Interest in narcissism has skyrocketed in recent years. Brené Brown and other mental health professionals have argued that the incidence of narcissism is rising due to the pressures associated with social media and the media culture. Increasingly, mental health professionals are aware of narcissism and use the diagnosis to create effective treatment plans. As a result, co-narcissists (people in relationships with narcissists) have found liberation and relief. As Andrew Weil put it, “the most crucial step toward healing is having the right diagnosis …. A bad diagnosis usually means a bad outcome, no matter how skilled the physician.”
The narcissistic personality was first described in the early 1900s, but the diagnostic terms and parameters were not delineated until the end of the century. Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) was first described in 1968 by Heinz Kohut, an Austrian-born American psychiatrist and psychoanalyst. Kohut, who by most accounts was raised in an enmeshed relationship with a narcissistic mother during the post-war years in Austria, eventually established himself in practice in Chicago. He was the first to publish articles naming NPD, describing its main identifiers, and theorizing about its causes.
In the intervening 50 years, other psychologists and psychiatrists have expanded the research on NPD, adding categories, case studies, and clarification to the published academic literature on the subject. It is currently assumed that approximately 1% of the US population is affected with medically-diagnosable NPD at some point in their lives, although the number of people with narcissistic tendencies is much higher. Currently, NPD occurs more often in men than women, and more often in younger people than older.
In the simplest terms, narcissists have poor insight into their own deficiencies and are unaware that their own actions have produced their unhealthy circumstances. Because of their very positive self-image, narcissists are usually unaware of their part in relationship problems. Narcissists are challenged with inflated self-concepts, which blinds them to the fact that their attitudes and behaviors are problematic and poisoning their relationships.
At a more complex level, many clinicians assume that the narcissist’s inflated self-concept is, in actuality, a result of a very weak sense of inner confidence, resulting in the narcissist’s need to be “propped up” by the people around him or her. Whatever the root cause of the inflated self-concept, NPD manifests itself in entitled behavior including a willingness to exploit or take advantage of other people.
Many experts endorse two predominant subtypes of NPD. These subtypes are identified as overt narcissism and covert narcissism. Some experts argue that these subtypes are more accurately labelled as grandiose narcissism and vulnerable narcissism. Although these term-pairs defy complete parallelism, an introductory description may include the following broad-strokes: the overt or grandiose narcissist would manifest character traits of boldness, arrogance, and insensitivity, whereas the covert or vulnerable narcissist would be predominantly manifest in defensiveness, passive aggressiveness, and manipulation.
Covert behavior refers to closed-off, unacknowledged, or hidden behavior. Covert narcissists may be less noisy or egregious in public than overt narcissists, 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 backward to meet and exceed expectations and be polite and respectful of boundaries. But this same covert narcissist, who was so respectful to a neighbor at the door, might act derisively and condescendingly 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.
Both overt and covert narcissism require a medical professional for a proper diagnosis, so don’t be too hasty in slapping the narcissist-label on the people around you who annoy you or seem blind to your needs. Narcissism is more complex than most people realize. Be sensitive to the narcissist elements in yourself and others. In the words of mental health advocate Maury Joseph, PsyD, “Everyone has them [narcissistic tendencies]. We all want to basically feel OK in our own eyes…We do all sorts of things to create the illusion that we’re fine, including lying to ourselves and others. Some people have an easier time than others with regulating these feelings and emotions.”
If you know someone who shows narcissistic tendencies that are poisoning your relationship, take some steps to educate yourself. Be aware of signs of verbal abuse, confide in trusted family members or friends who are able to give constructive feedback, and consider working with a therapist who can offer experienced and professional support.