Covert Narcissists’ Lies vs. Innocent Lies

How to tell the difference

The narcissistic smirk is a giveaway. Narcissists’ emotions are fake so they have trouble making a smile look genuine. Image by LovableNinja from Pixabay.

Malignant narcissists have taken the world stage over the past several years. World leaders and displaced royalty have spread one lie on top of another on top of another. A large portion of the public eats their lies up. Yet, because these overt types seek so much to be the center of attention all the time, their lying nature soon becomes evident to all who choose to see it.

Covert narcissists lie just as much as their overt counterparts. However, coverts tend to dodge the spotlight. They use self-deprecation to deflect attention away from what they are doing. Therefore, their mendacity often goes unnoticed.

Here I will compare the type of lie that everyone tells once in a while with the framework of lying a covert narcissist lays in place. This story will finely tune your radar for lying and the motivations behind it, both innocent and far-from-innocent.

Example: An innocent lie

“Paul, are you getting excited about the event in the break room today?” the boss said to me as he smiled and clapped his hands together.

It was our quarterly celebration for employees with April, May, and June birthdays. All 70 or so of us would gather together in the office break room (even though it was only designed to seat 40) for cake, ice cream, and punch.

I absolutely hated those events. I wanted to do my work, collect my paycheck, and get out of there. Forced socialization in a room not designed to fit all of us was not my idea of fun, not in the least. Often I’d arrange my vacation days to coincide with these birthday celebrations. Not this day, though.

“Oh yeah, Mr. H.,” I responded, “Can’t wait!” I gave him an enthusiastic thumbs-up.

That was an innocent lie, a little white lie as some people call it. It was a lie that did no damage. In fact, telling the truth would have done more damage.

Example: A not-at-all innocent lie

Compared to many people, I was lucky in the sense that I never actually dated my covert narcissist.

Hold on. Full stop. I need to make something clear. I do not have an advanced degree in psychology. I am not qualified to make a diagnosis of covert narcissism.

Therefore, let me rephrase what I wrote above: I never dated the person whose behavior was very consistent with what I’ve read on Quora and Medium and in multiple books about covert narcissism.

She love-bombed me for several meetings, then disappeared for a month. When she reappeared, she seemed to have moved me to the devaluing phase in her mind, although I was years away from understanding what that was. All I knew at the time was, the person who had previously seemed to think I hung the moon and stars had lately grown distant, and I didn’t understand why.

Like any normal human being, I wanted her admiration and attention back. In other words, I wanted the love-bombing back. It would be years before I would understand that concept either.

I saw an opportunity to regain her attention as an open-air market opened in my neighborhood for the spring season. CN, as we’ll call her, had long been a big fan of that market. However, she’d posted to Facebook that week that she was very sick.

“Can I pick you up anything from the market?” I left a comment. “It wouldn’t be a problem at all for me to swing by and drop off whatever you need.”

She didn’t reply, but she did “Like” my comment. I didn’t think too much of it at the time; a lot of people don’t want visitors when they’re sick. I went on about my business at the market and enjoyed a gorgeous spring day.

The following Saturday, I attended a festival and parade friends of mine were putting on. They had logistics problems and were very late getting started. With the open-air market a mere block away, I decided to walk over and see what food trucks were out.

A food truck named Tandoori Kitchen was on the premises. Score! I love Indian food. I ordered a large piece of naan topped with garlic spread. Grabbing a seat just off the market’s main aisle, I dug in.

As I ate, I thought I saw a familiar face. I kept an eye out, and a few minutes later, I saw the face again. It was CN! We made eye contact. From about 30 feet away, she smiled and waved.

Then she headed straight for the exit.

What??? I thought. Here was a person who’d had me on a pedestal for months. Now, for some reason unknown to me, I wasn’t even worth a hug or a hello.

I chased after her — which is unattractive, whether the other person is a narcissist or not — and caught up with her in the parking lot.

“I’m still sick,” she said.

“Still?” I replied. She didn’t look sick. “This has lasted a long time. I hope you’ve seen a doctor!”

“Yeah, I just got out because I ran out of groceries at home,” CN told me. “As soon as I drive home and put them up, I’m getting back in bed.”

“Okay, well, I hope you feel better,” I said, feeling like any reply was the wrong one. “Hey, when you get well, let’s grab drinks.”

I walked back to my friends’ event. The energy with her just felt so different. Previously she’d hung on my every word. Now the conversation was weird and awkward in ways that just didn’t make any sense. With every encounter, I felt increasingly confused.

I tried to put the market experience out of my mind and enjoy my friends’ festivities. The event was segmented into about 6 different parts. Between each segment, I checked Facebook like a good little social media slave.

About an hour after my encounter with CN at the market, she checked in at a pop-up restaurant with her best friend. “This beautiful sunshine is too good to waste!” she posted. “I’m gonna embrace this day!”

Three hours after that, she checked into a bar in another part of the city. “Showing my new neighbor around!” she included in the checkin.

She’d lied to me about being sick. And now, here she was on social media, flaunting the lie.

The mindset behind the lie

There are two different potential motivations behind CN claiming she was sick. Both fit with all the reading I’ve done about covert narcissism. It’s possible they both apply to an extent.

The first possible explanation is that covert narcissists are not actually liars — they’re people who tell an incredible number of falsehoods. What I mean by that is, at the moment they actually believe the things they’re saying. They could pass a lie detector test. Reality among narcissists is quite fluid, in part because they lack object constancy.

Therefore, it could be the case that at the moment she and I were talking, CN really did fool herself into believing she was sick. That was the most expedient reaction at the time. When her friend invited her to lunch an hour later, I was long out of sight, and out of mind.

The second explanation is more sinister. At the moment she told me she was sick, CN knew she would join her friends for fun weekend activities later that day. Furthermore, she knew she’d be chronicling her activities on social media, because that’s what narcissists do. They exaggerate the story of how great their life is.

She knew that I would see her checkins. She knew that I’d realize she’d lied to me. She knew I’d be hurt.

And she didn’t care.

Well, in a sense, she did care — but she didn’t care about me. She cared about the game she was playing. It’s very possible she was testing me. Would I understand that she was outright lying to me, yet still come back for more? In that sense, it was a test.

It was a test I failed.

I could have spared myself so much drama and emotional pain had I just done the logical thing. All I had to do was unfriend and block her on all social media and delete her number out of my phone.


This is a case where I don’t have a simple takeaway that I can sum up into one or two sentences. I don’t have something neatly packaged in a to-go bag that you’re likely to plug into your life right away.

My suggestion is that you re-read the story of CN’s lie once or twice more. Commit it to memory. Maybe six months from now, two years from now, five years from now, you’ll encounter a circumstance where you think, “That reminds me of that CN story I read!”

I hope not. I hope you never encounter that type of behavior.

If you do, though, I want you to be able to recognize it for what it is, and make the decision that you don’t have to put up with that.

Be well.

Let’s keep in touch! Feel free to sign up for my newsletter. Here’s more on covert narcissists and their use of social media:

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

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