12 phrases covert narcissists use to make you feel small, according to psychology

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Narcissists are bad people to be around.

Incapable of empathy for other people, they tend to manipulate and use everyone around them to achieve their own selfish goals.

And while some people are quite obvious about their narcissistic traits, others hide them.

“A covert narcissist is someone who craves admiration and importance, lacking empathy toward others but may act in a different way than an overt narcissist,” writes professional counselor Jodi Clarke.

“They may exhibit symptoms of narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) but often hide the more obvious signs of the condition.”

That makes them potentially extremely dangerous.

The first step to dealing with these narcissists is to understand that this is what they are.

And sometimes, the phrases they use to make you feel small and try to control you give away their narcissistic tendencies.

Watch out for anyone who says things like this:

1) “You’re pretty smart for someone who didn’t go to college”

This, and other phrases like it, is known as a backhanded compliment. And while it might sound like a compliment, its real purpose is completely different.

A normal compliment is supposed to make you feel good about yourself. A backhanded compliment is supposed to make you feel small and inferior.

Covert narcissists use backhanded compliments because it allows them to deny what they are really doing. If confronted about what they have said, they will claim that they were only trying to be nice and give you a compliment.

It’s not true.

“Often the best way to determine whether a comment is toxic is to ask, “Would I ever say anything like that to someone else?”, writes psychotherapist Erin Leonard. “If the answer is a resounding, “No” it may be an indication that the comment is venomous.”

2) “You’re too sensitive”

This is a common tool in the arsenal of the covert narcissist, and they use it to try to disguise their bad behavior and trick you into thinking that your reactions are the problem instead of the things they say and do.

A covert narcissist will accuse you of being too sensitive anytime you challenge them for belittling or insulting you. Often, they may claim that the things they say were just a joke you took too seriously, or that you misunderstood them.

It’s true that we sometimes get the wrong end of the stick and can be offended by things people say without intending to hurt us.

But if someone is always accusing you of being too sensitive, it’s a sign that they are trying to minimize your feelings and hide their own bad behavior.

3) “I didn’t expect you to understand”

This is a passive-aggressive comment, and it’s the kind of phrase covert narcissists love to use.

“Passive aggression can be defined as anger, hostility, and/or learned helplessness in disguise, expressed in covert ways to “even the score” and gain an underhanded advantage,” writes psychologist Preston Ni.

A comment like this has a couple of aims.

One is to paint the narcissist as a victim, and someone you should pity. Narcissists love to do this because it helps them to control you. By making you feel guilt toward them, they make you feel obligated to do what they want.

The other aim is to make you feel bad about yourself. By saying something like this, the narcissist is certainly implying that you don’t have the intellect or sensitivity to understand their feelings

Again, this is a way of making you feel inferior so that you come to trust their decisions more than your own.

4) “I don’t know what I’d do without you”

This is a very subtle phrase a covert narcissist might use, because it can sound romantic.

And it’s true that many people who are not narcissists and not trying to manipulate you might say something like this to express how deeply they feel about you and your relationship.

However, when said by a covert narcissist, phrases like this are actually a veiled threat.

By saying something like this, narcissist makes you responsible for their well-being. The idea is to make you scared to end a relationship with them because of what they might do to themselves.

In other words, it’s just another manipulation tactic.

“Threatening behavior is a good reason to end a relationship. No one should have to tolerate threats in any relationship, and deciding to end your relationship is a completely acceptable response to threatening behavior,” says licensed counselor Jay Reid.

5) “Anyone could have done that”

This is a phrase you may hear from covert narcissist when you’ve achieved something impressive.

The goal here is to make you feel small by minimizing your achievements. Pointing out that anyone could achieve what you have is a way for the covert narcissist to keep you under their control by eroding your self-esteem.

6) “You’re so selfish”

I mentioned earlier that narcissists love to play the victim. Phrases like this not only make you feel bad about yourself, but also make you feel as though you owe the narcissist something, which makes you easier to control.

This can also be a form of projection.

As author and mental health coach Darius Cikanavicius points out, narcissists usually lack self-awareness.

“They tend to deny flaws in themselves and blame others for their own shortcomings, mistakes, and misfortunes. This is called projection, and people with narcissistic tendencies are projection-heavy individuals,” he writes.

In other words, a covert narcissist can give themselves away by accusing you and others around them of the bad behaviors they themselves are guilty of.

7) “You always do things like this”

Statements like this can be damaging in any relationship.

That’s because they have a way of inflating the issue you are discussing and making it a general pattern of behavior.

If you complain about the way a narcissist treats you, they will say that you are always criticizing them. If you have a legitimate issue with the way they talk to you, they will say that you are always picking on everything they say.

That’s how they put you on the defensive and avoid having to deal with their own behavior.

8) “I was just joking”

Covert narcissists will often use the excuse that they were just joking to hide an insult.

Don’t believe them.

We can all make jokes that don’t land the way we hope from time to time, but if someone is constantly saying mean things and then trying to justify it as a joke, it may be a sign that they are a covert narcissist.

9) “My ex always/never…”

Narcissists also loved to play the comparison game.

By comparing you to an ex partner, they are playing on your insecurities. Not only are they trying to show your behavior isn’t as good as that of a former lover, but they are reminding you that they are capable of finding other partners if you step out of line.

“Anyone who has spent significant time dating a narcissistic person knows firsthand that such partners often provoke jealousy by talking about wanting to date other people, commenting on how attractive someone else is (e.g., while out on a date), and discussing the shortcomings of their current partner compared to others,” writes psychiatrist Grant Hillary Brenner.

10) “You never think about me”

Like many of the other phrases on this list, this one is designed to play on your guilt and paint the narcissist as a victim.

By saying things like this, the narcissist hopes to make you feel bad about the way you’ve been treating them so that you will let them get away with more of their manipulative behavior.

11) “If you really cared about me, you would do what I want”

This is a form of emotional blackmail. And it is also a sign of emotional abuse.

“Some types of emotional abuse are not easy to spot, including manipulation. It can include emotional blackmail, using threats and intimidation to exercise control,” writes psychologist Darlene Lancer. “Narcissists are masters of verbal abuse and manipulation.”

Phrases like this are classic signs of emotional blackmail, and they reveal a covert narcissist for the manipulative and controlling person they are.

12) “Your friends don’t understand you like I do”

Finally, a phrase like this is an attempt at isolation.

You see, a covert narcissist knows that most of us get a lot of strength from our support network of friends and family. So in order to control you more easily, they need to isolate you from that network.

They will use phrases like this to create a rift between you and the people closest to you. That way, you become more dependent on them, and easier to control.

Spotting a covert narcissist

Manipulative narcissists know that they need to stay under the radar for their schemes to work. And covert narcissists are usually good at hiding their true nature.

But phrases like this can give them away. So if you know someone who is always saying things like this, consider the possibility that you are dealing with a covert narcissist.

Lucas Graham

Lucas Graham, based in Auckland, writes about the psychology behind everyday decisions and life choices. His perspective is grounded in the belief that understanding oneself is the key to better decision-making. Lucas’s articles are a mix of personal anecdotes and observations, offering readers relatable and down-to-earth advice.

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