Most people who deal with narcissists feel like it’s impossible to understand or see into the mind of a narcissist. What makes them tick? Why do they do the ridiculous, over-the-top things they do? How can they sleep at night after the mean and cruel things they do? Is their mind controlled by demonic forces?
Interestingly enough, understanding the mind of a narcissist isn’t as hard as it would seem at first. Science has now shown us the structure of the narcissistic brain, which is actually missing some critical components that would allow them to function more normally. And behavioral sciences have allowed us to see emerging patterns of behavior. Because of these two things, we can now see and understand the mind of a covert narcissist much better.
Let’s take a look at how all of these factors play into the mind of the narcissist and how we can use this information to relate better to the narcissists in our lives.
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A Word About Covert Narcissism
Covert narcissism is more complicated than overt or grandiose for several reasons. A covert narcissist doesn’t want to be highly visible. They prefer to work behind the scenes. And that is what makes it so hard to detect, often for years or even decades. While the overt narcissist doesn’t care who sees what they do or say as long as everyone sees them conquer their victims, the covert narcissist needs to be seen as a wonderful person while covertly abusing the heck out of their victims behind the scenes.
Because covert narcissists work so hard at trying to keep their behavior under wraps in order to get away with it, that means that what they do is absolutely intentional. But they are still the same extremely cruel, need-to-be-the-smartest-best-person-in-the-room person. And while they are tearing you to shreds, they have a beautiful smile on their face and kind words rolling off their tongue.
People wouldn’t or couldn’t hide what they aren’t actually doing. And in order for them to work so hard at hiding those interactions behind closed doors and lie about anything that is exposed, it becomes quite obvious that they know exactly what they are doing to people.
So, with that thought in mind, let’s go to the first exploration into the mind of a covert narcissist–the structure of their brain.
Understanding the Mind of a Covert Narcissist Through Brain Structure
Studying the brain structure of a covert narcissist allows us to see that there are actually physical events that happen through narcissism to the narcissist’s brain. I covered this briefly in my article about how narcissists become narcissists. But I would like to go a little bit more in-depth here.
Which Parts of the Brain are Affected by Narcissism?
Brain scans have allowed scientists and doctors to see exactly what is happening in the mind of a narcissist. Surprisingly, even though the diagnosis of Narcissistic Personality Disorder is behavioral in nature, brain scans actually show damage that has been done to the brain to cause narcissistic behavior. The more extensive the damage, the more prominent the narcissism shows up in the patient.
Interestingly, according to Dr. Syras Derksen, a registered psychologist who has studied all levels of narcissism extensively, the brain of a narcissist is, as a general rule, very similar to the brain of a “normal” person. Where things begin to differ, however, is in the empathetic parts of the brain. Those parts are the anterior and median parts of the cingulate cortex, bilateral anterior insula, and the supplementary motor area. And in a narcissistic person, all of those parts are lacking in brain matter as well as the overlapping parts; namely, the rostral and median cingulate cortex, left anterior insula, and dorsolateral and medial parts of the prefrontal cortex.
Let’s take a look at all of this on a couple diagrams of the brain so it will make more sense to you:
This first diagram shows the 9 functions of the prefrontal cortex, all of which are necessary for emotional maturity. It also shows the Limbic Brain and its functionality, which also controls the emotions, but both good and bad emotions. It is this part of the brain that matter is missing from in the narcissist. The more that is missing, the higher on the narcissism spectrum the person will rank on.
In the diagram above, I featured the anterior cingulate cortex, highlighted in yellow. According to Wikipedia, the anterior cingulate cortex can be divided based on either cognitive or emotional components. The cognitive portion of the ACC is associated with the prefrontal cortex and parietal cortex, as well as the motor system and the frontal eye fields.In other words, they are processors of information and the organization of that information.
On the other hand, the emotional component of the ACC is associated with the amygdala, nucleus accumbens, hypothalamus, hippocampus, and anterior insula, and is involved in sorting through emotional and motivational information. The ACC seems to be mostly involved in early learning and problem solving quests. This may be why when a child is severely neglected or abused, these parts of the brain do not develop. Tie that idea to the fact that narcissism is characterized by a lack of empathy, and you can now see the physical proof of the behavioral evidence of narcissism.
The anterior insular is tucked right into the center of the brain. It hits on the area of the brain that affects self awareness and consciousness, both issues that high-ranking narcissists don’t seem to have any of at all.
KenHub.com says that insular is the Latin word for “island” and is considered a separate lobe of the human brain.
The anterior insular is considered the hub of addiction, cravings, and desires, very strong feelings. It also has links to many psychological issues such as schizophrenia and post traumatic stress. It is not a stretch to tie narcissism and the effects of an abusive childhood into the already mentioned mental illnesses.
With our last diagram, I want to talk about the supplementary motor area of the brain. This is the part of the brain that plans complex physical movements, often in the extremities. It seems like an odd place to find evidence of Narcissistic Personality Disorder, but surprisingly, you will find it there. According to studies, the correlation between the supplementary motor area of the brain and narcissism is that their body language and physical actions are well planned out to elicit responses in others.
For overt narcissists, that would be control and domination almost exclusively. For the covert narcissist, however, that would be control and domination in private intimidating encounters. But it would be the total opposite in front of people they are trying to convince that they are kind, caring, and empathetic. So the body language can actually be planned out in advance in the way of hugs, pats on the back, or even humble body language.
