Let’s be clear from the outset. Narcissism, whether it manifests itself overtly or covertly, is a difficult and often destructive psychological disorder. It’s one of several personality disorders that can have serious implications for a person’s mental health.
It’s necessary, however, to note that there are fairly significant differences between an overt, or grandiose, narcissist and a covert, or vulnerable, narcissist. This is because, while we can readily recognize the overt narcissist, with his boastful, arrogant, and attention-seeking ways, we have trouble identifying the covert narcissist.
She is more reserved and uses passive-aggressive methods in order to achieve her agendas. This post about covert narcissistic mothers can give you some insight into how this condition manifests. Note that the overt narcissist is characteristically male, while the covert narcissist is usually female.
Read on to understand the contrasts between the typical behavior of the overt narcissist versus the more hidden behavior of the covert narcissist.
Overtly Bold and Brash
The overt narcissist can easily be recognized by their obvious desire to attract attention—whether it be positive or negative. The overt narcissist will be loud and arrogant, needing to have his ego affirmed regularly. If he cannot cultivate positive attention, then he will often stage a scene or engage in risky behavior in order to receive any form of attention. Acting out is part of his behavioral pattern.
This type of narcissist is also extremely competitive and views others as inferior. If they cannot use their charm to intimidate you, then they will employ ridicule and humiliation to both bolster their sense of superiority and ensure you feel denigrated. They feel entitled to special treatment and to deference from all those considered inferior—just about everyone else.
His inflated sense of self masks a deep-seated insecurity, of course, which causes him to fly into a rage whenever he is questioned or called out on his behavior. He cannot be tasked with acknowledging his behavior, lest his mask slip and someone figures out he’s hiding behind his brashness. He rarely apologizes and almost always fails to take responsibility for his actions.
Quietly Smug and Superior
The covert narcissist, on the other hand, doesn’t advertise her sense of superiority. Instead, she is quietly smug, undermining those she views as inferior with psychological baiting and malicious gossip. Basically, she doesn’t loudly proclaim her arrogance; rather, she prefers to tear others down in order to prove herself better.
She is passive-aggressive and manipulative, resisting any requests of her to respond to others’ needs while simultaneously demanding too much of everyone else. She pouts and dissembles to get her way and will often pit friends and family members against each other so that she remains the center of attention. She likes to create chaos and drama in which she is the central player.
Covert narcissists expend lots of energy blaming others for their problems—even for the own dramatic scenarios they actually stir up—and often proclaim how “unfair” life is. They are drawn to people who are natural caretakers, because they will exploit that tendency to feed their own obsessive need for attention. If they don’t receive sufficient attention, they might fake a crisis in order to ensure that all eyes and all concerns are squarely focused on her.
RELATED: If you think you might be a covert narcissist and are interested in changing that, check out this post for more information.
Charming Dominance and Irrational Rage
While the grandiose narcissist also likes attention, his methods are different. He exerts dominance through the use of excessive charm, and he will shower potential lovers with compliments and declarations of passion—until he gets his way. Then, he quickly loses interest and will revert to bullying behavior and, ultimately, the withholding of affection.
Most overt narcissists seek out certain personality types to exploit, whether it be friends or potential romantic partners. They are attracted to vulnerable women (and some men) who will relinquish control readily, taking on the submissive role in the relationship.
Ironically, once this submissive dynamic is established, the overt narcissist will often grow bored and his demeaning, abusive behavior will become more blatant.
If this pattern is disrupted by the submissive party, then the overt narcissist reacts with rage—often with physical violence. The full-blown overt narcissist lacks boundaries and any sense of empathy towards others, so he can become quite dangerous in the right circumstances.
The more their partner might resist his dominance and control, the more obsessive the overt narcissist becomes. He cannot lose, and his feeling of superiority coupled with an absence of compassion creates a volatile and toxic atmosphere.
Long-Suffering Victim and Emotional Drain
In contrast to the overt narcissist’s rages and dominance, the covert narcissist will play the victim, subtly manipulating others into doing her bidding. She feels constantly persecuted and victimized by others, by circumstances, by institutions. Everyone and everything is conspiring against her, and she exploits her friends and family by demanding their unconditional support.
Many covert narcissists are also diagnosed with depression and anxiety, two conditions that also feed into their self-absorbed sadness and unfounded paranoia. Covert narcissists will often exaggerate an illness or other physical problem in order to garner more attention and sympathy. Their capacity for self-pity knows no bounds, and nothing is ever enough to fill the emotional hole at their core.
Because of their constant need for attention and a compassion that they fail to show others, the covert narcissist is an emotional drain on those closest to them. Their habitual patterns of behavior are exhausting and bewildering to family and friends, who will often eventually break off the relationship.
This feeds the cycle of victimization that keeps the covert narcissist stuck in unproductive patterns of thinking and acting. Counseling can help, but it’s complicated by the fact that many narcissists don’t even know they are a narcissist.
While all narcissists are psychologically challenging and emotionally disruptive to be around, the covert narcissist is less blatant in her behavior and, therefore, sometimes harder to spot. The overt narcissist is unapologetic about his arrogance and bullying manner, while the covert narcissist will often pretend to be meek and unsure of herself. Secretly, she is smug and believes herself to be superior, undermining potential competitors around her.
The overt narcissist uses domination and rage to intimidate others (when charm fails to work), while the covert narcissist employs victimization and exaggerated crises to garner attention. They are both insecure deep down and lack a clear sense of self-worth. This fuels the controlling and manipulative behavior that never quite seems to fill the void.
If you’re interested in learning more about covert narcissism, this article about spotting female covert narcissists can help.
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