What is covert narcissism? The short answer is that it’s narcissism kept under cover. You hear a lot about this kind of narcissism lately. It applies to a certain kind of personality. You know, folks who know how to look good without actually being good. Folks who will take advantage of you, use you, exploit you. Most of the time, such folks set out to manipulate and control you, too.
I first described this phenomenon many years ago in In Sheep’s Clothing. Moreover, I emphasized that most of these folks are more than mere narcissists. They’re also aggressors, out for their own gain at your expense. They’ll hurt you to be sure. However, they’re really good at keeping their aggressive intentions and true nature hidden. So, you find out who they really are after they get a hold on you. Moreover, you realize how they’ve been victimizing after the damage is already done.
Revisiting the Narcissism Spectrum
Several books and articles have been published on covert narcissism in recent years. And they would lead you to believe covert narcissists are a specific kind of disordered personality. There is some truth to this notion. However, in the bigger picture, such a conceptualization is misleading. Personality and character disturbances of all types and degrees are more prevalent in our times. (A culture of indulgence and entitlement has helped foster that.) Character disturbance is truly a spectrum phenomenon. More importantly, every disturbed character can possess any number of problematic traits. Therefore, applying labels has become less and less meaningful or helpful.
For more on the character disturbance spectrum see:
Narcissism itself is a spectrum phenomenon. It’s an anomaly of both type and degree. For example, research now confirms there are two main types of narcissism. (For more on this see: Two Main Varieties of Narcissists.) These days, experts categorize the “vulnerable” (or “compensatory”) and the grandiose (or “unprincipled”) types. In my books, I refer to these types as neurotic vs. character disturbed. (My books were written before research confirmed my early findings.). Additionally, the severity of narcissism varies. How impaired shame and empathy capacity is makes all the difference. The most malignant narcissists have no shame, no empathy, and no conscience. And any of these types can be adept at concealing their true character.
Heeding the “Charm Alarm”
These days, you have to be particularly wary of charmers. Some folks can be naturally charming. Moreover, some charmers are fairly benign in character. But in our days of rampant character dysfunction, it behooves you to beware of charmers. Many harbor hidden agendas. They put on their best faces to sway you (especially at the outset of a relationship). But once you are firmly under their influence, their true character begins to show. That’s why it’s in your best interest to regard charm as a potential warning signal.
Revisiting the First and Second “Commandments”
Over the past weeks, we’ve been revisiting the first two “commandments” of character. The first exhorts us to overcome our inherent egocentricity. The second reminds us that we are inherently beholding to a higher power. The commandments go together. And one builds upon the other.
Many aspects of life invite us to heed these two foundational commands. But narcissists fail to answer the call. The reasons vary, depending on the type of narcissist. But whatever the reason(s) narcissists fail to learn the lessons the commands can inherently teach.
Covert narcissists know how to say all the right things and do all the right things. And when it serves their purpose they’ll do either or both. But they lack sincerity. (This is the heart of the tenth “commandment.”) As noted before, they want to look good without being good. Looking good is relatively easy. Being of good character is not so easy. And there’s nothing disturbed characters hate more than the work associated becoming a better person. (See also: When W-O-R-K is a Four-Letter Word.) So, while they might appear to be embracing them, in their hearts they reject these two foundational commands.
Next week we’ll begin discussing the “third commandment” of sound character.
Expect an announcement in a few weeks about the the new Character Matters program and format.
Wishes for a value and purpose-driven New Year
I hope the new year brings you any needed new beginning. And I pray time-tested values and noble purpose drive your endeavors. There is no life like a values and purpose-driven life. I have to believe covert narcissism is on the way out. In fact, I have to believe character disturbance itself is on the way out. We simply can’t afford it anymore. Times simply must change. Let’s hope the new year ushers in the beginning we so desperately need.