A patient who was seeing me in couple’s therapy said, “My wife doesn’t have much empathy. She doesn’t return my affection. It’s subtle, and I can’t really put my finger on it. She says things like, ‘I am too good for this relationship’ or ‘I deserve good things and people don’t realize how much I have to offer.’ On the other hand, she often appears to others as shy, withdrawn and even self-depreciating.”

What this husband was describing was a wife who was a covert narcissist or what some people call a vulnerable narcissist. Her elevated sense of self was not obvious, but came out in statements like, “You owe me,” or “You should be glad to have me as a wife.” She often gave her husband back-handed compliments and needed constant reassurance of her talents and abilities. And she was hypersensitive to any criticism.

In both overt and covert narcissism, blaming and shaming are key. These tactics are used to elevate the person above others. However, the covert narcissist uses the victim position to instill blame. The end game is to feel superior by putting others down or making them feel small. And perhaps one of the most disturbing relationship behaviors is that a covert narcissist ignores you and your needs. This is done in passive ways like not responding to text messages, not confirming plans, or showing up late.

Other ways the covert narcissist interacts is to receive and not give, be emotionally unresponsive, and have little regard for your gifts and talents. Guilt trips and gaslighting are common behavior patterns, along with passive-aggressive responding. Self-absorption and the belief that they are better than others are present. Empathy is lacking.

So how can you protect or defend against this unhealthy behavior? First, try not to take things personally even though you will be blamed and manipulated. You may be the target, but the person’s actions are problematic. Second, set boundaries regarding the way you are treated. Stand up for yourself in terms of what is appropriate behavior. If you need additional help, see a Christian therapist.

In terms of faith, there is no place in any relationship to elevate yourself above others. Scripture reminds us, “pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before stumbling” (Proverbs 16:18). Pride is the sin of narcissism in that you elevate yourself above others. The need to be loved, admired, and catered to by others does not reflect a humble heart. The focus is on self, not God or sacrificial love.

To combat pride, “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others. In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus. Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage, rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness” (Philippians 2:3-7).

To sum, the work is to humble yourself before God and others. And while we all are special to God, we are not to elevate ourselves above others. This need to feel superior is at the heart of the problem. 

Recognizing covert narcissism