Narcissism is a personality disorder that’s diagnosed by qualified mental health practitioners. Narcissism often begins in childhood, and it occurs along a spectrum, meaning that for each individual, there are more and less severe forms of the disorder.
A study done in 2015, Narcissistic Personality Disorder: Diagnostic and Clinical Challenges, found that Grandiose and Vulnerable narcissism are the two main types of narcissism (Caligor, Levy, and Yeomans 2015). Each of these two types has its own set of traits and characteristics, and each has its own way of protecting its false self.
There are two subcategories of these types which distinguish how grandiose and vulnerable narcissists get their emotional and egotistical needs met, or in other words, get their narcissistic supply. These are the overt and covert subtypes of NPD (Milstead 2018).
Let’s take a look at each of these types and subtypes, and because I write about Maternal Narcissism, we’ll look specifically at how they present in narcissistic mothers.
“Grandiose” narcissism is the textbook type of narcissism that comes to mind when most people hear the term “narcissism.” It’s also known as high-functioning, exhibitionist, or classic narcissism. These narcissists are extroverted, dominant, and always seem to be pursuing power and prestige. They believe that they’re a step above everyone else, that they’re smarter, better-looking, and more powerful. Grandiose narcissists brag about themselves and will put down others as a way to raise their feelings of self-importance. They’re often rude, insensitive, and even cruel. They ignore, are unaware of, or don’t care about how their behavior affects others.
In the case of narcissistic mothers, they view their children as extensions of themselves rather than as people in their own right with thoughts, feelings, perceptions, goals, ideas, dreams, and desires of their own. For narcissistic moms, children are a means for obtaining admiration and validation. As we’ve seen, the false face behaves socially acceptably and imitates empathy. This makes narcissistic moms highly emotionally invested in perpetuating their false face. Keeping the false face frontward makes a narcissistic mother appear to be kind, compassionate, and empathetic. Her children will always be a means of gratifying and escalating this false self.
Vulnerable narcissism is the other type. These narcissists are also known as fragile, compensatory, self-effacing, or closet narcissists. They have the same characteristics as a grandiose narcissist, except they would rather stay behind the scenes instead of being in the spotlight.
Because they prefer to stay away from attention, they’re harder to recognize. They can go a long time before being discovered to be a narcissist. They’re often quiet, shy, or reserved, but they’re still emotionally demanding and draining for others to be around. Like grandiose narcissists, they feel entitled, but they’re also insecure. They can be generous with their time or money as a way of getting compliments, affirmation, or praise, but because of their self-doubt, they would rather associate with people whom they idealize. They choose to attach to talented, famous, or influential individuals to satisfy their need to feel special.
Like grandiose narcissists, vulnerable narcissists believe they’re faultless, and they get irritated when others fail to see their perfection. Their lives revolve around the task of convincing everyone of their greatness. They often present themselves as victims, regardless of the circumstances. They enjoy playing the victim role (I call it being a “poor me”) to get attention in the form of sympathy or pity.
Vulnerable narcissists are prone to depression, mainly because they think that their life doesn’t align with their ideas of what it should be or what they’re entitled to. This inconsistency may cause them to act impulsively without considering the consequences. For example, they may abruptly quit their job before finding another because the work or their coworkers or supervisors don’t match their expectations or fantasies.
Narcissism “subtypes” describe the method that grandiose or vulnerable narcissists use to get their emotional and egotistical needs met, known as “narcissistic supply.” If the way of getting their narcissistic supply is easy to spot, the individual is probably an overt narcissist.
While all narcissists will brag, take advantage of people, and speak negatively about others to make themselves look superior, overt narcissists will do these things in distinct, very noticeable ways. For example, overt narcissists attract attention to themselves directly in ways such as over-dressing, or dressing provocatively, talking too loudly, wearing attention-getting makeup, hairstyles, or accessories, or driving conspicuous vehicles. They require admiration, and if they don’t get it, they react with rage, ridicule, mockery, or humiliation. They like to use charm and flattery so people will like them although they’re arrogant, proud, and view others as insignificant or as competitors to conquer. They feel entitled and expect special treatment.
