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Six Subtle Ways a Covert Narcissist Manipulates You

by Rachel M.J 11 months ago in personality disorder · updated 11 months ago
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How the toxic narcissist uses emotional abuse to control their target

Six Subtle Ways a Covert Narcissist Manipulates You
Photo by Sammy Williams on Unsplash

You've likely heard of the overt or 'grandiose' Narcissist; the larger than life personality that fill the room with the booming of their voice. The one who refers to co-workers by patronising nick-names and claps them on the back in a show of false comradery. Insidious as they are, a more dangerous personality lurks in the grandiose narcissists shadow; the covert or 'vulnerable' narcissist.

The grandiose and vulnerable narcissists are the flip side of the same coin. One seeks validation through overt means (such as vanity and material goods) while the other does so covertly. It might be due to this distinction that the grandiose narcissist is defined in psychological diagnostic tools, but the vulnerable narcissist is not. You can find a description of the grandiose narcissist under the cluster B classification of personality disorders in the DSM-5. This is the same cluster that houses personality disorders such as histrionic, antisocial, and borderline.

To fall victim to a narcissist is damaging regardless of the type, but it is said that the most effective parasite is the one who feeds undetected. The good news is, once you know what to look for the covert narcissist is easy to detect. The covert narcissist can be identified by the following traits;

  • Victim mentality: The covert narcissist believes that they are on the receiving end of constant dismissal or poor-treatment
  • Mood shifts: The covert narcissist has unstable moods and is easily angered, especially when someone expresses disagreement
  • Superiority complex: The covert narcissist believes they have special skills that mark them as superior to others despite a lack of evidence
  • Unstable identity: The covert narcissist will shift their ideals and traits depending on who they wish to impress, or to emulate others who appear successful

If Covert Narcissism is a new concept to you, watch the following video by 'Surviving Narcissism's' to learn how to spot one;

Once you know how to spot a narcissist, you'll be able able to gracefully disengage from their manipulative plots and leave any conversation unscathed.

To best understand these manipulation techniques one must first understand how they are dictated by gaslighting. The goal of the narcissists manipulations is to undermine your sense of reality. This comes easy to the narcissist since they live in a version of reality that pays no head to you; it is constructed solely by their own needs, wants, and opinions.

Gaslighting can be overt;

"No, that never happened", "You're imagining things" or "I don't trust your memory"

Or covert;

"I remember it differently", "No body else would react the way you're reacting" or "You're too sensitive"

While these statements on their own may seem benign, it is when they are used consistently overtime that the victim begins to question their sense of reality. They can lose trust in their ability to remember and might become reliant on the narcissist to regulate their everyday lives. If this occurs, the narcissist has achieved their end goal; total emotional control.

The manipulation techniques of a covert narcissist include;

The silent treatment

The covert narcissist exhibits a shocking lack of emotional maturity, and therefore their manipulations are a manifestation of their inability to express their needs or desires. The silent treatment is a good starting point to understand the level of maturity, because it is often seen in quarrels between children.

Although, it's not as harmless as it may sound. In the hands of an adult, the silent treatment serves as a tool to isolate and shame. The implication is that your existence is not worth acknowledging unless you are willing to appease the narcissist. They will find it easy to ignore you unless you are willing to relinquish your opinions, preferences, or goals to resemble something closer to their own.

The silent treatment works best on those who live to please. Someone who likes to keep the peace may find themselves changing their behaviours to gain the narcissists approval. This only serves to reinforce the silent treatment as an effective tool for the narcissist to fall back on when they're not getting their way.

When faced with the silent treatment, it's best to wait it out as if it were a tantrum thrown by a child, and to talk to them only when they are ready to express themselves in a meaningful way.

The appeal to authority

The covert narcissist struggles to express themselves in a way that might leave them viewed in a negative light. So, when they wish to control you or to express a controversial opinion, the will rely on the 'appeal to authority'.

This is when the narcissist makes reference to a thought or opinion as if it were held by someone else. For example, if they're considering a new political identity, they might say; "Mark from work was thinking about voting for The Nationalist Party... what do you think?"

The appeal to authority is used to avoid accountability, but it is also used as a means of control. It might refer to the narcissists opinion, a singular person, a prominent social figure, a religious doctrine, or to society as a whole. Consider the following phrases;

"I've never had this problem with anyone else before"

"My religious group disagrees with how you've been acting"

"Everyone I have asked about this issue agrees with me"

The statements above impart a level of absurdity onto the targets behaviours or opinions. They imply that the target cannot be right about a certain issue because someone important or "everyone else" says so.

When confronted with the appeal to authority, remind yourself that it is simply an immature way for the narcissist to tell you that they disagree with how you've chosen to act or express yourself.

