My name is Sam Vaknin, and I am the author of Malignant Self-Love: Narcissism Revisited.
You sit at home and you wonder, is my narcissist a covert narcissist?
So, you pick up your smartphone, flap open your laptop, and you Google covert narcissism. And then you are faced with an avalanche of nonsense, inanity, and outright misinformation, preferred and spewed out by self-styled experts with or without academic degrees.
It's time to set the record straight. Who is a covert narcissist? How can you judge whether the narcissist in your life, or spouse, your boss, your neighbor, your so-called best friend, your children, whether these are covert narcissists or not?
Covert narcissism was first described in the 1980s, and by 1989, it was well introduced into scholarly literature by the likes of Cooper and Akhtar. In 1996, I suggested the concept of inverted narcissism. Inverted narcissism is a subtype, a subspecies of covert narcissism.
But, first things first, what is a covert narcissist?
Covert narcissist is a narcissist who suffers from an inset in-depth sense of inferiority. He feels inferior all the time. He has morose self-doubts. He has a marked propensity toward feeling ashamed. He is shy. He is fragile. He is engaged in a relentless search for glory and power, but without the attendant, vainglorious ostentation and conspicuous socializing and gregariousness. He is markedly sensitive to criticism, and he cannot stand setbacks and reality, in effect. He is therefore, to some extent, delusional.
The covert narcissist is unable to genuinely depend on others or to trust them. He suffers from a chronic envy of others. It's corrosive, like acid, eating him alive from the inside. He hates their talents, their possessions, their capacity for deep object relations. He can't stand their successes and his failures, even if these failures are only in his mind or by comparison. He has a lack of regard for generational boundaries, so he shows no respect for older people and no love towards children. He has general disregard for other people's time, and he refuses to communicate on a regular basis, maintaining unpredictability as sort of a carrot-and-stick situation.
The covert narcissist is not goal-orientated. He is besieged by nagging aimlessness. He has shallow vocational commitment in the words of Cooper and Akhtar. His attitudes are those of a charlatan or a dilettante. He is an amateur, sometimes a gifted amateur, but always an amateur. He has multiple interests, but all of them are very superficial. He is chronically bored. His aesthetic taste is often ill-informed and imitated. He switches on a dime. He is ready to shift values to gain favor. He is a pathological liar, exactly like the classic narcissist, and his lifetime is materialistic, but he has delinquent tendencies and inordinate moral relativism. He is irreverent towards authority, so in this sense, he is what we call counterdependent. He hates authority, can't stand authority. He feels humiliated when he is bossed around, when he is the recipient of instructions and orders, or even advice.
The covert narcissist is unable to remain in love. Some authorities think that covert narcissists, as opposed to classic narcissists, are capable, actually, of falling in love and being in love, but they are unable to remain in love. They have an impaired capacity to view their romantic partner as a separate individual with his or her own interests.
They don't uphold other people's rights and values. To them, other people are extensions of themselves. That's the reason why covert narcissists are unable to succumb, to accept, or to adhere to social strictures and to social modes of behavior and laws. This is why, for instance, we find an inordinate proportion of covert narcissists among parents engaging in incestuous relationships. Incest is a typical covert narcissistic behavior.
And covert narcissists, more so than classic narcissists, are prone to sexual perversions or paraphilias, as we call them.
The knowledge of the covert narcissist is often limited to trivia. Akhtar called it headline intelligence. They sort of skim the surface. They can say a sentence or two on almost any topic, but if you try to delve deeper, you discover that it's a very shallow point indeed, masquerading as an ocean.
They are forgetful of details, especially names. They are impaired in their capacity for learning new skills. They have a tendency to change the meanings of reality when they are confronted with threats to their self-esteem.
So they re-cast history, rewrite history, reinvent themselves, and reinvent people around them. Language skills and speaking, generally, are used by covert narcissists to regulate the sense of self-worth and self-esteem.
They don't use language to communicate. They use language to impress. They use language to humiliate. They use language to establish a hierarchy and order of things, but they do not communicate.
So we can say that covert narcissists often feel guilty over and ashamed of their socially impermissible aggressive urges and desires. Shame, as Masterson said, shame is a very prominent feature of covert narcissists.
They dislike themselves. They are egodystonic. The classic narcissist likes himself. He finds himself appealing, attractive, the next stage in the evolutionary ladder, superior.
So the classic narcissist is egosyntonic. The covert narcissist is egodystonic. He doesn't like himself. Covert narcissists are shy, as we've said. They are unassertive. They are intensely self-critical. They are perfectionists. They are in a conflict between an overwhelming sense of worthlessness and a grandiose false self.
This conflict results in mood, moodiness, and even mood and anxiety disorders. Covert narcissists usually team up with classic narcissists, but in secret, they resent their partners. They envy them. They would have liked to be classic narcissists, but they are not.
Contrary to the aforementioned misinformation spread by these self-styled experts, covert narcissists are not cunning. They are not manipulative.
Classic narcissists are cunning and manipulative. They often disguise their true nature effectively, knowingly, and intentionally.
Classic narcissists are persistent actors with great thespian skills, but the covert narcissist is not. The covert narcissist suppresses his true nature because he lacks the confidence to assert it. He doesn't act. He simply is not.
The covert narcissist's choice is not premeditated. He can't help but shy away. The covert narcissist is his own worst self-critic. He has what we call a sadistic superego, a voice, an inner voice, internalized usually during childhood, an inner voice that keeps telling him, you're inadequate, you're a failure, you're no good, you're a bad object.
As I said in 1996, I proposed a subspecies of covert narcissism, which I called inverted narcissism. The inverted narcissist is a covert narcissist. The inverted narcissist is self-centered. She, usually it's a she. She is sensitive, vulnerable, and defensive, sometimes hostile and paranoid. Inverted narcissists harbor grandiose fantasies. They have a strong sense of entitlement. They tend to exploit others, albeit stealthily, subtly.
Covert narcissists are aware of their inner limitations and shortcomings and therefore constantly fret and stress over their inability to fulfill their unrealistic dreams and expectations and grandiose fantasies.
Covert narcissists, then inverted narcissists, avoid recognition, competition, and the limelight because they are afraid to be exposed as frauds and failures. They are ostentatiously modest, fake modesty. Inverted narcissists crave to be in a relationship with a narcissist, regardless of any abuse inflicted on the inverted narcissist by the classic narcissist with whom she has teamed up.
Inverted narcissists actively seek relationships with classic narcissists and only with classic narcissists. They can't be with anyone else. No matter what the bitter and traumatic past experience has been, they still gravitate and inexorably attracted to classic narcissists.
Inverted narcissists feel empty. They feel unhappy in relationships with normal people, with any other kind of person except a narcissist.
Only when they are with a narcissist, they feel alive. They call it technicolor existence. With all types of other people, it's black and white.
Narcissist comes into the room, color flares up, the inverted narcissist perks up and is alive.
Inverted narcissist, therefore, is a codependent who depends exclusively on narcissists. A narcissist codependent. If you live with a narcissist, if you have a relationship with a narcissist, if you're married to a narcissist, if you're working with a narcissist, this does not qualify you. It does not mean that you are an inverted narcissist.
You have to crave to be with one. You have to be unable to survive without one. You have to shrivel and wither when your narcissist is gone.