Releasing the past in order to find myself

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Covert Narcissism

My mother (and MIL, as well as NSis on occasion) are of the covert variety.  While I always had a fundamental understanding of what that meant, I was interested in finding some more detailed information.  I came across this chart and found it very informative and wanted to share it with you all.  I want to make it clear that I did not author this chart, and information on the sites can be found at the bottom.

Clinical Features  
Arrogant/Overt . . . Shy/Covert Narcissism
  Self-ConceptGrandiosity;    preoccupation with fantasies of outstanding success; undue sense of uniqueness; feelings of entitlement; seeming self-sufficiencyInferiority; morose self-doubts; marked propensity toward feeling ashamed; fragility; relentless search for glory and power; marked sensitivity to criticism and realistic setbacks
Numerous but shallow relationships; intense need for tribute from others; scorn for others, often masked by pseudohumility; lack of empathy; inability to genuinely participate in group activities; valuing of children over spouse in family lifeInability to genuinely depend on others and trust them; chronic envy of others talents, possessions, and capacity for deep object relations; lack of regard for generational boundaries; disregard for other's time; refusal to answer letters
Socially charming; often successful; consistent hard work done mainly to seek admiration (�pseudo- sublimation�); intense ambition; preoccupation with appearances Nagging aimlessness; shallow vocational commitment; dilettante-like attitude; multiple but superficial interests; chronic boredom; aesthetic taste often ill-informed and imitative
Caricatured modesty; pretended contempt for money in real life; idiosyncratically and unevenly moral; apparent enthusiasm for sociopolitical affairs     Readiness to shift values to gain favor; pathological lying; materialistic lifestyle; delinquent tendencies; inordinate ethnic and moral relativism; irreverence toward authority
Marital instability; cold and greedy seductiveness; extramarital affairs and promiscuity; uninhibited sexual lifeInability to remain in love; impaired capacity for viewing the romantic partner as a separate individual with his or her own interests, rights, and values; inability to genuinely comprehend the incest taboo; occasional sexual perversions
Impressively knowledgeable; decisive and opinionated; often strikingly articulate; egocentric perception of reality; love of language; fondness for shortcuts to acquisition of knowledgeKnowledge often limited to trivia ("headline intelligence"); forgetful of details, especially names; impaired in the capacity for learning new skills; tendency to change meanings of reality when facing a threat to self-esteem; language and speaking used for regulating self-esteem
NOTE:  This chart originally appeared in Akhtar, S. J. (1989). Narcissistic personality disorder: Descriptive features and differential diagnosis. Psychiatric Clinics of North America, 12, pp. 505-530.

So many of these charactistics (but not all) fit MIL and NM.  One that stuck out was the "headline intelligence".  Often, when questioned, neither women can elaborate or speak to a topic past the "synopsis".  They speak in platitudes and generalisms.  They can not apply knowledge outside of immediate context.  Once, DH and I asked NM to tell us her favorite songs from her favorite (of 35 years) musical artist.  She named one, and that was begrudgingly after we pushed.  But she couldn't tell us why.  She loves to push political conversations but only parrots party lines.  If you argue a point (even respectfully), she starts crying.  MIL also likes to spit out words of wisdom she's learned, but has no follow up knowledge.  I've learned, despite both of these women being reasonable intelligent women, I can not have an in depth discussion about anything with them.  I usually just nod and move on. 

Both have extremely shallow interests.  NM has a couple of interests that she can speak to a bit.  But mostly she is superficially interested in things.   It's an image thing.  She doesn't actually try hard to learn new things or expand her data base.  And she rarely, if ever, picks up new hobbies.  It's been the same three things for as long as I've known her.  MIL is always onto the latest "trend" (which she is actually woefully behind on, not that it matters, but she always acts like she's onto the latest and greatest).  She loves to be "in the know" about what's the best and will speak endlessly about this new interest (actually she quotes all kinds of "experts", repeating what they have said.  She does not have opinions of her own).  Then, it's onto something else.  She is in perpetual motion.  Her interests are like an outfit she tries on, the currant shade of lipstick that she saw on someone she admired.  She tries it on, brings attention to it, and then moves on when it garners her no more attention.  I've often expressed to DH that I really know nothing about his mother.  She's like a shell to me.  I know little about her true personality, her opinions, what she has a real interest in.  She is often bored, often restless, often needing to find something new to focus on.  She has a short attention span for things (outside of her ADHD) and I've never known her to stick with any interest for more than a couple of years (except those that she's "adopted" from her family, and that allow her a way to needle into the lives of those around her.  That is, she takes on the hobbies of her family so that she can find ways to be with them.)  NM also complains of boredom frequently. 

