What is narcissism?
Narcissism definition, according to Oxford Dictionary:
- self-centredness arising from failure to distinguish the self from external objects, either in very young babies or as a feature of mental disorder
- selfishness, involving a sense of entitlement, a lack of empathy, and a need for admiration, as characterizing a personality type
If we look in the American Psychological Association’s Psychology dictionary, we find that narcissism is defined as “excessive self-love or egocentrism”. I’m not entirely happy with this narcissism meaning because we all have some degree of narcissism and narcissistic traits. To think someone either is or isn’t a narcissist can make us turn a blind eye to important layers of reality and even give self-knowledge a skip.
There is not only a negative side to narcissism. From a psychoanalytical point of view, narcissism is a natural part of human development. When dealt with successfully, it plays an important role in protecting us from low self-esteem and low self-worth. So, am I defending narcissists as we know and often talk about them these days? Hell, no. I had to set the record straight though as I also believe it’s important to understand and address covert narcissism in particular.
Covert vs Overt Narcissism
Covert narcissism is a more subtle form of narcissism, often characterized by feelings of insecurity and self-doubt, whereas overt narcissism is characterised by a visible and unreasonable high sense of self-importance.
Although covert narcissists may appear to be shy or introverted, they have a strong need for admiration and attention as overt narcissists do. The difference between them is how their needs are translated into behaviours.
If overt narcissists make their narcissism pretty evident by displaying grandiose thoughts, outrageous behaviours and a high sense of entitlement, covert narcissists display behavioural tendencies that although unhealthy are less obvious and sadly more tolerable and even admired in current society (e.g. martyrdom).
How to Spot and Differentiate Between a Covert and Overt Narcissist
Before we go further into the differences between a covert and an overt narcissist, I would like to call your attention to something I have been witnessing. There is a dangerous trend going on in which everyone is accused of narcissism and very few people actually take the time to reflect on their own narcissistic tendencies.
It is not uncommon to find stories of narcissistic abuse survivors who have not yet dealt with their own share of covert narcissism. They are quick to distil hate, blame others for their suffering and avoid taking any responsibility for their relational dynamics.
I don’t say this lightly as I have dealt with narcissistic abuse myself and I have been that person for years. The biggest a-ha moment was to realise everyone has narcissistic wounds which if unaddressed will keep festering and being a magnet for narcissistic abuse.
Most of these wounds come from childhood. So you are entitled to own your pain and you may not even be fully aware of how you have been recreating unhealthy patterns that were programmed into your subconscious when you were just a child. Yet, you have to be brave. You have to face the real work that narcissistic abuse brings to the table.
Now that this short detour is done, let’s see what can help us differentiate between these two types of narcissism – covert and overt – based on narcissist behavior we might observe on a daily basis. Reflect on each example of narcissist behavior below and ask yourself whether they are part of your reality or not.
Both covert and overt narcissists seek attention but they have different ways to approach their needs. An overt narcissist might talk a lot about him or herself, have the biggest share in a conversation, and display gestures meant to direct people’s attention to themselves.
However, a covert narcissist will appear more reserved and yet they will be secretly craving admiration and attention from others. Their strategy to fulfil their need is usually very subtle and more psychological in nature. Instead of talking about themselves ad eternum, they may compliment others as a way to fish compliments for themselves or use passive-aggressive behaviour to somehow trigger other people’s reactions.
Whether it’s covert or overt narcissism, grandiosity will be part of the equation and the connection. Overt narcissists often talk it out loud by focusing on and emphasising their achievements and abilities. They may also degrade others in the process by making negative observations of others or sharing their blunt criticism.
Covert narcissists have a more peculiar way of dealing with grandiosity. They might be fluent in self-deprecation and invalidate their accomplishments or skills, but whenever they are criticized by others they become very defensive and sometimes even aggressive. This happens because deep down they feel entitled to special treatment and they don’t tolerate criticism from others.
Empathy as a Means of Psychological Exploitation
Empathy – or the manipulation of it within a relationship or connection – is likely the ingredient that fuels our willingness to keep involved with other people. It only takes a few glimpses of it to reenact our childhood fantasy of experiencing deep, unconditional love. Over narcissists are less likely to display or simulate empathic responses over a more extended period of time as they tend to perceive others as objects which can be used for their own benefit.
Covert narcissists are more likely to appear empathetic and display more empathic responses. Nonetheless, they do it so because they know, whether consciously or unconsciously, that people will provide them with whatever they need or want once they use they activate their good samaritan mask or the victim role. In other words, they use their sensitivity as a token to obtain admiration, attention or validation.
Narcissism is a tough topic and a hard matter to deal with transparently. It’s easier to call someone else a narcissist but hard to confront the fact that deep down we all have narcissistic wounds and we all display narcissistic tendencies to some extent.
After my last experience with narcissistic abuse, I learned a lot about narcissism and the importance of taking responsibility for your own reality. I know how painful and alienating narcissistic abuse can be but amidst my healing journey, I also noticed how much of the work that needs to be done has nothing to do with the abuser but with ourselves and our childhood programming.
Unless you deal with your unfinished businesses, you will keep having tabs open on the lessons of narcissism. It’s likely one of the hardest decisions and investments you can make for yourself because no one likes to fully see themselves in the mirror. Covert narcissists may see some of their shadow self but they are keen on saving their self-image when it comes to dealing with other people’s reflections of them. And we can only heal when we accept to take a 360-degree vision of who we are in the moment.
9 thoughts on “How to Spot Covert and Overt Narcissists in Your Life”
Thank you for sharing information about this difficult topic. I have also been in a covert narcissistic relationship and I am still recovering from the after-effects. It’s difficult for me to share my pain with anyone and I guess the narcissist took advantage of that part of my personality. My trust in myself is definitely shaken but this experience has made me aware of my strengths and weaknesses.
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It’s very complicated when we tend to keep it all to ourselves. Managing the relationship itself and its toll on us is a tough job. There’s confusion and shame… I honestly don’t know a better option than to just leave and seek guidance so we can have a good look into our own psychology (why we got there in the first place) and how we can prevent falling back into an unhealthy relationship. I wish you hadn’t gone through it but it’s nice you decided to took it as an opportunity to know yourself better.
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Covert narcissists are harder to spot because they often seem to be so selfless. I have know people like that it. It took me longer to get out of the friendship because of it.
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I wholeheartedly agree with you. I found that learning more about covert narc and the red flags helps!
I have met and lived with a covert narcissist and learned it way too late. Definitely went through those life lessons the hard way. I am so glad that resources like this and others are available so less people have to go through the things that I and many others have endured. Thank you for sharing.
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I usually say it’s a living nightmare sort of experience. We are much more prone to second-guess our perceptions and get confused with conflicting information. I just wish none of us goes through it ever again.
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Narcissistic is a horrible mental disorder. Covert narcissistic is scarier that overt ones.
Very interesting, and a topic I have been looking at more in the last few weeks. I’ve noticed behaviours in others, both in reality and on tv, and seen narcissism, and gaslighting in particular, seems to be a common thread. What I can’t figure out if is people do it knowingly or not.