Word salad

When the narcissist is confronted with a sensitive question they will confuse and disorientate the target by speaking in 'word salad'. The word salad might also be used when the narcissist does not wish to outwardly express their views on a difficult topic.

The term 'word salad' is most often used to refer to the disjointed speech patterns observed in people with schizophrenia, but it is employed more purposefully as a tool of manipulation by the narcissist. A typical word salad will present as a meaningful sentence, until the target realises that it is completely devoid of sensical meaning. For example, if you ask the narcissist if they have been talking to their ex-partner, they might answer with;

"Why would I have been talking to my ex-? Don't you remember what I told you about them? I talk to all kinds of people every day. Besides, wasn't it you that insisted on getting into contact with your ex?"

The barrage of questions and accusations gives the impression that the question has been answered. But if you think it over, you will realise that at no point did the narcissist give a 'yes or no' response. If a word salad is being used, you can be sure that the narcissist has something to hide.

When confronted with a word salad, avoid falling into the trap by not reacting to questions or accusations. Instead, encourage the narcissist to stay on topic, with a gentle "I'll be more than happy to talk about that later, but for now, can we stay on topic?"

The bait and switch

The bait and switch is a manipulation tool used with the goal of acquiring physical or mental gain for the narcissist, at the targets expense. The narcissist draws the target in with false promises. These promises will often be the result of 'research' that the narcissist has conducted on you. They are experts at identifying weaknesses, and use them to exploit others for their own personal gain.

In this sense, the bait and switch is a form of blackmail that presents itself as benign. It is a sales technique, in which the sales-person is offering you a deal that sounds too good to be true. It often plays out like this;

  1. The narcissist identifies something that is important to you. It could be anything, from a promotion at work, a massage for your injured shoulder, or a home-cooked meal after a long day.
  2. The narcissist promises to give you the thing you need in exchange for a small favour. This could be performing extra tasks at work, giving them a foot massage, or picking up the groceries for dinner.
  3. The narcissist accepts your favour, but gives nothing in return. You complete your extra tasks, give your spouse a foot massage, or you buy the groceries for dinner, but they fail to deliver on their end of the bargain.

To be impervious to the bait and switch, one must be able to recognise their weaknesses. Once you are able to identify what makes you vulnerable, you can spend precious time serving your own needs, instead of that of the narcissist.


Catastrophising is a gaslighting technique that is used to make the victim look or feel absurd. This happens when the narcissists takes something you have said and exaggerates it past the point of logic or puts words in your mouth to make you seem like the attacker. Take the following scenarios for example,

1. The narcissist asks you to watch a movie with them. It's a movie that you have no interest in and might even find offensive. You politely tell them, "No thank you, I don't really enjoy movies like that! Is there anything else you would like to watch?", and the narcissist responds with;

"So you think I'm stupid for liking this movie?" Everyone likes movies like this, there must be something wrong with you".

2. The narcissist is having a difficult time at university, and they don't perform well on a certain assignment. You recommend that they get into contact with their teachers to ask for help. They respond with;

"What's the point, this teach hates me anyway, that's why I failed. Besides, they failed most people in the class, so it's not just me".

In these scenarios there is no evidence for the narcissists claims ('everyone likes this movie' and 'they failed most people in the class'), but attempting to prove them wrong would make the target appear irrational.

When dealing with catastrophising or exaggeration, pick and choose your battles. Do not waste time on fighting over semantics, instead recognise that this is a technique used to get you to conform to another persons whims.


Triangulation is a tool that the narcissist uses to turn two or more people against one another. It is done by relaying false or misleading information between two opposing parties who are unlikely to be in contact. The narcissist might have a number of reasons for triangulating - but it is most commonly used to;

  • Orchestrate a feud between two people with the goal of fuelling the narcissists ego
  • Create an echo-chamber that relays only positive information about the narcissist
  • Isolate the target from their friends and family so that the narcissist can have full access to their supply

Triangulation might also be used in conjunction with the 'appeal to authority'. Consider the following statement,

"My friend thinks the dress you're wearing to the formal is hideous, but I think it looks great on you"

This statement serves two purposes; to turn you against the narcissists friend, and to let you know - consequence free - that the dress you are wearing is displeasing.

When dealing with triangulation, remember to not take the narcissist at their word. If possible, seek clarity with the other party. It is likely that their words are being misconstrued, or that they are also being triangulated against you.


The covert narcissist often goes overlooked due to their polarity with the grandiose, but much like the overt, it is their prerogative to drain as much supply from their environment as possible. Once you are able to identify the traits of a vulnerable narcissist, you can train yourself to fend against their favourite manipulations.

Continue learning how to protect yourself against manipulation by reading the following; The Manipulation Techniques of a Pickup Artist

Or more on Narcissism here


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personality disorder

About the author

Rachel M.J

Magical realist

I like to write about things behaving how they shouldn't ~

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