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Is the Narcissist in Your Life a Peacock or an Ostrich?

How to recognize the difference between overt and covert narcissists.

Nicoleta Ionescu & Anastasiia Sorokina / Shutterstock
Source: Nicoleta Ionescu & Anastasiia Sorokina / Shutterstock

All narcissists are petrified of exposing their insecurities, but overt and covert narcissists take decidedly different paths to disguise the emptiness that dwells within them.

Overt narcissists, sometimes termed “grandiose” narcissists, are who we typically think of when we picture narcissists. Like peacocks, overt narcissists preen and strut, taking up both physical and emotional space, posturing as larger-than-life.

Covert narcissists, sometimes called “vulnerable” or “closet” narcissists, are more like ostriches with their heads in the sand. They try to blend in or fly under the radar, seeking to get their narcissistic needs met indirectly or secretly.

If you have narcissistic people in your life, it’s helpful to recognize the difference between these two styles. Both overt and covert narcissists can do great damage to relationships and groups, but because their methods differ, it's helpful to know the best ways of coping with each type.

Kezza / Shuttertock
Source: Kezza / Shuttertock

Both overt and covert narcissists share the traits at the core of unhealthy narcissism: entitlement; self-absorption; lack of empathy; lack of introspection; a hunger for attention; and a willingness to use others for their own ends.

But overt narcissists may resort to aggressive and confrontational tactics while covert narcissists are more passive-aggressive and avoidant of direct conflict. Some research indicates that overt narcissists tend to be more extroverted while covert narcissists tend toward introversion.

The two styles of narcissists also differ in how they seek attention and how they respond when they don't get the attention they crave.

Overt narcissists will do anything to capture the spotlight. When they don’t get attention, they may become enraged and aggressive.

Covert narcissists also want admiration but pursue it less directly. When they fail to get positive attention, they may feel abandoned and respond in indirect or underhanded ways.

It can be harder to spot covert narcissists than overt narcissists. Covert narcissists may seem apologetic or self-effacing, which may reflect their fear of being rejected if they openly seek admiration. Covert narcissists also may fume internally about how others treat them, but instead of letting their anger fully show, they may instead respond with aloofness, indirect complaints, or stubbornness.

Other differences between how the two types of narcissists behave:

Overt Narcissists Covert Narcissists

Demand Complain

Exhibitionistic Inhibited

Self-aggrandizing Self-deprecating

Feel inherently special Feel special based on who they know

Act superior Act like a victim

Grab the spotlight Tiptoe at the edge of the spotlight

Provoke conflict Avoid direct conflict

Of course, many narcissistic people have a mix of these characteristics. To identify whether someone may be primarily a covert narcissist, see this assessment for maladaptive covert narcissism or read PT blogger Julie Hall's covert narcissism checklist.

Signs of covert narcissism Hall lists include being hypochondriacal, gossipy, quietly judging, taking delight in others’ misfortunes, and denying they are angry.

Relating to, working with, or negotiating with narcissists can be difficult and fraught with peril. Many times the best way to deal with difficult or dangerous narcissists is to walk away.

But if you have to deal with a narcissist, you may want to tailor your approach depending on whether you are dealing with an overt or covert narcissist. For example:

1. If you are seeking greater cooperation

  • With overt narcissists: Ask yourself how you might enlist their cooperation in ways that make them feel as though they’ve gotten more attention, respect, a better image, or have won.
  • With covert narcissists: Ask yourself how you might enlist their cooperation in ways that make them feel more liked, accepted, and confident.

2. If you are being insulted or undermined

  • With overt narcissists: Let them know that their treatment does not feel respectful, and that disrespecting you will interfere with your ability to help them achieve their goals.
  • With covert narcissists: Let them know that they are making it harder for you to care about them, and caring about them is crucial if you are going to help them get what they want.

3. If you are feeling taken advantage of or manipulated

  • With overt narcissists: Recognize their desperate need to feel in control, special, and the center of attention. Then figure out how to appear to accommodate those needs while maintaining your boundaries and dignity.
  • With covert narcissists: Recognize their desperate need to avoid feeling inferior, powerless, or wrong. Then figure out how to sidestep triggering those feelings as you set healthy boundaries for yourself and maintain your dignity.

Copyright 2020 Dan Neuharth Ph.D., MFT