In this article I interview Debbie Mirza author of the bestselling The Covert Passive-Aggressive Narcissist to find out the signs and symptoms of covert narcissism, how you can spot it, and what you can do about it.
In this article:
- What is narcissism?
- Covert vs overt narcissism
- 25 Signs you’re dealing with a covert passive-aggressive narcissist
- How to deal with a covert narcissist
What is narcissism?
Michael Frank: I always like to start off with a clear definition of terms. So before we get into covert vs overt narcissism: What is a narcissist and what is narcissism?
Debbie Mirza: It’s a good question to ask because the word narcissist is thrown around too lightly especially with our selfie culture now people see it in general terms, as they’re selfish, they’re self-absorbed. But narcissistic personality disorder is a whole nother thing.
The DSM-5 (The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) is what therapists use to diagnose people with personality disorders, and if someone has at least 5 of the following 9 traits, they’re diagnosed with NPD (Narcissistic Personality Disorder)
- A grandiose sense of self-importance
- A preoccupation with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love
- A belief that he or she is special and unique and can only be understood by, or should associate with, other special or high-status people or institutions
- A need for excessive admiration
- A sense of entitlement
- Interpersonally exploitive behavior
- A lack of empathy
- Envy of others or a belief that others are envious of him or her
- A demonstration of arrogant and haughty behaviors or attitudes
Is narcissism natural or a learnt behavior?
Michael Frank: It seems as though narcissism is on the rise worldwide. Is narcissism a learnt behavior? Or is it a biological genetic trait?
Debbie Mirza: I personally think it’s a learned behavior. I find it interesting that a lot of people say that it’s a disorder, implying that they really have no control over it, and I see that NPD (Narcissistic Personality Disorder) is clumped with the cluster B disorders and it’s in a different category than bipolar and schizophrenia and things like that that have to do with chemical imbalances. But we have to remember that these people have freewill just like us. It’s not like something is wrong in their brain.
Covert vs overt narcissism
Michael Frank: Are there more covert or overt narcissists?
Debbie Mirza: That’s a tough one. My hunch is that there are more covert than overt narcissists, but it’s difficult to say for sure because they’re the last people to book themselves in for therapy.
Michael Frank: How does covert vs overt narcissism manifest differently?
Debbie Mirza: Covert and overt narcissists have the exact same traits, but the overt is more obvious. They don’t care what people think. They do what they want. They’re think they’re fantastic. They think they’re right every time. They’re very showy. Fancy cars, fancy homes etc.
Michael Frank: It sounds like you’re describing every rapper that “just doesn’t give a fuck”
Debbie Mirza: Exactly. They’ll run you right over. They don’t care. They’ll yell at you. They can get physically abusive.
A covert narcissists number one priority is to look good, and they care a lot about their reputation, and that they’re well liked, well respected, and so they will do many things to cover their tracks.
An overt narcissist won’t apologize for anything. A covert will. Sometimes they’re great apologizers – but they never mean it. It’s just meant to get you off their back. So they’ll do things to placate and pacify you. They won’t have empathy, but they learn how to act like they have empathy. A covert narcissist won’t put themselves in your shoes.
Everyone sees an overt narcissist coming and everyone’s annoyed by them.
A covert narcissist is much more sneaky, and people are shocked whenever something slips out because they seem so nice. These people appear to be the cream of the crop, a great wife, a great husband, a great mother, a great father, they seem like great parents. And oftentimes if you have a mom or a dad who’s a covert narcissist, you’re told throughout your entire childhood “You’re so lucky to have a mom like that” or “You’re so lucky to have a dad like that”. And that makes it so confusing because you’re at home and you never feel like you’re good enough. Instead you’re feeling belittled and devalued on a daily basis. But everyone around you is telling you how lucky you are. So as a child, that’s incredibly confusing and so you think “It must be me. I must be what’s wrong in this equation”.
Positions of power
Covert narcissists tend to have impressive jobs and they’re usually materially successful. They can be doctors, lawyers, pilots, officers in the military, people in government etc. and they can also be pastors, missionaries, gurus, shamans, teachers of some kind that people admire and revere, that has an influence over people, and is loved and appreciated and gets their ego stroked all day long.
