“The big question is, where did I go wrong? I thought I was safe with S because we were friends for such a long time before hooking up. I ignored the red flags. The chaos in her life the summer we started dating was limitless. Her finances were a mess, she was living in her mom’s house rent-free and struggling to keep her job. I believed her when she said it was because of the terrible break-up with C, who took her for everything she had and left her broken. Indeed I remember how small and vulnerable she seemed the first night I met her. With her arms wrapped around her legs and her shock of gray locks on her knees, she seemed like a little baby bird in need of help.” (Journal entry, May 2016, one months after break-up)
I couldn’t have been more wrong that night a few years ago. What I was seeing wasn’t a vulnerable, helpless baby bird, but a predatory narcissist. “What?” you might well ask, and who could blame you. Narcissists as we all know, are grandiose, blustery, self-important individuals who dominate the conversation and post too many selfies, right?
Yes, but not so fast.There are narcissists like that, but thankfully they are usually easy to spot and avoid. No one wants to be around a loud-mouthed boor unless they get paid to do it, and I’m no different.
Unfortunately there is another sub-category of narcissists which is less well known and harder to spot: the ‘covert’ or ‘vulnerable narcissist. If S had boasted to me of her limitless accomplishments and flashed dollar signs, we would never even have made it to a friendship level. But that’s not how she presented. S was shy, quiet, wickedly funny, generous and empathetic. She underplayed her considerable successes in the theatrical world and didn’t blow her own horn. I found her open vulnerability charming. In a world where people constantly want to be seen as more than they are, who doesn’t find self-depreciating humor refreshing? When she asked that first night for cheer-leading texts to get her trough some tough days, I wasn’t the only one who signed up.
S and I became close friends over the next few years. We frequently shared meals, attended plays and went on road trips. When she asked me to come and work in her sunny garden with her, I happily agreed. I found we held similar beliefs and attitudes. She was, like me an aging hippie with a penchant for too much pot and radical feminism. Hanging out was fun, and when one Sunday she anxiously asked me to help her clean her house for an impending visit by her mother, I was honored that she trusted me with her fears. And of course I scrubbed her house from top to bottom, not forgetting the baseboards.
S struck one false note during our friendship. One summer I spent many hours helping her prepare for the first production of a play. I sat through each performance silently running the dialogue through my head as I watched her on stage. My heart flipped with anxiety for her, and I shed grateful tears when it was over. I thought we would celebrate together. But the next day it was as if S had suddenly fallen off the earth. My texts went unreturned, my calls unanswered. I was hurt and confused. What had I done? I couldn’t think of anything, and eventually frustrated and baffled by the situation, I accepted her choice.
Then, just as suddenly, she reappeared a few months later with a “got dumped by J, can we have tea?” No way, I thought, still hurt, and flung the phone on the table. But S is persistent. After two more texts that said exactly the same thing, I capitulated. Over lemon tea the only explanation she gave was, “J was jealous of you. She didn’t want us hanging out anymore.” I should have asked her to leave right then. But she looked so sad, and I bought her excuse. I hardly noticed she didn’t say sorry.
Covert or vulnerable narcissists are wolves in sheep’s clothing. They present as sad, broken and vulnerable with a large capacity for empathy. They’ll make you think they understand what’s wrong with the world and that you do too. They seem open and transparent, always letting you know how much you mean to them and how much they need you. They’ll build you castles in the air and slip through the cracks while you stare at the moon in amazement. And when you finally notice they’re gone, that in fact none of it was ever real, they have already moved on. On the way out the door they’ll thank you with a “I’ll always be a little bit in love with you.” You won’t even know what hit you.
Scary, isn’t it? So how can we protect ourselves from the vulnerable narcissists? Let me say right away, it’s not easy. I worked in mental health for fifteen years, and I did not see it. This experience forced me to educate myself, and here is what I found. Covert narcissists target empaths. They are on the look-out for the kindest, nicest, most giving person in the room, and when they find you, they latch on. I’m not telling you to be less kind. Only more discerning. If someone seems to be getting close to you in a very short period of time, they may have ulterior motives. All narcissists use people to do the things they don’t want to do. S asking me to help with cleaning and gardening weren’t signs of vulnerability. They were ways of checking how malleable I would be. She was testing me, and when I passed, I sealed my fate as her future slave. Covert narcissists are good at mimicking empathy, but you will find cracks in the façade. They are extremely fond of lies and secrets, and prefer to never tell the truth. Their past is a vault, you will only hear bits and pieces that often don’t add up and will eventually make you question things. And like all narcissists they will bristle and explode in rage against perceived slights and criticisms. What is so obvious in the grandiose narcissist is hidden in covert narcissism, and it will take time and detective work to figure it out. One thing that I did have but learned to ignore to my detriment, was my gut instinct. It alerted me to false notes and contradictory behaviour. The problem is that we don’t expect people we know to behave like this, and so we learn to look the other way.
I’m still confused by my relationship with S. What was real, what wasn’t, it’s heart-breaking and impossible to tell. I never imagined the story would end this way in a million years. I fell in love with a charming, kind, wonderful human being. My mistake was to believe what I saw. I will never be so innocent again.