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Passive Aggressive Or Covert Narcissist?

Uploaded 8/29/2022, approx. 23 minute read

All covert narcissists are passive-aggressive, but only a very small minority of passive-aggressive people are covert narcissists.

So how can we tell the difference?

Passive aggressiveness is a dysfunctional way of expressing negative affectivity. Negative affectivity includes negative emotions such as anger, annoyance, resentment, frustration, various transformations of aggression.

Healthy people simply express negative effects. They share these effects, these emotions, with people around them in order to modify behavior and to accomplish outcomes, favorable outcomes.

Unhealthy people, people whose anger management is dysfunctional, become passive-aggressive.

So in a way, strangely, strangely, passive aggression is a form of people-pleasing.

Passive-aggressive people are loathe. They are afraid to openly express their anger because they are afraid to alienate other people. They want to please other people. And so instead, they redirect the negative effects. They internalize the aggression. And so they become a seething swamp of negativity.

Indeed, another name for passive aggression is negativistic personality.

So passive aggression is about a dysfunctional way of coping with negative effects by internalizing them. And the internalization process leads to behaviors which somehow manifest aggression.

So it's indirect covert aggression. Compare this to covert narcissism.

In passive aggression, what is covert is the aggression. In narcissism, what is covert is the grandiosity.

And this is a very important distinction.


My name is Steele. Last time I checked, San Wagner, and I'm the author of Malignant Self-Love, Narcissism Revisited in a Professor of Psychology.

Enough to start today's lecture by tapping into eavesdropping on a therapy session with Mike. We'll try to make sense of Mike's ramblings and decide together whether he is a mere passive aggressive or a more evolved form known as covert narcissist.

Okay, we go to Mike. So Mike comes to my office, and he presents with a series of complaints. And he is attending therapy at the request of his wife.

Mike's wife complains that he is emotionally absent, aloof. I asked Mike about this, and I asked him, do you agree? And he shrugs. We used to have a great marriage, he says, but good things don't last. You can't sustain the same levels of passion and interest throughout the relationship. It sounds to me as if he is justifying his emotional absenteeism, as if he thinks that being aloof is a natural progression in an intimate relationship.

He's a male, he's 52 years old, and he's diagnosed with negativistic passive aggressive personality disorder.

Mind you, it's not a recognized personality disorder. It appears in the appendix to the diagnostic and statistical manual.

But many therapists and many mental health practitioners still apply this diagnosis to patients.

So I'm asking, I asked Mike, isn't your family worth the effort? Don't you want to invest in your family?

He shrugs again. He doesn't pay to be a good husband or a good father. Look what my loving wife did to me.

In any case, at my age, the future is behind me. Carpe diem is my model, sees the day. Does he consider his wife's demands to be unreasonable? I asked.

And now Mike flares up, he explodes. With all due respect, that's between me and my spouse, none of your business. Then why is he wasting his time and mind? I asked Mike. I didn't ask to be here, he says. Did he prepare a list of things he would like to see improved in his family life?

He forgot to do so.

But I ask you explicitly, I insist. Yes, but I forgot. I was busy. Can he compile it for our next meeting? He ignores my question. I ask it again. He ignores it again.

Finally, he relents. I will compile the list if nothing more urgent pops up, he says.

It would be difficult to continue to work together if he doesn't keep his promises, I tell him.

Mike shrugs again and says, I understand. And I'll see what I can do about it.

But there's no great conviction in his voice. It doesn't sound like he intends to compile the list or follow any other request of Mike.

The problem is, says Mike, unsolicited. That I regard psychotherapy as a form of con-artistry.

Psychotherapies, says Mike, are snake oil salesmen, latter-day witch doctors. But they are much less efficient than their predecessors.

How do you feel about that, I ask? And he says, I hate to feel cheated or deceived. And is this how you feel when you're in therapy?

Yes, in fact, it is.

Does he often feel this way, I ask Mike?

Mike laughs dismissively. He is too clever for run-of-the-mill crooks like me. He is often underestimated by them, he says.

Do other people besides crooks underestimate him, I ask Mike?

And Mike admits to being unappreciated and underpaid at work.

Does it bother you? Yes, it bothers me, he says. I deserve more than that.

Obsequious intellectual midgets rise to the top in every organization. And that's not the way it should be, he observes with virulent envy.

