An overt narcissist is someone who openly states, “I’m great, I only deserve the best, nobody is as great as me,” and so forth. They are fairly easy to spot. A covert narcissist is different. Everything still ends up being all about them, but they never outright say that they feel they deserve special privileges. Instead, they will just subconsciously make everything difficult or impossible for everyone else until they get their way.
They often play the “victim” card to excellent effect, getting everyone to do their bidding out of guilt. Some examples are:
- The parent who is sick or disabled and doesn’t let her child separate in adulthood because s/he needs to take care of the parent.
- The parent who is “depressed” (with a thriving social life and hobbies) and therefore you need to adhere to her rigid schedule for visits, otherwise she can’t function.
- The parent who needs to have all holidays at his home because he “can’t travel”.
- The in-law who makes cutting remarks to you at all occasions but then cries to your spouse that you’re the one who doesn’t like her.
Here, I discuss how to cope with parents or in-laws who don’t respect you, and a lot of that post is applicable here. With covert narcissists, though, it can be harder not to blame yourself for the relationship going poorly. People may look in at the relationship from the outside and assume that you aren’t being caring enough toward this “poor” parent who is so valiantly struggling with whatever issues they have. Unlike with an openly narcissistic person, the covert narcissist often appears like a “really great” person, at least until others ever try to change their mind about something. (Then it becomes quickly evident that there is zero flexibility, and this person’s needs are paramount at all times.)
It is important to strike a balance between empathy with the narcissist and boundaries (which emerge from working on self-love). It is not the narcissist’s “fault” per se that they are this way. Many of these people were treated as a victim by parents, or actually were a victim of abusive parents, or saw a victim stance modeled by parents. They often truly do feel that they “can’t” deal with things not going their way, and will have childlike tantrums or outright ignore people’s requests and keep doing things their own way, as a child would. You can empathize with the powerlessness that these people feel.
However, don’t allow their victim behavior to harm you. Remember that, often, people who continue to try and have meaningful relationships with either narcissists or covert narcissists are those who have low self-esteem themselves. For instance, if you think you’re not much to look at, and your mother-in-law’s comments are about your weight gain and boring clothes, then you may not get as angry as you should, because you secretly agree with her. But if you work on developing better self-esteem, then you may find yourself growing angrier at your parent/in-law while you grow healthier yourself. This is why when some people go to therapy and grow more confident, their relationships with dysfunctional family members actually grow worse, at least for a time, as they assert themselves with people who never expected to be challenged.
Here are some tips:
- Enlist the help of a spouse or friend. Even just having someone to vent to, or to reality check (e.g., “It’s not normal that my dad said he can’t help me move because the game is on TV then, right?”) can be very useful, psychologically.
- Seek your own therapy if you cannot deal with the guilt trips given to you. The therapist can help you explore why you are so susceptible to guilt trips and brainstorm and/or role play ways to assert yourself.
- Cultivate friends as family. You can choose your own family if the one you have isn’t working on. While you will always be linked to your family of origin, you can think outside the box and have deeper relationships with chosen friends, or extended family members. When you are fully relying on a covert narcissist to give you a “family” feeling, that never ends well, as they do not know how to be in reciprocal relationships.
- Allow your children to grow up differently. It can be very healing to treat your kids very differently than you were treated. If you were guilt tripped, constricted, and shamed by a covert narcissist parent, it can be wonderful to see your kids’ own independence growing, and to notice how they don’t feel as scared of or pitying toward you as you did with your own parent.
- Assert yourself kindly and firmly with your parent/in-law; compromise, but not to excess. Try not to raise your voice or to engage on an emotional level. Stick to facts. For example, “I’m sorry you’re upset, but we will be visiting my parents this year for Thanksgiving. I know you get anxious leaving the house so we will call you that day and see you next month for Christmas.”
Stay strong if you have a victim/covert narcissist parent or in-law in your life, and focus on these tips and on self-care before, after and during interactions. And share this article with people in your life that want to better understand why you feel so frustrated with your parent or in-law!