Malignant narcissism, overt narcissism, and covert narcissism share a similar set of core deficiencies, but exhibit in very different ways. Understanding these three types of narcissism will help you recognize patterns that may be causing problems in your relationship with a narcissist.
Before we get started defining and explaining the three main types of narcissism, it may be helpful to review what makes a narcissist in the first place. A psychologist is qualified to make an official diagnosis of NPD (Narcissistic Personality Disorder). NPD diagnoses will apply to only a small fraction of people whose narcissistic traits are extreme and disruptive. However, to get a general idea of what traits identify a narcissist, try taking this 40-question quiz to determine where you fall on a scale of narcissism. Interestingly, on this quiz of 40 questions, a score of 12-15 is average, celebrities often score closer to 18, and narcissists score over 20.
1. What is Malignant Narcissism?
Malignant narcissism is a dangerous mixture of narcissism, aggression, and sadism. It may be helpful to think of the difference between a malignant tumor and a benign tumor. A malignant tumor is spreading cancer with the efficiency of a machine gun, only silent, ruining one bodily system after another, aggressive and hungry for new territory, even willing to kill the host organism in its hunger to cause more and more hurt. A benign tumor, on the other hand, may be unusual or disfiguring but doesn’t spread poison.
Malignant narcissism, like a malignant tumor, is so full of aggressive poison that many of its manifestations would leave the perpetrator in jail. Sexual abuse, physical abuse, a stunning lack of shame or remorse, a willingness to deliberately hurt another person, lie, falsify evidence, cheat, a sense of entitlement that leads the narcissist to break rules and break people with equal lack of regard.
Most people recognize sadism as a negative word, but in case you, like me, are a bit fuzzy on the exact definition, here it is. Sadism is the tendency to derive pleasure, including sexual gratification, from inflicting pain, suffering, or humiliation on others. A malignant narcissist will feel a sense of satisfaction when they see someone hurting who, in their minds, deserves to hurt.
2. What is Overt Narcissism?
Overt and covert. . . wait, what’s the difference again? This simple pneumonic device may help you attach these definitions more securely to your long-term memory.
Overt = O = Open or Open-Book
Covert = C = Closed or Closed Book
“Overt” is an adjective that refers to something that is clearly apparent. (Think “overt” = “open” or “open-book” or “in-the-open.”)
By contrast, “covert” is an adjective that refers to something which is not openly acknowledged or displayed. (Think “covert” = “covered” or “closed” or even “closed book.”)
By extension, an overt narcissist is someone whose sense of grandiosity and entitlement are on full display. They make easy comments about their importance or their accomplishments, they bedazzle (or earn the pity) of others with their need to be in the spotlight, they assume everyone will listen to their stories, and they assume leadership in any group situation.
Love bombing (which involves showering people with love and adoration in order to influence or manipulate them) is just as grandiose as everything else that an overt narcissist does. Recipients of an overt narcissist’s love bombing may be the envy of others in their circle, but the recipient himself or herself is left feeling cold and controlled.
3. What is Covert Narcissism?
Covert, as you remember, refers to closed-off, unacknowledged, or hidden behavior. Covert narcissists may be less noisy or intrusive, but harbor equally strong distortions of their own importance in relation to others around them. A covert narcissist is often viewed as normal or even charming in public, but in private settings, a covert narcissist is intolerable and dominating.
Covert narcissism may exhibit vulnerable behavior, apologize readily, and praise others. Someone in a relationship with a covert narcissist may find it difficult to put their finger on why the narcissist’s apologies are unsatisfying or why the praise feels controlling. It doesn’t help that everyone around you thinks the narcissist is either normal or even charming. Covert narcissists often keep their narcissism in check when dealing with acquaintances, colleagues, and friends, but pressure their private relationships with spouses or other family members.
For example, a covert narcissist may be very accommodating to anyone they want to impress, bending over backwards to meet and exceed expectations and being polite and respectful of boundaries. But this same covert narcissist, who was so respectful to a neighbor at the door, might act derisively and condescending to a family member, opening their mail, speaking for them in groups, and expecting their moods to dominate the family vibe. Every family member has failings, but a narcissist leaves a pattern of dominating, selfish behavior, in a toxic combination of not being willing to sincerely feel accountable for their part of the problem.
Whether you are dealing with a malignant, overt, or covert narcissist, your increasing understanding of narcissism will help steady you through the obstacles involved with either divorcing a narcissist or dealing with a narcissist ex. Any kind of narcissist has the potential to create a high conflict divorce situation, so find a divorce attorney with strong negotiating skills and proven experience.