“…Underneath the so-called narcissistic personality is definitely shame and paralyzing fear of being ordinary.” — Brené Brown
There are two main types of narcissism seen in clinical settings. While most clinicians can spot the more “stereotypical” form of narcissistic behavior pretty easily based on identifiable patterns, the other form of narcissism is more vague, and can be tougher to recognize.
Statistically speaking, Narcissistic Personality Disorder is actually a pretty rare diagnosis. On average, there is a lifetime prevalence of approximating 6% , with more males than females being diagnosed annually. The statistics could be higher, however those who are diagnosable often abandon therapy before receiving a formal diagnosis, or jump ship soon afterward.
….keeping them chained to the pattern.
The one form of narcissism spotted fairly easily is grandiose, or “Overt” narcissism. Grandiose narcissism is usually identifiable as the brazen look at me! type: the body-obsessed gym-goer who takes an excessive amount of selfies, or the Office Manager who is self-absorbed, shallow, or only wants to associate with those higher up the ladder…
…you get the idea.
Grandiose narcissism overlaps with diagnostic criteria for NPD. Those with grandiose narcissism are often associated with being charming and most are good conversationalists as long as the conversation remains on topics that interest them, or you soon their attention can turn to indifference and boredom.
On the flip-side, they can also be quick tempered, opinionated, impulsive, lacking vulnerable emotions (empathy, sadness, love) and quick to aggress if provoked.
For example, if they thought their S.O. was looking at someone else at the gym, they may confront that person, verbally threaten them, or put their fist through that person’s car window to regain the upper hand.
However, because most are image-conscious, chances are they wouldn’t resort to physical aggression and may instead try to embarrass the person. For example, they may publicly laugh at them at the gym, call them ‘weak’ while trying to outperform them to preserve their own Ego.
Vulnerable “Covert” Narcissism
The other type of narcissism is less obvious and may fly under the radar until they’ve hurt others and then themselves. This form of narcissism goes by vulnerable, or “Covert”.
Until recently, vulnerable, or “Covert” narcissism really hasn’t gotten the same amount of attention as “Grandiose” narcissism.
Covert narcissism is closely related to Borderline Personality Disorder because of several behavioral overlaps between the two including: being highly sensitive to rejection/abandonment, being withdrawn, having high comorbidity with Major Depression or Bipolar Disorder, and having high levels of shame that are “covered” up.
In Covert narcissism, shame is more commonly felt than in Overt narcissism. With vulnerable narcissism, abuse or mistreatment suffered in childhood is turned inward as being inherently unworthy of love.
They invest a great deal of effort trying to push away their inner critic and to numb their pain and shame. They have to be seen as the ‘good guy/girl’ and may hide their pain and anger behind a Can-Do attitude.
Those with Covert narcissism tend to be shy, and have high tendencies to envy others. They use what they envy in others as ammo for their own inner critic, replaying a toxic inner narrative that they’re not worthy of love, or that they’ll never be good enough, etc.
Whereas Grandiose narcissism outwardly blasts others who threaten their Ego, Covert narcissism inwardly blasts themselves and their own Ego.
Because of this, they can have high self-medicating tendencies to silence the inner voice.
Some are people-pleasers who come in as a hero or savior to receive the admiration they crave from others while giving themselves a sense of worthiness.
. . .
Both Overt and Covert narcissism tends to have similar triggers, which can be anything they perceive as disrespectful (ignoring them/feeling unheard, having a difference of opinion, not liking their outfit/haircut/music…); or anything they see as threatening to their Ego or that triggers shame (someone’s status being higher, someone being more respected, someone more attractive, someone being more knowledgeable or educated, someone having more money/friends/life experience).
How they react when triggered is what separates grandiose from vulnerable narcissism.
Covert narcissistic behavior is a “cover”), hence, covert.
Passive-aggression is common that often increases in intensity over time and depending on what the trigger was. Grudges can be held indefinitely and that person is painted ‘All Bad’.
Many are socially shy and happiest around technology. Most have ‘keyboard courage’ where they may attack a person behind the scenes under an alias or anonymously.
For example, if you told your partner you always wanted to vacation in Europe, they may jump on internet forums covertly bashing you behind your back, while pretending everything is fine to your face, or they may reach out to family members twisting the story to receive sympathy from them.
Covert narcissistic behavior is prone to obsessions —on their body, their looks or their appearance. They may Covertly fish for compliments by putting themselves down, while gunning for a compliment from you.
Referring back to the gym example above, they may now call themselves weak (after having called the other person weak who threatened their Ego). This agenda serves two purposes: it “releases” their guilt for insulting the other person, and it boosts their Ego by receiving a compliment.
If they receive the compliment they were after, their Ego is salvaged. If they don’t receive the compliment, (now their Ego is threatened). In this case, they may ignore you while flirting with others at the gym to boost their Ego while trying to crush yours.
A Few Considerations:
Overt narcissistic behavior is outwardly loud, may disguise insults as jokes, or may be physically aggressive.
Covert narcissism has a deep need to be seen as “All Good”, uses passive-aggression when angered (ignoring, selective listening, etc.), are quick to discard and pull the rug out from under others if Ego-threatened or triggered.
Covert narcissistic behavior has a firmer mask in place. They tend to be socially shy, and typically have more rage bubbling underneath than overt narcissism.
Some theorists suggest vulnerable narcissism as needing more support and may be more damaging to others and themselves when angered.
Both types will sabotage or hurt others, then themselves.
Both have limited emotional empathy but most have cognitive empathy — the ability to understand how their behavior affects others and themselves.
Some may vacillate between both Overt and Covert behavior depending on who they’re hanging around, but most have a more dominant behavioral pattern.
At the end of the day, we’re all human, we’re all flawed, we’ve all been hurt in some way, and we’re all perfectly imperfect.
The focus should be on behavior — habits, patterns, cycles — because they’re simple to recognize, can be relatively easy to change (with proper support) and it’s not stigmatizing to a person. We’ve all got habits that we’ve toted around with us, some may be longstanding and learned for survival. But, they can be unlearned for growth.
I’m not a fan of diagnostic labels outside of a academic literature and most of my articles tend to keep the diagnoses rhetoric to a minimum. Too much emphasis on diagnoses can stigmatize and trigger more shame and pain that’s already being run from or numbed in order to not feel it and to not deal with it.
….which is counter-intuitive to growth.
Labels don’t make a person more of this or less of that. What it boils down to is being real with ourselves, in giving ourselves an honest talk and slowing down to observe why some run from their authentic self, and from their potential for inner peace. Here is where insight, self-awareness and growth can start… If we allow it.
We’re all presented two choices: invest time focusing on how to love ourselves, how to grow, how to be emotionally available for ourselves and those in our lives, so we can become the person we needed growing up, or…not.
. . .
Euler, S., et al. (2018). Grandiose and vulnerable narcissism in borderline personality disorder. Psychopathology, 51(2), 110 —121.
Kacel, E. L., Ennis, N., & Pereira, D. B. (2017). Narcissistic personality disorder in clinical health psychology practice: Case studies of comorbid psychological distress and life-limiting illness. Behavioral Medicine, 43(3), 155–164
Kernberg, O. F. (1975). Borderline conditions and pathological narcissism. New York: J. Aronson.
Kohut, H. (1971). The Analysis of Self. New York: International Universities Press.
This post was previously published on Change Becomes You.
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