This can be a really frustrating dynamic that people more aware to narcissists and pathological personalities can get caught up in. You, as an observant person, can see very well who they are, what they’re up to, how they’re lying and manipulating others. And as a principled person, you may be vocal about pointing this out. But no one else in the environment seems to agree with you.
They either “shrug off” or make excuses for the narcissist’s behavior, or refuse to see what you can see. Some people may even aggressively take the narcissist’s side when you point out some of their behavior. This can be extremely exacerbating to deal with, so what’s going on? Why is it sometimes that only you can see the narcissist for who they are, but no one else can?
One common reason that no one else sees the narcissist for who they really are is that they are very clever at presenting themselves very well in public, and reserving their toxic behavior for private interactions with individual people. However, more overt narcissists can also be very adept and manipulating and controlling environments, charming superficial onlookers into overlooking their problematic behavior.
And that’s really it – it boils down to how clever narcissists are at manipulating the perception of others so they are seen favorably by a majority of people in an environment. The covert narcissists are more sneaky about it, the overt narcissists are more brazen and use charm, but they’re usually very clever at “working” environments and social circles they’re in so that people can’t or won’t see them for who they really are.
It also boils down to the quality of people in that environment in general – not just the narcissist. If you’re around people who refuse to see and call out unacceptable behavior for what it is, it might be worth questioning whether these people are people you should be around (never mind the narcissist).
But it’s not always this simple, and sometimes the narcissist has so cleverly concealed who they really are to others, that you literally feel you can’t confide in anyone else in that environment. Let’s cover some different ways this issue manifests for onlookers.
The Sneaky, Concealed Nature Of Covert Narcissism
This is one commonly encountered aspect of this issue – when a narcissist only shows their true colors in private, often to one person, when no one else can see them. Then, in the outside world, they present a completely different image to others – the perfectly compassionate, “pro-social” champion of causes, attuned, empathic person.
And yet the person you see in private is the total opposite – arrogant, exploitative, entitled, abusive. But the rest of the world never sees the “real” them – that’s reserved for in private, when no one else in looking. The way they presented at the dinner party you went to earlier tonight is the total opposite of how they present when you arrive home alone.
In this sense, you can “see” who they really are, but they’re very clever to ensure no one else really sees this (see around the 43 minute time-stamp of this podcast for a good example of this, including the blatant hypocrisy and double standards the narcissist often lives by – the “animal rights activist” in public, who doesn’t even look after her own dog in private).
This is a very common pattern with the so called covert or fragile narcissist. This type of narcissist has been covered in detail online, but one expert who really gives an insightful overview of this is Abdul Saad. See the video below where he goes into the architecture of the covert narcissist’s personality in detail – it will explain why this pattern is common in many narcissists.
The undercover narcissist abuser (15 minute mark):
Some points made in the video that are relevant to this topic of this post include:
- The covert narcissist is actually painfully and acutely aware of social norms, but also secretly resents and despises them, feeling entitled to do whatever they want and live however they want.
- These people are however extremely sensitive to negative criticism or evaluation from others, and so are very careful to present a respectable image in public to avoid this.
- This explains this split, whereby the narcissists “seems” to be a certain way in public, while being the opposite in private. They are conforming to the social norms to preserve their “public image” and seem respectable and likeable to others.
- It’s when in private that their “real” persona comes out – entitled, arrogant, obnoxious, exploitative – because no one else is there to observe their behavior.
- In other words, covert narcissists are toxic ONLY when anonymity or lack of widespread scrutiny of their behavior is guaranteed. This is the sneaky aspect of their pathology.
This is one of the most painful scenarios to go through for the person caught up in it, because it’s so invalidating and isolating. People in the outside world only see the narcissist’s carefully cultivated public image, and often think they’re “amazing” or “great”. But in private, you see the “real” them, but you feel all alone in that, to the point where if you confided in anyone in the outside world, they’ve have no idea what you’re talking about and quickly side with the narcissist.