Covert narcissism, on the other hand, is subtle, and it can be tricky to identify. Covert narcissists are more cautious and reserved in the ways they get their supply.
If we find ourselves denying, minimizing, or making excuses for someone’s behavior, that’s a red flag. If you start feeling like a detective on the lookout for reasons to explain someone’s behavior, pay attention to that. They could be a covert narcissist.
Because of the reserved way that covert narcissists get their supply, it’s understandable that covert narcissistic moms get their supply mainly from their children. It’s about how her children make her appear as a mother. Whatever you do to make her look good in front of others is a form of supply for her. If you give her a gift, she’ll brag about it because receiving a gift from her child makes her appear to be a well-loved mother. When she gives you gifts, though, there are always “strings” attached. She can’t give for the sake of giving. She expects something in return, in the form of loyalty, emotional caretaking, secret-keeping, or admiration.
Taking care of her needs will be number one on her priority list, and her children’s needs will be further down. If you question her, she’ll assume you’re challenging her, and she’ll become defensive, maybe violent. She doesn’t respect your boundaries or your privacy. She’s totally at ease going into your personal space, looking in your purse, reading your diary, listening to your phone conversations, reading private mail and documents, and sharing your personal and private information with others. Because of this, you’ll feel a sense of shame in multiple areas, but you won’t realize that these behaviors are its source.
If your mom is a covert narcissist, you may sense that something isn’t “right” in your relationship, but you can’t quite “put your finger on it.” It could be the way she expresses herself, or that things she does or says confuse you. Sensing that something’s not adding up, but not being able to identify what it is can stir up feelings of anxiety and the desire to avoid her. If your mom is a narcissist, it can feel like she’s sucking the life right out of us; we may feel exhausted after spending time with her, and we don’t understand the reasons why.
As kids, if mom is a covert narcissist, we can’t exactly avoid her, so we’re likely to become hyperaware of her moods and behaviors instead. Our intuition, our gut feelings, alert us when something’s going on that we don’t comprehend. We know we need to be careful, and we may be sensing danger.
If your mother is a covert narcissist, your sense of self-preservation will more than likely intensify over time, causing you to become exceptionally alert and aware of your mother’s behavior. You might have ongoing feelings of uneasiness when you’re with her; it may feel like you’re not entirely emotionally or physically safe. Those of us who are children of covert narcissists may have started feeling distrustful of our mothers without having a concrete reason, and this can make us question our judgment. That’s the last thing we should do!
If there is no professional diagnosis, it doesn’t mean we imagine the problem or that something’s wrong with our perception. We’re sensing something that we can’t physically see or explain, but it’s still authentic. Our intuition is real. When it alerts us, we need to pay attention.
Covert narcissist traits make it difficult for others to see anything “wrong” with mom. Most of the time, there’s nothing concrete to point to. Sure, we have lots of examples of her strange and confusing behavior, and we can speak at length about her unusual way of thinking, perceiving, or expressing herself, including that she’s either the victim or the hero in any scenario. Without a broader context or the experience of living with her, it’s difficult for others to see that there’s something fundamentally inappropriate going on. The biggest reasons for going undetected as a narcissist, I think, are the use of the false public self combined with subtle forms of manipulation and mind games like gaslighting and triangulation. All of these make it very hard for others, who only see her false face, to recognize her as a narcissist.
A covert narcissist mother tends to employ passive-aggressive behavior: for example, sulking, giving backhanded compliments, using procrastination and withdrawal to avoid interaction or activity, and refusing to talk (Cherry 2019). They enjoy guilt-tripping and pushing responsibilities on us that aren’t ours. They also like causing conflict between us and others. She uses a manipulative tactic called “triangulation”: when one person manipulates the relationship between two other people by controlling the amount and type of communication they have. She controls the narrative, which generates rivalry between the two parties and acts as a way to “divide and conquer,” playing one person against the other. My mother thoroughly enjoyed this game. She did it with me as well as cousins, aunts, and friends. A therapist once called it “stirring the pot,” and I’ve held onto that analogy.
