Overt and Covert

It’s Narcissist Friday!

(I am aware that this blog continually attracts new readers.  With somewhere around two hundred posts on narcissism and narcissistic relationships, it can be challenging for anyone to really use this material.  The search function works very well, if you know what to ask for.  Otherwise, we will all have to wait as the blog posts are sorted and categorized in preparation for a new (and exciting!) website.  So for the next few weeks, I want to dig back into the archives to pull out some of the posts that seemed most helpful over the last few years.  Please feel free to comment.)

Think about the people you know.  Some of them are what could be called loud people.  Others are quiet.  Some are outgoing, vivacious, gregarious, etc.  Some are inhibited, shy, withdrawn.  This doesn’t change just because someone is a narcissist.

It is easy to stereotype the narcissist as someone who must always be the loud center of attention.  But many narcissists have learned to avoid the limelight.  They control and dominate from behind the scenes.  In fact, you may not recognize this person as narcissistic at all.

Eleanor D. Payson has written about this difference in her book, “The Wizard of Oz and Other Narcissists.”  She differentiates between “overt” and “covert” narcissists.  The overt narcissist is what we have come to expect.  The powerbroker, the man in front of the camera, the mother-in-law who comes to your home and takes over.  The overt narcissist will come into your office space, sit on your desk, and dig through your papers.

The covert narcissist still wants to be in control but does so by “helping.”  Sometimes these folks offer to help with projects.  The only problem is that they end up taking over.  They work, or at least they motivate you to work harder, and they get things done.  But you feel stupid in the process.  When the project is done, it cost more than you had planned and it doesn’t look quite the way you had wanted it to.  But your “helper” assures you that this will be much better.  Your way just wasn’t good enough.  The covert narcissist will come into your office space to clean your desk and sort your papers.

This is the mother-in-law who comes to visit with her rubber gloves and cleaning supplies.  You find yourself angry and wishing she hadn’t come at all, when you are supposed to be grateful.  In the church, these people serve on committees and take jobs no one else will take.  It will be very clear that they are making a sacrifice to help you and you will be expected to praise them and honor them.  Never mind that they can’t seem to stay in budget or they alienate everyone else on the committee.  Never mind that the Missions Committee is now somehow responsible for setting the pastor’s salary and deciding what color to paint the outside of the church.

In all of this we have to understand that the goal of the narcissist is to look good and to feel good about himself.  It isn’t about you.  You feel like you are always being put down, but the truth is that the narcissist doesn’t really see you at all.  When Mom comes to clean, she just wants you to understand that she is really that good.  Aren’t you lucky you have her?

Interestingly, Payson suggests that covert narcissists often find their way to become a “doctor, therapist, minister, or missionary.” (p. 27)  These are all areas of service where one can appear to be helping while satisfying a need for control and favorable comparisons.


Filed under Narcissism, Relationship

15 responses to “Overt and Covert

  1. graceandgiggles

    I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve felt “stupid in the process” and that my way just “wasn’t good enough. At almost 42 years of age, when these emotions arise in me, I get defensive and angry, acting nothing like a grown up (my poor husband!).

    Thank you for this series Dave!

  2. Have you ever seen Christ change a narcissist? How can a narcissist stop being one?

    • Laurie,
      I believe Jesus can do anything He wants to do. Change a narcissist? Simple! But have I seen it? No. I think I have seen some tempered, softened, if you will. Narcissism is what I call a “flesh pattern,” deeply ingrained and well matured in the life of an adult. Yes, I believe Christ can change anyone, but this has to be a core change.
      Can a narcissist stop being one? That’s a much debated question. Even the big name secular psychologists acknowledge that it takes years of therapy to begin to crack the shell around the narcissist. Perhaps it would be fair to say that the narcissism sliding scale never really goes away, but a person can be taught to value others in the way they want to be valued. In other words, the narcissist can pull back from the extreme.
      Personally, I think the hardest thing will be for the narcissist to actually begin to see others as separate from himself and as important as himself. But he can be taught not to use others as tools or toys or to see them as obstacles.