It acts as an insidious form of gas-lighting that’s built into the entire situation, where there’s no one around to validate your (correct) perception of the narcissist’s real behavior, and the outside world’s positive perception of them continues to invalidate you and think maybe you’re the one not seeing things correctly.
Why Can’t Some People See The Narcissist For What They Are?
Let’s summarize some more general points as to why narcissists often seem to “get away with” being who they are and doing what they do, to the frustration of more observant onlookers:
- Their toxicity is very selective and sneakily concealed and therefore hidden from certain people and only displayed in certain private settings (as covered above)
- Narcissists are sensitive to being seen badly by others on a large scale and are therefore “PR” and “image management” masters, always making sure they’re seen favorably by social groups.
- Narcissists are often instinctually good at charming themselves into the good graces of certain people as well.
- Narcissists are also masters at playing the victim and using “sob stories” and “martyr acts” to paint themselves as the one done wrong and manipulate people into siding with them. (sympathy/pity plays).
- A large bulk of the general population is arguably superficial, transparent, undiscerning, and easily “taken in” and manipulated by pathological but charming personality types like certain narcissists. Someone who’s “a good laugh” or glib/charming is “enough” for many people sadly to overlook any of their other toxic behavior.
- Many people in the general population are also not particularly strong principled, “go along to get along” types (“apaths”), that don’t want to get on the wrong side of the narcissist and instead would rather side with them, or at least not oppose them, rather than validate your correct observations.
- Many narcissists are also masters of low level “back-biting” and the “smear campaign”, where they’ve often been sneaking around bad-mouthing you to others, long before you were pointing out any of their toxic behavior to them. They’ve “got in there” first, way before you, and influenced the perceptions of bystanders to side with them, not you.
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A Common Dynamic With Narcissists In Social/Work Circles
Aside from the covert narcissist dynamic covered above, there are other situations where the narcissist’s toxic behavior isn’t so sneakily concealed, but they STILL seem to get away with it in the sense that other people can’t or won’t see the reality of who they really are, when you can see it.
This is another frustrating type of scenario, and is common in group environments that the narcissist has managed to “work” or gain control over, often through a combination of manipulation, charm and deception, plus exploiting the superficiality of others.
Here’s how it often plays out:
- As an “empath”, observant person, “outsider” or just someone with principles and standards, you see the narcissist’s behavior AND point out some obvious wrong-doing or toxic/inappropriate behavior on their part
- Other bystanders in the environment either overlook or shrug off their behavior, refusing to see it the same way as you.
- Others may even aggressively defend the narcissist and attack you.
- You grow more and more frustrated and exacerbated, pointing out more and more inappropriate behavior on their part. Bystanders still refuse to acknowledge or validate your perception, and perhaps even turn against you. The more you try and expose the narcissist, the more people ignore your concerns and maybe even attack and find fault with you. You may feel more and more isolated and invalidated in the setting. This dynamic can seem to take on a life of it’s own and grow stronger, with your growing frustration seeming to fuel it.
- Eventually, in work settings especially, there may be some kind of big argument or “blow-up” involving you and the narcissist, and bystanders actually take their side, not yours, despite all the inappropriate behavior on their part that you’ve pointed out to them.
This can be a very common dynamic unfortunately – I’ve been there myself and in hind-sight, it’s obvious what a waste of energy it was even getting frustrated and exacerbated by it. All people reveal themselves, for better or worse, through their lack of discernment and standards.
It may be better to save your energy and dis-engage from such invalidating scenarios where the narcissists seems to have the entire environment around them, including the people, under their control and seems to get away with pretty much anything they want.
Whilst I can’t give universally applicable advice because every situation is different, I can recall my own experiences, and say that in every case this happened, I now believe I should have dis-engaged and withdrawn a lot sooner and stopped trying to “argue the case” against the toxic person to people who had no interest in hearing it.
