We pretty much know what narcissism is by now. The description “narcissist” is a buzzword, a darling of amateur analysts. Those needy, charismatic attention-grabbers stride across the world’s stage, using and confusing those who fall for their charms. They have the perfect platform in a culture obsessed with both celebrity and social media. They rule countries, they mesmerise, they manipulate and wreak havoc.
But beyond the more showy and recognisable type lurks a lesser known and essentially more dangerous sub-species. Where your standard overt narcissist is a wolf in wolf’s clothing, the covert narcissist is a wolf in sheep’s clothing. “The more silent and subtle variation is often more confusing and sinister,” says Dr Sarah Davies, psychologist and author of Never Again – Moving on from Narcissistic Abuse and Other Toxic Relationships.
This variation in the narcissistic personality type is “a more recent evolution in our understanding of the topic of narcissism,” according to Dr Ramani Durvasula, a professor of psychology. A recent study by NYU’s Department of Psychology confirmed that narcissism is more driven by insecurity than a genuine inflated self-image and refers to the two subtypes, overt and vulnerable (or covert), making a link with the habit of constant selfie-posting. As psychoanalyst Maxine Mei-Fung Chung says: “The mask of the narcissistically wounded conceals profound sadness.”
But that mask is a bewitching one. As someone who was reeled in over the years by their addictive intoxications, I have written about a narcissist whose charms creep up gradually in my latest novel. In real life, it was someone who possessed the more discreet qualities of the covert narcissist who drew me in the most deeply, even when I thought I was forewarned and immune after being attracted by more shimmering personalities. It was slow, it was insidious, it took much soul-searching to understand that what I was interacting with was a series of constructed personae so convincing, they masked an essential emptiness.
Your classic narcissist fills the world with a drug-like sense of scintillation and intrigue, vacuuming up attention and admiration and, at least ostensibly, living an exciting existence. The problem is, how to spot the covert type when they’re not your standard grandiose narcissist, and can therefore creep in under the radar, yet cause the same amount of damage. Or more.
Lorna Slade is a psychotherapist who specialises in healing from narcissistic abuse. “Covert or ‘vulnerable’ narcissists tend to be more introverted than grandiose narcissists,” she says. “But they share the same classic traits. They’re just manifested at a far more subtle, workaday level. Theirs is a much more laser-targeted revenge. But they’re mask wearers: other people will say: ‘What do you mean? They’re lovely.’”
A little knowledge can be a dangerous thing. “Learning to spot covert narcissism can be more difficult and takes a certain level of specific awareness,” Davies says. “With the more overt types, it is an almost unapologetic ‘this is me’ presentation. With covert narcissists, their focus on meeting their own needs is masked by more subtle manipulation and control techniques. They can come across as sweet and innocent, even shy and introverted, and can also seem very caring and helpful. They can be the shoulder to cry on, but will use what you share with them against you further down the road, and ultimately, with the aim of manipulating you to feel indebted and grateful. Thus providing them with admiration and gratitude – narcissistic supply.”
So what other features distinguish these subtly appealing types with their silent weaponry? While psychologists agree that the underlying pathology is the same, the different presentation can include other aspects – guilt-tripping, generosity as a means to control and feigning illness to gain sympathy. As Davies says, the covert narcissist can be a “silent intruder and silent seducer.”
“In my experience the covert is far more dangerous than a grandiose,” says Slade. “Not only because they are harder to spot, but crucially, since they are more shame-based, they are more easily triggered into what’s known as ‘narcissistic rage’, which drives them to take spectacular revenge.”
A sense of victimhood appears to be primary, in which the narcissist will persecute from the victim position, often denigrating themselves and thereby fishing for reassurance. “Since they are poor problem-solvers, I see coverts resorting to the ‘victim’ role as a semi-conscious and very dark tool in their toolkit,” says Slade. “Once in victim mode they are emotionally persuasive way beyond the ability of a neurotypical person. The sheer effective power of coverts’ ability to manipulate other people never ceases to amaze me.”
“Covert narcissism is really a manipulation through victimhood,” says Dr Ramani Durvasula, who, in her own words, is “on a mission to demystify and dismantle the toxic influence of narcissism on all our lives” and runs a YouTube channel dedicated to the subject. She uses the term “vulnerable” as well as “covert” for these narcissists. “You may be drawn in because you feel kind of sorry for them, bad for them. It can be very empowering for you to think you want to rescue them… Most people will not initially see them through the lens of narcissism – their conception is focused solely on the traditional grandiose narcissist – that shiny, charismatic, confident, charming, witty, attractive, textbook narcissist. This misses those who, in fact, often present as somewhat depressed, victimised or even needy… However, they have the same themes as their classical and grandiose buddies.”
Davies recommends studying the Karpman Drama Triangle, which demonstrates the roles of persecutor, victim and rescuer in the drama. “See if you can recognise when the ‘victim’ tries to pull you in a ‘rescuer’ role,” she says. “Awareness is key. I do advise clients to arm themselves with as much information as necessary, so they’re able to recognise narcissists before they’re in an abusive relationship with one.”
So the covert narcissist will still seek status and validation, discard other people, feel entitlement and lack empathy, but their methods are more concealed. They may even tell you how introverted and sensitive they are. It is all too easy to fit into the useful role of supporter when someone seems so lovely, so quietly brilliant, yet vulnerable.
“They tend to rely on fear and guilt-tripping as means to manipulate,” says Davies.
But, while exercising extreme wariness, we should also have sympathy: narcissists are not born. They are created by early environments, picking up the message that their true self is not acceptable, whereupon they create a false self, or mask. If that shiny outer shell is threatened, they will attack as they feel annihilated.
As I know to my cost, narcissists do come in so many guises, and it takes two to enter this game. Only by looking at my own role as well could I come to a real understanding of the dynamic. Is there a subconscious script at play? The general theory is that narcissists attract empaths and codependents. The covert narcissist will “go for an enabler, who has their own psychological needs, low self-esteem, and is kind of blind to what’s going on,” says Slade. “They may have an inkling the person isn’t right, but they’re still in the cult. These are relationships of inevitable harm.”
As Davies says, “Almost every client I work with has stated that in hindsight, they had a ‘gut-feeling’ that the narcissist they met was bad news, before they ignored that and allowed themselves to be swept up in the charms and intensity of a narcissistic dynamic. If you have a sense that a person could be damaging in any way – trust it.”
This is where we so often fall. We don’t trust our instincts. The romantics among us are swept somewhere new and exciting; we explain away the red flags; we find ourselves playing a role that we never knew we had taken on. However subtly this is achieved, the narcissist undeniably makes the world a more multifaceted, fascinating place. But it is, without doubt, a more dangerous one.