Er? What’s all that about…sounds very fishy and illegal, and certainly not to be discussed here!

It’s all related to narcissists…but not the obvious, grandstanding ones – they can be spotted a mile away. It’s the more insidious “covert” ones that are way more common.

Signs that we may be feeling their toxic behaviour can be a lack of self-esteem, lowered confidence, helplessness, self-doubt, and a pervading sadness. We can also feel belittled and demeaned. Constantly treading on eggshells is also utterly exhausting. Sound familiar?

How do we confirm these people are in our midst, in both personal and professional areas of our lives? Well, some of the key signs to look for are:

  • A grandiose sense of self-importance from someone who can, and does, belittle others.
  • Lack of empathy – someone who struggles to empathise with your feelings or needs and is likely to dismiss them. They just focus on theirs.
  • An exploitative nature – for personal gain, whether it’s emotional, financial, social or career. Uses people to benefit them.
  • Manipulative tactics such as guilt-tripping or gaslighting, to control situations. Life’s a big game of chess for them.
  • Having rigid standards that no one can realistically fulfil – the rest of us are not, nor ever can be, good enough for them.
  • Inconsistent behaviour – switching between being charming to extremely hostile or angry, often very quickly or easily.
  • A constant need for attention, admiration and validation – often monopolising conversations, seeking praise and recognition.
  • A telltale extreme sensitivity to criticism or negative feedback – becoming dismissive or defensive if their ego is pricked.
  • A lack of accountability – rarely taking responsibility for their actions (particularly mistakes) – it’s never their fault and they’re experts in shifting blame onto others.
  • Constant boundary violations – crossing your personal boundaries, disregarding your privacy or autonomy.
  • They rarely apologise or say sorry; if they do, it’s shallow, insincere or qualified.

Gosh, how do we live or work with such people? The first thing is to be aware that covert narcissists do actually exist because they are chameleon-like and difficult to spot. Use the pointers above, if helpful.

Common coping mechanisms include putting strong boundaries in place even if the other person is not able or willing to honour them. Be specific, discuss them with the person in question (this will be challenging) and follow them indomitably. Update as and when circumstances change, or based on experience – your intuition will tell you when this is required. This affords some protection.

Another useful tactic when boundaries are not being followed is to just say that “I am withdrawing from the situation and can only return once the boundary is adhered to”. Hold your ground on this one, as it will provoke a reaction!

In our personal lives, if there is regular ignoring of boundaries, intimidation or bad behaviour (remember, the narcissist wants everything their way), the ultimate sanction is to break the relationship. In a romantic or family relationship, this is easier said than done.

The key question is “are the emotional, financial and societal benefits of staying in this relationship outweighing the emotional and practical costs to me?”. Another consideration is “can I, or do I want to, tolerate this” If so, put on that psychological armour and buckle in for a roller coaster of thoughts, feelings and emotions. Remember, they are unlikely to change.

In the workplace, well, it’s a different matter. Much of the toxic behaviour would be categorised as bullying and often there are policies and procedures in place to protect oneself. To leverage these though also requires our innate resilience and courage. The process can be long, triggering of past negative experiences and draining.

When faced with a covert narcissist, in whatever situation, it’s worth remembering that falling into their traps or pandering to their needs just feeds their bad behaviour. Pause, take some deep breaths and respond in a considered, detached and wherever possible, unemotional way. This sends the signal that you are not playing their game.

The key takeaway is to recognise and avoid falling into the traps set by covert narcissists, responding in a detached and unemotional manner to avoid feeding their behaviour.

So, now we know – stop that narco supply!