Covert personalities are troublesome individuals. These folks are not who they appear to be. They often have good “impression management” skills. So, they might know how to come across well. But they inevitably do harm. It’s one thing to know how to look good. But it’s quite another to actually care about being good.
I first exposed a major type of covert personality in In Sheep’s Clothing. These covert-aggressors are determined to dominate and control. But they know how to appear benign. Worse, they know how make you doubt your intuitions about them. That’s how they succeed in manipulating you! That’s why I wanted to expose them and their tactics!
In recent years, we’ve come to appreciate just how many covert personalities there are. Covert narcissists are one such type. Moreover, as I’ve often asserted, the narcissism spectrum is vast. So, there are many types of narcissists. While some are less toxic than others, all are problematic. But the covert types among them are particularly probematic. That’s because you don’t know who they are until it’s too late.
The Varieties of Covert Narcissists
Narcissists are always trouble in relationships, no matter what type they are. It’s because of the way they operate. They can’t help being egocentric and uncaring about others. But when they’re covert about it, it’s easy to be fooled.
Charmers are among these covert personalities. So are “Emotional Romeos” and amorous narcissists. These folks will have you thinking it’s all about you. But you eventually learn that it’s always really about them! Too bad it takes time to see them for who they really are and what they really want. And too bad that by that time you’ve alread invested plenty and much damage has been done.
A Problem with Honesty
Covert personalities are inherently dishonest people. They lie to others about who they are and what they’re up to. And they lie to themselves as well. Make no mistake, this behavior is not unconscious, protective denial. (See: pp. 204-205 in Character Disturbance.) It’s deliberate, albeit, habitual, “automatic” tomfoolery. And it’s part of what’s seriously wrong with their character. I have a lot to say about this in Essentials for the Journey.
I’ll be talking more about all covert personalities on my Character Matters podcast. Tune in by following this YouTube link. And look for information next week on interviews I’ve given other podcasters.
9 thoughts on “Covert Personalities and Personality Disorders”
Dr Simon, as you write in this article that this behaviors,tactics are not unconscious regarding being dishonest etc. My question is , they know as well they are projecting? Thanks for the clarification and always a pleasure reading and learning from your articles and books.
I’ve experienced three covert narcissistic relationships in my life. I was always very guarded around them but their ability to tear down relationships is insidious. It’s such a helpless situation to be in. One was my husband’s ex-wife, another a daughter-in-law and the third was my brother. We’ve successfully removed ourselves from all three and it’s been over four years of no contact, seven from my sibling. For the most part I feel relief but when I read an article such as this it triggers a sense of injustice. I never want to see these people again but I feel that one day it might happen and I internalize it, then I over analyze about how I’m going to react . I loathe these people.
I disowned my brother, we are completely estranged from my husband’s son because of his wife, and we envision my husband’s ex wife clapping with glee somewhere because her alienation tactics got a boost from the daughter-in-law. The manipulation was profound.
Since their problems were projected onto us and we walked away, their lives should be perfect now right?
This said, does anyone have insights as to how these relationships would continue without us to blame? Do they find another scapegoat?
I have a SIL that I finally realized was a narc, before I blamed myself and thought I must have done something wrong-but I couldn’t figure out what. For some reason I am the scapegoat to her and she has ruined the relationship between myself and three brothers. They unwittingly fall right into her trap and she won’t let go because theres always got to be a scapegoat right?
I try to accept the situation as it is, I don’t see it changing and I will only make myself miserable if I dwell on it. I choose not to be around them as well, theres nothing I can do about it.
Kat, I struggle with the the cruelty of their actions, and how they’ve been enabled. The injustice of it all is the worst. We know we are good people and we did the right thing by disengaging but is that it? This is the best that can be done to battle narcissism? We allow them to tear entire families apart and our best recourse is to walk away? If I could know for certainty that I’d never see any one of those three again then I’d be able to heal, but at times it’s like waiting for the other shoe to fall. Seriously, I’m not in a funk about this all that often but I get triggered and I overthink it, then it fades and goes away until another trigger and then the cycle begins again.
There are very few people who understand covert manipulative personality types unless they’ve seen it first hand and recognize it. I tried to get a SIL to see what my brother (not her husband) was doing and she could not in any way shape or form validate it. Then, he let the mask slip slightly and she acknowledged his behaviour was off putting, but then chose to forgive his damaging actions because she is a Christian. That brother disappeared because he could not admit fault or form an apology and he was exposed. But, my SIL kept trying and trying and trying to get him to come back because SHE felt……guilty. I was at a loss. She even tried to get him to come back by texting invites to family gatherings using her husbands phone without his knowledge! It’s been seven years since we last saw him and I’m glad to be rid, that said I had written him a brief letter shortly before the exposure to tell him I was no longer his sister and the response by text was of rage and vileness. I shook for hours.
My SIL and brother got a taste of what he was but to me our younger sibling was a dark roving cloud and a useless waste of life, they got off lucky.
I completely understand being triggered by it off and on. The same happens to me. I have a sister who I gave Dr. Simons “Sheep” book because there was someone in our church who was trying to destroy it and I wanted her to see that she was a narc so she wouldn’t be fooled by her anymore. She did see after reading the book, so after I figured out SIL was a narc, I told her. SIL does not target her because she knows that her husband is close to my brothers and it doesn’t serve her well. My sister doesn’t want to admit to me that she is one, but I believe she knows the truth and she herself is not being targeted.