Not to say all people in these positions are covert narcissists, but covert narcissists tend to gravitate towards jobs like that.
25 Signs you’re dealing with a covert narcissist
Michael Frank: What are the other signs of a covert passive-aggressive narcissist? I want to know every single thing to look for.
Debbie Mirza: Okay here’s what to look for…
A lopsided relationship
A relationship with a covert narcissist will always be lopsided. You will always give them more attention then they give you.
Ask yourself: Who’s getting more attention? Who’s giving more attention?
They don’t actually want to get to know you
Covert narcissists don’t actually want to get to know you either. Even though they may have asked you lots of questions about yourself in the beginning, a lot of that was really gathering information to learn what affects you, so that they can use it to manipulate you throughout the relationship, and that will be used to hurt you much later on.
“Does this person really know me?”
“Do they really want to know me?”
“Does this person really want a connection with me?”
“Is this a mutual thing where we’re both working on this relationship?”
Like if there are issues with intimacy, do they say “Hey, I’m noticing that you’re not coming to orgasm at all. What’s going on? I really care about you. Let’s figure this out together”. That’s both of you wanting to work on it. Or do they just make you feel bad about stuff without doing anything to make the relationship better?
They don’t want you to be happy
Covert narcissists don’t want you to be happy either. They feel better when you’re not doing well or when you’re in pain. You’ll notice that when you’re happy, they get really upset. That’s when their rage just takes off and they’ll come at you with anything that they can use to control you with.
Praise is rare
Praise is rare too. I spoke to one woman who was this amazing artist who had been with her partner for years and he’d never once said anything about her paintings. So sometimes with these people it’s not what they do, but also what they don’t do. What should be in the relationship isn’t there.
Are they protective of you?
Is your partner or spouse or parent someone who is protective of you?
In a healthy relationship, the husband or wife wouldn’t tolerate someone putting their partner down. They would be the shield for them. But the covert narcissist doesn’t do that because they don’t really care about you. A covert narcissist will throw you under the bus and not care.
The world isn’t a safe place
If you have a mother or father that is a covert narcissist, you may have felt as if you weren’t protected when you were growing up, or you may have felt that you were on your own and needed to take care of yourself.
Or sometimes it can go the other way, especially with moms who are so overly involved in your life and overly protective of you, that you get the message that this world isn’t safe, and the only person you can trust is your mom. You’re never gonna make it out there on your own. It’s a very disempowering relationship.
Birthdays and holidays will be difficult
Birthdays, holidays and vacations will always be difficult, if not a disaster, with a covert narcissist. A lot of times you’ll end up crying on your birthday, but you can’t really explain why. They gave you a gift and everything seemed fine. You don’t know why you’re being so affected.
The reason for this is that narcissists always do things to turn the focus back on them. So you can’t have a day that’s about you. And if you do, they will do things to subtly ruin it.
I talked to one woman whose brother had passed away and it was the one year anniversary of his death. So she was feeling it a lot. Suddenly her boyfriend got really depressed that day. So being that she’s a caring person, she put her attention on him. So that’s the covert part.
The overt will be like:
“I don’t care about you”
“You’re too emotional”
“You’re too sensitive”
“Get over it”
The covert will suddenly become depressed so your attention will go to them.
Gifts you don’t want
A covert narcissist will give you a gift, but it’s nothing you would ever want, and then they’ll tell you a story about how much effort they went through to find it. And then you’ll get the feeling from them that you’re a difficult person, that you’re not grateful enough.
Or they’ll give you a gift but you always have the feeling that there’s strings attached.
Or they’ll give you a showy gift, maybe they’ll have a limo pull up, or they’ll surprise you with something amazing, but the thing to ask yourself is: Were there people there to watch it? If you’re with a covert narcissist, you probably can’t think of a time where it was just the two of you and they gave you an incredible gift, or a really heartfelt card, or you had a heartfelt conversation.