      • Annette

        In my experience narcissists that “come to Christ” tend to become Pharisees, i.e. die-hard legalists. Legalism allows them to continue to see themselves as superior. In order to receive grace (the real Gospel), they would need to repent, which is impossible for a narcissist. Narcissists cannot see themselves as anything less than perfect.

        Of course there are varying degrees of narcissism. Someone who has narcissistic traits but is not a full-blown narcissist may possibly allow God to change him/her to a certain degree and therefore end up being less narcissistic. God doesn’t normally override the human will, with rare exceptions, e.g. Acts 9, where he put quite a bit of pressure on Saul.

      • Andrew

        I agree with Annette. The Lord is both willing and able but He never forces change.

  3. Cecilia K

    Oh my goodness, I SO identify with this article…if my ex is a narc, he is definitely the covert kind! And “helping” was exactly the word he used when I complained about him being controlling (which he said he would NOT be called – the day before we broke up the first time). “I’m trying to HELP you!” Thank you so much for identifying this problem. Reading your articles has been tremendous therapy for me!

    • UnForsaken

      Yes, this was a really helpful one for me too! It seemed so subtle at first, but looking back I’m beginning to understand how blatant it can be when they don’t expect us to be smart enough to figure it out. ( Even if he is covert.) Maybe it’s all the more convincing because they have first believed the lie themselves!

      Ditto on the ” helping”…and the therapy, Cecilia. You put it well! 🙂

    • It describes my X too. She was forever “helping” people in her controlling way.

  4. So true–I thought for a long time the N in my life wasn’t a narcissist, because he hates being around people and would hate being the center of attention in a crowd. But I have come to see how he is a master at controlling, manipulating, and being the center of attention by withholding and giving the silent treatment. It may not keep all eyes on him, but it definitely keeps all energy focused completely on him.

  5. steveandanitabrady

    I am interested in the question about christian narcissists. I have come to the conclusion that a woman I have known for many decades is a covert narcissist. She is married to an overt narcissist yet the image she has always portrayed has been that of a shy, modest and empathetic person. Yet when I look back there never was anything she actually was able to empathise with. There is a definition of covert narcissism in one of the articles on the net which begins with the line that these people are ’empty’ that something is missing that you can’t put your finger on. This sums this woman up completely. She claims to be a christian, as does her husband, but my definition of christian is a person who ‘loves the brethren’ in a way that you know you are being loved. You would lay down your life for these people because there is a sense of mutual bonds, of kindred spirits even if you don’t know them.

    There is nothing like that in these people. They seem on the face of it very accommodating but they are sneaky, backstabbing and competitive and love nothing more than to destroy friendships and family connections. I have long held the belief that you know somebody from their actions not their words, and it has taken me nearly 30 years to realise but these people are not Christians, their actions tell me they actually use and abuse their fellow believers. I think there are many like this in churches.

  6. steveandanitabrady

    PS. I tried to talk to this woman once about her behaviour as have members of her own family. Out of desperation I tried to help her see the effect she was having. Her response was one of blank looks, the usual tight lipped smiles and the calm reassurance that she has no idea what you are talking about. I actually believed her and walked away scratching my head believing I was imagining things.

  7. Yes, steveandanita, I hear that! It took me decades to figure out a friend of mine is no friend at all, and yet the moments persist when I walk away scratching my head thinking I’ve made it up somehow. Confounding indeed! I have to remind myself – often with the help of the empathetic souls on this site — that even if they deny reality, it does not make it any less real. We know what’s up.

  8. Annette

    Since narcissism is all about appearances, covert narcissists are “good” narcissists, i.e., good at narcissism. Overt narcissists are way too blunt. Covert narcissists despise overt narcissists. To them, they are amateurs.

    My mother comes from a family of covert narcissists. One relative, also a covert narcissist, married an overt narcissist. Needless to say, this marriage has been frowned upon by her family of origin.

    “Christian” narcissists tend to be covert narcissists since Christian values collide with overt narcissism. “Christian” narcissists are quick to learn and excel at the rules in their church, working their way to the top. They are the tares Jesus spoke about in Matth. 13:25.

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