The Covert Narcissist

When your knight in shining armor slowly changes into an Orc (you never saw it coming) you may be dealing with a covert narcissist. We can all see those bombastic braggadocios of the classic narcissist blaring their horns from a mile away, but the subtle ones who appear so shy, so harmless, so needy…Ah! Beware those sneaky bastards.

They inflict abuse by establishing a honeymoon period of  love bombing, mirroring back your every wish and desire—at last someone sees the real you and gives you the validation you crave—followed by a slow period of devaluation: withdrawal of affection, radio silence on your accomplishments, poison darts of thinly veiled hostility, silent but deadly farts of disapproval. You become crazy and they become stronger, their narcissistic supply tanks filled while you are left drained and confused. If you have the misfortune of having one of these in your life, the best recourse is to run as far away as possible. The problem is that by the time (sometimes years, even decades) you’ve realized you’ve been slowly cooked over a rotating spit of negativity, they’ve infiltrated your friend group and perhaps your bank accounts and you’ve been drained of all your juice. But as long as you’re able to get away and recharge, there is hope.

There are many examples of the gaslighting psychopath in film and literature. Here’s one of my favorites (whoever made this video is a genius by the way):

Charles Boyer is portrayed as a more overt villain in the classic Gaslight, even if poor Ingrid Bergman is the last one to know.

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Darling, you’re losing your mind.

But drawing a true picture of the covert narcissist requires a more subtle hand. There’s the wimpy husband in The Hand That Rocks the Cradle—it’s not his fault he’s powerless to the sexy babysitter’s seductions.

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I’m so harmless.
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She goes crazy, he remains calm.

But the best example of this type that I’ve seen immortalized in celluloid is a little known (but amazing) Woody Allen film, Another Woman (1988). Here Gena Rowlands (Marion) is resisting the bumbling, but authentic affections from Gene Hackman’s character (Larry) to keep up the facade of her impending nuptials with Ian Holm (Ken), a perfect portrayal of the covert narcissist. In this powerful scene, the discarded ex (in a stunning turn by Betty Buckley) shows up at the engagement party speaking her truth, and looking like a hysterical maniac in the sea of beige respectability.

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His calm watchfulness as she emotionally spirals.

Portraying this type of character in a work of literature requires great observation of human nature and a careful examination of the subtle pain we are capable of inflicting on each other. Throughout the film Marion looks back on her life and confronts the mistakes she’s made and the people she’s hurt by her own selfishness. Holm’s Ken repeats this line “I validate your condemnation” when Marion realizes he’s pulled the same subtle gaslighting technique on her. By losing out on her chance at real love she finally takes a good look at herself, acknowledges her own coldness, and begins to heal her relationships. Like the Klimt painting featured in the story, the ending theme is one of hope.

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“I validate your condemnation.”

I’ve started this series with the most subtle, but just as deadly, type of villain. His mustache twirling happens on the level of psychological warfare.

If you know of any other examples of covert narcissist types in film and literature, please let me know in the comments.

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