They resent you for being sick
When you’re sick or if you’ve had an injury or a surgery, a covert narcissist might help you, maybe they’ll bring you food, watch the kids, bring you home from the hospital etc. but you can feel their resentment of you. You can feel that they hate and despise taking care of you.
Covert narcissists aren’t necessarily yellers or hitters, but you can just feel the anger and rage inside of them when you’re around them just permeating the room.
You also don’t know what will anger them, what will trigger them, what will set them off, and what will make them come after you.
They’re condescending and patronizing
When a covert narcissist gives you advice, let’s say it’s a parent, they will talk down to you in a way that leaves you feeling disempowered. They’re belittling, condescending, patronizing. You feel like you can’t do it. You feel like they’re better than you. They know more than you. They’ll say things like “I’m really concerned about…” but you don’t feel that they’re concerned.
They conveniently forget on purpose
Covert narcissists conveniently forget things on purpose. So if they’re at the store and you text or call “Can you please pick up some Avocados while you’re there” they’ll reply “Sure” but when they get home “Ah, totally forgot, sorry”.
This is really common and it’s a way of gaslighting you. You feel like you can’t be angry, even though you’re frustrated, because it was an honest mistake. But the thing you’ll notice is that they’ll never go back and get it. They’ll never say “Oh, I’m so sorry. You know what? I’m going to get in the car right now and go get you some”. That will never happen.
Covert narcissists will use gaslighting to get you to feel crazy, to get you to feel like something’s wrong with you. An extreme case would be a guy unscrewing all the light bulbs in the house and the wife can’t figure out why none of them are working. Then he goes and screws them all in and asks her what she’s talking about.
I talked to a man who whenever he’d recall a story to his wife “remember when we did this?” she’d say no. And then she’d say “Well who are you going to believe you with your terrible memory or me with my great one?” And even though you know that it clearly happened, you can’t imagine why this person would lie to you, so it makes you question yourself. And that’s what gaslighting does.
Michael Frank: It’s mind games to make you question your reality.
Debbie Mirza: That’s exactly it. That’s a good way to put it.
Gaslighting through sex
Covert narcissists frequently gaslight through sex too. And sex with a narcissist, like everything else, is 100% about them. It’s an incredibly selfish act.
If you feel like something’s wrong with you sexually, you maybe with a covert narcissist. I talked to so many women that were with men for decades that never orgasmed. And they had no desire for sex. And every single time they thought it was their fault. One woman said, I just came to the conclusion that I was asexual, that it just wasn’t in me.
If a guy is with a female covert narcissist he’ll feel like he’s never good enough for her. He’ll feel like he’s less than, that she’s better than him, or maybe he’ll feel if only I was only taller, shorter, this size, that size, if I did only did this better etc.
A lot of times the scenario might just be of you doing dishes and they come up behind you and put their arms around you and you just feel icky, almost disgusted, like you don’t want them to touch you, but it seems like they’re doing a nice thing, so then you feel bad, because there seems to be nothing wrong with what they’re doing.
How does your body feel?
What makes covert narcissists so confusing is nothing they’re doing on the outside seems that bad, but your body feels it. When you’re in conversations with them, you feel jumbled inside, you feel confused, you feel belittled, but they’re not yelling at you, they’re not putting you down, but you’re feeling small.
And that’s why listening to your body is so important, because your body knows that you’re not emotionally safe with this person. It knows that this is not love, this is not about you, they’re trying to get something from you.
How does your body react when you’re around them? Do you feel completely free to be yourself? Do you feel loved? It’s not about the words they’re saying cause they’ll be saying nice things to you, and about your body, and the different things you’re doing, but how do you feel?
They pit people against each other
Covert narcissists often create drama and pit people against each other, under the guise of concern.
“I’m really concerned because my brother mentioned how manipulative and controlling you are, but I don’t see it, and I’m not sure what to tell him…”
So what that does is it makes you angry at his brother. And who knows if the brother even said that? So he’s just created drama that doesn’t even need to exist. And even if it’s true that his brother really said that, he should still never say that to you, because he knows it would just affect and hurt you.
