9 phrases covert narcissists use to subtly manipulate you

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

But then, things started to feel off. He had this knack for saying things that sounded like praise but left me second-guessing myself. 

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

Have you ever left a conversation feeling inexplicably off-balance, like you’ve just been subtly undermined but can’t pinpoint how? 

Maybe it’s that friend who always leaves you doubting your achievements or a partner whose compliments never quite feel like compliments.

It’s not always loud and clear when someone’s manipulating you, especially at first. But it’s important to spot it early, or it can wreak havoc on our self-worth. 

With this in mind, today, we dive into nine phrases covert narcissists commonly use.

Let’s get to it. 

1) “You’re too sensitive”

Picture this: You’re having a discussion with someone, maybe a friend, colleague, or partner. You express how something they said or did hurt your feelings. Instead of acknowledging your emotions, they retort with, “You’re too sensitive.” Sound familiar?

This phrase is a classic move in the covert narcissist’s playbook. By labeling you as “too sensitive,” they’re not just dismissing your feelings; they’re subtly shifting the blame onto you

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

The danger here is subtle yet profound. It’s easy to start believing that we are indeed too sensitive. This can lead to a diminished sense of self-worth and an inability to trust our feelings and instincts.

However, your emotions are valid, and expressing them doesn’t make you weak or overly sensitive. It makes you human.

This phrase is pretty insulting and hard to deal with, but the next is perhaps even more. 

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 later when I 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 embarrassment; it was the way he made me feel like I couldn’t take a joke. 

This kind of behavior is a classic example of passive-aggressive manipulation. Covert narcissists often use humor as a disguise for criticism. It’s a way to belittle and demean us, all while maintaining an image of innocence. 

If we call them out, they turn it around and accuse us of overreacting.

A joke is only funny if everyone is laughing. If the humor consistently comes at your expense and leaves you feeling small, it’s not a joke—it’s 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 one to subtly criticize decisions and actions while positioning themselves as wiser or more knowledgeable. It’s a way of undermining our choices and instilling doubt about our judgment.

However, it’s crucial to remember that everyone’s perspective is unique, and what might seem 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 passed. 

If you hear this phrase, take a moment to consider whether this feedback is constructive or if it’s simply being used to undermine your confidence. Advice can be valuable, but it’s also important to trust your own judgment and not let others’ hindsight critiques diminish your confidence in making decisions.

4) “That reminds me of the time I…[Insert humble brag]”

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

I encountered this with a colleague. Whenever I shared an achievement, his response would start with a seemingly supportive comment, quickly followed by a story of his own accomplishments. 

This is classic narcissistic manipulation

This tactic serves several purposes. Firstly, it minimizes your experiences or achievements, making them seem less important. Secondly, it redirects attention and admiration back to the narcissist. It’s a way of keeping the spotlight firmly on themselves. 

The humble brag element is particularly insidious because it’s cloaked in false modesty. It gives the impression that they’re just sharing, but the real intention is to outdo or one-up your story.

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

5) “Back in the day, I used to think that, too.”

The phrase “Back in the day, I used to think that, too,” or similar is a subtle form of condescension regularly used by covert narcissists

As you probably guessed, It’s designed to undermine your current stance or feelings by implying that they are a sign of inexperience or naivety and that the speaker has since evolved beyond that point.

This phrase and others like it belittle 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’ll eventually outgrow them, just as they supposedly have.

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

Also, keep in mind that narcissists are often expert liars; when they say this, there’s a good chance it’s not even true.

6) “I’m only trying to help you”

Can you recall a time when someone offered you ‘help’ that felt more like an imposition or a way to undermine your abilities?

 When I was in my early twenties, a relative would constantly give me unsolicited advice on my career despite being in a completely different industry. When I expressed that I felt capable of making my own decisions, he’d retort, “I’m only trying to help you.” It made me question whether I was being overly defensive or unappreciative of his ‘concern.’

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

But genuine 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 often hear this phrase, especially when you haven’t asked for help or have expressed that it’s not needed, it’s a red flag.

7) “You wouldn’t understand”

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

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

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

And it often comes with this next one. 

8) “You will eventually learn that…”

My colleague, whom I mentioned at the beginning of this post was a big fan of this one. When I would share my opinion, he often dismissed it with, “I understand your view, but you will eventually learn that I’m right,”. 

The phrase seeks 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, our views might not eventually align. In fact, in my experience, they probably won’t. With time, my views only drifted further from those of the colleague in this example. 

Don’t let patronizing statements like this undermine your confidence and growth. 

9) “You just don’t get it”

Disagreement or different perspectives are normal in any conversation. However, using “You don’t get it” as a blanket statement to dismiss someone’s viewpoint is not about fostering understanding; it’s about asserting dominance.

If you frequently encounter this phrase, especially in situations where you’re confident in your understanding, it’s worth considering whether it’s being used to undermine you. 

Healthy discussions involve mutual respect and the willingness to consider different viewpoints, not dismiss them outright.

It’s important to trust your knowledge and insights.

Being told “You don’t get it” in a condescending manner doesn’t necessarily reflect your understanding of the situation; rather, it often reflects the other person’s desire to assert their perceived superiority.

The bottom line

Covert narcissists use subtle phrases like the ones above to manipulate and undermine our 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 maintain healthy boundaries.

Until next time. 

Mal James

Originally from Ireland, Mal is a content writer, entrepreneur, and teacher with a passion for self-development, productivity, relationships, and business.

As an avid reader, Mal delves into a diverse range of genres, expanding his knowledge and honing his writing skills to empower readers to embark on their own transformative journeys.

In his downtime, Mal can be found on the golf course or exploring the beautiful landscapes and diverse culture of Vietnam, where he is now based.

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