How does Mike cope with this discrepancy between the way he perceives himself and the way others evidently evaluate him?

I ignore them, he says. They're fools.

But I wonder, how can you ignore your co-workers, your superiors? I just don't talk to them.

In other words, you're sullen, you're constantly sullen.

Yeah, more or less.

I sit in my corner, I do my job, I don't pay attention to others. But I'm not always sulking or pouting or sullen, he says.

Sometimes I try to enlighten people and educate them, but only those I deem worthy.

And this noble activity, he says, often gets me into arguments.

I have to acquire, I have acquired a reputation as a cantankerous curmudgeon. But I don't care. If I see someone who is worth the effort, I invest in him, I educate him, I enlighten him.

Generally, I ask Mike, are you an impatient or irritable person?

Well, what do you think?

He counters. During this session, did I ever lose my call?

It seems that he thinks he was, it was all smooth sailing. Did I ever lose my call?

He asks. And I answer, yes, you did. Frequently, it infuriates him. He half rises from his chair, then he thinks better of it and settles down.

He dismisses me with a hand gesture. Do your thing, he says, sullenly and contemptuously. Let's get it over with.


This was a therapy session, or part of it, didn't go too well with Mike.

And now I will read to you Akhtar and Cooper's definition, the foundational text of covert narcissism from 1989. And then we'll proceed to discuss passive-aggressive personality and passive-aggressive behaviors.

We'll try to make sense of all this. And at the very end, we'll try to render a verdict, a diagnostic verdict on Mike. Is he passive-aggressive, or is he a covert narcissist?

Let's start with the covert narcissist.

Akhtar, in the late Cooper, he died last year, wrote this text in 1989, was in the form of a table, and it became the foundational text for covert narcissism.

The shy, fragile, covert, or vulnerable narcissist has a self-concept which is distinct from the overt narcissist. The covert narcissist feels inferiority. He has morose self-doubts. He has a marked propensity toward feeling ashamed. He is fragile. There is a relentless search for glory and power and a marked sensitivity to criticism and to realistic setbacks.

What about the covert interpersonal relationships? There's an inability to genuinely depend on others and to trust them, a chronic envy of others, other people's talents, possessions, and capacity for deep object relations.

Irritate and provoke the covert because he's incapable of any of these. There's a lack of regard for generational boundaries, a disregard for other people's time, and a refusal to answer correspondence or any attempts to outreach and communicate.

The social adaptation of the covert lives a lot to be desired. There's a nagging aimlessness, a shallow vocational commitment, a dilettante-like attitude, multiple but superficial interests, a chronic boredom, a aesthetic taste that is often ill-informed and imitative.

The ethics, standards, and ideals of the covert are also very, very fluid. It's very reminiscent of the borderline's identity disturbance. There's a readiness to shift values in order to gain favor. That's the difference between the borderline and the covert.

The borderline's values shift because she has no core identity, her identity is in flux. The covert will shift his values or her values when there's something to gain.

So it's a manipulative ploy, it's instrumental, and it's goal-oriented, very similar to the psychopath.

So there's a readiness to shift values to gain favor. This pathological line, a materialistic lifestyle, delinquent tendencies, inordinate ethnic and moral relativism, an irreverence towards authority, contumaciousness, all these are very typical of factor one psychopaths, by the way.

Of course, covert's experience problems in love, relations, and sexuality. There's an inability to remain in love, impaired capacity for viewing the romantic partner as a separate individual with his or her own interests, rights, and values. An inability to genuinely comprehend the incestable and occasional sexual deviances and perversions.

And finally, the cognitive style of the covert is highly specific, highly idiosyncratic. The covert's knowledge is often limited to raw information or trivia. This is called headline intelligence. The covert is forgetful of details, especially names. It is impaired in the capacity for learning new skills.

There's a tendency to change meanings of reality when facing a threat to self-esteem. Language and speaking are used for regulating self-esteem.

I would add to this list pseudo humility, false modesty. This is the covert.

There are important elements in Mike's conduct during therapy and in his self-reporting that correspond closely to some of the criteria for covert narcissism.


More and more, it begins to look like Mike may be a covert narcissist.

But let's not rush into judgment. Let us study the alternative passive aggression, negativism, negativistic or passive aggressive personality disorder.

