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How to Recognize the Covert, Stealth, or Closet Narcissist

What Is Narcissistic Personality Disorder?

Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) is characterized by complete and utter self-centeredness combined with outright denial. NPD forms an invisible and virtually indestructible psychological barrier which prevents the afflicted person’s true inner turmoil from surfacing.

Covert Narcissism

Undeniably the most damaging, daunting and severe form of NPD that exists is covert narcissismotherwise known as closet or stealth narcissism. Covert narcissists are highly defensive and extremely hostile individuals who go to great lengths to hide their insecurity and emotional vulnerability.

Although a typical covert narcissist generally possesses the same traits as an overt narcissist (the need for attention, approval, adulation and grandiose fantasies), these traits are not regularly expressed. Due to the ability to repress their behavior, covert narcissists are more difficult to recognize. For some people, it can be several decades before they recognize the narcissist in their lives.

Classical Symptoms of Covert Narcissism

In addition to the standard symptoms of NPD, the covert narcissist is also susceptible to stress and worry. They have a tendency to function inefficiently (i.e., they are dysfunctional) whilst their inner expectations and desires remain unfulfilled.

Covert narcissists repress awareness of their traits due to inner conflict. They find their fantasies to be embarrassing or unacceptable and are usually too afraid to exhibit any of their accomplishments to others. Although their overt behavior projects an innocent, good-as-gold persona which builds them a credible and faultless reputation, they fail to reach their true potential due to self-doubt. Some covert narcissists end up losing all interest in their hobbies and desires and end up deciding to do nothing with their lives, yet they are extremely self-entitled and expect other people to do all the running around for them.

Why Is Covert Narcissism so Detrimental?

The most damaging aspect of covert narcissism is the controlling and manipulative behavior that the individual imposes on the people closest to them. If in a relationship, the narcissist’s partner often bears the brunt of the manipulation (though this is not always the case) as family, friends and children, too, will suffer from a lack of empathy.

A female covert narcissist may have children with their partner in order to secure them as nothing more than a resource by inadequately using or intentionally damaging contraception, or by committing paternity fraud. A male covert narcissist may try to control their partner in the same way by purposely not using or damaging contraception and exploiting the emotional bond between mother and child.

Isolation of the Victim

In a typical case, the only person who realizes that there is a problem is the person who is closest to the covert narcissist. These individuals are often unwillingly forced to suffer covert narcissistic abuse (very subtle emotional blackmail, mental abuse and psychological manipulation). Narcissists end up obscuring the truth and twisting literally every little detail back at the victim; they expertly mix the truth with a lie in order to distort the truth in their favor. This abuse is so well-hidden within the communication dynamics of the relationship that the victim often doesn’t pick up on it and is left scratching their head wondering, “Is it me?”

When a victim of this type of abuse begins to develop awareness of the manipulation, it gradually dawns on them that they have already been alienated from those that they would turn to for support.

The covert narcissist makes their victim feel like they are the one with the problem whilst projecting a flawless character to everyone around them. By destroying the victim’s reputation and making them look bad, the narcissist protects a deluded false sense of self. Narcissists have no empathy and, therefore, have an invisible secret and an advantage as they often obtain the trust, respect and belief of everyone around them while the victim must suffer alone. No one around the victim can see what the deceitful, deceptive, manipulative and controlling covert narcissist is really up to.

Covert narcissists use cleverly hidden emotional blackmail, mental abuse, suggestive techniques and manipulative linguistic patterns to force their partner to question their own sanity. The narcissist is immune from labeling and blame because they have everybody around them fooled thanks to their pathological tendencies. Meanwhile, they continue to drain the psyche and soul of their victim who, over time, becomes depressed, loses self-esteem and feels like their soul is being worn down. Eventually, the victim becomes devoid of emotion. If the victim happens to discover the truth, it will always be denied.

Reflection and Projection Tactics of the Narcissist

When arguing with a covert narcissist, a victim will usually be left at a dead-end as they are often outwitted. If the challenger is a significant other, then the narcissist will go on to state how they “saved” their partner by taking them under their wing. The victim will feel like they are forever in debt and that anything bad that has happened was imagined.

Covert narcissists are the sort of people who have multiple partners, secret affairs (sometimes within their own family) or sometimes even an entirely secret life with someone else. They recruit friends and family who are fooled by the innocent persona they project to defend their false self by convincing others of paranoia or suspicion. The narcissist often uses special occasions such as Valentine’s Day or their partner’s absence due to a funeral, for example, as an opportunity to get away with their infidelity (times when the victim least expects it).

