This is a really pernicious and crazy making aspect of narcissistic abuse. Some of these people seem to be very clever and subtle with the way they abuse others, only doing it when do one else is around.
Your narcissist partner may have been fine when you went to the dinner party earlier on, presenting as warm and charming to you and everyone else. But as soon as you got back home, the mask came off again and they were back to the gas-lighting, the projection, and other obnoxious behavior.
And you might observe this pattern over and over again – they only ever abuse you when you’re alone together, in private, and no one else is there. Why do they do this? What’s going on?
Although this pattern of behavior can be displayed by any narcissist, it tends to be more common with the covert/fragile/vulnerable narcissist, and is to do with their acute need to manage how they are perceived in the world at large.
A covert narcissist only tends to abuse others in private because they are somewhat aware of social norms, and because of their extreme sensitivity to outside criticism from others. Therefore they conceal their abuse to avoid being negatively seen by others in any environment.
In other words, it’s a PR and image management tactic from the narcissist, who is constantly trying to manipulate how others perceive them to avoid the intense shame that would be associated with being seen negatively by a large group of people. To this end, they cover up their abusive behavior very well so that only the person being abused really sees it.
This is a really unsettling and isolating thing to experience, but understanding is the first step to getting out of it. Let’s explain in more detail why certain narcissists behave in this sneaky way.
Why The Covert Narcissist Is Sneaky In Their Abuse (Clear Explanation)
The best treatment on this particular issue I’ve seen is from clinical psychologist Abdul Saad in the video embedded below. Once you understand the fragile personality structure of the covert narcissist, it becomes more clear why they can behave in this sneaky, undercover way, only abusing when others aren’t present (some overt narcissists can also behave like this, but it’s more common with the covert type).
The undercover narcissist abuser (15 minute mark):
Some points made in this regard include:
- How the covert narcissist is painfully aware of social norms (even though they privately resent them) and will therefore put a very convincing “mask” or facade up in public/group situations to appear normal and respectful and not draw negative attention to themselves. They will present publicly as very conforming, sensitive and well behaved.
- These people are extremely sensitive to negative criticism or evaluation from others, and so are very careful to present a respectable image in public to avoid this.
- To maintain a public image, some narcissists will champion pro social causes (eg. animal rights) at least in public (you’ll often find them completely contradicting this public image in private though).
- However, even though they follow these norms publicly, they still resent them, and like any narcissist consider themselves to be superior, unique and “special” in a grandiose, delusional way. Therefore the same underlying NPD traits are there, just more cleverly suppressed when in front of others in public/social settings.
- However, it’s when in private – when no one else is around – that the covert narcissist lets the mask slip and becomes really toxic and abusive – for example, when one on one in relationships. They might have been fine at the dinner you went to earlier with friends, but once you get back home, that’s when the vicious narcissist comes out.
- 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.
Hopefully for readers who are seeing this pattern in people, this makes it a bit more clear why they do this. They need to manage how they are perceived by others in order to keep their very fragile sense of self afloat. Therefore, even if they ARE a toxic abuser in private, they can’t be SEEN to be this way to other people in any environment.
The Gas-lighting Effect Of Covert Abuse
The really pernicious effect of this kind of “undercover” abuse, where it only takes place in private where no one else sees it, is the invalidating and isolating effect it has on the person being abused.
They feel “all alone” in their abuse, like no one else sees it, because in a sense, they don’t. The covert narcissist deliberately conceals the pathological aspects of their personality from public view to avoid the shame of being negatively judged by others for it. But their underlying personality structure means they will and must treat others with contempt and disdain in order to inflate themselves. It’s usually one or a few scapegoats that suffer this privately, away from public view.
The person on the receiving end may feel like something is wrong, but also like they can’t convey it to anyone for the fear of not being believed, since other people don’t see this side to the narcissist.
Onlookers such as family/friends/colleagues who also know the narcissist might say things such as:
- “They’d never do that. They’re not like that. They’re really nice and gentle”.
- “You seem like a really nice couple. What’s the issue?”
- “Really? I’ve never seen that side to them. They always seem perfectly fine when I’m with them”.
- “Are you sure this isn’t all in your head? They seem really nice when we meet up for dinner”.
- “They seem fine with everyone else in the shop/department. Maybe it’s you that’s the problem”
- “Well, she’s been telling me some of the things you do and say in private, and it doesn’t sound nice” (covert narcissists often engage in smear campaigns and invert reality by painting you out to be the abuser).
There are lots of general variations on this, but the general idea is that other people in the immediate environment who know the narcissist, but never see this toxic side they reveal in private, may further invalidate the victim by suggesting that they aren’t abusive, when they are.
The term for this is secondary gas-lighting – when other people in an environment (usually unknowingly) add to the gas-lighting perpetrated by the main narcissist/sociopath by not opposing them, or even siding with them, amplifying the sense of invalidation the abused person feels.
How To Handle Concealed Abuse
It can be very isolating to endure this type of sneaky, concealed abuse, but there are ways to regain your strength and sanity. Here are some suggestions if you are experiencing this type of abuse.
- Perception vs reality – very important concept. Other people can have their PERCEPTION of what the narcissist is like, but you have your own lived REALITY of what they are like when no one else is around, which takes obvious precedence. Stick to this and don’t be gas-lighted.
- Break off ANY intimate relationships where you are being dis-respected, gas-lighted and undermined, even if only in private. In cases where you can’t leave right away, see this guide for managing contact with them.
- Document any behavior you legally can in your jurisdiction. Save screenshots, texts, emails and any other evidence of toxic concealed behavior from the narcissist, especially in workplaces.
- If you’re really been heavily abused and gas-lit by this sneaky behavior for a long time, enlist the help of a good therapist who understands narcissistic abuse and gas-lighting, to help you recover and gain your own sanity back.
- The Gaslighting Recovery Workbook by Amy Marlow is a great resource for working through with a therapist or on your own. See our books section for a link.
- If certain people actively sided with the narcissist, and showed a lack of integrity (apaths or “useful idiots”), these people often need to be let go of as well, and move on to better quality people.