Covert vs. Overt Narcissism

Most people who begin the journey of learning about Narcissism will encounter literature, videos, and podcasts that specifically discuss symptoms and behaviors that pertain to the overt narcissist. These are the symptoms that most people are familiar with and what is listed in the DSM-5 as a means to diagnose the personality disorder. To review, these symptoms include:

  • An exaggerated sense of self-importance
  • An impaired ability to recognize or identify the feelings and needs of others or otherwise known as impaired empathy for others
  • An exaggerated sense of entitlement
  • A need to feel superior to others
  • Relationships with others that are largely superficial (little genuine interest in others)
  • Relationships with others that mainly serve their own personal gains
  • Displaying a constant need for attention from others. Excessive need for admiration

Gray dreary view of a path in the woodsHowever, the traits that are listed do not distinguish the differences seen in covert narcissists. Expanding your knowledge around the traits that a covert narcissist displays is crucial in protecting yourself from the narcissistic destructive patterns. In this blog I help to uncover exactly what you are dealing with when you encounter a covert narcissist.

In covert narcissism, the traits that are discussed in overt narcissism are more subtle and disguised. When you interact with covert narcissists, you may not be able to pinpoint exactly what creates discomfort in you or why you may not enjoy your time with them, but nonetheless, you know that something doesn’t feel quite right. The reason behind this confusion you may experience is that underneath the mask of normalcy covert narcissists have learned to display on the outside, the core traits are the same as an overt narcissist on the inside.

Similar to their overt counterparts, covert narcissists can:

  • Be extremely self-absorbed
  • Display a lack empathy for others
  • Feel superior to others
  • Lack genuine and deep relationships with others
  • Lack the ability to take ownership and responsibility for their choices

However, the big difference you’ll see is that they are more restrained about showing these traits to others. They may hide the beliefs they have and begin to reveal them with time as they feel “safer”. They may even present as shy or guarded initially.

Covert narcissist are also hypersensitive to negative remarks or criticisms from others and have a pervasive belief that they are being “wronged” by others or that nobody understands just how special/talented they truly are. You may see this as they become easily “hurt” by any comments you or others may make about them. The reactions they have are often exaggerated and not indicative of the situation. You may notice that they often place themselves in the “victim” role. The pervasive belief is that somehow they have been wronged by others and or that others are out to get them in some way.

Covert narcissists are classic passive-aggressive communicators. They say one thing and mean another. They have no genuine meaning for the things they say. For example, after a conversation with a covert narcissist, you may walk away feeling like you are on the same page and perhaps you even feel positive about what they communicated to you. Later, however, whatever was discussed in the conversation is completely disregarded by them as if it never happened. Or they may punish you and give you the cold shoulder leaving you in a state of confusion. If you confront the covert narcissist on this discrepancy, they may deny it and act like you are actually in the wrong for misunderstanding them (gaslighting) or they may react very strongly to your perceived criticism. However they choose to handle it, it still leaves you confused and maybe feeling guilty that somehow you were the one that made a bad or unthoughtful choice in there somewhere. You may walk away feeling even more confused and upset. You may crave resolution but this will be continually elusive. These series of interactions are due to the narcissist’s lack of empathy and lack of ability to take responsibility for themselves. They will blame you, gaslight you, project onto you, and invalidate or minimize you as covers for their inability to take responsibility of their own actions. This leads to very poor or passive aggressive communication.

Covert narcissists are only concerned with their agenda and disregard other peoples’ feelings and needs. This lack of empathy makes it impossible to have a healthy two-sided relationship where the feelings and needs of both parties are honored.

Another key way to identify that you are dealing with a covert (or overt) narcissist is if you consistently walk away feeling that you are in the wrong in your interactions. Somehow, the narcissist expresses (either directly or indirectly) that it’s always a mistake or a bad choice you made, that you were inconsiderate, or that you somehow missed the mark. Basically, the end message, no matter how they present it, is that they are never in the wrong. This is not normal or natural in human interactions.

Covert narcissists can come across as very insecure. They may need constant reassurance, positive feedback, positive regard, and admiration from you. You may start to notice how emotionally and physically exhausted you feel after interacting with them. When dealing with a covert narcissist others often learn to become hypervigilant of what they say, how they say it, their body language and anything else the covert narcissist may read into and interpret negatively. This hypervigilance is very energy draining and leaves you in an emotional deficit. Add in the fact you feel the pressure of reassuring and praising often and you can see the toll this type of interaction can take on you.

Just because covert narcissism isn’t discussed as much or is not as apparent as the overt counterpart, does not make this any less destructive and harmful. Noticing these traits in someone else and making choices to limit or eliminate interactions with these people can save you from a long, difficult road. Take time to tune into your body and your feelings when you interact with anyone. Once you learn to read yourself well, and you add in the knowledge you’ve gained about Narcissism, you can take crucial steps to avoid falling into the covert or overt narcissist’s emotional hurricane.

For more information on Adult Children of Narcissists please click here.