You might remember the Greek myth of Narcissus who was cursed to fall in love with his own reflection in a pool of water, leading him to fall into a deep despair and ultimately die of thirst and starvation. (The ancient Greeks know how to bring the drama, TBH.)
The name Narcissus might also sound familiar for other reasons, and that’s because the term “narcissist,” a person with an excessive need for admiration and a conflated sense of self, stems from this myth. Like Narcissus, “a narcissist is a person who needs a constant reflecting pool,” explains Gina Polesetsky, LMFT, a licensed marriage and family therapist based in California who specializes in narcissistic abuse recovery. “They’re constantly looking to have themselves affirmed and validated.”
Want to learn more? Ahead, experts dive into what a narcissist is, how to tell if someone is a narcissist, and what to do if you’re dating someone with a narcissistic personality disorder or have a narcissistic parent.
Meet the experts:
Gina Polesetsky, LMFT, is a licensed marriage and family therapist based in California who specializes in narcissistic abuse recovery.
Sonia Brill, LCSW, is a trained psychotherapist based in New York City.
What is a narcissist?
From a therapeutic standpoint, a narcissist is someone with a grandiose sense of self-importance and who has a constant need for admiration and attention, explains Sonia Brill, LCSW, a trained psychotherapist based in New York City.
And while narcissists usually present as being very confident, “the root of narcissism is actually a lack of self-esteem,” says Polesetsky. “It’s actually the hollowness this person feels that is causing these big grandiose behaviors.” You might think of it as “fake it until you make it” personified.
There are three main forms of narcissism. There’s the grandiose “overt” narcissist, the vulnerable “covert” narcissist, and the high-functioning “exhibitionist” narcissist.
The overt narcissist is usually who you think of when you picture a narcissist. In other words, they’re fairly self-absorbed and may be more hostile in their attempts to garner attention and get you to meet their every demand.
The covert narcissist, on the other hand, may not appear self-absorbed. They still want to be the center of attention, but they might demand that need very differently, says Brill. If you cross them, for instance, they may give you the silent treatment to get you to comply with their wishes and needs. This type may be especially vulnerable to criticism and highly preoccupied with their own perceived failures, yet have a covert sense of superiority.
Then, there’s the exhibitionist narcissist. This type may appear outwardly confident and successful, but it’s all an act to maintain their ego stability. Let’s say you’re at a fancy restaurant, they might brag about how well they know the wine list and you might find this charming at first, but it’s really an attempt, on their part, to make you feel small, explains Brill.
Whenever you’re interacting with a narcissist, whichever type they may be, you’re often left feeling invisible and rather icky.
How can you tell if someone is a narcissist?
Before you start self-diagnosing yourself or someone else with narcissistic personality disorder (NPD), let’s get one thing straight: There’s a difference between someone with diagnosed NPD and someone with narcissistic traits. For someone to be diagnosed with narcissistic personality disorder, their actions must display an enduring pattern, meaning “this behavior will not change,” says Polesetsky. “It typically begins in their teens or early 20s and persists throughout their lives, despite the fact it may not be getting them the results they want.”
What are some common narcissistic personality traits?
If you're wondering if your S.O. or someone else you know might be a narcissist (or have narcissistic traits), here are some common behaviors to look out for, according to experts:
1. They have a grandiose sense of self-importance.
In other words, they think they’re better than other people and expect to be recognized as superior regardless of any reality checking that states otherwise, says Polesetsky.
2. They’re overly concerned with status.
A narcissist is preoccupied with fame, looks, money, and power. If a narcissist is pursuing something or somebody, they very often are looking to that person to elevate their status, explains Polesetsky.
3. They believe themselves to be “special.”
A narcissist truly believes that they are superior. And as the “special” person they believe themselves to be, only other “special” people understand them, so they want to surround themselves with people they believe are of similarly high status.
4. They require excessive admiration.
Narcissists need your love (like seriously need it). “They need it because that’s the fuel that keeps them going,” says Polesetsky. “When it’s pulled away, that’s when you see a lot of problems in these relationships.” Read: Lashing out, threats, stalking behaviors, petty accusations, and gaslighting.
5. They’re entitled.
Simply put, they believe they deserve the best, whether or not they did anything to achieve such awards and acclaim. This person might arrive at their entry-level job and immediately start informing everyone that the workplace isn’t run correctly and how they think it should be improved.
6. They take advantage of others.
Someone who displays NPD will often take advantage of those around them in order to get what they want with zero regard for the other person(s).
7. They lack empathy.
This trait is typical of all narcissists, regardless of type, says Brill, and may show up as being selfish, demanding, manipulative, and/or dismissive. “They really look at you as a narcissistic supply,” explains Brill. “That means they solely see you as a resource that’s going to help them feel validated, confident, and okay in their own skin.”
8. They are jealous of others.
They might display signs of jealousy because they believe that other people have more than they do or have it better. On the other side of the coin, some narcissists may be convinced that others are jealous of them for some reason.
9. They’re rude to others.
This one’s pretty self-explanatory. They’re often rude to those around them, behave arrogantly, and are stuck up.
What qualities does a narcissist look for in a partner?
It’s no surprise that in romantic relationships, those with narcissistic personality disorder are often manipulative and controlling.
