Stealth Narcissism

It’s Narcissist Friday!


I was recently prompted to think about those people in our lives who touch us with their narcissism, but are not in close family or marriage relationships.  These are friends, co-workers, comrades in some project or club, or just acquaintances.  Often you don’t know these people well enough to determine whether they are narcissists, but you experience things from them that are clearly narcissistic.

Here’s an example:  You arrive a little early for a meeting or seminar and find a good seat.  There are things happening elsewhere prior to the meeting so you put your things on a chair to mark the seat as yours and you do whatever you need to do.  When you return to your seat, you find someone else sitting there.  Your belongings have been put on the floor in the aisle or down several chairs to a less desirable spot.  If you are bold enough, you might ask the person what happened to your things.  His or her response is, “Oh, those were yours?  I moved them over there.”

So what just happened?  You have been depersonalized and manipulated.  The narcissistic interloper simply wanted the place that you had marked and took it.  You could make a big deal of it and you would look like a fool.  Or you could just find a different place to sit.  Of course, that’s what you do.  Later the person who took your place acts as though you don’t exist.  He certainly does not think he did anything wrong and what you think simply doesn’t matter.

This is clearly narcissistic behavior.  You tell yourself that you are thankful not to work for this person or be connected to him and you move on.  Yet, your experience of the meeting has been damaged.

This is the co-worker who takes credit for the work you did.  This is the “friend” who takes advantage of your willingness to help.  This is the neighbor who takes over part of your lawn.  This is the fellow club member who volunteers you for the work.  Narcissistic people are everywhere.  Sometimes you know them well enough to stay away from them.  Others you don’t really know at all.

Now, notice that I did not say narcissists are everywhere.  You don’t know whether these people are narcissists until you spend a lot more time with them in close relationship—and you don’t want to do that.  You are spared the pain of the daily cruelties and manipulations, but you experience something that hurts or makes you angry.  Narcissistic behavior.

Stealth narcissists move through life slapping people in the face and not looking back.  They do it because they don’t really see you.  They don’t think of you as a person.  You might be useful for a while or you might be in the way, but you are not really important.

So how do you handle this?  Shrug it off.  You can’t fix it or do anything about it.  You were used or abused by a person who is incapable of real relationship.  Of course she is responsible for her actions, but nothing will happen to her.  You must simply move on.  Your anger will hurt only you.  The offense you feel will never be vindicated so you might as well let it go and move on.

You see, you are loved.  You are acceptable.  You are a person and you understand that others are real people.  That allows you to enter into relationships.  The stealth narcissist knows nothing of what you know deeply and enjoy.  People add to your life.  Others are important and love is real.

No narcissist would write something like this:

No man is an island,
Entire of itself.
Each is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thine own
Or of thine friend’s were.
Each man’s death diminishes me,
For I am involved in mankind.
Therefore, send not to know
For whom the bell tolls,
It tolls for thee.

–       John Donne


Filed under Narcissism

5 responses to “Stealth Narcissism

  1. "J"

    OK, Dave, I’m going to jump in here. As a “trying to properly assert myself people pleaser”, if that were my seat (and chances are it wouldn’t be…I’m typicallly late ;), would it have been proper to return to my seat and politely ask the whereabouts of my things, and then ask the person to please retreive them for me so I could resume my seat?

    I’m a long way from being comfortable about this, because I’m insecure what to do if there is further “confrontation”. At almost 61 years of age I am learning that it is OK to stand for myself, I just don’t know the best ways to do it yet. I’ve lately, however, been able to tell my narcissistic person not to insult me when making stupid comments or “playing dumb” and that sort of thing. So, hallelujah! I’m just doing baby steps, though.I don’t want to swing the other way. Thanks for your blog and your insights.


    • J, I think your question makes part of my point. As one who has experienced this (could you tell?) I don’t know that there is a best thing to do. These folks count on their audacity to be so foreign, so unexpected, that you buckle. If you challenge them, you look petty. If they give in to you, they still win because they make themselves look the martyr or the generous one who gives up the seat.

      The same is true in so many other situations. The co-worker who takes credit for your work will almost certainly put you in a situation where complaining will look childish or you will seem like the one who works for your own glory rather than the good of the company.

      Because narcissistic people don’t think like the rest of us and don’t play by the rules we learned, we find it very hard to deal with them. Honestly, most of us should just choose to stay away when we can and not let our anger get control when we cannot. (At least it is a blessing to identify one more person we don’t want to get to know!) Once in a while we will hit on a good way to deal with them, but usually not.

      I really like your suggestion of asking the person to retrieve your belongings as you retake the seat, but now there will be others around who will think you took his seat. Crazy!

      The most important thing is not to win in the situation but to win in your own heart. You don’t have to feel badly about yourself just because someone is bold or cunning enough to take advantage of you. They are the users and abusers. You shouldn’t accept that you are less than they are. In fact, in order to get a good seat, he had to steal yours. How low is that?

  2. Kelly

    I appreciate your thoughts here. I want to be really honest and share that I think I would be assertive to the seat taker. It would be uncomfortable for me to do that because I am a peacekeeper. However, I am so sick of these people stomping all over others I believe I am to the point where I could say to someone…”excuse me, I had my things on this chair and they are now moved, did you move them? “Yes”, then I would say ” that is rude and
    I don’t appreciate your actions” so that I have at least made a stand for courtesy and proven to myself that I am no longer willing to ignore their games. It wouldn’t change one thing about the NPD, but I would no longer be a silent victim of him/her. My goal at this point with an NPD parent and ex husband is to take a stand while guarding my heart and not letting it get in my inner man.

    • If you are able to stand up to them, by all means do so. Be prepared to be labeled as “the lady who gets all weird about ‘her’ seat.” The narcissist, or a person who acts in a narcissistic manner will have to deflect anything you say away from themselves. In general, they will not learn a lesson, feel badly, or even respect you more. But you may feel better for having stood up to the person and that’s great.

      My point is that some people will look down on themselves for not doing what you would do. They will feel inferior or weak. They will assume that the problem is their own. I want to be clear that the narcissist is the one with the problem. Even when you have to stand up in your family or marriage to maintain your boundaries, you are not the one with the problem. You are simply protecting yourself from the person who has issues or weaknesses.

      Yes, take a stand. But the most important stand is in your own heart, guarding who you are from their unkindness and manipulations.

  3. Kelly

    You are so right Dave. It took me YEARS and getting away from the ex husband NPD to figure out it wasn’t me. I was so certain that I was just a very bad person who couldn’t get things right to please someone. I felt and thought I was one major mistake. I beat myself up day and night for 21 years because he was never happy with anything I did and I tried to jump through all the hoops. I wonder how many others victims of this have had their health destroyed from stress like I did?? I am slowly getting it back, but I sometimes wonder if I will have cancer someday from living with that kind of mind gaming and stress for so many years???

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