“Narcissist” has become a buzzword we love to toss around—inspiring a frenzy of articles, blog posts, online quizzes, and memes. Also a swarm of accusations. Nearly everybody thinks they know one. There is the image-obsessed friend who is in love with their own reflection, the arrogant boss who gloats over their own ideas, and the two-timing ex. But, do you really know a narcissist or have you been using it as a catchall phrase for someone has a moderate dose of these tendencies.
A personality disorder that exists on a spectrum, extreme narcissism hosts a maze of trickery that transcends your run-of-the-mill self-absorption. If you lean in too closely, a narcissist becomes an energy vampire, making a circus of your life—the kind that causes you to perform acrobatics in order to please them.
The most common traits that narcissists possess are dismissiveness, entitlement, and grandiosity—including blatant defiance of your boundaries, jealousy and resentment when someone else captures the spotlight, and outrageous expectations for how their needs should be met—while grasping for anyone to cloak them in validation, of course.
So, if you suspect you have a narcissist in your circle, or might be in a one-sided relationship with one—whether or not the dynamic feels toxic—read on. We talked to the experts to unbox what narcissism really is—the charm, the gaslighting, the seduction, the injury, and the twisted truth, as well as how to deal with a narcissistic person.
So, common misconceptions aside, what is a narcissist really?
Defined by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders as “a pervasive pattern of grandiosity, need for admiration and lack of empathy,” a hallmark of narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) is an extreme religiosity to an individual’s sense of entitlement, self-importance and uniqueness.
It’s their needs that matter. They take self-absorption to a high altitude, convinced that they are so rare that few are capable of understanding them. In other words, their feet are seldom on the ground. The disorder can manifest in the form of wild ambition, coupled with success, or swing the other direction, in which they may become melodramatic or believe they're always the victim.
“When you’re talking about a true narcissist, this is someone who exaggerates their self-perception and deems themselves as being superior in some way. And while it can appear quite alluring at first, you won’t find the kind of consideration and regard for other people that you might expect from the average individual. They may come across as charming, kind and extremely likable initially, but behind it is someone who is seeking to get their needs met,” says Dr. Judy Ho, PhD, clinical and forensic neuropsychologist, and author of Stop Self Sabotage. “And you will see that darker part of them the minute you are unwilling to meet their needs.”
Narcissism is shaped by a lack of empathy and desire to truly understand the needs of others.
Dr. Lena Derhally, licensed psychotherapist and author of My Daddy is a Hero: How Chris Watts Went from Family Man to Family Killer says that the key to understanding narcissism is quite simple. “Extreme narcissism is not being cranky with your spouse and having low empathy for them one day, or even every now and then, because you’re stressed. Everybody does that. It’s more so this behavior that touches all areas of a person’s life, shaped by a lack of empathy and desire to truly understand the needs of others.”
With narcissism, there is a spectrum, and everyone falls somewhere.
One of the most common misconceptions about narcissism, aside from the assumption that it’s primarily identifiable by instances of extreme self-absorption, is that a person either is or isn’t. Psychologically speaking, narcissism is a personality trait that every human being occupies to some extent. Everyone you know lands somewhere along the narcissism spectrum, and interestingly, research shows that a moderate amount of self-centeredness and confidence is healthy—lending an engine of ambition and resilience to one’s functionality and goals.
Confidence, and a moderate amount of centeredness can be healthy.
But nearly any personality trait, when driven to the extreme, can become pathological and sick. This is when the behavior is so egregious that it becomes diagnosable as NPD, which only makes up about 1 percent of the population. This deeply ingrained, inescapable pattern pervades extreme delusions of grandeur, jealousy, and power struggle, particularly in the realm of relationships. Incidents of cruelty and violence are often involved.