The love and sexuality portion (although directed towards romantic partners) can be applied to.  Both women struggle to understand that their children might have differing opinions or tastes.  When I would go shopping with my MIL or NM, both would hold something up and asked if I liked it.  Often I would think the item was pretty or nice, or I would believe that the item was for them (in which case, it would be nice).  But I found that if I said I like it, it would be mine.  I struggled FOR YEARS to communicate that I could like something, but not like it for myself.  And then when I tried to express this to these women, they would get offended.  They figured if I liked something on them, then I'd also want it for myself.  They just could not wrap their heads around the fact that I could find something attractive but not feel it was for me.  MIL, in particular, struggles to understand that others can have differing values and interests.  She finds this as insulting.  Or she tries to force herself to like something that others do to fit in.  Both women struggle with respecting the boundaries of their adult children with regards to privacy and intimacy.  They believe that they should be included in everything. 

The morals section all applies.  NM's morals and standards shift endlessly to suit the situation.  What is morally OK for her, is not OK for most others.  She is able to rationalize almost all of her behaviors: the other person deserved it, the other person did something first, the other person deserved pay back, the other person is a morally corrupt person so it doesn't matter how I treat them.   She has a hierarchy and some people are treated much more fairly than others.  This hierarchy is related to how much she likes the person.  If she doesn't like you, than it's OK to treat you unfairly or dishonestly.  Her viewpoints and opinions flip flop to serve her personal needs (to appear smart, in the "know", intelligent, to put someone else in their place).  I've seen her switch her viewpoints with in the course of a single conversation.  Her opinions are expressed to serve her purpose of the moment.  They are fluid.  I really don't know what MIL's moral standards are.  I've never really seen her stand for anything.   Those values she does have she tends to hide (like her feelings on abortion and gays, she hides these opinions from those who might disagree).  Her values are somewhat shallow and stereotypical.  She values "family" but doesn't really respect family.  She values Jesus, but doesn't seem to apply a lot of the actual teachings to herself.  She uses a lot of these "values" to further her own agendas.  Her opinions change like the wind, often settling on whatever she thinks is the "coolest" thing of the moment. 

Interpersonal Relationships- Both women are very distrustful.  They have a handful of people they surround themselves.  NM keeps most people at arm's length, a trait she taught my sister and I from an early age.  I often felt I had to maintain a little bubble around myself.  And if someone offended or upset me once, I was supposed to write them off immediately.  Neither women trust their own children to do anything, and so they rush in to "help" and "offer support".  They don't trust their own family to maintain a relationship with them, so they demand it and push it.  They force intimacy, instead of allowing it to happen naturally.  They assume that they are on the same "level" as their kids and want to be "friends" instead of parents (which you can have a friendly, adult relationship, but your parents, in my opinion, can't ever really be your friend).  They don't respect that, as an adult child, not everything can (or should) include them.   They like to be pals, but then pull out the "I'm the mom" card when they want to have control.  As long as they are in control, it seems like the relationship is reciprocal...a friendship.  But step out of line, and suddenly they "out rank" their children and their needs or opinions should be catered to.  Both assume, as the parent, that they out rank anything else going on in our lives and that we should drop everything should they want us to.  They have little to no respect for our time or our schedule.  It doesn't matter if it's nap time (which MIL can't seem to keep track of) or dinner time when they want to "drop by".  They don't offer us a chance to say no.  They don't think about what is going on with anyone else. 

Both women are overtly "confident" women who would describe themselves as "strong" and "capable" and "multi-tasker" and "do-ers".  Women of action.  Women who help.  But underneath, they are horribly fragile.  Neither responds to criticism well.  NM cries.  She makes you feel guilty.  She flips the situation and makes you out to be an ungrateful, mean child for speaking out against your poor mother.  MIL attacks.  When criticized she first finds a way to land a blow.  "Well, you do it too!!"  She finds any and every way to project the criticism back on the person.  Even if that's "misunderstanding" what the criticism is about.  Once, when told that she needed to quit stepping in to "help" my BIL by taking over with his kids all of the time and "co-parenting", she responded to him as if he was just jealous that she was babysitting for BIL too much and not for us.  If that doesn't work, she yells.  And blames.  It's someone else's fault.  When she let my niece flounder under water twice and I told her she needed to be with in arm's length in the pool with a toddler, she blamed my husband for not responding.  "WELL, DH was right there."  Well, DH was watching his own toddler.  If she's late, it's the traffic or construction.  If she has a misunderstanding with her sister, it's because the sister is struggling and having mental problems.  She loves the blame game.  Both women struggle with accepting responsibility for their actions and with making mistakes.

I hope some of these examples help someone else see how covert narcissism works in their own lives.  It's tricky to see and define.    And the covert type is less written about, I find.  So, any information we can find, arms us all well. 



  1. Very interesting post Jess. Thanks for sharing the chart. Covert types are the hardest to deal with, not only because it is harder to detect but because once you do, you can't bring yourself to believe that anyone could be like it.

    1. Thanks, Kara. I think it's easier to find examples of overt narcissistic traits and having some covert examples are helpful. Because, yes, the covert type are monsters in amazing disguises.

