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    What are the common phrases used by a covert narcissist?

    We’ve all heard about the loud, boastful, grandiose narcissist, that individual in the group who is not afraid of being the centre of attention while lapping up as much ‘supply’ as they possibly can.

    Overt narcissist

    The above characteristics often get observed in overt narcissists, out of the narcissistic personality disorder paradigm, such individuals are not the shy, humble types.

    However, ‘type’ is the operative word when referring to a narcissist since there are many variants associated with a narcissistic personality disorder.

    Overt narcissist traits

    Typically, a narcissist will demonstrate specific symptoms of narcissism that are often impossible to ignore. Such characteristics include:

    • Ego – centricity
    • Inflated sense of self-importance
    • Attention-seeking behaviours
    • Narcissistic abuse (i.e., smear campaigns, including verbal and physical abuse against their victims)
    • Severe lack of empathy
    • Loud, boastful tendencies
    • A warped sense of superiority over others

    Varying symptoms

    Although the above symptoms vary from person to person, the overt narcissist isn’t reserved or shy and enjoys using sentences that start with the words ”I am”.

    Meet the covert narcissist

    It’s true that with a narcissist, you never know what will happen or when their narcissistic tendencies will strike.

    However, as overt narcissists can be unpredictable, covert narcissists have their counterparts beat when it comes to deceit and manipulation.

    Traits of a covert narcissist

    Unlike the vain, somatic, visibly grandiose narcissist, covert narcissists tend to be shy, sweet, slightly more humble individuals on the surface.

    A covert narcissist can be a lot harder to spot than overt narcissists due to their {seemingly} loving, gracious, disarmingly alluring personalities.


    The narcissist has many faces they present to the world, which is usually dependent on what they want or need in any given interaction.

    Such individuals have a wildly different perspective on the world than everyone else, and their motivations fluctuate as well as their behaviour.

    The above characteristics are synonymous with all forms of narcissistic personality disorder.

    The many faces of the covert narcissist

    However, the covert narcissist is much harder to detect in a crowd.

    Hidden beneath a veneer of quietness and sensitivity lurks a profound sense of self-entitlement and even contempt, which can traumatise the people they encounter since it often comes unexpectedly.


    Covert narcissists are adept at inflicting their victims with a mish-mash of different techniques and strategies that seek to gaslight and cause profound upset and confusion.

    Such tactics seek to demean, sabotage and diminish their victims in private, resulting in shock, trauma and utter helplessness within the covert narcissist’s victims.

    Common phrases used by the covert narcissist

    Phrases used by a covert narcissist - White River Manor

    Research on covert narcissism has demonstrated that covert narcissists adopt an entirely different vocabulary from the rest of us.

    Such tactics get used to ensure their victims feel helpless, confused and steeped in anxiety.

    Covert narcissists adopt specific strategies such as gaslighting, intermittent reinforcement and another technique referred to as ’emotional hot potato’ to keep their victims in line.


    The literature shows three main techniques used by the covert narcissist: mixed signalling and hidden vocabulary, diversion, and minimisation.

    Here we will explore some of the phrases and techniques used by the covert narcissist to keep their victims in check.

    Hidden vocabulary, confusing put-downs and double meanings

    Broadly, all types of narcissism share a similar quality; envy.

    Due to their obvious or not – so apparent sense of superiority, which masks their deep insecurities, narcissists are prone to bouts of extreme jealousy and envy.

    If you’ve ever encountered a narcissist, you’ll know straight away that any achievements or successes you may have garnered in your life get met by a series of compliments and put-downs.

    Emotional see- saw

    One thing that all narcissists are excellent at is mastering the art of intermittent reinforcement.

    Narcissists instinctively know what type of person to target, and once identified, they’ll know just how to put their victims on a golden throne only to drag them off it at any moment.

    Puppet on a string

    Such individuals have mastered the ‘puppet on a string’ technique to a fine art; the objective is to control and confuse their victims through gushing sentiments mixed with hurtful put-downs.

    For example, let’s say you get excellent grades at school, and you are filled with pride at such an accomplishment.

    Here comes the caveat

    In the above instance, the narcissist may appear happy for you and join in the celebrations. 

    Still, anyone who’s ever been within a mile radius of a narcissist will know there’s a steaming hot caveat lurking around the corner.

    Phrases narcissists use

    Typical phrases used by the narcissist in the above instance might be, ”wow, I’m so happy for you, what an achievement! 