So let’s say you have a character in your life who breezes (or torpedoes) through their days—both good and bad—with a haughty air about them, and a chronic dismissal of your feelings. You could be fraternizing with a person who has NPD, but it is much more likely that the accused is someone who is simply positioned on the higher end on the narcissism spectrum. This is typically referred to by mental health professionals as a person with “strong narcissistic traits,” and though it isn’t necessarily someone whose personality is entirely void of empathy, their persistent narcissistic habits and patterns can still wreak havoc on their life—and yours.
Let’s zoom in on the personality traits of someone with high narcissism.
A narcissist charges through life as though everything they embody—from their ideas to their problems—is a higher priority than yours. Your life just isn’t as relevant or interesting to them, and you’ll know this by how they constantly steer the conversation right back to their own narratives.
They love bathing in themselves—their accolades, dramas, ideas, and even victimhood. In fact, you may know every detail of their life—from the glory to the gore, but they may barely know your highlights. “You might hear the language of, ‘Nobody does it like I can…’ or, in cases where the narcissist is wallowing in their troubles, it could be, ‘Nobody understands what I’m dealing with…’ or they may remind you over and over of how strong they are,” says Dr. Ho.
They don't believe in boundaries.
Boundaries? You won’t be needing those. “Narcissists see other people as pawns to get to where they want to go. They may never admit it, but they are the most important person in the room and everyone else is just an object to manipulate or a place to dump their problems. So your boundaries mean nothing to them,” says Dr. Ho.
When they want something, they expect automatic concession—whatever the day, the hour, or the circumstances. And if you deny them what they want? That’s like stomping on an ant pile—because another person’s connections, empathy, resources and time are their right to dominate.
If you assert yourself, prepare to encounter their wrath. In fact, it may blow up in a puff of smoke, leaving you confused as to how you suddenly became the bad guy. “When you give a narcissist any kind of critical feedback whatsoever, even in the gentlest way, they bite back extremely hard, acting as though you attacked them or wronged them,” says Dr. Ho.
The type to launch smear campaigns or call upon humiliation tactics, Dr. Ho says narcissists who are the highest on the spectrum can be downright cruel when challenged—growing violently insulted and offended, easily and often. “A narcissist will often imagine that other people are belittling them or trying to harm them, even if the person is simply trying to set a small boundary or give constructive criticism during a business meeting. They often react with rage or a defiant counterattack. And it can get ugly,” she says.
Admiration, praise and validation—that's a narcissist's lifeblood.
Dr. Derhally adds that ‘perceived’ is the key word within this dynamic. “Oftentimes what they think is an attack isn’t even an insult whatsoever, but an accidental challenge to their ego. This extremely angry overreaction is called narcissistic rage.”
Admiration, praise and validation—those make up a concoction that is their literal lifeblood. “The minute you compliment them, it intoxicates them so much that they will almost pry for more validation," says Dr. Ho. “So if you say to them, ‘Oh, you’re so funny!’ they will keep working on that, wanting more and more of the praise. But the same sort of applies to when they get comfortable with you and bring all of their negativity to you. They love for you to validate or enable whatever brings them attention and confirms their uniqueness, even if negative.”
Another trait is that a narcissist has a hard time letting others shine.
Another hallmark of a narcissist is that, though they reek of bravado, they can’t let anyone else be awesome. For example, let’s say one of their acquaintances from high school is recognized for building a successful start-up. The narcissist will ruminate on why that person deserves the notoriety, and will be sure to tell observers of all of the skeletons that person has stowed away in their closet. “Extreme narcissists live in a pattern of jealousy and the refusal to just accept that another person is thriving. There is this constant irritation when it comes to sharing the limelight, and a need to take this person or that person down a peg,” says Dr. Ho.
The signs will take different shapes depending upon the circumstances, but the common thread is entitlement, a sense of self-importance and a blatant disregard for the boundaries, feelings, needs, priorities and schedules of others.
One sign your friend might be a narcissist is that they never seem happy for you.
