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9 phrases covert narcissists use to subtly manipulate you

9 phrases covert narcissists use to subtly manipulate you

When I started my career in finance, I had a colleague, let’s call him John. John was charming, intelligent and always the center of attention. At first I admired his confidence.

But then things started not feeling right. He had a gift for saying things that sounded like praise, but I doubted myself.

It wasn’t until I learned the concept of covert narcissism that it all clicked.

Have you ever left a conversation feeling inexplicably off balance, as if you’ve been subtly undermined but not quite sure how?

Maybe it’s that friend who always makes you doubt your performance or a partner whose compliments never really feel like compliments.

It’s not always loud and clear when someone is manipulating you, especially in the beginning. But it’s important to catch it early, otherwise it can wreak havoc on our self-esteem.

With this in mind, today we’ll dive into nine phrases that covert narcissists often use.

Let’s get started.

1) “You’re too sensitive”

Picture this: you’re having a conversation with someone, perhaps a friend, colleague, or partner. You express how something they said or did hurt your feelings. Instead of admitting your emotions, they respond with, “You’re too sensitive.” Sounds familiar?

This phrase is a classic move in the covert narcissist’s playbook. By labeling you as “too sensitive,” they are not only ignoring your feelings; they subtly shift the blame onto you.

It’s a clever way of saying that the problem isn’t their behavior, it’s your response to it.

The danger here is subtle but profound. It’s easy to start believing that we are indeed too sensitive. This can lead to decreased self-esteem and an inability to trust our feelings and instincts.

However, your emotions are valid, and expressing them does not make you weak or overly sensitive. It makes you human.

This sentence is quite insulting and difficult to deal with, but the next one might be even more so.

2) “I was just kidding”

I remember a time, back in my finance days, when my then boss made a sarcastic comment about my presentation skills in front of the entire team. It wasn’t the first time.

I was embarrassed as always, and when I later worked up the courage to confront him, he brushed it off with a laugh and said, “I was just kidding.” That moment stayed with me. It wasn’t just the shame; it was the way he made me feel like I couldn’t take a joke.

This type of behavior is a classic example of passive-aggressive manipulation. Covert narcissists often use humor as a disguise for criticism. It is a way to belittle and humiliate us, while at the same time maintaining the image of innocence.

When we speak to them, they turn it around and accuse us of overreacting.

A joke is only funny when everyone laughs. If the humor is consistently at your expense and makes you feel small, it’s no joke; it is a subtle form of manipulation.

3) “You know what you should have done…”

Here’s another classic: “You know what you should have done…”.

Narcissists use this method to subtly criticize decisions and actions while positioning themselves as wiser or better informed. It is a way to undermine our choices and cast doubt on our judgment.

However, it is crucial to remember that everyone’s perspective is unique, and what seems like the right choice for one person may not be the same for another. Your decisions are based on your experiences, knowledge and intuition, and they are valid.

Not only that, we all know, “Hindsight is 20/20” or at least closer to 20/20! It’s easy to say what we should have done when it’s already over.

When you hear this phrase, take a moment to consider whether this feedback is constructive or just used to undermine your self-confidence. Advice can be valuable, but it is also important to trust your own judgment and not let the criticism of others diminish your confidence in making decisions.

4) “That reminds me of when I…(insert humble brag)”

Think of a time you shared something you were proud of or excited about, and the response you got was, “That reminds me of when I…”

I came across this with a colleague. Whenever I shared an achievement, his response would start with a seemingly supportive comment, quickly followed by a story about his own achievements.

This is classic narcissistic manipulation.

This tactic serves several purposes. First, it minimizes your experiences or achievements, making them seem less important. Second, it diverts attention and admiration back to the narcissist. It’s a way to keep the spotlight firmly on himself.

The element of humble boasting is particularly treacherous because it is cloaked in false modesty. It gives the impression that they are just sharing, but the real intention is to surpass or enhance your story.