    Maybe the next time you’ll be like me and get an A+, and then we’ll have something to celebrate!”

    Another phrase a covert narcissist might use could be, ” you know, you are so intelligent and excellent! I’m glad I helped you study for all those months; who knows what would have happened otherwise!”

    Reversing the process

    Another way for covert narcissists to attack their victims is through reverse – tactics where they use demeaning language before building you up.

    Let’s roll with the same scenario above, and in this example, a covert narcissist may take the more direct approach, ‘knock them down and build them up.’

    Covert narcissists may use phrases such as, ”you know you would never have got those grades without my help, right? But, you worked hard, I’ll give you that.”

    Similar phrases get concealed as ‘constructive criticism’ on the narcissist’s behalf, which trains the victim to seek the approval and validation of the narcissist.

    Other strategies

    Research shows that narcissists may use other strategies, coded language, and double-subtexts.

    Covert narcissists, in particular, may use more subtle mixed – messaging to confuse their victims, such as:

    • Complimenting someone while using a condescending tone of voice
    • Using provocative facial expressions or startling gestures
    • Using language or saying something that can have a double – meaning, for example, one innocent sentence and one that aims to debase.
    • Telling funny jokes at the victim’s expense with a contemptuous look

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    Another common strategy employed by the covert narcissist is diversion.

    Such a strategy involves an amalgamation of intermittent reinforcement and subtle gaslighting.

    Diversion is a technique the covert narcissist uses to uproot you and divert your attention away from their put-downs.

    Such behaviour intends for the covert narcissist to gain control over their victims by keeping them in a state of perpetual confusion and ‘walking on eggshells.’

    Phrases narcissists use

    The recipient of covert narcissism can expect a series of compliments laced with horrible put-downs.

    For example, one minute the covert narcissist is reeling off a series of negative comments about your weight or appearance, and the next, they are telling you how beautiful and slender you are.

    They might even say things like ”You are so sensitive, I was only joking!” or ”You’re reading into things, I didn’t mean it like that.”

    By oscillating between pain and pleasure, disdain to heartfelt admiration, the covert narcissist can hide that they are constantly projecting blame onto their victims.

    Shifting the goal post

    When a covert narcissist shifts the goal post, they inherently set the victim up for failure. 

    How can you get angry at someone who laces their put-downs with heartfelt compliments?

    Such subtle actions seek to keep the covert narcissist’s victims off-kilter.

    When confronted about their terrible behaviour, the covert narcissist may say something like, ” I’m sorry you feel that way, but I’m not going to argue with you”.

    The above phraseology ensures that the covert narcissist never gets held accountable for their actions; to such people, they are never wrong about anything ever.


    Often referred to as tunnel-vision minimisation, the covert narcissist will adopt a strategy to minimise their victim’s achievements or successes.

    For example, let’s say you’ve just bought your first house, something you worked incredibly hard to achieve.

    In this instance, the covert narcissist might change the subject or focus the narrative on how dangerous the new location is or how high the crime rates are.

    One way to spot a covert narcissist in a social setting is to observe how everyone else is congratulating you on your achievement.

    On the other hand, however, the narcissist skulks alone in the corner, whipping up ways to debase you or burst your bubble.

    The above may come in the form of a back-handed compliment, critique, or a ‘seemingly’ helpful reminder about what you might be lacking.

    Emotional hot potato

    According to narcissist expert Dr Craig Malkin, emotional hot potato is when the narcissist projects any unwanted thoughts or feelings about themselves onto someone else.

    Such behaviour occurs when the narcissist feels threatened or out of their depth.

    Hence the covert narcissist projects their insecurities as a self-serving tactic to avoid the conflict between the grandiose, false self and the authentic self (Dr Craig Malkin, 2015).

    Managing narcissistic abuse

    Managing narcissistic abuse - White River Manor

    There are many tips on surviving narcissistic abuse, from grey-rocking to entirely avoiding interaction with a narcissist.

    However, for those who cannot easily escape being in the presence of a narcissist, experts state that recipients of narcissistic abuse should continue to celebrate themselves.

    Self-validation and self-love are just a few of the empowering tools a person can have when conquering the sabotage of a covert narcissist.

    Alternatively, people may seek therapy to overcome narcissistic abuse and regain some control in their lives, something that exposure to narcissism often erodes.

    Get in touch

    If you suspect you might be the victim of narcissistic abuse, get in touch with the team at White River Manor to find out how we can help.