Covert Narcissists — An Early Warning Sign

It’s subtle, but their narcissistic mask does slip

Photo by Javardh on Unsplash

The people we usually think of as narcissists are brash, loud, demanding of others’ attention. They don’t care whose toes they have to step on to get their way, and they don’t even care if they’re seen stepping on toes.

Such people are known as overt narcissists because they don’t try to hide their true nature very much. They are usually easy to identify.

Covert narcissists are harder to spot. They don’t like having all eyes upon them, and they’ll resort to a little self-deprecation to get you to feel comfortable around them. They are, in fact, as dangerous as their overt cousins — perhaps more dangerous, because you don’t see them coming.

In past articles, I’ve thrown around a lot of jargon associated with Narcissistic Personality Disorder: gaslighting, smear campaigns, projection, hoovering. In this one, however, I’m going to dispense with definitions and make my point with a story.

Love-bombing I

I met my covert narcissist (we’ll call her CN) at a bar several years ago, not far from where I live.

It was a Saturday, and my routine was often the same: I’d start out at a neighborhood spot for Saturday brunch with friends at 11. About 1:30, we’d walk about two blocks away to another bar, a 1920s-style speakeasy. On this particular Saturday, however, my brunch buddies didn’t make it past the first stop.

No problem, I thought, I’d go it alone at the speakeasy. Even if I didn’t know any of the other patrons, the bartender, Charlie, was a super-fun guy. I walked in and got a seat at the far end of Charlie’s bar.

About 5 other guests were sitting at the bar, and although none of us knew each other, Charlie soon had us all talking, laughing, having a good time. He was good at facilitating that kind of interaction.

The people in the middle left, leaving a pretty brunette about 5 years my junior, who was at the other end, and me. To keep the conversation going, we moved down toward each other. She introduced herself as (the CN). She told me she was originally from Lexington, Kentucky, and she attended UK. Her job as a medical sales rep brought her to my city several years ago.

She laughed and twirled her hair and stared into my eyes. She told me about her 4 Maine Coon cats, and her Zumba and Pilates exercise routines. She had a great sense of humor, and she was able to laugh at herself, joking about her mishaps during her workout classes. That’s a sign of a covert narcissist — their self-deprecating humor. Overt, malignant narcissists lack any ability to laugh at themselves. Coverts, however, don’t mind making themselves the butt of their own jokes (but don’t you dare do it).

After about an hour of chatting, CN had to get home to feed her cats. I told her it was nice talking to her, and that I hoped to see her again. (And I would. She was planning on it. It was no coincidence she had just happened to show up where I was that day. She had researched me and my weekend routine.)

“I saw you chatting up the Kentucky girl,” Charlie told me after she left. “She’s been up here a few times recently. She seems sweet. Do you know who Sam and Pam are?”

“Of course,” I said. I wasn’t super close to them, but I’d seen them around the neighborhood for years. They were a slightly older couple who were well-known in the local festival scene. They were people I respected, for sure.

“Well, CN’s good friends with Sam and Pam,” Charlie told me. “She follows them around like a puppy.” (This is just a theory of mine — I have not seen it confirmed by experts on narcissism — but I suspect some narcissists gravitate toward older couples. I think they do this to try and have a parent-child type relationship to make up for the imperfect one they had with their real parents.)

Love-bombing II

Three Saturdays later, I once again headed to Charlie’s bar solo. I walked in and started to walk to my usual seat at the far end. However, halfway down the bar, I felt someone staring at me, and turned and looked.

“Hi Paul,” said the CN. “Do you remember our lovefest that we had up here a few weeks ago?”

“Of course I do, CN,” I said, and I took the seat next to her.

For the next three hours, we talked about anything and everything. She seemed to know all the right questions to ask. She tried to guess my other favorite hangouts besides the one we were in, then wanted to know why I liked each one. She asked about my favorite neighborhood restaurants, then told me who her favorite chefs were.

She asked about my experience teaching college. She asked about a team I compete on at local festivals. “Do you know Sam and Pam?” she then asked, and I said I did. “Well, they’re good friends of mine,” she said. “I hung out with them at the most recent festival.”

It was funny… I’d only known CN for 3 weeks, but it felt like I’d known her for years. At times she practically completed my sentences. “Am I crazy, or am I catching a bit of a vibe from this girl?” I thought. “Should I ask her out?”

I talked myself out of it. “Nah, surely someone as funny and charming and pretty as her has a boyfriend, and the topic just never came up,” I reasoned. “But if I see her up here one more time, and she doesn’t mention a boyfriend again, I may have to ask her out.”

After about three hours, CN said she enjoyed the conversation and hoped she’d see me around. I thanked her for the chat and said for sure, let’s talk again sometime soon.

