Overt and Covert Narcissism:
When I first began to put this line of enquiry together, one of the things that perplexed me about the two main narcissists I had experienced in my life (which I shall call Adam & Eve) was, that although they portrayed some common core features of narcissism, they also demonstrated distinct and separate constructs of behavior which I found very hard to reconcile. Eve was typical of all the literature that I was reading; however, I was finding it hard to fit Adam’s behavior into five of the nine descriptions necessary for making the diagnosis. I was thrown by the fact that he was quite shy, did show some empathy towards others, and was somewhat introverted, to the point of becoming a recluse from the outer world by his early thirties. Because he was quite shut off from society, generally his obnoxious behavior was reserved for family members and close friends. But the damage he did to family and friends was huge, several members ended up in hospital in intensive care due to his vicious attacks of rage.
However, my investigation led me to a growing body of research that shone the light on the fact that narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) contains two factors or subtypes with distinct differences that I had found for myself in Adam and Eve, namely, these subtitles come under the titles of Overt Narcissism and Covert Narcissism. Although unrelated to each other, these two factors have within them common core features, such as conceit, self-indulgence, and disregard of others. Despite this common core, however, there were also distinct and separate constructs as I had seen with Adam and Eve. For example, Eve fell under the subtitle of The Overt type of narcissism, which provides substantial constructs for Grandiosity-Exhibitionism, and is related to extraversion, self-assurance, and aggression. Whereas Adam belonged to the Covert type of narcissism, which provides substantial constructs for Vulnerability and Hypersensitivity, and is related to introversion, defensiveness, anxiety, and vulnerability to life’s traumas. These distinctions between the Two Faces of Narcissism (overt and covert narcissism) show that narcissism can hold contradictory views of the self. This information is vital for a thorough understanding of what the therapist and the victim needs to be aware of if one is to avoid getting caught in the grasp of anybody suffering with NPD. So let us look at the differences more thoroughly. The following breakdown of overt and covert narcissism is based on material drawn from the studies of Ronningstam and Stone:-
The Overt Narcissist: The arrogant overt form of narcissism describes Eve best as it manifests as grandiosity. The attribution style of this type of narcissist is preoccupied with fantasies of outstanding success in all areas; personal attractiveness, brilliance, ideal love, sense of power, accumulation of wealth etc. Because they believe that they are unique and special, they have a grand sense of self-importance, and believe that they can only be understood by other special or high status people. As a result they exaggerate their achievements and talents, and expect to be recognized as superior, even without sufficient achievements. This can be seen in their boastful, pretentious, self-centered, and self-referential behavior. They present with high expectations of entitlement, always looking for favorable treatment, which of course interferes with all of their relationships, which they are unable to maintain satisfactorily. They have an intense need for admiration, and work hard to seek out situations where their insatiable need can be met by others. If, for any reason the desired admiration is not forthcoming, they will go into a rage. They are so self-absorbed that it would rarely occur to them that others would have reciprocal needs. Because of their need to be the “best”, they behave in a haughty manner with others. They often feel scorned or rejected, and in return they are scornful of others.
They are interpersonally exploitative, and will take advantage of others in order to achieve their own needs. They are very arrogant, but they mask their egotism in a false humility. They lack empathy, and are unable to identify with the needs of others; this also affects their ability to participate in groups. Because of their feelings of worthlessness, they are often envious of others (of their talents, accomplishments and possessions), and then they arrogantly believe that others are envious of them. This causes them to feel suspicious and untrusting of others, and deeply threatened, which creates intense feelings of rage to erupt.
They are very greedy for everything that they see others having, (i.e. information, knowledge, fame, money, position, power etc.) and they will manipulate others in a way that allows them to extract those things from them. It is in the “having” that they feel powerful. They also have a fondness for fast-tracking knowledge, so they will observe others whom they admire, then “model” that behavior, claiming it as their own, which means that a lot of the time they are frauds. They have no problem saying that they have achieved awards, (such as diplomas, degrees, accreditations etc), when if fact this is often untrue.
The overt narcissist is over inflated by their own importance. If however they are criticized, contradicted, or God forbid, lose in some way, they will experience strong negative reactions. Generally, when in public they aim at coming across as cool, calm and sophisticated, however when they cannot contain themselves they display their rage to others. This display can later cause them to feel shame, which is likely to trigger revengeful plans of action against the person who caused them to loose their control. Sometimes the shame reaction is so severe that it creates episodes of depression and suicidal thoughts. The arrogant overt narcissist shows marked deficits in the functioning regarding their self-concept, interpersonal relationships, social adaptations, ethics, standards and ideals.
Covert narcissism: The shy covert form of narcissism is the form that describes Adam best as it is characterized by unfulfilled expectations, and a vulnerability to stress. The attribution style of the covert narcissist is also preoccupied with grandiose fantasies, where he is at the centre of his world. However, these fantasies are not realized as they are beyond his attainment, he lacks the self-confidence and initiative to pull it off. He is plagued by feelings of unworthiness and shame as he is unable to attain his goals, but he keeps that fact hidden. Probably because of his self-doubts, he does not seek affirmation from others. Because of his fear of exposure he is unlikely to seek out appropriate friends, but is more likely to surround himself with inferior types. He will admire people who have high accomplishments; however he will secretly envy them, and hold strong feelings of resentment. He is more likely to hide himself away, and get little credit for his achievements. His deportment is modest, shy, inhibited, shame-prone, and retiring. He is hypervigilant to humiliation and rejection. He has a marked propensity towards feeling ashamed. He is on a relentless search for glory and power (often through his children or other family members), and is very sensitive to criticism and failure. He has an inability to depend or trust on others, and shows irreverence towards authority. He has an inability to see his partner or family as separate individuals with their own interests, rights or values. He shows a genuine inability to comprehend the incest taboo. Because he has difficulties in keeping himself interested and entertained, he is prone to depression. The covert form of narcissism is reflected as hypersensitivity. However, it seems that the covert narcissist fits into everyday society better than the overt variety.
To conclude: According to Paul Wink (Institute of Personality Assessment and Research University of California, Berkeley), when Narcissism is Overt, (Narcissistic Grandiosity-Exhibitionism) it leads to a direct expression of grandiosity and exhibitionism, self-importance, and preoccupation with receiving attention and admiration from others. The difficulty of overt narcissism is that it centers on overconfidence, aggressiveness at the cost of others, and an excessive need for admiration, and is associated to extraversion, aggressiveness, self-assuredness, and the need to be admired by others. Whereas when Covert, (Narcissistic Vulnerability-Sensitivity) it is marked by largely unconscious feelings of grandeur and openly displayed lack of self-confidence and initiative, vague feelings of depression, and an absence of zest for work (narcissistic deficiency). The difficulties associated with covert narcissism is that it includes anxiety and pessimism, lack of fulfillment, and vulnerability to life’s traumas, and is also associated with introversion, hypersensitivity, defensiveness, anxiety, and vulnerability. However, both distinct forms of narcissism are associated with psychological problems and difficulties in effective functioning, and both share common narcissistic characteristics such as conceit, self-indulgence, and disregard for the needs of others.