I am a specialist in Cluster B personality disorders who has worked with people with disabilities and mental illnesses for over 10 years.
Like other people, narcissistic people usually have a mixture of different qualities, with different ones coming out in different situations or at different times. And also like most other people, they are usually more one or the other.
For those that don't know, overt narcissists are the people who come across like the stereotypical or common idea of narcissists: they are brash, they are arrogant and superficially egotistical, they are demanding, they are often bullies. Covert narcissists are sometimes called "vulnerable" or "weak" narcissists. They are perpetual victims. They come across very helpless or wounded. They seem fragile and needy. However, despite only one type really being recognized by most people, both of these types of people are narcissists. There is no difference in their focus or their goals, just in the way they are trying to achieve them. If the situation calls for it, either one can and will play whatever role they need to, including engaging in behaviors that seem contrary to how they usually behave. This may seem like the narcissist is adaptable, but it's only a surface adaptation, a behavioral one. The goal is still the same. There is no moral or measurable difference between someone who uses a weapon to rob someone and someone who uses seduction. Both are still thieves. It's only the method that is different.
For example, a person who is mostly overtly narcissistic can and often will engage in covertly narcissistic behaviors in certain situations, such as when overtly narcissistic behaviors would not be tolerated. A mostly-overt narcissist who is overtly aggressive at home may be passively aggressive at work because more blatant and overt types of aggression are not tolerated there. You can't scream at a co-worker or throw things at them to display your aggression. You cannot smash things in your office when you don't get your way. You can however socially slight your co-worker, sabotage them, gaslight them and run smear campaigns against them. In the same way, a narcissist who is mostly covertly aggressive and manipulative may become overt in a situation where they feel empowered or when they are very angry. If the covert narcissist's cries of helplessness or insecurity don't work to keep their partner where they want them, the covert may become threatening or violent to get what they want.
Just like other people, narcissists are individuals. They are not all the same, they have individual quirks and different things like that. They may be more covert, more overt or a mix. Most are usually one or the other though. It's not unlike how some people are extroverts and some people are introverts. Extroverts still have some introverted qualities and vice versa. Narcissists are the same way, and like intro- and extroverts, it's really down to the narcissist's individual personality which one they will be. It often comes as a surprise to people, but narcissists are just like everybody else in a lot of ways. Their views are just so distorted, their focus so selfish and their emotions so immature that their relatable humanity gets twisted badly out of shape, to the point sometimes that it is impossible for non-narcissistic people to understand the way they think and the things they do.
Sometimes the issue can get more convoluted than it needs to. Just because something is different doesn't mean it's complicated. The truth is that narcissists are no mystery. Their mode of operation seems complex, but only because it is so simple that as adult persons, we can't understand it. It has to be explained in a way that people can understand because it's so outside of the way most people operate. If we just told ourselves, "I am dealing with a two-year-old in an adult body," we would probably find it a lot easier to understand and to deal with. And that analogy is not as far away from the truth as some might think. In fact, in many situations, it's right on the money.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.