Michael Frank: An extremely passive-aggressive thing to say. Always planting that seed of doubt in you. Always chipping away at your self-esteem incrementally.
Debbie Mirza: Yeah. With the guise of “I care about you” or “I’m concerned”
That’s an example of triangulation, and another example of triangulation could be if he said to his brother “I don’t think she’s manipulative, I mean the other day she did this and that, but I don’t know if that’s manipulative..” So that gets his brother going “You’re not even seeing it! She’s worse than I thought!”
Another type of triangulation would be if you were talking to someone you’re dating about past relationships, and they start talking about how horrible the other person was “Oh, she was so dramatic and I couldn’t deal with this and that”, so you’re listening to this and unconsciously thinking “Okay, I shouldn’t be dramatic, I shouldn’t cry too much, I need to make sure I’m not like that” etc.
Or they might go the other way “This guy or girl at work is just amazing!” and they’ll be talking them up to make you feel insecure about yourself, but they’ll seem so innocent when they’re doing it. And that makes you feel like you have to live up to that, and what if I’m not good enough? And it seems that guy or girl is now the one I have to match or beat, so it’s very stressful.
They suck the life out of you
Covert narcissists are energy vampires that slowly suck the life out of you. You will often feel incredibly drained and chronically exhausted a lot of the time and have lots of unexplained health issues with these types of relationships.
They’re empty inside
Covert narcissists are very chameleon like, and they they will latch onto people and mirror their emotions and become like who they’re around and because of that people like them.
These people feel empty and hollow and vacant inside.
Ask yourself: Does this person have a strong sense of self?
When you look at them do you think: Who are you?
They project on to you
Covert narcissists project their issues onto you. When I was going through therapy a wise man said to me: “When a covert narcissist starts a conversation with you, you’re so wowed by how humble, how kind, and how eloquent they appear. But you don’t notice that they’re projecting their issues onto you, and then you start to take them on, and then you feel the shame and blame that really has nothing to do with you”.
The three phases of relationship with a covert narcissist
There are three phases in a relationship with every covert narcissist:
- Love bombing – at the beginning
- Devaluing and demeaning – in very subtle ways you don’t notice – over a long period of time
- Discard – At the end when things start getting very strange with their behavior
In the beginning, in the love bombing stage they’re wonderful. These are people everybody loves and they are kind to everyone and you think they’re kind to you. These are people who you think, I didn’t know people like this existed. I feel so lucky to be with this person. You see them as kind, you see them as loving, and it appears to you that they love you just as much as you love them, and so everything that happens from then on, you filter through that view of them.
A lot of times people in a relationship with a covert narcissist will say, “We are so alike, it’s so easy!” and that’s because covert narcissists mirror you at the beginning. They kind of become you. And so you think, “Wow, we have like no issues, it’s just so easy!” And so you like them because they are like you. But oftentimes the next person they end up with, they become like them too, and it’s very strange to watch them become like a completely different person.
I spoke to one woman who had been in a physically abusive relationship with a very violent man. And when she ended it, she ended up meeting this covert narcissist. And that can happen a lot someone going from an overt to a covert narcissist. And then she thought “Oh thank God this guy listens to me, he asks all about me, he cries, he’s sensitive, he seems to really care, we bond on the same things”. So the way love bombing looked for her was him asking her a lot of questions, really wanting to get to know her, being someone who seemed tender. So that to her was love bombing because that took her in.
A lot of times love bombing works by them getting to know you and figuring out what your issues are from childhood, what you long for, what you want, and becoming that.
The discarding phase
During the discard phase at the end of the relationship, the person you’ve seen as kind and loving all of a sudden becomes a lot more aggressive, and what was subtle devaluing turns into more overt and blatant attacks.
They’ll start saying strange and confusing things about you and the relationship that does not match reality at all, and they’ll start projecting a lot of their own issues onto you.
However they make you start to doubt and question yourself, especially when the covert narcissist is a parent, you think, well they know me more than anybody, they raised me, because they come at you with so much confidence and seeming clarity. And this is because they basically live with delusional thoughts about you and life.