Triangulation is toxic, but you can learn to use techniques and tools to deal with it in a whole new and healthy way. For instance, you can start speaking directly to the other person in the triangle to remove your mother’s input. Get your information directly rather than from your mother and suggest that others do the same. At the time I learned how to handle triangulation, I was decisively starting to take my personal power back. I was no longer willing to accept lies or gaslighting, and I started speaking up for myself. That was the beginning of my recovery. It’s called “setting boundaries,” and I write more about that in later chapters.
A covert narcissist-mom also likes to use “exclusionary behaviors,” such as withholding affection and attention from us or temporarily withdrawing from our lives. Then she’ll shower a specific person with copious amounts of love and attention. When she does this, it can feel like a punch in the gut, like she’s punishing us. That’s because it’s exactly what she’s doing, and it’s deliberate. It gives her a rush of power and superiority.
She has no empathy and can’t understand how we feel, but she knows that at that moment, she’s in control and has the power to hurt us. When you feel excluded, it can become a great time to practice getting in touch with your emotions by becoming self-aware and practicing mindfulness. Validate yourself by acknowledging how her behavior makes you feel. Do you notice any patterns when she’s about to make you feel like an outsider? Is there a way to halt those patterns before they start? If not, then practice getting comfortable with being an outsider. When you’re excluded, practice controlling your emotions and recognizing your triggers. Think of your triggers as little suitcases that you need to unpack and examine the contents. You’ll be surprised at what you find.
When you’re ready, you’ll begin to apply a bit of loving detachment and set some boundaries around the exclusionary behavior. (You’ll learn more about detachment and boundary-setting in later chapters.)
Narcissists don’t feel a sense of remorse or conscience. They believe that everything they do is justified or is someone else’s fault. They don’t take responsibility for their actions, which makes them unable to feel guilt. To feel guilty, it’s necessary to feel empathy and remorse.
Guilt is a positive and healthy thing. It’s a form of cognitive dissonance, a way of holding a mirror up and seeing the discrepancy between “this is who you say you are, but this is what you did.” We feel guilty when “who we are” and “what we did” are not aligned. This misalignment causes us to feel guilt and empathy for the person we wronged. For example, if I believe I’m a gentle, kind, and loving person, and I make a cruel remark to someone, my perception of “who I am” no longer matches my behavior: “what I did.” A gentle, kind, and loving person would not intentionally say mean things. I would be motivated by feelings of guilt to apologize for my conduct. The cognitive dissonance that guilt provides drives us to atone for our inappropriate actions.
Feeling guilty, remorseful, or apologetic are beyond a narcissist’s capabilities. We will never get an apology from a narcissist-mom. Instead, we’ll get a weird version of an excuse where she justifies or defends what she did if she’s even willing to admit what she did. Or we may get the silent treatment until she feels she’s punished us sufficiently. It’s all so arbitrary, and somehow the message will always be that her actions were our fault.
With a covert narcissist-mom, her needs and emotions always come first, because they’re of utmost importance to her. Her children’s needs and feelings may or may not be relevant, depending on how she feels at the moment (about herself, about life, etc.). She sees everything as a competition, and nothing that has ever happened or will happen to her children could ever compare to what she has experienced. Her experiences are always more highly valued. This is known as “one-upmanship.”
When we’re around her, we’ll eventually develop an apprehension of saying or doing the wrong thing, and a feeling of “walking on eggshells” or tippy-toeing around her to avoid upsetting her, making her angry, or setting her off. We live with a genuine understanding that we’re not emotionally safe with her. She hijacks everything we say or do and makes it about herself. Anything we say or do that displeases her will be remembered, brought up, and held against us in the future, and so we try to avoid confrontation of any kind.
The result of this focus is that we start to feel responsible for her feelings and actions. We become her emotional guardians and caretakers even to the point that we allow her to isolate us from friends and family or to control whom we interact with.
