There is a special kind of Narcissist, often referred to as the “Covert Narcissist” that only loosely appears as a typical, garden variety pathological Narcissist. These are the hyper sensitive and perceptive Narcissists. This Narcissist does a heck of a lot of image management, and is usually extremely strategic in how to make their self look virtuous, generous, caring, and loving. This type of Narcissist is aware of their ability to be hurt and wounded, and knows they have some level of early childhood trauma they walk around with. They are particularly self-protective and hide behind their “boundaries”, which are a complex set of defenses, hoops to jump through, and requirements others should meet, before they “trust” you and will get close to you.
This type of Narcissist is usually very smart, and will search for an intellectual understanding of why they feel so harmed by the world, and also look for greater understanding in psychology and spirituality, as a beacon of insulation from accountability for their relationship dramas and overall accountability.
In the past years I have observed many Covert Narcissists claim to be intuitive or extra-sensory Empaths as a way to explain their internal experience of sensitivity and astute perceptive awareness, and to claim a sense of spiritual, psychic, and interpersonal superiority over others. And, because these people might be thoroughly delusional and convinced they are in fact Empaths, others tend to believe them.
I have a sneaking suspicion that in religious and spiritual communities, many gurus who are engaging in sexual, manipulative, or cult-like activities with students are Covert Narcissists. Truly, these types of people make it in to all sorts of professions and roles, and in many ways, perfect a positive persona, while using it as a well-constructed shield to prevent their victims from ever holding them fully accountable.
So, given this trend, what can we all do to determine if someone is in fact an Empath, versus a Covert Narcissist? Here are 3 methods to test whether someone is an Empath or a Covert Narcissist.
- Set and Reset, Boundaries.
To start, the best way to tell if someone is in fact an Empath, is to respectfully and calmly set boundaries, and see how they react. Start saying “No” to them, or showing dissidence, publicly. This means, disagree with them, and let others know you are doing this. An Empath, even if initially a little embarrassed and defensive, would consider if what they said or did was wrong, or how your perspective and experience could potentially be valid. They would give their energy to understanding you, rather than put their energy into changing your mind, and managing their image. Frankly, if they respond with an effort to force you to agree, try to intimidate or embarrass you, or try to make you apologize for disagreeing, this is a very good sign they are not an Empath.
More on setting boundaries: when getting closer to an alleged Empath romantically, notice the pace at which they want to get to know you, as well as in which ways they want to get to know you. Often Covert Narcissists will push for very quick emotional and sexual intimacy, despite your expressing you have a slower pace. If you start saying, “Yes”, to things you always say “No” to, this is likely because of their expert manipulations are setting you up for losing your boundaries, and thus manufacturing consent. If you express you keep having difficulty holding your boundaries, and despite them showing care and concern for your experience, you still find yourself in this situation, this is a HUGE signal someone is a Narcissist.
In fact, another big difference between Narcissists and Empaths is that Narcissists of all types are EXTREMELY challenged in delaying gratification. They will organize their lives around as many types of instant gratification as they are have the resources for, and will even depend heavily on others affording them even greater access to instant gratification. So, if you say “No” to a (Covert) Narcissist and start to set stronger boundaries, they will likely try to create a situation with urgency or you having less capacity to say “No”, or explicitly try to convince you to drop the boundary so they can get their gratification as soon as possible. When they don’t get the gratification they wanted on their own, or from you, they will get frustrated and angry. An Empath, on the other hand, would likely re-calibrate and be willing to accept that gratification is not going to happen unless your needs are honored, and they may drop the plan all together, without much protest.
2. Watch What They Do When you Get Angry and Frustrated Around Them.
An Empath will immediately care about what has gotten you frustrated and angry. If they aren’t already making themselves available to help, they will likely express something as a form of intermediate help and reassurance. You will likely feel soothed by the ways they respond to you, and very much feel their presence with you.
Even if a Covert Narcissist mimics the behaviors of an Empath, completely, there will be a way you subtly feel they don’t understand, aren’t present, or don’t care. You will likely feel like their help or reassurance doesn’t actually do much for you, and may even result in your feeling worse, and like you may need them even more for soothing and comfort.
And, if the Covert Narcissist hasn’t learned to perfectly mimic an Empath, you will see they start to become impatient, or are then triggered and somehow wounded by you being angry and frustrated. This is even if your anger and frustration isn’t about them or your relationship with them. They may make you feel guilty for inconveniencing them or for “playing the victim”, or for being “too sensitive”, while making you feel like all at once, you still need them to help you see the light, and to feel better.
This, in plain speak, is them showing you whether they have actual, affectual empathy, and not just intellectually constructed empathy. Trust your gut, as usually we all can tell if someone is feeling perhaps sympathy for us and feeding us a script, versus actually FEELING true empathy with us.
3. Ask A Lot of Pointed Questions About Their Spiritual Purpose or General Purpose on The Planet
An Empath may understand their purpose on this planet is to help people, and to be a part of perhaps helping others heal, be happier and healthier. An Empath may not be shy about stating this fact.
A Covert Narcissist will also likely believe they have a special purpose for being on the planet, and may even derive a great amount of Narcissistic Supply from helping people, and thus find much fulfillment in a helping profession, or at least in framing their profession as a helpful one.
The main difference is, when you ask an Empath questions about their path to be a healer or a helper to the human race, they usually will include information about their own healing path, and how it had led them to where they are. They will also be careful to mention that they cannot cure or heal, or help everyone, when you mention a context where people are struggling and need help, that is beyond their scope of expertise or ability.
A Covert Narcissist often instead portrays a rosy and exaggerated picture of their past successes with helping, as well as in the way they envision helping people in the future. They also may paint a pretty and smooth picture of their past painful history, and how they have overcome it. It may seem like they are claiming that with their sheer will and amazing ability, or the unique remedy or skill they encountered, helped them basically become enlightened.
Occasionally, a Covert Narcissist has an extremely well curated persona of an Empathic healer, and will have a narrative that mimics an actual Empath’s story. But, after asking enough questions, you will begin to see the holes in their narrative and start to see how shallow they actually are. Often, they will attempt to cut you off, disappear, or create a different conversation, situation or drama to deflect your questions and attention, so they can’t be found out.
I could write an exhaustive list of how to tell the difference between a skilled Covert Narcissist and an Empath, but the list above is a very good starter kit for anyone. Set boundaries, watch how they respond to your anger and frustration, and also observe how they identify with being a healer or helper and what they tend to reflect on about their journey to this role.
Occasionally, a Covert Narcissist will find an article like this, and use your/other’s “bad” and less than empathetic reactions to them as evidence you/the others are in fact the Narcissist, are “crazy”, or simply don’t understand them. These negative reactions you/others have, are a normal response to getting tired of the Narcissist’s antics, and being repeatedly abused. Keep in mind that how you/others respond to people in all contexts, and especially in all past relationships, will say a lot about whether you/others are in fact the one who is the Narcissist. If any person has a history of people tragically and repeatedly not understanding their Empathic nature, and lots of “crazy” Narcissistic exes they refer to as they reference this article, this almost certainly confirms the person is a Covert Narcissist.
I encourage you in the comments below to share your reactions to this article and how you have uncovered a Covert Narcissist masquerading as an Empath.
I wish you the best in your discoveries, and in eliminating Covert Narcissists from your inner circles!