13 ways to spot covert narcissism at work
Traits of covert or vulnerable narcissism in professional settings
Most of us will know someone who is self-deprecating, self-identifies as neurotic or highly sensitive, and is a great storyteller about their woes, foibles and mishaps. They charm with their victimhood and vulnerability on display, and make you want to reach out to save them. When they disclose their tragedies online for teachable moments, you might feel like something’s amiss yet dismiss your doubts lest you’re an asshole for silently questioning their intentions.
If you’ve found yourself in a co-dependent web in the form of a friendship or professional relationship, on reflection, you’ll notice that it occurred through a progressive and subtle grooming process. They’ll start off by saying “how amazing/skilled/intuitive/articulate/insert praise here you are” (lovebombing) and “they would love to be in touch to get to know you better and see how you can work together because they can see synergies that could be great for collaboration” (idealization), they’ll follow up quickly and make sure you feel like you’re a priority for them (significance). They’ll tell you about all the things that will resonate with you, you’ll feel like you’re finally being seen and valued, and you’ll feel really excited that the timing is right for this new connection and opportunity.
You’ve been caught in their tractor beam.
What happens next is a short yet intense period of interactions that continues to involve lovebombing, idealization and exclusive access to their private life and thoughts. Before you know it, the boundary between friend and co-dependent is murky and this person has infiltrated your other relationships or your psyche so their presence is constantly felt. By the time you realise that you’ve been enlisted as their saviour to constantly put out their fires; attempts to draw boundaries are met with DARVO, the cold shoulder, ghosting or worse, flying monkeys that are your mutual connections getting involved to help you two work things out.
What I’ve been describing are features of vulnerable or covert narcissism.
Here are some of the traits of your covert narcissistic colleague or peer:
They attach their mission to yours and make you (and your resources ie. intellectual property, financial capacity, network) central to their wellbeing and success.
Their victimhood must be centred at all times. No matter what, they’re having a worse day than you or your bad day/emotional state is interfering with the work that needs to be done.
They align with people who view themselves as relatively more powerful or secure and conversely, people are who feel more secure are generous with their time, energy and resources.
They ingratiate themselves to someone who is in the spotlight or proficient in their field to gain status and access to their network. Regardless of whether they are in a superior or inferior position in the institutional hierarchy, once you’re in their tractor beam, they will make it seem as if they’re doing you a favour, and that YOU need THEM for success. They become the puppet master for your work and progress while elevating those who appear to be in an inferior position to you (while taking advantage of the resources you have provided).
They show skill in eliciting sympathy from others when they’ve been wronged by others.
Their perceived helplessness attracts rescuing behaviour by those who see themselves as stronger. For example, when you’re feeling strong and confident in yourself, they will open up to you to make it seem like they trust you, and they’re inviting your feedback or support, giving you the illusion of equality and empowerment.
You notice soon after that they pretend the exchange never happened and take subtle digs at you or humiliating you in front of others when you least expect it, to remind you of your place and role as subordinate.
You will hear about their outrage about others who act unethically, which is to mean that the other person failed to supply the emotional energy that this person expected from them. They will be judged as self-absorbed and selfish. You will feel like their outrage is an over-exaggeration but you will have learned from past experience it’s best to act outraged with them.
They pretend they didn’t know about a personal emergency or issue that required you to take time off, then downplay it as a mere inconvenience to refocus on their agenda and what they need for you to do for them.
They perceive your reflections and explanations about your personal situation as accusations about their negligence or judgements against their character.
Once you’re viewed as a threat to their ability to continue to gain supply from others, vengeance and jealousy will fuel retaliatory actions, such as systematically removing your access to the resources, opportunities and networks that you gave them access to in the first place. They will refer to this as following procedures, official protocols and/or restoring justice.
You won’t be able to share your experiences with anyone who works closely with them because they’ve all benefited from your labour and resources. This includes people in your network that this person infiltrated, made their own alliances and used some of the resources you’ve introduced to gain favour with them to continue the work without you.
Attempts to raise their awareness of the impact of their actions on you will result in defensiveness, extreme gaslighting, accusations of misunderstanding and mental imbalance, and threats.
I’m painting a bleak picture of what happens ALL THE TIME in professional settings ranging from entrepreneurial endeavours to academic research to activism to corporate initiatives.
Once you experience these characteristics, it’s time to exit the situation because it’s only going to get worse for you because of the ongoing psychological distress you’ve been experiencing. The exit is systematic, methodical and progressive rather than abrupt and dramatic.
The puppet master won’t let go of their puppet that easily. You’re the one who must cut the strings while keeping them distracted from noticing the scissors.
Therefore, every exiting protocol is unique depending on the context, quality of your internal and external supports, resources you can retrieve, relative status, reputation risk management needs and quality of your post-exit recovery support team.
What is universal is that every exiting protocol includes maintaining consistent behaviour to avoid raising suspicion. You might continue to act the same as you always did, except now you’re doing it deliberately while increasing the emotional distance between yourself and that person, to liberate from their tractor beam.
Don’t worry, they have already pulled in the next person with their tractor beam to repeat the cycle.
Thank you for reading and for your thoughts on this topic,
Nathalie Martinek, PhD
The Narcissism Hacker
Does this seem familiar to you?
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