Narcissists may bombard you with calls and texts to unload all of their dramatic tales—even during your most inconvenient hours—because it’s always their hour. You may respectfully ask that they pause the communication, because you need to rest up for an important meeting the following day, but that's seldom recieved well. “Some kinds of narcissists will come across as extremely needy. If there is always a huge problem or drama, everyone has to focus on them—pitying them, running to their rescue, and helping them clean up their messes,” says Dr. Ho.
“A narcissist’s sense of entitlement is extreme, with unreasonable expectations of favorable treatment. They will always find a way to be the center of everyone’s universe—good or bad,” says Dr. Ho.
If you're in a narcissistic relationship, their patterns are predictable...
There are three phases within the narcissist’s relational maze: love bombing, devaluation, and discard.
The cycle typically starts out with vivid, fragrant bouquets of flattery and praise. How appreciated, brilliant, incredible, and gorgeous you are, and how much your presence in their life means to them. This is called love bombing, and it can be intoxicating to a victim of narcissistic abuse. It may feel euphoric, but it lands with a dark intention. Because, if you stay close to a narcissistic, it tends to lead to whiplash-inducing moments where the charming, gracious, romantic person who sees so much beauty in you suddenly has another face—an enraged, entitled, accusatory one. And you meet it the minute they don’t get their way in the slightest. This is the devaluation phase.
The love bombing and devaluation phases may loop and repeat for the duration of the relationship.
“The love bombing act is how they keep people around. It’s a rather abusive dynamic. The more you get involved with them, the more the dark side manifests in situations, so you’ll start to get more of the devaluation. But if they lose you and it scares them, you’ll get the love bombing all over again,” says Dr. Derhally. She adds. “It’s confusing because you think, ‘Oh, there is this truly nice, loving person in there who cares about me so much.’ But you’re always walking on eggshells and feeling extremely anxious because you never know if you’re going to get Jekyll or Hyde.”
Finally, there is the discard phase, which is not something everyone who is in a relationship with a narcissist will experience. “You don’t always get to the discard phase because some narcissists might remain in a relationship with someone for a lifetime, going back and forth between the cycle of love bombing and devaluation. It’s when they have no use for you anymore that you see it."
If you're "discarded," it's likely because they've invited someone else into their parade of self-importance—someone who has a brand new way of making them feel like a ringleader. "It can be very shocking for some people because they may have gone around and around with a narcissist for years, trying to make it work,” says Dr. Derhally.
Behind a narcissist’s grandiose sense of confidence is insecurity.
There is a desperate, grasping energy among narcissists, and it most often derives from pain and instability. Think of a narcissist like a house of cards—one small nudge to their self-esteem and the whole structure falls apart into a messy pile, leaving you wondering, “What in the world just happened? Why did that one comment upset them so much?”
Believe it or not, narcissists do not love themselves the way they want you to believe they do. They aren’t really that fearless person you see. Sure, they love bathing in all forms of self-adoration, but it’s only because they are starving for it—specifically because it’s the opposite of how they genuinely feel inside. “The overconfidence and charm is likely all an act. They are probably deeply suffering from low self-esteem, which is why they have to work so hard to overcompensate,” says Dr. Ho.
So, what causes a high spectrum of narcissism?
Dr. Ramani Durvasula, licensed clinical psychologist and author Should I Stay or Should I Go: Surviving a Narcissistic Relationship, says the disorder is multi-determined, and while family and relational factors “ultimately explain the lion's share of narcissistic patterns,” including overindulging, undernourishing and super authoritarian parenting styles, there is also the possibility of biological predisposition, as well as the narcissistic individual having been jolted by a deeply negative experience. “A history of trauma can be a contributor in some situations, as that can impact development of empathy and regulation. Society also doesn't help with its focus on materialism, consumerism, competition and validation seeking.”
She adds, “At its core, narcissism is simply pathological insecurity that manifests as validation seeking and antagonism, so any early environmental conditions—such as neglect from parents—that foster pathological insecurity place a person at risk for later narcissism."