In my particular case, it was an online social circle, and looking back it was ridiculous how frustrated I got trying to get others to see the narcissist (“did you see what he did then?!”, “listen to what he just said to ….!”). I was just wasting my energy. I was seeing, and pointing out, all the screaming red flags for narcissism in the person, but no one else was seeing it. But that’s exactly the answer right there – if no one else is seeing it, it’s kind of a strong indication that you’re around the wrong people in the first place.
A much better approach in hindsight would have been to simply withdraw and disengage from the environment much earlier on and find better quality people to be around, when the “red flags” became apparent. I remember the exact point when looking back I wish I had done so, and it was many months before I actually did.
Instead of growing more and more frustrated trying to get others to “see” the narcissist for who they were, it should have been a simple “after this season/project is over, I’m moving on to new things”. And that’s it – simple, easy! No frustration, no exasperation. Don’t even talk about the narcissist to others. Just move on to new environments as soon as possible. No trying to push a string up a hill getting others to see. If they can’t see or refuse to see, that’s their problem. Just move on.
There’s a much more peaceful energy around living intentionally and pro-actively and simply moving on from toxic scenarios where clear reality seems to be denied. It’s probably more peaceful because you’re taking back control instead of losing control with this growing sense of frustration/exacerbation.
Some Useful Concepts For Dealing With This Scenario
Here are some more concepts and terms that may help deal with this common and frustrating scenario.
Smear Campaign – Describes the very well worn path that pathological personalities take to smear/discredit others, especially in workplaces but also social circles. Often involves pre-emptively sneaking around talking trash about you long before you tried to expose them to others, or otherwise provoking reactions in you and then sneaking around sharing those reactions with others, trying to paint you out to be the “crazy” one that’s “losing it”. Be on the lookout at work especially, document everything and become adept at spotting when everything about a situation (culture, organization, bystanders, management), is “wrong”, not just the narcissist, and it’s best to move on.
Apath – Describes those bystander, in-the-middle types who aren’t totally bad but aren’t really what you’d call “good” either. Kind of passive individuals who usually won’t call out the narcissist on bad behavior, and would rather do the “easy” thing than the “right” thing.
“Useful idiots” – I would define this as being one step up from a simple “apath” who doesn’t call out the narcissist, as someone who happily and willingly sides with and is used as a “tool” by the narcissist in their scheming and general nonsense. A totally mindless, low intelligence type of person who’s kind of easier to spot very early on. No point even wasting time on these people, and not advised to confide anything in them.
Sociopath/narcissist-empath-apath-triad – A very common dynamic where the toxic person succeeds in getting other people to side against you and humiliate/isolate you. Very common in workplaces especially. You may call out the narcissist on some kind of obvious wrong-doing. They triangulate and draw others into the conflict, or you turn to others for support/validation. These other people actually side with the narcissist/sociopath, and you’re left isolated, invalidated and sometimes pushed out altogether through the moral cowardice of these apaths.
“Red Flags” – This term is usually reserved for identifying the narcissist by certain toxic behavior patterns, but it’s worth considering extending this to red flags in the “bystanders” or other people in the environment, plus the situation itself. If you’re seeing these toxic patterns of denial/apathy/low discernment/siding with them, in the people around the narcissist, it’s a red flag that these people are also not people you want to be around, not just the narcissist. Look for “red flags” in the entire scenario, not just in the narcissist individually.
Moral Relativism – Is another toxic ideology that has seeped into modern life, and leads to people “letting off” the narcissist by excuses like “he’s just in a bad mood”, “he’s a bit funny sometimes”, “he’s just a bit of a character”, “we all do ….. sometimes”, etc etc. By wary of environments where you keep hearing these excuses and rationalizations for repeatedly unacceptable behavior. If “lines in the sand” matter to you, but seemingly not the anyone else in a certain environment, consider whether this is an environment you want to stay in.