When a narcissist’s deceit has been discovered, every little detail gets twisted back onto the true victim. The victim is then the one being accused of the abuse, lies and/or cheating. This is a defense mechanism which lacks logic and merely works to uphold the pathological self.

Narcissists come up with one-line defense mechanisms rather than offering any logical explanation for their behavior. Here are some examples of mock deflective statements:

  • “It’s all in your head.”
  • “You’re paranoid.”
  • “That didn’t happen.”
  • “I think you need to see a doctor.”
  • “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
  • “I never said that.”

On certain occasions (in private), the narcissist may give their partner an ultimatum. They make it clear that everything is about them whilst their partner’s feelings, needs, wants and desires are completely disregarded. They will discard their partner in the process with no empathy whatsoever, heartlessly and sadistically. However, covert narcissists are usually nowhere near as sadistic as malignant narcissists who tend to have a very nasty sadistic streak.

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Narcissistic Tendencies Towards Denial

Anyone who knows about a covert narcissist’s secret life is sure to be blackmailed or manipulated into keeping quiet. Even when a narcissist does slip up, they may claim that they have a communication problem. The narcissist will deny their secrets until the day they die even if they’ve already been discovered—they will attempt to make others question the evidence.

It’s also important to understand that a covert narcissist also suffers. Although on some level they are aware of some of their abuse, mind-games and manipulation, their tendencies are pathological. Narcissists still know the difference between right and wrong and good and evil but deep down inside they just simply don’t care.

A covert narcissist may understand that they have a problem but don’t care and are unwilling to do anything about it even if that means losing the people closest to them. Again, this is usually an intermittent behaviour. Narcissists have no empathy but seem to go through intermittent (but rare) phases of self-reflection and self-acknowledgment. These phases are also short-lived.

Narcissistic Abuse

Covert narcissists can be extremely flirtatious if in a party setting, though they often use occasional shock tactics whilst any further promiscuity is kept under cover. They may strategically pretend that they were too drunk to have been in control and conscious of their acts or blame their behavior on the alcohol while making further arrangements in private regarding sexual endeavors and love affairs.

A covert narcissist attempts to secure their primary resource (their partner) early on in a relationship. They ultimately suck up all the finances within the relationship, cut off their partner’s contact with family and friends and damage or lose their partner’s official forms of identification claiming it was an accident. Withholding resources makes it impossible for the victim to leave.

Narcissistic ideology shines clearly through such a relationship to the partner because they are often the only person that recognizes the problem. When attempting to seek help, family and friends often accuse the victim of twisting everything around. It’s a double-blind consisting of nothing more than projection and reflection.

Covert narcissists attempt to brainwash their victim by convincing them that their observations of abusive behavior are delusional and attributed to mental health problems. Of course, the narcissist has already built their army of support forcing the victim to repeatedly keep questioning their own sanity.

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Narcissist Victim Syndrome

Ultimately, victims of long-term covert narcissistic abuse can experience severe health symptoms such as post-traumatic stress disorder. They experience nightmares and flashbacks whilst their mind is subconsciously piecing the parts of the puzzle and abuse together. This is the brain’s way of healing itself and, in extreme cases, it can be decades before this realization happens.

When this happens, the victim may begin to figure out what has been occurring over the years (or decades), though they usually still have to suffer the consequences of the abuse alone. Often times, the victim’s life falls apart but they are still believed to be the problem by friends and family.

In extreme cases, the victim may have even been left with physical health symptoms such as a heart murmur or an anxiety disorder. Stress-related illnesses resulting from extreme narcissistic abuse can sometimes result in the death of the victim (i.e. heart attack). Stress can be dangerous.

When a narcissist can see that their victim is tired, worn down, and in a weak, vulnerable state, then they know the victim is exactly where they want them. It offers a chance for more emotional and mental abuse to be perpetrated, and the narcissist will inevitably kick their victim while they’re down.

Narcissistic abuse feels cruel, cold, calculated and extremely twisted for the victim. The most significant concern of this personality disorder is that victims of abuse can be twice as likely to suffer from stress-related medical problems including depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, heart attacks and stroke. NPD is not something to be taken lightly and can sometimes result in what I refer to as psychological murder.

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