In a recent therapy session, my therapist and I were discussing how narcissism affects relationships, and how to spot a narcissist before growing too close one. Narcissistic Personality Disorder is a real mental disorder, recognized by the DSM-5. We all think we know what narcissism is: self-obsession, extreme egoism, selfishness, entitlement, lack of empathy, cockiness accompanied by low self-worth, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. But narcissists aren’t all bad, all the time; they are often quite charming and lovable. However, most narcissists have a few of the following undesirable traits in common.
1. They Love Being the Center of Attention
“Narcissists dominate conversations,” says psychotherapist Joseph Burgo, PhD, the author of The Narcissist You Know. “They feel compelled to talk about themselves, and they exaggerate their accomplishments.” You probably know someone who always tells grand, semi-fabricated stories in an effort to make themselves look good. The underlying reason narcissists do this is to distract themselves from the fear that they’re not good enough.
2. They *Always* Give Unsolicited Advice
When people give advice that isn’t asked for, all they’re really doing is show boating and trying to assert their perceived superior wisdom or knowledge. Always having an answer bolsters a narcissists sense of self-importance, and they often can’t tell that most people don’t want or need their advice.
3. They Know How to Be VERY Charming
Narcissists make great salespeople; they have a knack for making others feel important and manipulating emotions. Because of this, their romantic relationships often move very quickly. However, if they don’t feel admired by their partner or friend, they quickly move on to someone else.
4. They’re Extremely Competitive
In a narcissist’s worldview, there are winners and losers. and the narcissist needs to win in everything they do in order to feel superior to someone else. Their opponent might be a complete stranger, or someone they care about, it doesn’t really matter. Their insatiable competitiveness makes it difficult for them to celebrate other people’s success, because someone else is the perceived “winner.” For example, if their partner or friend gets a promotion, they will feel slighted or inadequate. They may lash out or talk about their own accomplishments in response, but they cannot feel joy for another person.
5. They Hold Grudges Forever
Other people often perceive narcissist as highly confident, but nothing could be further from the truth. They care deeply about maintaining their image and have trouble taking criticism or tolerating any form of disapproval. If they feel slighted, abandoned, or “wronged” in any way, narcissists have trouble getting over it and usually become angry or seek revenge. They are classic bullies, because making someone else feel bad makes them feel better.
6. They Can’t Admit When They’re Wrong
A narcissist has a very difficult time admitting when they’re wrong and will say things such as, “How you treated me is the reason I did XYZ,” “You drove me to drink,” or “You made me angry, so I did XYZ thing.” They cannot be held accountable for their mistakes and often blame other people or groups of people. For instance, they may blame all police officers, all bosses, or all Democrats, or they may choose one person (their mother, their boss) to blame. Most often, a narcissist chooses to blame the person he or she is closest to, such as a romantic partner, because they are the least likely to leave or reject him or her.
7. They Take Advantage of People
Although this many not be intentional, narcissists view the world in terms of what they have to gain. The reason it’s so easy for narcissists to take advantage of people is because they have no empathy, which is one of the most dangerous and obvious signs of narcissism. They aren’t afraid to manipulate people or bully their way into getting what they want.
When people are high or drunk, they often feel untouchable. That feeling is something narcissists constantly crave, and they can find it in anything: drugs, alcohol, gambling, shopping, et cetera. They turn to the drug to feel invincible, and when the drug wears off, they are filled with shame. When the shame becomes unbearable, they turn to the drug again. If they’re confronted about their addictions, they become angry (see point 6 about taking criticism).
9. They Need Constant Validation
Narcissists need constant attention. They may constantly text you, follow you around the house, or say things to grab your attention. No matter how much you tell narcissists you love or care for them, they will never feel like it’s enough because they don’t believe anyone can ever really care for them. Deep down, narcissists are actually very insecure and fearful of not “measuring up.”
10. They are Perfectionists
Narcissists have an extremely high need for everything to be perfect. They believe they should be perfect, the people around them should be perfect, and all their life events should be perfect. Perfectionism is (obviously) unobtainable, so the need to be perfect leads to constant dissatisfaction. Often, their dissatisfaction with themselves is turned outward, leading to blame (see point 6).
11. They Lack Boundaries
Narcissists can be clingy with romantic partners and friends, and believe that everyone ought to think and feel the same as they do. They are shocked and insulted to be told no, and will use manipulation, cajoling, demanding, or pouting to get their way.
12. They Lack Empathy
See point 7: Narcissists have little to no ability to empathize with others. They tend to be selfish and self-involved and are usually unable to understand what other people are feeling. Narcissists expect others to think and feel the same as they do, are rarely apologetic, and are very sensitive to rejection. They will often interpret a facial expression or phrase as negative even if it was not meant to be negative.
Narcissists may also lack an understanding about the nature of feelings, especially their own. They believe their feelings are caused by someone or something outside of themselves and cannot understand that their feelings are caused by their own biochemistry, thoughts, and interpretations. This lack of empathy makes true relationships and emotional connection with narcissists difficult or impossible because they don’t notice (and can’t care) what anyone else is feeling.
13. They are Fearful
A narcissist’s entire life is motivated and energized by fear, although they will certainly not realize this or admit it. They may be afraid of rejection, being ridiculed, or being wronged even if these fears have no realistic basis. They often have deeply rooted trust issues, and will distrust someone less the closer they become. No amount of reassurance or love makes a difference because narcissists are deeply ashamed of their imperfections. They may not trust the love of others and test people with worse and worse behaviors to push people away. Their fears then become a self-fulfilling prophesy: they believe they’re unlovable or that nobody really cares about them so they push people away to confirm their fears, ultimately winding up alone, which is what they think they deserve.
14. They are Anxious
Anxiety is an ongoing, vague feeling that something bad is happening or about to happen. Some narcissists show their anxiety by talking constantly about the bad thing they think is going to happen, while others hide or repress their anxiety. More commonly, narcissists project their anxiety onto their loved ones, making those around them feel anxious in an attempt to not feel it themselves. Narcissists feel better when those around them feel worse.
15. They are Unable to be Truly Vulnerable
Because of their inability to understand feelings, their lack of empathy, and constant defensiveness, narcissists cannot truly love or connect emotionally with other people. They cannot look at the world from anyone else’s perspective, making them emotionally alone and needy. When one relationship is no longer satisfying, they start a new one almost immediately because they want someone to sympathize with them and feel their pain, even though they can’t feel empathy in return (see point 7).
Many narcissists enjoy spreading and arousing negative emotions to gain attention or feel powerful. They exhibit classic fight or flight tendencies, especially when receiving criticism. One common threat is to leave, instilling fear, insecurity, and confusion in their partners. Despite their inability to receive criticism, narcissists dish it out easily and are quick to judge, ridicule, or blame other people.
P.S. If you’re in a relationship with a narcissist, read about how to handle it HERE. If you’re in an emotionally abusive relationship, call the National Relationship Abuse Hotline Toll-Free at 800–799–7233.