In my dealings with group dynamics of late, I realize that often a charismatic figure arises who often seems incredibly self-assured about their own truths. Often, these characters seem to be great leaders, minimizing any group dissonance that arise and creating order from chaos. They usually have a singular tenant or principle that they follow which holds together a waterproof belief system.
However, they are also often hostile towards any form of questioning, even if the questioning is imagined. Their rule is one of a dictatorship, although they are often also very diplomatic and skilled at ways of ‘putting members in their place’. They *give the impression* of fluidity, because they are amorphous therapists of greater humankind, often agreeing when necessary to make themselves look good but god forbid you embarrass them in any way (by disagreeing with them, for example, or questioning one of their principles), because they will sacrifice you on the altar as a show of ‘good faith’.
Strangely, I see these types of figures are often drawn towards self-help groups, groups recovering from mental illness or groups with a strong political cause. Members who are already usually vulnerable to charismatic, narcissistic-type figures. However, because these types of figures rely on the members’ willingness to divulge their own weaknesses and trauma without constraint, they have to maintain a type of ‘false empathy’ in order to gain power. This results in a kind of power imbalance in which members reveal their trauma to the narcissist while the narcissist does not actually reveal anything about themselves. This, too, I argue, is a type of ‘narcissistic supply’.
Although these figures are sometimes leaders, they more often than not operate on a one-on-one basis. Some of them are victims themselves seeking healing, but not knowing how to do it without unfairly stepping over another person’s boundaries or making everything about themselves. How do you spot these covert narcissistic types? An easy way is to find out how much talk-time is spent with them talking about themselves versus how much time you spend talking about yourself. Sub-divide that with the number of times letting you talk about yourself is a way for them to talk about themselves. If the person makes every word you get in inch-wise about yourself about themselves. (ie. “I had an abusive father” “MY dad wasn’t so awful”), they probably most certainly are a narcissist.
As a kind of exercise, I have decided to compile a list of subtle attributes to uncover the hidden narcissist. This list is by no means comprehensive, so tell me if you can think of more points to add to it.
Hidden signs of an Overt Narcissist:
- They cannot accept that they may be wrong.
- They go to all lengths to make themselves look good. This can involve staging elaborate scenarios in order to do so.
It is normal to be conscious of one’s image, but the narcissist goes to elaborate lengths in order to do so, because their image is their shield against exposing a vulnerable interior. They need to project themselves as larger-than-life because they are unable to confront their innate smallness.
- They only talk about themselves. They pretend to listen to you, but it’s only a means for them to be able to talk about themselves or make things about themselves, at the end of the day.
- They pretend to be involved in you, and your life, often asking abrupt direct questions when no prior trust has been established prior to the communication. These jolting personal questions are a way for them to get insider information about you so they can perhaps use that as leverage in future conversations when they need to make a point. Everything is potential leverage.
Take note, too, that it may feel pretty good in the beginning when this happens because the Narc will love bomb you after your confession, only to use it against you at a latter time.
Ie. “Tell me more about that time X abuse happened.”
Later: “You’re obviously acting in a reactive manner because of your own abuse.”
- They shower you with praise in the beginning, making you feel very special. But beware: this is just a way for them to earn your trust. You think they’re being flattering, but they’re just trying to find a way to edge themselves into your heart so you hold them at high esteem. Narcissists are very charming, so it can seem really awesome when they shower you with praise.
As my friend Justine says, if things feel too good to be true, it might be because they are putting so much effort into the connection going well in order to groom you for abuse later. Normal connections take time, and have moments of awkwardness, embarrassment and humility.
- They speak in absolutes. They are unable to see the ‘grey area’ between abstract truths. Things are either Right/Wrong, Good/Evil, Victim/Perpetuator. They are always on the side of Right / Good/ Victim. If not, they are the martyr, campaigning for the voices of ALL victims. (Hint: They’re really great keyboard activists because they don’t have to be accountable for what they say).
- They bury you in words till you forget what you were going to say in the first place. (see: word salad)
- They give you back-handed apologies.
Ie. “I’m sorry you feel that way, but clearly you had no idea what you were talking about”.
Conversely, they often step over your boundaries and then pretend that they did not later, so you are the one ending up apologizing for something you did not do wrong, making you question why you were angry about the boundary transgression in the first place.
- Talking to them is a bit like walking on eggshells, because you can never be sure if you accidentally say something that may set them off into a narcissistic rage against you.
Hidden signs of a Covert Narcissist:
- They only talk about themselves.
- They throw pity parties in which elaborate scenarios are staged in order for groups of people to feel sorry for them (“Ie. “I feel like killing myself now” or “Everyone hates me”) often only supplying vague details about why they feel that way. They often also reject any suggestions on how they can feel better. If someone shows genuine concern or points out how they can get help, these suggestions are ignored.
- They are the Eternal Victim. You think you’ve suffered? Wait till you hear their story.
- They speak in absolutes. “Everyone is against me”.
- They ask after you only as a means of talking about themselves.
- They step all over your boundaries.
- Talking to them is a bit like walking on eggshells, because you can never be sure if you accidentally offend them. You’re always having to censor yourself in order for them to feel safe.
As you can see, both groups of narcissists are in many ways similar. While overt and covert narcissists both have the same fragile ego hiding underneath their facade, the covert narcissist is much harder to spot because they often are the ones with a pity party entourage. They cry, make a scene, make everything about themselves, and if you call them out on their emotional manipulation, YOU are the ‘mean’ one. However, overt narcissists are much easier to deal with. Sometimes, simply asserting your boundaries: “No, that is not what I said. This is what I actually said. Please do not twist my words,” is enough to stop them from acting out in a malignant manner.
The problem I’m facing with narcissists of both the overt and covert sort is that I seem to attract them like fleas to an unwashed dog. The closer I examine some of my older relationships, the more I realize I am all-giving without taking. If I’m playing sole therapist to a person, and the person is not giving anything back, this is almost always a sign of a covert narcissist. If I’m being talked down, scrutinized, softly gas-lighted (by means of making me question why I was angry in the first place), that person is almost always an overt narcissist.
All narcissists are, in the end, kids at heart who never really grew up. Next time you encounter a narcissist, imagine a 6 year old child who never learned that other people exist besides them, and that the whole world doesn’t automatically exist to serve their own needs. Also keep in mind that there is no winning with a narcissist. The narcissist always has the last word.
I wanted to discuss some of the more subtle signs of a narcissist in order to offset common ideas that narcissists are an exclusive thing, seeing most narcissists are adept at social camouflage. All in all, I’m working on how to stop attracting narcissists in the first place. But while I’m at it, I my as well compile a list of red flags that have served me. What would you add to this list?
Update: Justine gave me a couple of amazing articles to supplement my article. I highly recommend reading the below articles if you’re still unsure if you’re dealing with a narcissist in your vicinity:
20 Diversion Tactics
7 Signs of a Covert Narcissist