As a result, narcissists will often look for partners who won’t notice they’re a reflecting pool and can’t perceive the hollowness of the relationship. Someone who’s hungry for love and is willing to overlook red flags, for example, is often a target. So when this person says, “I’ve never loved anyone the way I love you,” after going on a few dates, an alarm doesn’t go off in their brain that’s like, “Gosh, that’s kind of weird because I barely even know this person,” explains Polesetsky.
Someone who is empathetic is also a common target for a narcissist as empathetic people are often privy to other people’s needs. And at some level, those who have a history of abuse or trauma are also highly targeted “because when we go through traumatic experiences we become vulnerable to other abusive situations,” says Brill.
How does a narcissist act in a relationship?
At the beginning of a relationship, it’s very common for narcissists to love bomb their partner (a.k.a. show excessive admiration and affection super early into the ‘ship) as a way to reel them in and start the abuse cycle. They might text you every hour of the day and send flowers weekly, making you think you’ve met the most wonderful person in the world. Meanwhile, they’re only mirroring off of your own empathetic persona in order to control you, says Brill.
Another common narcissistic behavior is gaslighting. The reason why narcissists gaslight is because their ego strength is so low that they aren’t able to emotionally recover if they are at fault, so instead they trick people into pushing the blame back onto themselves, explains Polesetsky. A narcissist apologizing? Forget about it. “They do not apologize because that would be to accept that they’re flawed,” adds Polesetsky.
As a result, you might notice that narcissists often have a history of burned relationships because it’s either their way or the highway.
And when a narcissist can no longer trick nor control you, that’s when you might start to notice those stalking behaviors, threats, and other abusive traits, such as controlling the narrative. “They’re going to make sure that every person that knows the two of you believes you’re causing these problems,” says Polesetsky. “They can take revenge in ways that are both petty and really scary because they’re just not capable of accepting no.”
Love bombing? Gaslighting? Get familiar with other dating terms you should know:
What should I do if I’m dating a narcissist?
First and foremost, is it healthy to date a narcissist? While signs point to no, our experts believe that what describes a “healthy” relationship is defined by you. Some people in romantic relationships with narcissists are able to find a way to make it work for them, while others decide to end those relationships because it doesn’t match the idea of the kind of love they want.
The bottom line: If you’re constantly walking on eggshells and never feel that you are “enough” for this person, then it is not healthy. “Constantly vying for someone else’s approval is throwing you off balance, and it’s not going to allow you to reach your full potential,” argues Brill.
If you do decide to end a relationship with a narcissist, there are a few steps you can take to protect yourself:
1. Create a safety plan.
While not all narcissists are violent, if you are in an abusive situation, it’s really important that you’re able to talk to someone you trust and/or get help from a professional to draft a safety plan that will allow you to exit the relationship without it escalating and that ensures the safety of yourself and any children involved, says Brill.
2. Cut off communication.
The only way to properly end a relationship with a narcissist is to cut off all contact with them. “You have to become a blank wall because eventually they will turn their attention elsewhere,” explains Polesetsky.
3. Set firm boundaries.
If you do choose to maintain some sort of relationship with a narcissist (e.g. you have children together), then setting firm boundaries is very important. This might involve moving from co-parenting to parallel parenting (a method where each parent has their own parenting style and they rarely engage with each other), which is less involved.
4. Talk to someone about it.
While counseling isn’t for everyone, it really helps to have someone validate your experience to help you process what you’re going through if you’re open to that resource.
What are some signs of a narcissistic parent?
While narcissistic parents display the same behaviors as others with NPD, there are some traits that are specific to narcissists with children that you should be aware of.
For one, some narcissistic parents view their kids as extensions of themselves. As a result, narcissists and their kids often fall into enmeshed relationships (a relationship where members are expected to think and feel the same things). Over time, this type of relationship really handicaps a child’s ability to develop their own feelings, opinions, and thoughts. This can show up in their relationships when they’re older in that they might not have a strong sense of self and thus can be easily manipulated into the kind of relationship they had with their parents, explains Polesetsky.
Because narcissists see their children as extensions of themselves, they’re also constantly in competition with them at some level and can become very envious of their kids. A child might get a “congratulations” from their parent for getting an award at school, but instead of sensing joy from them, the child might sense a feeling of anger, which can be very confusing, explains Brill.
Another trait of a narcissistic parent is treating their kid as the ultimate accessory. For example, they might enroll their children in certain activities, even if the child protests, and then hold them to inappropriately high standards. “I’ll have adults coming into therapy saying, ‘My mom made me be on the swim team and when I did well, I was rewarded, but when I didn’t win the meet, I was punished,’” says Polesetsky. “Sometimes punishment involves withholding love and attention, so that can leave a child with this lifelong struggle with their self-esteem and a tendency to seek external validation.” The child’s needs are almost never met, and they’re expected to engage in activities to make the parent look good almost always, adds Brill.
If you grew up with a narcissistic parent, there are ways to heal from that experience. Polesetsky shares that reparenting work (a method used to heal your inner child by giving yourself the things you needed in childhood) is just one of many therapeutic methods to process childhood trauma and abuse.
Truth is, it can be difficult to spot a narcissist. They can be manipulative, but also super charming—it’s how they suck people into these relationships. If you’re still unsure, just listen to the most trustworthy sign of all: your gut. If you constantly feel unheard, dismissed, and that you’re expending most of your energy to keep this one person happy with little in return, narcissist or not, they’re not worth it. (Thank u, next.)
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