As I said, the negativistic or passive aggressive personality disorder is not yet recognized by the diagnostic and statistical manual, the DSM committee. It did make an appearance in Appendix B of the text revision of the fourth edition of the DSM. The appendix titled criteria sets and axes provided for further study.

Passive aggression behaviors were first described by a psychiatrist in the US army. His name was William Menninger. He observed soldiers who were very obstructive and Menninger described it as below the surface hostility.

Today we use the term covert aggression. The current perception or the state of the art understanding of passive aggression has evolved to comprise a host of behaviors, temporary delayed compliance, intentional inefficiency, escalation of unresolved problems, hidden but conscious, revenge, self-depreciation in pursuit of vengeance and destruction, procrastination, silent treatment. They all come under the umbrella of passive aggression.

Some people are perennial pessimists. They have negative energy. They have negativistic attitudes. They would say good things don't last. It doesn't pay to be good. The future is behind me.

These people not only disparage the efforts of others but they make it a point to resist demands to perform in the workplace, in social settings, in interpersonal relationships. They seek to frustrate people's expectations and openly defy their requests but in a way that cannot be perceived as defiance.

So never mind how reasonable you are. Never mind how minimal your expectations and requests are.

The passive aggressive person makes it a point to frustrate you. Frustrating you is the raison d'être, the reason for existence, for the passive aggressive. Frustrating you is the main activity, psychological activity, of the passive aggressive. It is who he is. It is the essence of the passive aggressive.

So in a way the passive aggressive covert aggression is diffuse. It doesn't have to do with you.

Passive aggressives do target specific individuals. That much is true. But these individuals are fungible. They're interchangeable. Almost anyone would do. It's better if they target a superior, an authority figure, but an intimate partner would do, a neighbour, a colleague, exactly like the narcissist.

The narcissist sources of narcissistic supply are fungible, commoditized, interchangeable. Similarly, the passive aggressive sources of sadistic supply are essentially commodities, indistinguishable from each other. And so such people, passive aggressive people, regard every requirement, every assigned task, every expectation as an imposition. They reject authority. They resent authority figures actually, bosses, teachers, parent-like, spouses. They feel shackled and enslaved by commitment, and they oppose relationships that bind them in any manner.

Clinically speaking, passive aggression is a form of avoidant, dismissive attachment style, an insecure attachment style.

We are not sure whether these attitudes and behaviors are acquired or learned, or whether they are the outcome of heredity. It is still an open question.

We know, for example, that learned helplessness easily evolves into passive aggression. But on the other hand, we know that passive aggression does tend to run in families. Still, in families, there's an issue of upbringing and nurture. It's very difficult to disentangle what leads to other.

Often, passive aggression is the only weapon of the weak and the meek. They can't defy you openly. They don't dare to go against you aggressively. So they undermine you. They challenge you. They sabotage you. They create coalitions to pull you down, to reduce you to size, to cut your feet off.

These people, passive aggressives, they are besieged by frustration, helplessness, profound, all-pervasive sadness, extreme anger, spite.

And the organizing principle of their emotional landscape and the engine and main motivating forces of their lives are all negative.

Passive aggressiveness was a multitude of guises, as I've mentioned, procrastination, malingering, perfectionism, forgetfulness, neglect, truancy, intentional inefficiency, stubbornness, pseudo-stupidity, outright sabotage.

And I would add to this list pseudo-humility.

This repeated and advertant misconduct has far-reaching effects and consequences.


Consider the negativistic person in the workplace. He or she invests time and effort in obstructing their own chores and in undermining relationships and other people's accomplishments. They implant explosive devices, improvised explosive devices, in every project. But these self-destructive and self-defeating behaviors wreak havoc throughout the workshop, throughout all the office or the other relationship.

People diagnosed with negativistic, passive-aggressive personality disorder resemble narcissists in some important relationships. Despite the obstructive role that they play, passive-aggressives feel unappreciated, underpaid, discriminated against, cheated and misunderstood. They chronically complain, whine, carp and criticise. They blame their failures and defeats on others, and this is known as alloplastic defenses. They pose as martyrs and victims of a corrupt, inefficient and heartless system. In other words, they have exactly the same type of defenses and external locus of control, typical of narcissists.

In many victimhood movements, we find a confluence of passive-aggressive people, together with narcissists and psychopaths.