A narcissist studies every detail of others in order to bolster the mask of narcissism they wear. They learn vocabulary, facial expressions, body language, tone of voice, everything that can help them take on a role that gets them what they are looking for. So it is not odd that this study and planning of how to behave physically would be stored and later utilized in the supplementary motor area of the brain.
Can a Narcissist Overcome the Lack of Brain Matter and Change for the Better?
There is no known cure for Narcissistic Personality Disorder, especially when it becomes pathological. Narcissists who rank high on the spectrum do not want to change or heal. So, whether the inability to change is from the lack of brain matter or just a refusal to improve doesn’t necessarily matter.
But for those who rank lower on the narcissism spectrum and have less missing brain matter, healing and emotional maturity are possible, at least in a limited amount. Keep in mind, we all do narcissistic things from time to time. We are wired to be selfish for the sake of self preservation. But there is a big difference between narcissistic tendencies and full blown NPD.
Understanding the Mind of a Covert Narcissist Behaviorally
That was a whole lot of technical information, but it is very fascinating that we can actually see they physical result of narcissism in our brains. There are other physical ramifications of narcissism, such as premature aging, injury from poorly made decisions, and others. But for now, let’s focus on the behavioral aspects of understanding the mind of a covert narcissist.
The covert narcissist is deeply insecure. But they don’t want anybody to know that. They need to be seen by everyone as the smartest, best looking, most popular, most everything. So they will behave in whatever way they can convince others of those things.
The mind of a covert narcissist never stops. They have to keep up the act so nobody will discover what is really going on. And for some reason, most narcissists believe they actually can fool others forever. In reality, it rarely works out forever. But a covert narcissist can fool even their closest people for decades. Not because people don’t see what is really going on. But because the narcissist is skilled at blameshifting, denial, lying, gaslighting, and being offended at accusations among other behaviors. The minute someone feels they are doing something wrong, the narcissist shifts them away from the wrongdoing and convinces them that they are fine.
The mind of a covert narcissist ends up being filled with outrageous amounts of acting, lying, and storytelling. Over time, it becomes difficult to keep his story straight. And his energy is depleted from constantly putting out fires. As the narcissist ages, this becomes incredibly difficult. And depression becomes a major issue. Here are some articles I have written about the aging narcissist. Click to read them:
How Understanding the Mind of a Covert Narcissist Can Help You Relate
Once you understand two things about your covert narcissist, it will change the way you think about them forever. First, you won’t be confused anymore. And second, you will better know how to handle your narcissist. The two things you need to understand about the mind of a covert narcissist are:
- They are not what they are showing anybody: they are insecure, fearful, and intimidated. But their behavior, whether in public or behind closed doors, will show anything but that. It will show aggression or extreme kindness and humility. They will never reveal the injured child that lives beneath the act.
- They are in reality not in control of anything, yet always seeking to control to keep things from being revealed. They are exhausted, depressed, and fearful that their jig will be up at any moment. But they can’t let anyone find out. So they push on in their futile attempt to continue to fool the whole world. It’s like fake it ’til you make it. Except that they never make it.
Once you understand these two things, you won’t be constantly trying to make things right anymore. Because no matter how hard you try to make it right, you can’t. And it isn’t up to you. You need to do what is healthy for you, which means no longer getting caught up in the drama and craziness of the covert narcissist.
And once you understand these things, you won’t be blaming yourself for what is wrong anymore. You will know that it wasn’t you all along. And you will begin the process of gaining or regaining your emotional health.
Here are two amazing books that will give you a step-by-step guide to understanding the relationship you are in, whether it is a spouse, family member, co-worker, friend, or literally anyone. They will help you determine if you are in a difficult relationship or marriage or a destructive one. And then, once you have made a decision, Leslie Vernick will then guide you through the process of either learning to act and react in emotionally healthy ways within the relationship, or act and react in emotionally healthy ways after leaving an impossible relationship behind.
Dealing with a narcissist is frustrating, scary, maddening, and so many more emotions. But once you understand the mind of a covert narcissist (or overt for that matter), life can get much easier. All of the narcissist’s same tactics will be there (check my article here for more on that). But now you will know what is really going on behind the scenes. And you will be able to take care of it in much better ways than you could before.
What was it like for you when you first realized you were dealing with a covert narcissist? How did you feel? Defeated? Empowered? Angry? All of the above? Something different? I would love to hear your story and thoughts. And I know that other readers will want to hear as well. Please consider sharing in the comments below. It will help others going through the same struggles. And it will likely bless you when someone else can speak truth to you as well!
Hugs and love,
Schulze, L., Dziobek, I., Vater, A., Heekeren, H. R., Bajbouj, M., Renneberg, B., Heuser, I., & Roepke, S. (2013). Gray matter abnormalities in patients with Narcissistic Personality Disorder. Journal of Psychiatric Research, 47, 1363-1369. (http://www.journalofpsychiatricresearch.com/article/S0022-3956%2813%2900157-X/abstract)
Syras Derksen. (November, 2020). Seeing Narcissism in the Brain. https://drsyrasderksen.com/seeing-narcissism-in-the-brain.html
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