Perhaps unsurprisingly, there are some distinctions in the ways in which narcissism manifests itself in men and women—not always, but frequently enough to examine. Narcissism can be classified as either overt or covert, and often women are of the covert type.
Covert narcissists, as versus overt (or grandiose) narcissists, tend to display their narcissism through extensive manipulation and passive-aggressive behaviors. They may not come across as boastful or arrogant, but rather as meek and martyred.
This masks their controlling and calculating behaviors. Covert narcissists still want the attention and admiration that overt narcissists demand; they just approach it with a feigned vulnerability and less obviously aggressive agenda.
Continue reading for an understanding of what a covert narcissist acts like, as well as tips for how to recognize the covert narcissist that might be lurking in your life.
Female vs. Male Narcissism
Narcissism is what is known as a Cluster B disorder which means it is marked by overly dramatic, unpredictable behavior. While there are no fundamental differences between female and male narcissism, there are a set of generalities that we can explore to show how the disorder does manifest somewhat distinctly in women versus men. This is likely due to how women and men are socialized in different ways.
First, it appears that there are many more male narcissists than female narcissists, and this seems the result of how society rewards men for aggression and control. Women are more likely to try to appear aggregable rather than aggressive, even if they are narcissists using lies and manipulation to get what they want.
Second, narcissistic men are far more likely to be overt, or grandiose, narcissists, with their boasting of their greatness and their exaggeration of their accomplishments. Women, on the other hand, are more often covert narcissists, using vulnerability and passive-aggressive techniques to influence others in the service of their desires.
Last, narcissistic men are also more likely to exploit others directly (and without guilt) and exert power and control. They behave in a dominant, alpha-male manner. Women, in contrast, use subtle emotional manipulation in relationships in order to garner favor, causing psychological damage rather than relying on outright antagonism.
One of the surest ways to identify a covert narcissist is to recognize her toxic unhappiness. Narcissists, in general, aren’t truly happy people, masking their insecurities and isolating themselves from others. However, overt narcissists often appear to be happy, with their ego-stroking behaviors, while covert narcissists will complain and play the narcissist.
The covert narcissist needs the reassurance of her worthiness, just as the grandiose narcissist does, but she won’t often tout her own abilities and successes. Instead, the covert narcissist will “fish” for compliments and exaggerate her miseries until you supply her with all the comfort, encouragement, and ego-boosting that she needs.
She will take advantage of your time, your energy, and your patience as she repeats a litany of complaints—how everyone actually takes advantage of her, of how nobody understands her, of how much she gives with nothing to show for it—that never seems to change.
The covert narcissist, like the grandiose narcissist, will also make unreasonable demands. In the covert’s case, though, these demands will be more psychologically oriented and subtle. For example, she might express frustration and even anger if you aren’t able to constantly anticipate her needs. She wants a mind-reader.
Narcissists, in general, aren’t very good at communication, and the covert narcissist cannot clearly convey to you what it is that she needs or feels. Instead, she will spread the seeds of her discontent throughout her circle of family and friends. She controls the household with her dramatic and unpredictable emotions, expecting everyone to meet her mood.
This “emotional contagion” holds the family hostage to her feelings. If family members (especially her children) aren’t able to make her feel better, they develop a deep-seated guilt that can eventually be toxic to them and their future relationships.
Not only does the covert narcissist wield her emotions against those closest to her like a weapon, but she is also regularly critical of anything her loved ones try to do. She will demand that you do everything for her, then criticize the way you do most everything.
Indeed, the covert narcissist’s constant barrage of criticism or undermining behaviors can cripple their children’s self-esteem and psychological development. Check out this post to see if you’re dealing with a covert narcissistic mother.
Toward sons, the covert narcissist might put them on a pedestal, crowing over their achievements as if they were her own, only to knock him off once he reaches some sort of independence from her controlling ways.
With their daughters, the covert narcissist forms a competition, continuously undermining her daughter’s achievements or attractiveness or talents. The covert narcissist has to be the best and the most important under all circumstances. The daughter is always secondary and inadequate.
While all narcissists are prone to engaging in deception to get what they want, covert narcissists become master liars. Not only do they lie about important things, like finances and professional achievements, but they also lie to themselves about their behavior and their likeability. They will also lie just for the thrill of control or to put themselves in the spotlight.
Thus, their stories are overdramatized, their lives are filled with harrowing tales and aggrandized adventures. She must present the most idealized version of herself, so her public face is always a false one. When caught out in a lie, she will deny it and deflect her actions onto you, twisting her behavior into your fault.
She rarely apologizes, and when she does, it sounds insincere—as do most of her emotions. She’d rather cling to her narrative of victimhood, claiming that everyone is out to get her. She does nothing wrong, from her view, so she feels wrongly accused and attacked. This feeds the cycle of narcissism.
The covert female narcissist is probably a familiar type to many of us. My grandmother was the master of acting put upon, defeated, and submissive, all the while dominating the extended family with her demands and her emotional outbursts. She manipulated us by playing us against each other and forcing us to take sides when it suited her agenda.
This complex interplay between emphasizing victimhood while subtly undermining others’ psychological stability and exerting control is the hallmark of a covert narcissist. While it is difficult to extricate yourself from this toxic dynamic, learning how to recognize it is the first step towards refusing to participate in it.
Understanding the female covert narcissist is the first step toward learning how to manage narcissism. A free copy of my “Narcissistic Rejection Guide” can help. You will learn how to say no and push back against her narcissistic manipulation, even as she plays the victim. Just click on the link and I’ll send it directly to your inbox for free!
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