Passive-aggressives sulk. They give you the silent treatment in reaction to real or imagined slides, and this is hyper-vigilance. They suffer from ideas of reference. They believe that they are the butt of derision, contempt and condemnation, the focus of attention, malign attention.

In this sense, passive-aggressiveness resembles paranoid or persecutory ideation, or even persecutory delusions.

Passive-aggressives are mildly paranoid. The world is out to get them, and this explains their personal misfortune.

In the words of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, passive-aggressives may be sullen, irritable, impatient, argumentative, cynical, sceptical and contrary. They are also hostile, explosive, lack impulse control and sometimes they are reckless.

Inevitably, passive-aggressives are envious of the fortunate, the successful, the famous, the happy, the superiors and those in favour.

And the passive-aggressives vent this venomous jealousy openly and defiantly, whenever given the opportunity.

There's a lot of sudden void, delight at the failure or decline of someone else.

Deep at heart, passive-aggressives are bullies, the craven.

When reprimanded, they immediately revert to begging forgiveness.

Cow-towing, modeling protestations, turning on their charm, promising to behave, to perform better in the future.

But when they are confronted by someone who is unable to punish them, is not in the position to punish them, is not an authority figure, they usually escalate their behaviors.

So for example, when they are criticized by an intimate partner, they would tend to behave even worse.

The intimate partner or sibling or neighbor or co-worker, passive-aggression is typical not only of individuals, but also of bureaucracies and collectives.

Bureaucracies and collectives such as for-profit universities, health maintenance organizations, the army, the government, they tend to behave passive-aggressively and to frustrate their constituencies.

And this misconduct is often aimed at releasing tensions and stress that the individuals comprising these organizations accumulate at their daily contact with members of the public.

Additionally, as Kafka astutely observed, such misbehaviour fosters dependence in the clients of these establishments. It cements a relationship of superiority and it cements a relationship of superior, the obstructionist group versus inferior, the demanding and deserving individual who is reduced to begging and supplicating.

Passive-aggression has a lot in common with pathological narcissism. The destructive envy, the recurrent attempts to buttress grandiose fantasies of omnipotence and omniscience, the lack of impulse control, the deficient ability to empathize and the sense of entitlement, often incommensurate with real-life achievements.

No wonder, therefore, that negativistic, narcissistic and borderline organizations share similar traits and identical psychological defenses. Most notably, denial, mainly of the existence of problems or complaints. Projection, blaming the group's failures and disfunctions on its clients.

In such a state of mind, it is easy to confuse means, for example, making money, hiring staff, constructing or renting facilities, etc.

Easy to confuse these means with ends, the ends of providing loans, educating students, assisting the poor, fighting wars. The means become the ends and the ends become the means.

And consequently, the original goals of the organization are not considered to be nothing more than obstacles on the way to realizing new aims.

Borrowers, students or the poor are nuisances to be summarily dispensed with, as the board of directors considers the erection of yet another office tower and the disbursement of yet another annual bonus to its members.


As Parkinson noted, the collective perpetuates its own existence, regardless of whether it has any role left and how well it functions.

As the constituencies of these collectives, most notably its clients, protest as they exert pressure in an attempt to restore these institutions to their erstwhile state, the collectives develop a paranoid state of mind, a siege mentality replete with persecutory delusions.

The Nixon and Trump White Houses administrations come to mind.

This anxiety is an interjection of guilt.

Deep inside these organizations know that they have strayed from the right path.

They anticipate attacks and rebukes and are rendered defensive and suspicious by the inevitable impending onslaught.

And still, deep down, bureaucracies epitomize the predominant culture of failure.

Failure as a product, the intended outcome and end result of complex, deliberate and arduous manufacturing processes.

Like the majority of people, bureaucrats are emotionally invested in failure, not in success. They thrive on failure, calamity and emergency. The worse the disaster, the more egregiously in aptitude, the more resources are allocated to voracious and ever-expanding bureaucracies.

Consider, for example, the U.S. government after the 9-11 terrorist attacks.

Paradoxically, the measure of success is how many failures and institutions has had to endure or has fostered. These massive organs tend to attract and nurture functionaries and clients whose mentality and personality are suited to embedded fatalism.

In a globalized competitive world, the majority are doomed to failure and recurrent deprivation. Those rendered losers by the vagaries and exigencies of modernity find refuge in Livia Khan.

