are in for the ride of your life. Because narcissists don’t communicate, it will be complicated and ugly.
Prepare yourself for this reality, set iron-clad boundaries, and practice self-care every single day to shore up your stamina, self-esteem, and sanity. You’re going to need it. The narcissist does not want to live alone in his own distorted reality. He wants to keep you captive as a form of narcissistic supply.
Self-care is absolutely critical to retrieve the parts of yourself the narcissist has stolen. Work on recovering your self-esteem and self-respect. Reclaim your life by doing things you love every single day. Be selfish with your time. Associate with people that listen to you and value your opinions. Don’t settle for anything less. Your fragile sense of self needs nourishment and validation. It will take time to heal and get your bearings back so be patient with yourself – AND know that you WILL get there.
Do these characteristics describe someone in your life? Have you ever been manipulated by a covert narcissist? Let me know in the comments:)
Disclaimer: This article is strictly for informational purposes only and is not intended to be medical advice.