Covert narcissism wasn’t a choice.
I was raised an only child (I have older half siblings as both parents were married to other people) by a malignant narcissist mother (somatic type) and a father who may have had either BPD or low-spectrum covert narcissism (much like myself).
Even though my mother was “nicer” on the surface than my father (probably to fulfill the social norm of pleasantry expected of women), I was always instinctively and more deeply afraid of her. My father had rages and was an alcoholic and *seemed* more abusive, but I always knew he had love for me, even if he always seemed to take my mother’s side. I saw the tenderness and love in his eyes when he wasn’t under her thrall for the moment.
I used to dream of my mother as a demon, with those malignant black eyes you always hear about in the narcissistic abuse community. The “black eyes” have become an Internet meme, but they are real. I’ve seen them.
I saw them when I’d go into my autistic-like trances when I was about four through six. She called these trances my “spooky moods.” I went into these trances when the drama and discord and tension around me were too overwhelming or I was feeling too many conflicting emotions I didn’t understand. I felt defenseless. I was scared all the time. I couldn’t, didn’t dare, express these feelings to my mother. Expressing emotions wasn’t allowed. I would be punished, made fun of, scolded, or humiliated.
So I dissociated. I believe this was the beginning of my narcissism. I no longer sought to connect with people in a meaningful way; it was too dangerous. Around this same time I remember banging my head against the wall in the TV room in our split-level home. I don’t know why I did this, but it felt good to me. (This might have been incipient BPD).
These trances would send my mother into a cold and deadly narcissistic rage. She’d snap her fingers in my face and tell me sharply to “come back to planet earth” or “stop being so spooky” or even, “You’re a very weird girl.”
The trances weren’t due to Aspergers but for over a decade I thought I had that disorder and that explained my escapes into myself.
I think these “spooky” moods terrified her for two reasons: 1. it was the one place I could go to escape her emotional abuse; and 2. she knew it meant I could see through her, because I’d go inside myself, away from her, during her worst narcissistic rages, when her eyes would darken to almost black. She hated that I could keep myself from seeing them. Those eyes were terrifying and it was too dangerous to connect with her, so mental escape was my only escape and she hated that because she couldn’t get to me anymore.
Only children are often both scapegoats and golden children. They are under enormous pressure to be all things to the narcissistic parent. They are told they are the best, the prettiest, the smartest, the most talented, the best speller, the best student, and the most special. It’s an enormous responsibility to live on a pedestal to begin with, and have to fulfill your parents’ grandiose fantasies of your perfection (when you know these are lies and you know you are far from perfect and can never measure up).
Add inconsistency to the equation. Sometimes you are the scapegoat. Nothing you do is good enough. You are punished for having opinions, emotions or expressing yourself in honest ways they deem “disrespectful” or “crazy.” Your self esteem is insidiously chipped away at, with intermittent false bolstering of you as their dream “perfect child” which you can never be. You never know when Mommy or Daddy will be doting admirers (of a fantasy of you that isn’t really you) or raging monsters (when you are being yourself). Learned helplessness sets in because you never know how you should act or when you should act or even who you are. Am I bad? Am I good? Who am I? You simply don’t know. I always wondered as a child how I could “be myself” when I didn’t know who I even was.
The truth of the matter is that parents like these have trained you to become narcissistic because you know you can’t be the idealized image of perfection your parents wanted you to be, and were denied the expression of your true self. The emerging true self was rejected and banished into the far reaches of the unconscious by narcissistic abuse, and replaced by false grandiosity and entitlement (due to having been idealized) overlaid with a Milquetoast demeanor (to protect against being punished).
If you were aware as a child that you were unable to fulfill your parents’ image of you as “all-perfect, all good,” you knew the mask of perfection was a sham and you had no hope of ever living up to it. But to not live up to it was to be punished and scapegoated. Dead if you do, dead if you don’t. That’s learned helplessness.
The solution was to construct a second, overly humble and deferent false self intended to overlay the first mask of false grandiosity. It’s a mask that used the parents’ invalidation and scapegoating as the materials in its construction. It allows itself to be pushed around by others, abused, used, and tends to become codependent on more malignant or grandiose narcissists (who themselves mirror the cNPD’s parents). But hiding under the covert’s humble exterior is a pressure cooker of seething envy and rage, so their aggression is likely to come out in passive aggressive or manipulative ways (if a cNPD) or explode in rages, self destructive behavior, and sudden attacks (if borderline).
As an adult, the covert narcissist (and many borderlines) keep dancing this same deadly dance they were forced to dance with their disordered parents with everyone they meet. Like the exhausted and hopeless people in the movie “They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?”, they are powerless to stop the dance or turn the music off.
The cNPD “saves face” at the shame and humiliation this overlay-mask tends to cause them, by becoming grandiose about those “weak” qualities–such as how NO ONE loves them and how their abuse is worse than yours, how much of a martyr and saint they have been but no one appreciates them, or how their social awkwardness and introversion makes them more “special” than “shallow, social” people (who they secretly envy). But it’s a lie that covers up another lie.
The good news for cNPDs is that in spite of their additional false self, their disorder is far more ego-dystonic than in classic/overt narcissism because the very presence of the second false self means these people are usually low functioning and likely to be miserable and unsuccessful at both relationships and having a successful and fulfilling purpose in life or career. Covert narcissists are trained victims who learned to use their victimhood itself as a weapon. They’re so miserable they are much more likely than overts to seek treatment and healing.