Covert narcissists are oftentimes really good parents when the kids are young, when they’re getting attention, when they’re still cute and they still look up to their parents, because their egos are being stroked.
If the child agrees with the covert narcissist parent, or if they engage in conversation that the covert narcissist parent is interested in, then they’re there, and all is well.
But if the child starts thinking for themselves, or if they have any belief that’s different, or any way of life that’s different, then they’ll turn on the child and try to control and manipulate them in different ways and then oftentimes discard them “I don’t want to see you anymore”. And then oftentimes when they do that, they’ll use another sibling and put all their love into that sibling to further hurt the other one.
With a spouse or romantic partner, the discard is sudden and shocking, and everything you have opened up about for so many years, all of a sudden gets turned on you like a fire hose.
It’s an incredibly confusing and painful time because they’re suddenly treating you so terribly. It literally feels like they’re treating you like the trash that they throw out. You just can’t believe that this person that you thought was so kind and actually loved you is treating you so badly and it makes you question everything. What was true? Was there ever love? Was this an illusion the whole time?
Michael Frank: It seems that you can’t believe what you’re seeing and hearing, but at the same time you feel that this person loves you. And so you’re in a constant state of cognitive dissonance with mixed thoughts and mixed feelings.
Debbie Mirza: Exactly. That’s the thing that makes it the most difficult to move on and see clearly with a covert narcissist, because you and everyone around you sees them in this beautiful light, but their behavior is not reflecting that, and you’re devastated that you’re being treated like garbage. So there’s so much cognitive dissonance.
It’s never over
Michael Frank: Once the relationship has split with a covert narcissist, is that it? You never hear from them again? Or do they continue to get in touch with you?
Debbie Mirza: A breakup or divorce situation with a covert narcissist is very different, because they will often continue to try and get in touch with you.
A breakup is painful, but then eventually you move on. But they don’t move on. Even when they end up with someone else, they still don’t move on. It’s remarkable.
And they will try to control you through money or children, or both, or in any way they can. If they can they they’ll try and turn your kids against you.
Personality types targeted by covert narcissists
Michael Frank: Are their certain personality types that are more likely to be targeted by covert narcissists?
Debbie Mirza: There is definitely a type of personality they target. Usually that type is someone very sensitive, kind, nurturing, caretaking, and self-reflective. Because if you think about it, if someone is self-reflective, they look at themselves, they want to improve themselves, they want to get better, so they’re easy to manipulate because the narcissist will turn everything on them.
And instead of going, that’s awful what you’re doing, the target, the sensitive self-reflective person, will often look at themselves and go, “Maybe there is something I’m not looking at here. I want to make sure I work on myself”. So that can keep you in that relationship and in that dynamic for a long time.
I also think people who were raised with the belief that they’re here to sacrifice themselves for others, to love others no matter what, those types of people that have a distorted view of unconditional love where they end up taking on a lot that they shouldn’t, are the type of people that tend to get with covert narcissists.
How to deal with a covert narcissist
Michael Frank: How do we actually deal with a covert narcissist?
Debbie Mirza: It depends on the spectrum. For example: I have someone who has been in my life for a long time who has some traits of covert narcissism but they’re lower on the spectrum so I can tolerate them for short periods of time.
I realize this person’s not going to change. I’m not going to change them. It’s not my job to change them. It’s too exhausting to try and change anyone. So with someone at a lower spectrum, I’ll spend some time with them here and there, but I’ll stay off certain topics, and I’ll just enjoy what I enjoy about them.
The Grey Rock technique
However with covert narcissists on the higher spectrum it’s literally toxic to your body to be around them, so the best course of action is no contact. That can be tricky if you have children. Sometimes you just can’t do that.
In those situations, there’s something called the grey rock technique, which is where you just become very boring and lifeless. You basically have no life for them to suck from you. So whatever correspondence you have, whether through text or email, you just stick to the facts “I’ll drop the kids off at 5pm” and you don’t bring up how you’re feeling, and if what they said was off, you just ignore it. Just know this is who they are.