The ultimate curveball? They often don’t know they are narcissists—because they think everyone else is.
The resounding theme is: “This is not about me; it’s about you.” Your fault, your problem to fix, your lack of attention to something. A lot of times, a narcissist will glance around them and accuse numerous people within their social circle or family as being narcissists. They are masters of projection, often oblivious to the ways they abuse, entangle, manipulate, and poison others.
“Because of the way narcissistic people operate and think, they have a tough time connecting with people in a deeper way—without inviting chaos and conflict in at some point. Because of this, it’s hard for them to sustain relationships over time. They may be the person who wants lasting romantic love so badly, but they don’t realize that what they are seeking is someone to worship them in an unreasonable way,” says Dr. Ho.
She adds, “You basically have to worship the ground they walk on, validate them, and coddle them. And if you are way too successful, they are always going to have issues with you. They may even act like they are supportive of you if they know doing so will make them look good or help them with a connection. But, secretly, another person’s greatness infuriates them.”
And, how do you deal with a narcissist?
For one, be gentle with yourself. Narcissistic abuse often causes a person to feel like they are going crazy—because narcissists have a knack for making everyone in their self-created circus swallow the blame. But, once you know, the less likely you are to be gaslighted.
Second, vow to stop getting sucked back into their charm—because remember that, on the other side of it, their toxicity holds strong. “Narcissists know how to put on a show—whether it’s a fun-loving one or one that will provoke you to feel sorry for them. They are often wonderful to be around initially, but when you truly get to know them, they are the opposite of charming,” says Dr. Ho.
Never underestimate a narcissist’s ability and willingness to keep sliding that facade back in place each time they have upset you or lashed out at you cruelly—especially if it means they can still use you in some way.
Finally, memorize the patterns of their vicious cycles and fold it into all of your interactions with them. “Oftentimes, the way you learn to manage them is to tell them how amazing they are—that they were right and you were, again, wrong. This may allow them to sort of reset and shower you with love all over again—but the dangerous truth still remains underneath it, and you will have then reinforced your willingness to forgive their self-absorption. They will be that charming person again, but only until the next conflict,” says Dr. Ho.
Is it wise to confront their behavior?
Confronting a narcissist will almost certainly result in a battle–at least initially. So the decision depends upon the severity of their narcissism, and if they currently exhibit any desire to self-reflect. But if you do opt to call them out, Dr. Ho suggests using the sandwich approach—which begins with affirming them. “If you’ve got someone who seems like they want to move the needle, have the conversation, but start it with something really complimentary. You could say something like, ‘I really love this about you, but you know what would make our relationship even more amazing?’ or ‘You mean so much to me and I appreciate you, and I know you may not realize how this comes across, but when you say this, I feel…’” she says.
Because a narcissist is only receptive to small amounts of negative feedback when they have been brushed with a fresh coat of flattery, ease into building your case against their harmful patterns. “Never go right into the conversation with criticism,” adds Dr. Ho.
Is a narcissist capable of falling in love?
They’re certainly capable of forming superficial relationships. In fact, they are masterful at superficial friendships and often have a broad collection of them. “Narcissists almost always keep lots of people around them, but it will be people who can benefit them in some way. Essentially, they’re users,” says Dr. Derhally.
Dr. Ho says it’s common for people with low self-esteem or poor identity to hang around the narcissists the longest—because they are the easiest, most impressionable prey. They can be trained to serve the narcissist’s glorification of themselves.
As for romance, Dr. Derhally says a narcissist is always the most charming person you’ve ever dated—well, initially. “It’s very romantic and wildly intoxicating. You’re so flattered at the lengths they’ll go to be with you. The narcissist romantic partner gets off on that—the pursuit and the chase, as well as convincing you to adore them. But once they become comfortable, bored or have won you over, the dynamic shifts dramatically to the devaluation phase, and perhaps the discard phase,” she says. “And it can be unbelievably shocking to their victims.”