Recognizing this pattern is important. It’s not about denying the achievements of others, but about understanding when this behavior is used to minimize your experiences and keep the focus on the narcissist.

5) “I used to think that too.”

The phrase “I used to think that too,” or something similar, is a subtle form of condescension frequently used by covert narcissists.

As you’ve probably guessed, it’s intended to undermine your current position or feelings by implying that they are a sign of inexperience or naivete and that the speaker has since evolved beyond that point.

This sentence and others like it do not fit our current perspective and indirectly praise the speaker’s own “advanced” understanding. It’s a way of saying that your views are immature and that you will eventually outgrow them, just as they supposedly are.

However, everyone’s journey and perspective are valid, regardless of their experience level. Feelings and opinions are not necessarily tied to how experienced someone is; they are shaped by a large number of personal factors and experiences.

Keep that in mind too Narcissists are often expert liars; if they say this, chances are it’s not even true.

6) “I’m just trying to help you”

Can you remember a time when someone offered you “help” that felt more like an imposition or a way to undermine your abilities?

In my early twenties, a family member constantly gave me unsolicited advice about my career, despite being in a completely different industry. When I said I felt able to make my own decisions, he replied, “I’m just trying to help you.” I wondered if I was being overly defensive or not appreciating his “concern.”

Here’s the problem: When someone frequently uses “I’m just trying to help you” in response to your resistance or discomfort, it’s often a way to mask overbearing or controlling behavior. It turns the situation around and positions them as the benevolent figure and you as the one rejecting their goodwill.

But real help is different. It respects boundaries and is given in response to your needs and requests, not imposed based on what someone else thinks is best for you. If you hear this phrase often, especially if you have not asked for help or indicated that it is not necessary, it is a warning sign.

7) “You wouldn’t understand”

“You wouldn’t understand” is often used as a subtle form of exclusion and belittling. It’s a way for a covert narcissist to position themselves as superior or more enlightened, implying that you lack the ability or insight to understand what they’re talking about.

But here’s what really happens: By saying “you wouldn’t understand,” they avoid having to justify or discuss their actions. It is not a reflection of your understanding or intelligence; it is a tactic to keep you at a distance and avoid scrutiny.

Almost everyone has the ability to understand complex situations, given the right explanation and context. Being told you wouldn’t understand is not a reflection of your abilities, but a manipulation tactic to undermine your self-confidence and keep you in the dark.

And it often comes with this next one.

8) “You will eventually learn that…”

My colleague, who I mentioned at the beginning of this post, was a big fan of this. When I shared my opinion, he would often dismiss it with, “I understand your opinion, but eventually you’ll find out I’m right.”

The phrase attempts to undermine our confidence in our own beliefs and decisions. It positions the speaker as wiser or more experienced, suggesting that our understanding will eventually align with theirs, invalidating our current perspective.

But the truth is that our views may ultimately not align. In my experience, they probably won’t. Over time, my views only drifted further from those of the colleague in this example.

Don’t let patronizing statements like these undermine your self-confidence and growth.

9) “You just don’t get it”

Disagreements or different perspectives are normal in any conversation. But using “You don’t understand” as a blanket statement to dismiss someone’s position is not about promoting understanding; it’s about asserting dominance.

If you often encounter this phrase, especially in situations where you are confident in your understanding, it is worth considering whether it is being used to undermine you.

Healthy discussions where there is mutual respect and a willingness to consider different points of view, not dismiss them outright.

It is important to trust your knowledge and insights.

Being told in a condescending way that you don’t understand doesn’t necessarily reflect your understanding of the situation; rather, it often reflects the other’s desire to assert his or her perceived superiority.

it comes down to

Covert narcissists use subtle expressions like those above to manipulate and undermine our self-confidence, making it crucial to recognize and trust our own feelings and judgment.

Your perspectives, decisions, and emotions are valid. Don’t let manipulative tactics erode your self-esteem or autonomy.

Stay aware, trust yourself and maintaining healthy boundaries.


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