Covert Narcissism: Modern Epidemic?

Narcissistic personality disorder is a condition where individuals exaggerate their own sense of importance and talents, have unrealistic goals and lack empathy for others. While fantasising about success, they inflate their sense of status that any criticism of their behaviour is often deflected as jealousy or envy. As they seek constant praise and use external sources to regulate their self-esteem, their efforts to maintain an image or “mask” ultimately causes them to cut themselves from friends and colleagues when at risk of exposure to criticism.

According to the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), narcissists exhibit the following characteristics:

  • A grandiose sense of self-importance and a need for excessive admiration
  • Interpersonally exploitive behaviour (such as monopolising conversations or compulsively lying)
  • Envy of others or a belief that others are envious of him or her
  • A preoccupation with fantasies of unlimited success, power, or brilliance
  • A exaggerated belief in their talents and that they should associate with high-status people
  • A sense of entitlement that demonstrate arrogant and haughty behaviours 
  • A lack of empathy


The concept of “moral evil” in philosophical terms are actions by the perpetrators motivations. A person who lies about who they are or what they have done is an example of someone motivated to act immorally, as seen in the following quote on psychopathy:

Some of the defining characteristics of psychopathy include shallow emotions, egocentricity, deceitfulness, impulsivity, a lack of empathy, and a lack of guilt and remorse. Particularly relevant for assessments of moral responsibility is the psychopath’s inability to care for others and for the rules of morality.

A person can give money to charity knowing that it will sing praises, appear to be a kind and supportive person, but the intention behind those actions are specifically for his image or this “mask” and not because he authentically or sincerely is a morally worthy person.

A person is thus split into two; one false (a “mask” or created personality that they continuously develop, change, and modify to adapt to their environment and so ensure the greatest level of acceptance and praise by those around them) and one real.

Covert narcissism is a type of narcissism that explains this indirect and adaptable social behaviour where they are less obvious and able to camouflage their true motivations. Unlike malignant narcissists that are overt in their arsenal of abuse and obvious with their self-absorption, the vanity of a covert narcissist is more difficult to distinguish. They have more self-control and can even appear helpful and introverted, but they are instead passive-aggressive and extremely manipulative.


Narcissism as a mental impairment is usually distinguished by intense emotional feelings when criticised since behind this created mask lies a fragility where they are vulnerable to low self-esteem. As such, they adapt and modify their personality and behaviour to suit their surroundings so that they can source validation and praise that will allow them to continue believing in their own inflated sense of self.

According to Jean M. Twenge and W. Campbell in their book The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement, there is a relentless rise of narcissism as a psychocultural affliction because society seduces ideas that material wealth, beauty and physical appearance, as well as celebrity worship are important ideals. “Standards have shifted, otherwise sucking humble people into a vortex of granite countertops, tricked out MySpace pages, and plastic surgery… declaring that all other values have “either been discredited or destroyed.”

When society normalises vanity and popularity as values to aim for, narcissism becomes an acceptable model of behaviour. As said by Erich Fromm, ‘[t]hat millions of people share the same forms of mental pathology does not make these people sane.” The concept of morality and ethics develops as an explanation of evil, but if evil itself modifies, manipulates and adapts into something that appears ‘good’ then explaining how such behaviour is immoral becomes all the more difficult as they lack any conscious understanding their faults.

If they are unaware of their own evil, do they “intend” to do harm or abuse? Can we say those that followed Hitler en masse are evil? They believe that they are caring and loving people despite the fact that they have a history where they have harmed and abused others. They see themselves as humble despite being recklessly filled with fury, resentment and hatred. They create the conditions to appear that they are caring and loving, but their intentions are only for appearances.

The treatment of this epidemic is starting to seem impossible, with neuroscientist Baroness Susan Greenfield that the next generation have become ‘virtually autistic’ that people have become so absorbed into social world that they are no longer stimulated by the real world. As she states: “We might be having a different type of consciousness, one where there is no inner narrative, no inner train of thought, but one that is interactive and dependent on the environment.”

That is pretty scary. As said by Jean Jacques Rousseau:

Civilization is a hopeless race to discover remedies for the evils it produces