What about narcissistic parents?
Lastly, narcissism in a familial dynamic is the most complex—and delicate. Dr. Derhally says that, when looking at narcissism in parents, one of two things generally happens: the parent will overindulge the child, or they will constantly force them into situations that the child badly does not want to be in. For example, the little girl who is forced into ballet or piano lessons for years, even though she sobs before every rehearsal. “The narcissistic parent generally sees the child as an extension of themselves. They don’t really care about the child’s needs, but that the child is meeting their needs. Sometimes this can even result in a dynamic where the parent goes through periods of ignoring the child and withdrawing love in order to punish them,” she says.
So is there any hope of a narcissist sustaining loving relationships? Of them being healthy partners, friends, sisters, or parents? “Possibly, if they are willing to self-reflect and honestly work through the damage they cause others. But, sadly, one of the traits of being a narcissist usually precludes that,” says Dr. Ho.
Still, while hope isn’t necessarily probable, it is possible, “If you have a person in your life with strong narcissistic traits and you truly love them, you shouldn’t necessarily give up. As they let their guard down more and more, and as you continue to affirm them through it, and as they are more receptive to owning their role in any conflict or chaos, you may begin to gradually make progress,” says Dr. Ho.
Okay, so it’s potentially treatable… at least somewhat?
Manageable is the more appropriate word, though not in the majority of cases. Dr. Ho stresses that narcissism is a personality disorder, as opposed to an actual illness. So it’s not treatable necessary. “If an individual genuinely seeks help for it, it’s not that it will ever go away, but the narcissist can become more cognizant. So, if you back that with a true desire to have better relationships, they can begin to catch themselves being entitled and self-absorbed,” she says.
With a narcissist, it is seldom ever a gentle, gradual awakening of self, but a life-altering impact that shoves them into a hallway of despair—and, hopefully, change. They usually have to hit rock bottom and suffer as a result of their entitlement and self-absorption—such as an extreme loss of assets or prestige, or being abandoned by someone who tired of their unrelenting abuse. “It’s usually a huge business failure or a relationship that goes awry. They may realize that they, in fact, did love that person, but pushed them away with their selfish, toxic behaviors. It takes something deeply traumatic to jolt a narcissist and cause them to realize that they need to heal and work on themselves,” says Dr. Ho. “It’s rare, but it can be done.”
Accept that fixing them is not your responsibility, but maintaining your sanity is your own.
If you’re going around in circles with someone who is especially high on the narcissistic spectrum, know that getting through to them is not going to be an easy, straightforward task. But what you can begin to do? Withdraw your energy and power from their boundary violations, demands, jealousies, and tantrums. “You have to remember that you are in control of your life, no matter how they may treat you or react to you. You have to start dictating what they can and cannot get away with, and own how you will respond to them,” says Dr. Derhally.
Dr. Ramani adds that, if you can find a way to avoid being a narcissist’s emotional punching bag, you may be able to channel some compassion for them—but never at risk of your own peace of mind. “It's really difficult to live life angry, contemptuous, victimized, disappointed, and forever needing validation, so compassion is the best path. However, that does not mean trying to rescue them, or remaining in a toxic relationship,” she says.
Sure, it's easier said than done, but try to remember, in most cases, it's not your responsibility to drive away their personal demons, or satisfy their cravings for admiration and praise. Stressing the importance of remembering that you are not the narcissist’s therapist, Dr. Ramani emphasizes that, when you rush to their rescue, in order to avoid their wrath, you risk chipping away at your own mental well-being. So, considering this, it may be wise to stop juggling their problems. Because, while you cannot change them, you can absolutely change how you respond to them. And, though you might benefit from professional help to guide you through the healing process, remember that your life is your own show to run—no one else’s. Because, narcissist or not, people only have as much power over you as you are willing to give them.
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