There is a very significant difference between covert or vulnerable narcissism and overt or grandiose narcissism. The grandiose or overt narcissist is what you probably think of as the typical narcissist — loud, brash, boastful, and arrogant. The covert narcissist, however, is a horse of a different color. While they have the same grandiose ideas and lack of empathy as the overt narcissist, they use more subtle measures to get their narcissistic supply needs met which makes them more difficult to spot, but they still react when you call them out.
When you expose any narcissist, you are essentially unmasking the false self they’ve so carefully constructed. There are several possible responses including narcissistic rage, and they may even become dangerous. It’s difficult to predict exactly, but they are unlikely to remain calm.
You’ll want to know the details about how the two main types of narcissism differ and their possible reactions before you decide to call them out. That will help you prepare yourself so that you can take appropriate action to protect yourself and your loved ones from what can be an explosive rage.
What is the False Self Narcissists Construct?
Narcissism usually results from dysfunctional parenting styles that prevent the narcissist from fully developing a healthy sense of self or ego. Their parents may have been abusive or they may have overly pampered their child and made them believe they are entitled.
Whatever the style, the result is that the child is never allowed to do the things that children who develop healthy egos do. To develop a healthy ego, you have to be allowed to try things for yourself and sometimes fail. This teaches you to soothe yourself and you learn how to prop up your own self-esteem.
The narcissist, however, never learns to do that, and they come to believe they are inadequate. Because of this dynamic, they bury what they perceive as their flawed true self deep inside, and in its place, they construct a false self they use to interact with in the world around them.
They infuse this false self with grandiose ideas of perfection, but this ‘mask’ isn’t capable of doing the work a healthy self-esteem does. It can’t soothe the narcissist when they confront challenges, and it can’t internally prop up their ego. It can’t keep up the illusion of these grandiose ideas the narcissist has created.
For that, the narcissist needs other people to supply them with admiration and adoration so they can feel good about themselves. That’s why it can be so damaging and unpredictable to expose the truth about them.
How are Covert Narcissists Different from Grandiose Narcissists?
Covert narcissists are similar to grandiose narcissists in many respects. They both construct the false self, and they both need external validation to prop up their sense of self. They also both see other people as tools for getting that admiration and adoration known as narcissistic supply. The difference between them lies in the way they go about getting that supply.
Grandiose or overt narcissists, as you can probably imagine, brag about their accomplishments, appear overly self-confident, and have no problem devaluing you if they’ve gotten what they want from you or if you go against them. They are much more explicit about expressing their needs and their right to have all the good things in life. They are also known as exhibitionistic narcissists and the title suits them well. They love the limelight.
Covert or vulnerable narcissists, on the other hand, are much more difficult to spot. These narcissists often get their narcissistic supply by doing good deeds in the hopes that others will praise them for what they have done. They do everything they can to appear like they are good people, and in fact, they will often neglect loved ones in order to do their good deeds.
Covert narcissists are also more likely to use subtle manipulative tactics to get you to praise them and to get you to do what they want. They might, for example, ‘fish for compliments.’ A covert narcissist who has just donated a great deal of money to a children’s hospital might say something like, “Oh, it was nothing. The doctors are the true heroes.” They want you to say, “No, what you did is so important. You are a genuine saint.”
What Happens if You Expose Them?
As psychologist, RN, and narcissistic abuse survivor Tia Collins notes, “ To expose a narcissist is like forcefully snatching the ‘security blanket’ from a baby.” When you unmask a narcissist, you’re revealing their hidden underbelly, and they feel exposed and vulnerable.
In this state, they are unpredictable and could even be dangerous. They can’t face what they buried so long ago — what they believe to be their flawed true self — and they are capable of almost anything to keep that from happening. There are usually several ways they will typically react, although it’s best to keep in mind that nothing is set in stone.
The first thing they’re likely to try to do is reestablish control over you. To do that, they may initially respond with a frightening rage, known as narcissistic rage, and it’s even more shocking coming from a covert narcissist. You’re not used to seeing them in this kind of emotional frenzy. This rage is designed to shock and frighten you into submission, and to make you think twice about trying to point out their flaws in the future.
After they have ‘shocked and awed’ you, the next step will be to try and prove you wrong. That will help to reestablish their perceived superiority over you and show you to be the flawed person instead of them. If they can show that you were in the wrong, that is the category in which they will place you in the future.
Remember that narcissists are binary thinkers. You’re either all good or all bad; there is no in-between. Once they put you into a category, that’s where you stay in their mind. Because they have labeled you as bad, they have no compunction about treating you with incredible cruelty.
They will bait you by attempting to trigger you, they will gaslight you to try to make you doubt your own interpretation of reality, they will be withholding and seek to isolate you, and they devalue you by spreading false information and gossip to discredit you.
Winning You Back
If the narcissist still believes they can get something from you or if they think they can get you solidly back under their control, they may seek to lure you back with their charm. Toward that end, you might experience any one of the following tactics:
- Love-bombing: This is where they will once again profess their undying love for you and promise that the future will be different. They likely did this when you were first getting to know them, but you might not have noticed. You might just have thought they really cared about you.
- False apologies: This often accompanies the love-bombing if the narcissist thinks they need to make some kind of gesture to get you back. They might apologize, but the apology will lack empathy and be devoid of any sincerity. They might also apologize by offering an excuse for their behavior. This usually means they’re really blaming someone else for what they did.
- Bring on the guilt: With this tactic, the narcissist may try to use your genuine emotions against you. They want to make you feel that they’ve done so much for you that you can’t possibly be treating them this way. They may tell you something like, “You’ll never find anyone else like me.”
This is another technique narcissists will use when you call them out, particularly if they don’t believe there is anything else you can do for them and/or they realize you post too much of a danger to their false self to keep you in their life.
This often comes after they have devalued you and tried to completely crush you. It’s important to their fragile self-esteem that the world see just how ‘wrong’ you are. When this happens, it’s often shocking because they can be so very cold about it. In the end, it may be the best thing that could happen to you, but you might not feel that way while it’s happening.
Exposing a narcissist — whether covert or overt — is always a dicey business. You never know how they will react, and in fact, if you’re dealing with a covert narcissist, you might still be reeling from discovering their true nature. They are adept at hiding their narcissism, and when you find out, it can be very unsettling.
There are a number of reactions you might be met with, including narcissistic rage, devaluation, bullying, and even a cruel discard. On the other hand, you could also experience their considerable charm as they try to lure you back in. To protect yourself, it’s best to prepare for the confrontation, provide them with evidence if you can, and establish and maintain firm boundaries to secure your emotional and physical safety.
If you’re even thinking about exposing a covert narcissist, you’ll need to check out this article about the difference between covert and overt narcissism. It will help clarify how they are alike and how they differ.
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