Updated: Feb 7
“When you’re not triggered, you’re not ‘supplying’ them, and can feel compassionate towards their ‘wounded child’.”
There are some amazing resources out there for anyone traumatised by toxic narcissistic relationships, who wants to heal and grow. I was particularly interested to listen to Therapist Uncensored’s podcast on covert or vulnerable narcissism, in their Holding Your Own series, because it looks at compassion towards the narcissist in your life.
The covert or vulnerable narcissist – entitlement and quiet superiority
People with this subtype of narcissism have poor self esteem, seem anxious about what others think of them, are sensitive to criticism, and have entitlement and quiet superiority. You will feel these traits directed at you, as they try to pick away at your self esteem, judge you, and try to make you feel ‘less’ than them, in a very passive way.
In Therapist Uncensored’s podcast, the covert narcissist is described as ‘pushing their feelings of shame outward… [and] losing a sense of self.’ They feel hard done by, and it’s never their fault. Interestingly, this poor self esteem can be dressed up as interest in you, and even support; but this only really links to their desire for recognition.
Their interest in you may be ‘data mining’ to collect information that can be used against you in future. Beware the covert narcissist, as they are the wolf in sheep’s clothing – they are extremely passive aggressive, and can be hard to spot, because of their sheen of altruism and / or victimhood. Remember – they’re all about relational control.
Covert narcissist bingo
If you fancy a fun game of covert narcissist bingo the next time you interact with such an individual, look out for these reactions:
· Guilt-tripping you; for example if you have done something that they want to do. They may chastise your decision, and subtly bring in something gleaned from their data mining to undermine your decision, and make you feel guilty. The ‘something’ will likely relate to what’s actually missing from their life, or what they judge themselves for.
· Indulging in self-pity; if you introduce a healthy boundary with them (eg. calling them out on an episode of unkindness), they will let you know how wronged they feel – e.g. they can’t believe you’d say that, do that or think that about them, especially when they were only trying to help.
· Manipulating you, their scapegoat, by focussing on the achievements / importance / success of another individual, a ‘golden person’ (likely your family member or spouse).
· Show an unhealthy version of altruism; if you have withdrawn (e.g. have used a healthy boundary) from them, look out for being sucked back in (or ‘hoovered’) with a gift from them, or money. It can look super-thoughtful, but they are just missing the ‘narcissistic supply’ they need.
· Manipulate people by being ‘empathetic’ – but the clue is that it is only ever within their own emotional remit, e.g. empathy relating to what they’ve experienced in their own life. They can’t ‘walk a mile in your shoes’.
· Gaslighting – trying to make you seem unhinged, over-sensitive, or as if you’re going mad. Look out for phrases like: ‘I was only joking’ and ‘You can’t take criticism.’ The next step is to approach your nearest and dearest with ‘concern’ about the situation, expressing their concern for you (and probably ‘hurt’ about how you have treated them, when they were only ‘joking’ or ‘trying to help’), and trying to make others believe you’re unhinged or over-sensitive.
· Story-telling about their victimhood. Look out for stories about how people in their day to day life have offended then, done them wrong, or disrespected them.
Showing compassion to narcissists
This doesn’t paint a picture of someone deserving of compassion, does it!
However, what has been emphasised from researching resources that try to approach relationality with a narcissist with a compassionate angle, is that they are wounded. They are almost certainly going to experience anxiety and / or depression at some stage in their lives. It’s likely they will regularly experience feelings of emptiness or low self-esteem, and will have experienced something traumatic themselves (maybe abuse or emotional neglect) that fractured their sense of self when they were very young. Their attachment with their family in their younger years is likely to have been complex.
Can a narcissist change?
With a limited number of exceptions (e.g. if they have sought personal development solutions and therapy), the covert or vulnerable narcissist generally can’t change. (Neurologically and biologically speaking, they can change – that level of neuroplasticity is entirely possible – but it requires such a high level of humbleness and self awareness, when they’re completely fixed and entrenched in their behaviour patterns, that they are unlikely to develop and maintain new, healthier behavioural patterns).
The covert narcissist is also most unlikely to self-identify as such. Whilst they’re not necessarily mentally ill (although if an individual is diagnosed with narcissistic personality disorder – more likely occurring with an overt narcissist – they are considered to have a disorder under DSM-5 guidelines, described as functional impairment and psycho-social disability) – the narcissist’s brain, like all brains, has neuroplasticity that has seen their behaviour patterns become ingrained.
What does this mean? Neuroplasticity is the ability of the brain to form new connections and pathways, and change how its circuits are wired. A child who drums from toddler age will, as an adult, drum exceptionally well without thinking about the process – it’s engrained in their ideomotor responses. But an adult taking the instrument up in later years will take longer to develop the new skills. Time and repetition count! Like the drumming prodigy who's been 'paradiddling' all their life, the adult narcissist has a lifetime of narcissist behavioural circuitry wiring in their brain that's difficult to change.
Covert narcissists and psycho-social disability
So, as described above, whilst our covert narcissist is not necessarily mentally ill, it seems pertinent to frame their behaviour as a psycho-social disability; a condition that’s predominantly out of their control. They aren’t an emotionally healthy individual who will eventually show pride, support and admiration towards you – they almost certainly won’t change. By thinking of them as being impaired, it may help to see yourself as the empowered one. Not the one that’s victimised by their abuse, and who is codependent on others to feel valued.
With this ‘lens’, as the emotionally healthier person in the dynamic, it potentially becomes easier to employ boundaries. To show compassion for their wounded, neurological state. To see past the manipulation and unkindness they show you, and see their vulnerability. None of this makes narcissist abuse OK; but it could help us accept what’s gone before, and move on personally, being more boundaried and educated.
Tips for being compassionate towards a narcissist, and protecting yourself
“If you engage reactively with a narcissist, that’s two wounded children in a war of words.”
1. Sometimes, circumstance means we can't remove ourselves long-term from the narcissist in our life. It may help when they verbally attack you (remember, with a covert narcissist, it will likely be passive aggressive), to think of them as a wounded child. Don’t react without prior consideration. Your first reaction is their ‘supply’. Your considered reaction is you being ‘adult’, and administering self-care.
2. Abandon any hope of true support or emotional reciprocation from them - remove your emotional needs from your interactions with them.
3. Build healthy boundaries with the narcissist. Don’t engage in discussions whereby they use the reactions shown further above, in our ‘narcissist bingo’ example. Nip it in the bud by physically distancing yourself (eg. leaving the room), or, if it is via telephone or email, explaining that you’d like thinking time before responding, or curtailing the conversation. If you engage reactively with a narcissist, that’s two wounded children in a war of words.
4. Work on your own psycho-education, so you can easily process and observe your own emotions. When you’re not triggered, you’re not ‘supplying’ them, and can feel compassionate towards their ‘wounded child’.
A word of advice - trauma healing, while life-changing and empowering, is often better experienced with someone supportive. Consider seeking support from whichever model of talking therapy appeals to you, whether this is Hypno-CBT, CBT, counselling or another model of support. There are many free providers of support, such as We Are With You, a national service offering online and phone-based support (and face-to-face when circumstances allow), as well as private practitioners. Our own Hypno-CBT service launches later in 2021.