We all need someone to talk to and share our problems with or bounce ideas off. Sharing with friends or family who aren’t familiar with toxic relationships, and specifically, narcissism can frustrate or hurt us even more. Others don’t know that they’re invalidating us or discounting our experiences. They only know our mother’s false face. That’s why I repeatedly suggest talking to a neutral party, like a counselor who understands this disorder.
If your mother is a covert narcissist, you might notice discrepancies between her words and her actions, meaning that they don’t match up. This can make you feel edgy (that “walking on eggshells” feeling), and being in this state of mind heightens your fight-or-flight response. The fight-or-flight mode causes a sudden and quick hormone release that activates the body’s ability to deal with danger or threats. Adrenaline and noradrenaline are two of the hormones released during the fight-or-flight response; they increase blood pressure, heart, and breathing rate. We’ll talk more about the fight-or-flight response and what it does in later chapters. In the meantime, just know that mixed messages contribute to feelings of being on high-alert, edginess, and confusion.
A narcissistic mom’s mixed messages are a type of communication where one party sends conflicting information to another, either verbally or nonverbally.
Mixed messages come in various packages:
- What she says conflicts with what she previously said.
- What she does conflicts with what she previously did.
- What she says conflicts with what she does.
- What she says conflicts with her facial expressions or body language.
An example of “words not matching facial expression/body language” would be when mom says she’s happy to see you, but she frowns, and her tone of voice is sarcastic. This would be confusing because of the conflicting information you’re getting: “happy” means that a person’s face would show joy, usually by smiling. A happy person would not frown. “Sarcasm” is used to mock or convey contempt. It’s used to inflict pain and is often described as wounding.
Do you see how these mixed messages can cause feelings of confusion? In this example, an empowering response would be: “I’m confused. You say you’re happy to see me, yet you look so ______ (angry, sad, depressed, etc.) I don’t get it. What’s going on?” This response puts the confusion back on her. It informs her that you’re aware of what she’s doing, and it sets the expectation for her to clarify her communication. It signals that you’re not going to tolerate that kind of behavior any longer. It’s empowering because you don’t have to accept the confusion or ruminate over it anymore.
An example of “words not matching actions” would be when mom brags about how caring and empathetic she is, but you haven’t seen any evidence of this. There’s a term for this behavior; it’s called virtue signaling. When a person indeed possesses a character trait, they don’t have to announce or advertise it. They simply live it, and people notice. Covert narcissists want us to believe what they tell us about themselves, instead of what we see for ourselves. I view this as another form of gaslighting.
Conscious awareness: Be aware and make conscious choices before acting. Self-awareness releases us from making impulsive and potentially damaging decisions.
Self-care: We can only choose to focus on and be responsible for ourselves, our own thoughts, actions, and behavior. The good news is that we can change ourselves with patience, persistence, and practice. We can take responsibility for getting our needs met, instead of waiting for someone to change or meet our needs for us. We are in control of ourselves and no one is responsible for us but us.
Take the Adverse Childhood Experiences quiz
Understand how the Narcissistic Abuse Cycle is different
Learn about codependency
Learn about letting go of what you can’t control, by using loving-detachment
Learn about expectations
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About the Author
As a result of growing up in a dysfunctional home, and with the help of professional therapists and continued personal growth, Diane Metcalf developed strong coping skills and healing strategies for herself. She happily shares those with others who want to learn and grow.
Her Lemon Moms series and other books and articles are a combination of her education, knowledge, personal growth, and insight from her childhood experiences and subsequent recovery work.
Diane holds a Master of Science degree in Information Technology and a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology. She’s worked in numerous fields, including domestic violence and abuse, and is an experienced advocate, speaker, and writer about family dysfunction. On The Toolbox, she writes about recovery strategies from hurtful people and painful, dysfunctional, or toxic relationships. She has authored four transformational books about healing and moving forward from narcissistic Victim Syndrome.
Visit her author’s site here: DianeMetcalf.com
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This website is intended for informational purposes only and is not a substitute for professional therapy.