The making of a covert narcissist.

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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).

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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).

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Who Am I? by ABC123Art on Deviantart

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.

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10 thoughts on “The making of a covert narcissist.

  1. Hi
    reading your post confirms my former partner’s covert narcissism, we were engaged twice, I broke up with him the first time approximately 18 months ago, long story, after reading ‘Disarming the narcissist’ by Wendy T. Behary, we got back together and got engaged again but I had to leave him again as the cocktail of lies, deception, drip-feeding, etc led to make me also suspicious of cheating which he denied, I am aware that his covert narcissism was a survival necessity, sadly it translates into a major obstacle to a healthy, mature, accountable and trustworthy relationship. Unlike yourself he does not acknowledge his truth and continues his cycle of going for his next supply and likely he already had the alternative when we were engaged, but this is a suspicion only.
    I feel sad for both of us but unable to be with him.
    kind regards
    Anna

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I can understand why you feel that way. I hope he becomes self-aware and begins the journey to healing or at least becoming mindful of how he treats you and others. I’ll tell you what–once you do become aware, that changes everything because suddenly it’s as if you can see yourself as others do, and become hyperaware of the way you act. The problem is sometimes we get hypervigilant and think even normal behavior is narcissistic and are quick to self-criticize. It takes a while to learn the difference between normal human behavior and narcissistic, manipulative behavior. I hope he gets there, for his own sake and others!

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  2. As a cNPD and BPD diagnosed fellow I find this correlates well with my experience of life and [as you mentioned] now thankful that if I am going to have NPD that my defences are weak enough to see past and treat; thanks for writing.

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  3. Thank you so much for writing this. I am in the middle of divorcing my husband of 15 years. He is writer and has been unable to hold down a job in over 10 years. Over the last 3 years, we’ve been trying to conceive but no avail. I tried really hard to make it work and even thought that maybe having kids could push him to be more responsible and mature since he does no work, writes occasionally and is completely dependent on family for financial support. All the work of fertility treatments on top of my full time job as a high school teacher made me realize he may not change and I may end up taking care of the kid and him while working all the time. I just turned 40 and I’m exhausted. He doesn’t seem to get why I’m so tired. He spends his time on hanging out with friends, napping, surfing the web while I’m at work. He’s convinced that his novel will be a bestseller and we will never want for money and he gets angry when I tell him to get an actual job to get paid. I’ve lost all patience and I’m constantly anxious. I’m afraid of being single at this age and potentially not being able to have children but it’s hard to imagine parenting with him. He usually gets inspired once in awhile and he’ll be in a good mood but a lot of the times he’s very frustrated that the world doesn’t see his value or genius and that other people are content being mediocre while he feels he’s working so hard ( albeit never at the tasks he could be getting paid for). He’s never physical but he flies into rages when I try to hold him accountable by reminding him about posting his resume, making sure he did the chore he promised he would do, or just letting him know when we are struggling financially because he won’t work( and his family ends up bailing us out). We currently live in Chicago but I’m thinking of going to Nevada where my family is once this is over so I’m not tempted to return to him. This is the third time we’ve gotten back together and I’ve lost hope that he will ever change.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Diane,
      Thank s for sharing this. Although I can’t diagnose, it does sound like you have a covert narcissist on your hands. I’m glad you are divorcing him, since he will most likely not improve, and you will just drive yourself crazy trying to fix him. He won’t get fixed until and if he decides he wants to change. I’m sure you already know this but it’s probably a good thing you havent had kids with him (though I do undertand the desire to have kids, especially because we women have a limited time to have them). All I can say is it sounds like you have enough knowledge into his behavior and are doing the only thing you can do to save your own sanity and soul, which is to escape. Good luck!

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      1. Thank you for your encouraging words. Reading this blog has really helped me keep my resolve when I find myself tempted to forgive, forget, and give him another chance. The constant hope and belief in his words that he is so close to achieving his dream( for the last 15 years) was what kept me stuck for so long. But, the more I learn about covert narcissists, the more I realize what I was really dealing with.

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  4. As I read more about the covert narcissist, my eyes are widening with every passage. So that is what has been troubling him! Wow, ok then. I do not even know if I care to divorce him. He truly has issues and now that I understand this condition, I guess it does not bother me as much as thinking I was unloved for some short fall on my part. He just has not learned how to love. Ok. Got it. I can stop expecting him to respond to me, or care about my happiness, or connect with me. That said, I can well afford to support myself….so now I must decide if staying connected to my stepfamily, especially the grandkids, is worth staying with him and his abuse. It occurs to me that it is only abuse if I believe the rudeness, laziness, grumpiness is part of our relationship. No. It is part of him not me. He is using me. Ok. Time for me to understand and set more limits,on how much control he can have. Soon I will be in charge. I will still be unloved but not confused.

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  5. thanks for writing this. I also am an only child and I’m dealing with the fact that at least one of my parents is a narcissist (the one I’m not so sure about has become extremely nice to me since I moved away, but when I lived with my parents as a child I definitely would have called them an overt narcissist if armed with the knowledge I have now). The main questions I’m grappling with at the moment are “how do I break patterns instilled in me since childhood” that lead me to narcissist/covert narcissist partners, and “am I borderline?”

    I recently became sober (celebrating 9 months) and I’ve had to confront a lot of masking I have done via drugs and alcohol to keep from expressing myself in ways that I felt would alienate people. My father’s job had us moving around a lot, so I had never really had to deal with permanent friendships until I went off to college (a college that was only 30 min away from my house so that my father could come check on me vigilantly). I’ve always had deep, nearly psychic empathy for humans and animals- so I’ve never been able to understand that aspect of narcissism – but I do feel like I’ve taken on some of the characteristics of my covert narcissist parent (anxiety that i’m not doing enough, i’m not good enough, masks) and I’ve also found myself with both overt and covert narcissist partners for my most serious relationships. I’m not sure if you have any advice or suggestions for places to go for someone like me, but regardless reading this an seeing such a similarity in our upbringings really brought me a sense of relief. Thank you again.

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