Imposing metastatically sprawling nanny organizations and corporations shield people from the agonizing truth of their own inadequacy and from the shearing winds of entrepreneurship and cutthroat struggle in the jungle out there. A tiny minority of mavericks and entrepreneurs swim against this inexorable type.

They innovate, refrain, invent, discover and lead. Theirs is an existence of constant strife as the multitudes and their weaponized bureaucracies seek to put these people out to extinguish originality and creativity in the barely flickering flame and to appropriate the scant resources consumed by these people, by these forward leaps.

In time, ironically, truly successful entrepreneurs themselves become invested in failure. They form their own vast establishment empires and networks. They become defensive and dedicated rather than open and universal.

Progress materializes despite an incontrovertible to the herd-like human spirit not because of it.


So now that we have over-viewed covert narcissism and passive aggression in the individual and in institutions and collectives, where does Mike fit in?

To decide this, we need to go back to my patient notes from his therapy session. Remember that Mike is attending the request of his wife, but he is very resentful of this.

His wife complains that he is emotionally absent and aloof. That is very typical, actually, of a narcissist.

Mike says, we used to have a great marriage, but things don't last. You can't sustain the same levels of passion and interest. He is a defeatist. He gives in. He's a fatalist. He sees no reason to fight. Giving in or giving up is not a narcissistic trait.

Narcissist is a junkie. He's an addict. He cannot stop. He is imbued with constant energy because he needs to seek his next fix.

Mike is resigned. He has given up on life and on the world, but he has rejected life not the way the narcissist does.

The narcissist rejects life in favor of a fantasy.

Mike has no fantasy left. His family is no longer his refuge. He doesn't pay to be a good husband or a good father. He sees the day. He doesn't believe in anything. He isn't capable of dreaming. He is not even seeking narcissistic supply.

Mike is consummation. He hates authority figures. He says, when I ask him about his relationship with his wife, he explodes with all due respect.

That's none of your business. Similarly, he resents his wife's demands. He says, I didn't ask to be here.

And he undermines and sabotages the therapy process. He refuses to do his homework. He refuses to compile the list that I've asked him to. And he's ignoring my request. He's giving me the silent treatment.

And he makes clear to me that I am the last priority in his non-existent list. I will do this, he says, if nothing more urgent pops up.

He regards psychotherapy as a form of con artistry.

Regardless of the merits of this opinion, expressing this opinion to a therapist is an act of aggression.

This is Mike's way of being aggressive. He disguises his verbal violence in the form of a cogent, legitimate argument.

Can you and I discuss the legitimacy of psychotherapy? Why is this a prescribed topic? Why can't we talk about it?

Well, we can't talk about it because it's highly injurious and insulting to your interlocutor, Mike. It's an act of aggressive, passive aggression.

Mike is grandiose, massively so. And this is very typical of narcissists.

Mike says that he's too clever to be conned. Mike says that he's underappreciated. I deserve more than that, he says.

Midges rise to the top compared to him, the giant. And he ignores the fools at his workplace. He isolates worthy people and then he educates and enlightens them. He sounds seriously self-delusional.

And this is typical of covert narcissism.

But on balance, Mike seems to be more passive aggressive than a covert narcissist. He lacks self-awareness.

When I ask him if he has lost his cool during the therapy, he says never. When actually, most of the therapy was dedicated to a temper tantrum by him. So he's not self-aware.

Narcissists are not self-aware, but passive aggressive are also not self-aware.

All in all, Mike is emotionally invested not in a fantasy, the way narcissists are, the fantasy of their own grandiosity.

Mike is not invested in his grandiosity. He's not trying to promote it somehow. He's not trying to sustain it or affirm it or get it confirmed.

Mike is much more focused on hurting other people by frustrating them, insulting them, humiliating them, undermining them, challenging them.

And this is the passive aggressive way, not the narcissist.

I hope you don't come across either because they are both seriously pernicious personalities.

If you do come across them, stay away. No contact is still the best policy.

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The negativistic, passive-aggressive personality disorder is not yet recognized by the committee that is cobbling together the diagnostic and statistical manual. People diagnosed with a negativistic passive-aggressive personality disorder resemble narcissists in some important respects. Despite the obstructive role they play, passive-aggressives feel unappreciated, underpaid, cheated, discriminated against, and misunderstood. Passive-aggressives may be sullen, irritable, impatient, argumentative, cynical, skeptical, and contrarian.


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