Michael Frank: You don’t give them anything that could be used against you.
Debbie Mirza: Exactly.
Should you call out a covert narcissist on their shit?
Michael Frank: Is it useful to call out a covert narcissist on their shit? Should you call it out directly? “I know what you’re doing, I’m not going to put up with this shit”. Or is it best to just leave it unsaid?
Debbie Mirza: In my opinion, it’s best to leave it unsaid, because these people are so irrational and full of rage. Just know that they’re a narcissist, and you bringing it up to them isn’t going to change anything. It’s just going to trigger their anger and rage.
Don’t take a covert narcissist to therapy
It’s also the worst idea to take a covert narcissist to therapy because that’s a training ground for them, and they will learn from the therapist where the cracks are showing in their mask, and what to change that about their behavior. And a lot of therapists will be really impressed with covert narcissists because they’ll do all their homework, they’ll be really attentive, because now they’re becoming the therapist.
So going to therapy, does not help with these people.
Does the covert narcissist ever change their ways?
Michael Frank: Does the covert narcissist ever change their ways?
Debbie Mirza: Rarely. I mean, I think it’s possible for anybody to change, but they rarely see that they have a problem, so there’s really no way of changing unless you see you have a problem. It is possible. It’s just rare.
Your heroes journey
Michael Frank: Is there anything we haven’t covered that you’d like to say in closing?
Debbie Mirza: I was talking to a woman the other day with young kids. She’s just realized that her husband is a covert narcissist and she has to get out. And that is a really overwhelming place to be in. She hasn’t built a career and she doesn’t know how she’ll support herself.
She said to me “I’m so overwhelmed by this, I mean, even the realization is overwhelming, what happens next?”
And at first I was giving her practical things that would help her and letting her know what was going to happen depending on what she chooses. But I could tell that she just felt exhausted. She just didn’t feel good.
And then I said to her, this is what’s going to happen, this is your hero’s journey. The truth is we don’t get into these relationships by mistake. There is something in childhood we learned about ourselves and our worth and our value. And then we get into these relationships because there are patterns we’ve inherited from our parents that we didn’t notice.
We learned what our role was in a relationship. We learned what was okay for us to take when it shouldn’t have been okay. And so the hero’s journey really begins with awakening out of the illusion that you’ve lived with for so many years that allowed you to get treated so badly and really learning and educating yourself on it.
In so many ways coming out of a long term relationship with a covert narcissist is like coming out of a cult and you really have to deprogram the illusions and the beliefs that you’ve been programmed with.
Why was I okay with someone treating me that way?
The next step is to look at yourself and ask yourself: “Why was I okay with someone treating me that way for so many years?” Even if it was subtle, why didn’t I listen to myself when my stomach was tight? When it didn’t feel right? When they said those things, when they did those things, when it hurt so much, when it made me feel so bad about myself, why was it okay, why did I stay?
And if you choose to really look at those beliefs, and you start to reprogram your brain, and you start to treat yourself with the kindness and respect that you didn’t have growing up, or in this relationship, it will change your life, and you will probably end up being an incredibly strong person with a lot of love and respect for yourself, and you will do something career wise you can’t even imagine right now.
This is your hero’s journey. Ultimately it can be incredibly overwhelming and painful, but it can lead you to amazing places.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
If you liked this article be sure to check out my interview with Dr. George Simon: The Psychology of Manipulation
Debbie Mirza is an author, restorative coach, and singer/songwriter.
Her latest book The Covert Passive Aggressive Narcissist: Recognizing the Traits and Finding Healing after Hidden Emotional and Psychological Abuse quickly rose to Amazon’s bestseller list and has just been named the #1 New Release on Audible.
Her first book The Safest Place Possible: Becoming Who You are Meant to Be gently guides people to a new loving relationship with self.
As a coach, she specializes in helping people who are coming out of relationships with covert narcissists.
Many other helpful resources such as online courses and guided meditations can be found on Debbie’s website www.debbiemirza.com
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