    2. They are monsters in amazing disguises...
      My father is "textbook" covert.

      I'm in my 50's, and have struggled with thinking "what have I done wrong for years?"
      To top it off, I am an only child.
      And now my mother has adopted his covert ways.
      I feel as if I don't have parents anymore, they may as well have died. I'm close to going no contact.

    3. Hi Anon, I'm happy you are here but sorry for the circumstances. It is difficult, but figuring out and realizing it isn't YOU is a good first step. I've learned that NOTHING I could've done would've changed our relationship. But it's particularly hard to figure it all out when you have covert narcs.
      It does feel a bit like you have no parents. There is a huge grieving process to all of this when you realize that your "parents" no longer least in the way you thought they did.
      Take care of yourself Anon and I wish you luck. You are welcome to comment anytime!

  2. This chart is interesting. My mother fits most of the covert narcissist side, although she covers both overt & covert in self-concept. She also portrays a lot of false modesty. Like your NM & MIL, she considers herself strong and a helper, but being a big bitch is not the same as being strong :p

    1. Haha, VR. That is exactly it with my NM. She thinks being a mean old bitch is the same as "not putting up with people's shit" and "taking charge" and "being strong".

  3. This is really great-thanks Jessie.
    Yk, Psychob demonstrated behaviors and attitudes from both Overt and Covert at various times depending on the situation. Most fundamentally, she was Covert. My Nsis is also clearly Covert and a much more straight forward presentation of N. But Psychob had features of B/H/AsP as well-that's why I refer to her as the Walking Cluster B.
    Your examples are excellent-as usual! I do know Psychob never had a clue about who I was and didn't care to either. (This extended to others as well.) I remember from the time I was a Little One and thinking about Psychob-and how to explain my Mommy wasn't like other Mommies. The word/phrase that always came to my mind was "Extension of if I'm an arm or a leg." In many ways she was truly a social moron: She just ignored all verbal/behavioral cues from her "audience" while trying to impress others with how knowledgeable she was on any given topic in which she professed some interest. She simply did not care about the reality she *inflicted* herself on others, just as you have experienced as well. And if you asked her no matter how carefully worded to stop doing something? She'd not only continue to do it but would become even more totally obnoxious instead of backing off.
    Her ability to get others to bend to her will took a variety of forms, from Strong-Arm Tactics ("You WILL DO THIS because I told you to!") to much more subtle approaches. Ex: Parasite/Ability to Plan Long Term While Getting Her Way Short Term: My two oldest female cousins-both adults-were "invited" to NY to "visit" Psychob. There's tons of stuff to see and do in her area and she was in the process of grooming this Family to move to their area after she had completely fouled her nest in her current locale. When they arrived, Psychob announced to them they were going Bird Watching. Neither of them had expressed any interest in this activity; however as guests of Psychob, of course they agreed to go. *She* was the one who insisted on Bird-Watching as an activity because this is what SHE wanted to do and fancied herself as an "Expert" in the Birding World. There's no doubt about her motivation at all.
    My Aunt, their Mom told me years later she thought it was so thoughtful to take my cousins Bird Watching because Aunt viewed it as an opportunity for my cousins to "learn something your mother knew so much about."
    Face/Palm. Psychob *always* got her way. How do you explain this, yk?!

    1. My NM also doesn't take being asked to stop anything. Ever. She either just changes the "look" of a behavior, but still continues it, becomes sneaky about it, or cries and claims that she is allowed as the "mother" and it's time for things to be about her feelings.

  4. Hi Jessie,
    Great chart; Your examples of your MiL and SiL fit with my MiL and SiL - I read this post with my mouth open the whole time; It is hard to deal with them because my own mother was overt and covert whereas MiL and SiL are mostly covert.

    What you say about not knowing your MiL - if I think about it - I really didn't know her at all. She cried over everything and couldn't take that her sons had differing opinions. SiL has slid into her spot since MiL passing away and now controls everything at family get togethers.

    Thank you for sharing your stories along with the chart - it helped understand covert narcissism a lot better for me.
    xxoo TR

    1. Hi T Reddy,

      I'm glad it helped. I thought the chart would be helpful for those of us with a more covert type, but I kind of wrote out the examples for myself. I'm glad they helped you too! These things can be so hard to see.

      For years, my SIL acted as if she was my friend but she was often jealous and competitive. It bothered her tremendously that my husband was in the role of "second in command". SIL saw this as favoritism when MIL deferred to DH for "family decisions". (Really, she was just setting my husband up to take the blame or be responsible when people got upset about the decision). But as we started to distance ourselves, SIL started to step in more. At any large family function (weddings, baby showers) she liked to jump in and be in charge (while acting like she was just being helpful and considerate and the "good SIL"). She's always rushing in and sticking her nose into personal business (other family members budgets or relationships or financial matters) as if she is rescuing them. She loves to feel important. And I know that, like your SIL, she'd step right into second in command if she could when MIL can no longer do it.
      Thanks for your comments!

  5. Ahhh!!!! This all sounds so much like my mom! I am just learning about covert narcissism and I finally realize why I have felt the way I do my entire life. Thank you for this!