There are two broad categories of narcissism: Grandiose or exhibitionistic narcissism and covert or vulnerable narcissism. Grandiose narcissists are the typical people you think about when you think about a narcissist, but covert narcissists are harder to spot. While they feel the same way inside as a grandiose narcissist, they are better at hiding it. That also means it can go undiagnosed.
The answer to this question is that most narcissists of any kind seem to get worse over time, but some studies suggest age may reduce narcissistic tendencies. How a covert narcissist changes as they get older really depends on several factors including their specific level of covert narcissism.
Let’s examine more common traits of covert narcissism and discuss what happens to covert narcissists as they age.
What is Covert Narcissism?
A covert narcissist has all of the same problems as any other narcissist, but they express those problems differently. They still desire adoration and are externally validated, but they get their narcissistic supply for those needs in a more subtle way than the grandiose narcissist.
Grandiose narcissists are often perceived as arrogant and confrontational. They don’t hold back when proclaiming how great they are and what they have accomplished. This is their attempt to get validated by the people in their life.
Covert narcissists, on the other hand, use a different technique. They still want that adoration and recognition, but instead of telling the world how great they are, they use manipulation to get other people to do that for them.
How Do Covert Narcissists Behave?
Because they are more subtle than a grandiose narcissist, covert narcissists are more difficult to spot and you don’t often imagine they are narcissistic. These people will put themselves down or underplay genuine accomplishments so that the people around them will contradict them and shower them with praise. In other words, they fish for compliments.
Covert narcissists also like to attach themselves to someone they admire. They won’t hold back on the compliments for that person either. In their mind, if they are associated with someone they think is a good role model or good at something they wish they were good at, people will believe they are like that person. It’s not really about a genuine admiration for the other person; it’s about people seeing them in the same light as the person they admire.
You can recognize a covert narcissist because they are typically shy, employ passive-aggression as a manipulation technique, and are very critical of themselves. They also often fantasize about their abilities or who they are, are envious, hold grudges for an extended amount of time, and have other mental health problems like depression or anxiety.
Are There Different Types of Covert Narcissists?
According to personality disorder expert Margherita Veronese, “You can identify covert narcissism on three levels.” She identifies these levels as the hypersensitive introvert, the envious scapegoater, and the punitive avenger.
The Hypersensitive Introvert
The hypersensitive introvert is the typical vulnerable narcissist who may frequently experience self-loathing and is very sensitive to criticism. This kind of narcissist might be able to stay at this level because they get their narcissistic supply needs met.
Therefore, they may not progress to the more unhealthy levels. They are shy and definitely negative in the way they view the world, and they have all the other typical characteristics of narcissism (lacking empathy, feeling victimized, etc.) but if they get enough external validation of if they actually get help, they might not get much worse.
The Envious Scapegoater
Once a hypersensitive introvert progresses to the level of envious scapegoater, however, they have lost the ability to improve their life situation, and they have accepted this fact. They blame others for their lot in life and feel like they are an outcast.
That can often intensify their feelings of hostility, and if that happens, they will usually use their manipulative tactics to punish the people in their life who they feel have wronged them. This is usually bad news for a spouse or child of this type of narcissist.
The Punitive Avenger
By the time a covert narcissist reaches the level of punitive avenger, they and those around them are experiencing the worst-case scenario. These types of covert narcissists have moved beyond simply punishing those around them to actually attempting to destroy them. Without intervention, these kinds of narcissists can become deranged and dangerous.
They have reached the level where they not only see themselves as the victim of the people in their life but also as the judge, jury, and executioner. These types of covert narcissists will increasingly isolate themselves and focus more and more on their revenge fantasies. These are the people who may end up committing mass murder.
Does Age Play a Factor in the Progression of Covert Narcissism?
While many people who have experienced narcissistic abuse are quick to say that they definitely get worse with age, some experts disagree. Researchers in the psychology department at York St. John University in the United Kingdom studied 100 middle-aged and 100 older-aged narcissistic females to find out what role age plays on their disorder.
They found that the older women had significantly lower levels of narcissistic behavior coupled with significantly higher levels of reported loneliness. They concluded higher levels of narcissism in younger women acted to protect them from a sense of loneliness, and while the older women were less narcissistic, they reported feeling more lonely.
This study was not specific for covert narcissism, but it does suggest that age may play a role in the expression of narcissistic behaviors. Cansu Olce, who has a degree in psychology, notes that it’s possible the loss of a covert narcissistic woman’s looks may moderate her behavior and change the way in which she gets her narcissistic supply.
She suggests that since the woman can’t easily attract men anymore, she begins to look for adoration and admiration from doing good works such as being a good mother. If they are unable to make that change, Olce notes they might commit suicide.
Still, you’d be hard-pressed to convince anyone who has suffered abuse at the hands of a covert narcissist that they improve with age. Most anecdotal accounts of aging covert narcissists describe them as getting worse as they get older.
While there is some empirical evidence that suggests covert narcissists may improve over time, particularly if they remain at the hypersensitive introvert level and get their narcissistic supply needs met, there is a mountain of anecdotal evidence that suggests otherwise.
If you have an aging narcissist in your life, you’ll likely benefit from setting strong boundaries and helping them to get therapy. That could help them improve over time, but only if they are willing to try. For that reason, you have to take the appropriate steps to protect yourself from their abuse.
Now that you know a little more about how time and age affect the covert narcissist, you might also be interested in this article about how to stop being a covert narcissist.
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