Clarifying the Differences Between a Covert (Inverted) Narcissist and an Overt Narcissist
The term “inverted narcissist” or “covert narcissist” has been largely misrepresented in the popular press where it has been used to describe people who are often found in relationships with narcissists, upon whom they are dependent. It is not suggested that this means that everyone married to or in some type of significant relationship with a narcissist would be considered to be dependent on them. The term has been inaccurately used to refer to someone who depends on a narcissist for their emotional, physical and financial satisfaction and well-being.
It is possible that a covert narcissist may be in a relationship with an overt narcissist but two narcissists in a relationship is also highly unusual. This is because, at the core, they are both narcissists each of whom need to be the center of attention and perceived to be superior by everyone including the other person in the relationship.
What is This Type of Behavior Really Called?
Behaviors that are incorrectly called inverted or covert narcissism actually describe Dependent Personality Disorder (DPD). There is no evidence that there are people who are obsessed with being in a relationship with a narcissist and who actively seek them out. On the contrary, the vast majority of people who know about and understand the characteristics of narcissists will do everything possible to run in the other direction. They will not endeavor to enter into a relationship with them, especially after experiencing the abuse that often subsequently occurs.
It is also unlikely that such a relationship could survive long-term, as relationships with narcissists only continue as long as the narcissist perceives that they are getting something out of it. There is a theory that people dependent on narcissists have had traumatic experiences with a series of narcissists over the course of their lives. However, this makes it unlikely they would want to continue this pattern.
That is not to say there aren’t people who for a variety of reason are in relationships with narcissists or who have experiences multiple such relationships. But there is nothing that suggests that these people long for, desire, and even crave relationships with narcissists.
Dependent Personality Disorder and Narcissism
There are no particular subtypes among people with DPD, and there is no class of people who only look to form relationships with narcissists. Those with DPD will seek to attach themselves to anyone who can provide for their needs and make decisions for them. While narcissists may enter into temporary relationships with people with DPD, they will end the relationship when they perceive that the effort they put in outweighs what they are receiving.
Narcissists do not need to form relationships with people—in fact, they don’t form real, lasting relationships based on empathy, mutual respect, and caring. They only relate to others in order to further their own materialistic or emotional goals, including admiration, attention, and belief in their superiority.
People with DPD act in ways that are needy, passive, submissive, and clingy, and they often fear of separation. They display a need to be taken care of. People with DPD are indecisive and fear making the wrong decision, to the point that they'll let others make decisions for them even when it's not in their best interests.
According to the 5th edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, in order to warrant a diagnosis of DPD, the individual’s dependency must be expressed through at least five of the following symptoms:
Difficulty making routine decisions without input, reassurance, and advice from others.
Requires others to assume responsibilities which they should be attending to.
Fear of disagreeing with others and risking disapproval.
Difficulty starting projects without support from others.
Excessive need to obtain nurturance and support from others, even allowing other to impose themselves rather than risk rejection or disapproval.
Feels vulnerable and helpless when alone.
Desperately seeks another relationship when one ends.
Unrealistic preoccupation with being left alone and unable to care for themselves. (American Psychiatric Association, 2013).
So, Then What is Inverted or Covert Narcissism
It is now recognized that narcissism is a multidimensional disorder. As far back as 1991, Wink suggested that there are two subtypes of narcissism: overt and covert. The first subtype is characterized by exhibitionism, self-importance, and preoccupation with receiving admiration and praise from others (Wink, 1996). Covert narcissism, on the other hand, is defined by hypersensitivity, anxiety, and insecurity, and their relationships are characterized by more externalized factors such as self-indulgence, conceit, and arrogance.
Exploitativeness and a sense of entitlement form the core pathology that is found in both types (Wink, 1996). Both subtypes significantly correlate with different forms of maladjustment; however, overt narcissism seems to be more interpersonally damaging. For instance, overt narcissists have been described by others who know them as “bossy,” “intolerant,” and “cruel” (Wink 1991).
However, there are other factors that distinguish covert narcissists from overt narcissists. Though both types experience conflictual perceptions of grandiosity, superiority, and vulnerability, they differ in the way they express these feelings. Whereas an overt narcissist suppresses their sense of vulnerability and projects their sense of superiority, a covert narcissist suppresses their grandiosity and entitlement while projecting vulnerability (Given-Wilson, McIlwain, & Warburton, 2011).
Can Either Overt or Covert Narcissism be Considered Adaptive?
Research has suggested that overt and covert narcissism are significant predictors of self-esteem. Overt narcissism has been linked to high self-esteem, while covert narcissism is linked to a low self-esteem. Those with overt narcissism appear to have a more positive self-image compared to covert narcissists, which indicates that overt narcissism is more adaptive on an individual basis. However, this is only in regards to how the individual sees themselves, as narcissism does not adapt in terms of relating to others. Higher levels of either subtype of pathological narcissism lead to interpersonal communication problems.