I know what you mean when you say is this all one can do? I think it depends on the situation, you may get some to listen but others will not. I have come to the conclusion that these 3 brothers – one of which is married to her, will not see it and I will be the bad guy. I could choose to be around her and I do at the family Christmas gathering but I usually grey rock it around her and that works, but I don’t choose to be around it all the time, mainly because I am the target and I am not ok with that. Narcs cause so much damage and loss and it is so wrong, but I can’t control it and at this point I am working on just accepting the situation as it is, I feel theres nothing else I can do.
D., Kat and Dr. Simon,
I have also experienced the destruction of covert aggressors/charmers/narcissists. I’ve been following Dr. Simon’s recent posts and particularly the post regarding charmers and gaslighting. He made an interesting point about working to validate our knowledge of the gaslighting effect through others in order to ‘self medicate the gaslighting effect.’ So I am left with a ponderous question:
The people around these individuals see what’s going on, they hear the slights, the digs, the know how we’ve been hurt, how we feel excluded or ‘scapegoated’ because we tell them. I know they see our happy faces fall, the change in our posture from upright and confident to slumped and unsure. I know they notice how quiet and withdrawn we become and how we leave early because it’s likely we’ll be scolded for it later. They may tell us to ‘toughen up’ but I’m always left wondering how they would feel if they were the target of such consistent hurtful behavior.
From what I’ve experienced, these individuals around the toxic personality, deny, make excuses or blame us for ‘being too sensitive,’ or ‘being difficult,’ or maybe causing the problems at a family function with our hurt feeling and quiet withdrawal.
So my question is: what does this say about the character of the rest of the family or social group? If they ignore, deny or even promote the toxic behavior by blaming or also gaslighting the target, are they not the same as the toxic individual? How does one maintain a relationship with people who implicitly approve of harmful, bullying treatment by doing nothing? What does it say about their character that they do nothing or actively encourage us to continue to put ourselves in this destructive path?
Charlie what a great question and observation!
I have found the damage done to me is so covert that enablers don’t recognize it, OR my reaction to it is minimized, OR skewed. I think a relationship between an enabler and a covert manipulator is based on loyalty and therefore it becomes too complex for enablers to process. In my case the manipulators have campaigned against me long before my arrival to a family gathering(s) so it’s as if I’m lucky to be tolerated! I felt a coldness, and I was only spoken to if I asked a question. I never knew which covert manipulator would be present from one gathering to the next, the warm and happy one or the cold and angry one? I’ve witnessed this being done to others at family outings because there is always a target, but I’m the only one who confronted it. It is so perverse! When I’ve privately confronted the behaviour, the covert manipulator “outed” me to anyone who would listen, and since I’m not given the opportunity to defend myself it’s MY behaviour that becomes the problem. The covert manipulators manipulate the narrative to suit their needs and then we as the victims have no recourse. It made me feel so small and insignificant within the family that I walked away to save myself. Thankfully my daughter and my husband walked away with me. They saw it too. In one situation my husband went to my brother months after the fact and told him how his wife treated me at their daughters wedding, my brother said “I find that hard to believe.” But, then went on to say how stressful the day was for his wife, and how a neighbour upset her, and on and on and on. My husband asked “then why was she singled out?” My brother said he didn’t want to argue about it. See? It is our opinion that enablers fear the confrontation with the manipulator so throwing our relationship in the garbage is easier. It’s been 13 years since that happened and anyone who has included me in private gatherings away from them has been ostracized by association, and my brother sees this as normal? The covert manipulator’s brother fought back and he’s out of the picture too. There will always be a target.
And with another, we went no contact because of a covert manipulative daughter in law who has alienated her husband (our son) from us, so their lives should be perfect now right?
It’s been a long road of profound self doubt but in the end we have friendships spanning over 40 years and other family who validate us. Some don’t even know about the estrangements and the ones who do are stunned by it. They know who we are and we take comfort from that. At times I find it very difficult to believe walking away is the only defence especially when I get triggered. I think it will be an internal struggle I will have for the rest of my life. It doesn’t hurt as much anymore but it’s still there.
This is what I wondered too. All I can come up with is that the situation is working for them. My sister makes excuses, and for a long time blamed me – saying that maybe they think I don’t like them. I said how could I want to be around them when they treat me badly. I do remember an occasion when my brother who is married to the narc SIL treated her like he did me for a brief moment – she jumped up and said why is he treating me like that and went to that brother right away and did what she had to do to get in his good graces. I told her later, now you know how I feel, but she continued to make excuses and mostly deny it. My sister is a good person, but she does not want to rock the boat, and they treat her better since she is not the target. I just believe she doesn’t want to see it because its not a problem for her and she doesn’t want to change anything. She sees I am hurt but I believe has convinced herself that everything is fine, she is a submissive person and has a husband who controls her.
I think it depends, I came from an alcoholic home so my siblings were used to sticking their head in the sand and being in denial. I am in a 12 step recovery working on breaking the cycle, but my siblings are still all in the cycle of the alcoholic home and the cycle continues. It is so hurtful to be gaslighted but I choose not to be around them now. I was married to a narc and I divorced him and I am so done with dealing with narcs, I don’t want to be around any of them if I can help it. I guess in the end we just have to take care of ourselves whether or not anyone else chooses to acknowledge what is happening or not. In my case, they just want to stick their heads in the sand and live in denial – I am not ok with that, I want to live in reality.
I have realized I am one of these people. A vulnerable narcissist. These articles are invaluable if I am to change. I read the comments though and wonder if this is possible. I am about to undergo therapy. I wondered if any contributors have knowledge of anyone who has successfully come out the other side and made permanent change.