As she left, I thought, I have a personal blog. I bet she’s seen it once or twice and that’s how she knew what questions to ask. In reality, she had seen it once or twice — per day, every day for the past 5 years! That’s why covert narcissists are so effective at love-bombing — they thoroughly research their targets well before they arrange to “just happen to meet” them.

Hiatus and the mask slips

For most of the next 4 months, my friends wanted to go to a different second stop after our brunch. One of our festival teammates was bartending at a cocktail lounge. I was a little disappointed that I might miss out on a chance to talk to CN at the speakeasy again, but hey, gotta support teammates.

In retrospect, I should buy that teammate a house for the grief he unwittingly saved me. If not for him, I would’ve run into CN again, and asked her out, and possibly got into a relationship with her.

As winter began to set in, one weekend my friends were all out of town for our usual Saturday brunch. I decided to revert to the speakeasy as my post-brunch stop and catch up with Charlie.

Charlie asked me, “Have you heard about Sam and Pam?” I hadn’t. He informed me their relationship was on the rocks and might soon be over. He also informed me that CN had indeed come in looking for me a few times. After I wasn’t around during several of her visits, she gave up. “Don’t be a stranger,” Charlie said as I settled my tab.

I wasn’t a stranger. The following Saturday, I came in just after the noon hour, grabbing my usual seat at the far end of the bar. Charlie poured me a Pabst Blue Ribbon, my beverage of choice.

A few minutes after I got there, Pam came in, and sat at the opposite end of the bar. She saw me and we smiled and waved at each other.

A few minutes after that, CN came in and took the seat next to Pam. Charlie went down to say hello, to catch up on news in CN’s world, and to take her order.

Then something really interesting happened. Charlie glanced down at me, waved in the women’s direction, and said, “Hey, Paul, why don’t you move down to this end of the bar so you can talk to CN and Pam?” I picked up my beer and moved down, sitting around the bar’s corner but well within earshot.

I was soon sorry I’d done that. Pam’s relationship with Sam was indeed on rocky ground, and she’d summoned CN to the bar for relationship advice. I liked Sam and Pam equally, had known and respected them for years, and didn’t care to butt into their business. I thought about moving back to the far end of the bar.

Before I could, though, something happened that shocked me. “You can do so much better than Sam,” CN told Pam, rage coming through in every syllable she spoke. “He’s a BUM! Get rid of him. Kick him out!” She continued to trash poor Sam in his absence for a good five minutes. I couldn’t believe it. I thought CN and Sam were very good friends!

I kept to myself as they talked. After an hour they left, and that week CN and I became friends on Facebook. Online she seemed like the happy, charming woman with the fabulous sense of humor I’d met months before. “Maybe Sam isn’t who I thought he was,” I thought. “Maybe he has a dark side.” Yet I saw Sam around town over the next few months, and he seemed no different from the person he’d always been.

Then, one day as the weather started to warm up again, I got another shock. I went to another one of my neighborhood hangouts (yeah, I like bars a lot) and who did I see… CN, who was laughing and smiling and having a great time…

… with Sam. They were still great friends. As far as Sam knew, they had never been anything less than great friends. He bought her a shot of Fireball and they did a “cheers” to him moving on with his life.

He had no idea CN had been bashing him and trashing him behind his back.

The lesson to be learned

When the sweet, funny, happy, charming, down-to-earth person you recently met flies off into a rage, let that be a warning. When they start bashing someone, almost always behind his or her back, watch out. You may be dealing with a covert narcissist.

The reason why is that covert narcissists, like all narcissists, lack object constancy. They’re not able to remember that a person has good, likable, desirable qualities the minute they display qualities the narcissist deems as bad or undesirable. The minute CN developed some criticism of Sam in her mind, he was all bad — a bum, as she told Pam.

Why, then, was she all buddy-buddy with Sam a short time later? Because he was useful to CN. He was sort of an elder statesman among our neighborhood group, and his opinion carried a lot of weight. Through him CN would get invited to a lot of parties, meet a lot of people — and therefore have many more opportunities to find new supply. The moment she realized this, she flipped him back to all-good status in her mind.

If a seemingly kind, innocent person you recently met suddenly rages on one of their “good friends,” bashing them, trashing their reputation — you may have a CN on your hands. If you do, be aware that one day they’ll be bashing and trashing you.

Educate yourself: If any of this rings true, get on Quora, the site where anybody can ask or answer a question. Read all you can about covert narcissists, or “closet narcissists” as they’re sometimes called on that platform.

Get educated and stay safe. I write a weekly newsletter if you’d like to stay in touch. Here are a couple of other articles I wrote on covert narcissism:

I write about writing, ideas, creativity, intuition, spirituality, life lessons. Ex-college teacher Twitter: @paulryburn

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store