In overt narcissism, high levels of self-esteem and self-efficacy are not truly adaptive as these individuals minimize and deny any problems they may have, inflicting blame on others. The higher their self-esteem and the greater their self-assurance, the more they are likely to minimize and blame others for their own wrongdoings. While it may be tempting from a theoretical or research perspective to discuss these characteristics as individually adaptive traits, this doesn’t have meaning in the real world.
Ultimately, the term “adaptive” isn’t about how the narcissist feels about themselves. Even covert narcissists have a sense of entitlement due to their belief that they are special, despite their vulnerabilities. All narcissists view themselves positively and feel entitled to special favors, benefits, and opportunities. They are also characterized by the inability to distinguish between the ideal self and the real self. This means that an overt narcissist’s high self-esteem is an inaccurate representation of their actual self, and that a covert narcissist's vulnerability isn’t a reflection of how they see themselves, but rather of how they believe others see and treat them.
The vulnerability a covert narcissist feels is because they are not treated as they should be. Their lack of self-efficacy results from not knowing how to make others treat them the way they believe they should be treated. Sometimes they resort to latching onto someone who has the admiration they desire in an effort to basque in their glow. The overt narcissist, on the other hand, has numerous methods and manipulations to make others do what they want. Therefore, they do not have the same sense of vulnerability or need for association with an admirable other to build up their self-esteem.
Some have hypothesized that covert narcissism indicates a more adaptive pattern compared to overt narcissism. Their perception of a lack of control over their life leads to the realization that they need to change the way they interact with others if they are to have more control over and feel better about their lives.
Again, however, a covert narcissist's vulnerability is about believing themselves to be inferior. It is the result of an inconsistency between how they view themselves and how others treat them. Thus, the solution they are seeking does not focus on their own behavior, as they don’t see it as problematic, but focuses instead on how they can get others to see them according to their own perceptions.
Summary and Conclusions: Establishing an Accurate Construct
The most recent research into narcissistic personality disorder suggests that there elements related to the disorder which need to be distinguished between. The first two represent phenotypes of the disorder. These are grandiosity and vulnerability and they would be referred to as the subtypes. It has been recognized that narcissists do not present with either overt or covert behavior, and that there is almost always a mixture of the two types of behavior. So the specific behaviors which are overt and covert are characteristics while the grandiose or vulnerable features that are displayed are indicative of type.
This indicates that trying to distinguish between overt and covert narcissism as distinct types or phenotypes of narcissism is clinically inaccurate. This categorization is only about different ways the disorder is expressed across narcissistic grandiosity and narcissistic vulnerability dimensions. Each type includes a mix of overt components such as behaviors and externalized emotions and covert components such as thoughts, motives and internalized emotions.
Furthermore, it is quite possible that while people may lean more towards one phenotype or another that grandiosity and vulnerability are not mutually exclusive but that they, too, overlap to a large extent. It has been suggested that people with pathological narcissism or Narcissistic Personality Disorder almost always display both covert and overt grandiosity and covert and overt vulnerability. Future research should work to develop new assessment methods of pathological narcissism and narcissistic personality disorder that include grandiose and vulnerable aspects.
Unfortunately, it is clear that, regarding the description of pathological narcissism and narcissistic personality disorder, there is a great deal of diversity and disagreement as to the clinical phenomenology. This results in inconsistent definitions leading to inconsistent assessment methods. This may, in part, be due to differing definitions and descriptions of pathological narcissism based on clinical setting, type of practice, and theoretical orientation. These discrepancies result in a fundamental criterion problem such there is little agreement as to the meaning of the construct. A better conceptualization of the disorder which combines empirical research and clinical knowledge which is disseminated throughout the various fields, research and clinical settings, needs to be established in order for the construct to be meaningful. Only then can it lead to consistent assessment with appropriate implications for treatment.
Brookes, J. (2015). The effect of overt and covert narcissism on self-esteem and self-efficacy beyond self-esteem. Personality and Individual Differences, 85, 172-175.
DSM-5 American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders. Arlington: American Psychiatric Publishing.
Given-Wilson, Z., McIlwain, D., & Warburton, W. (2011). Meta-cognitive and interpersonal difficulties in overt and covert narcissism. Personality and Individual Differences, 50(7), 1000-1005.
Pincus, A. L., & Lukowitsky, M. R. (2010). Pathological narcissism and narcissistic personality disorder. Annual review of clinical psychology, 6, 421-446.
Wink P. Two faces of narcissism. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 1991;61:590–597.
Wink P. Narcissism. In: Costello CG, editor. Personality characteristics of the personality disordered. New York: Wiley; 1996. pp. 146–172.
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© 2018 Natalie Frank