- Narcissistic Personality Disorder
- Know someone who expects constant admiration, who thinks they’re better than everyone else, but flies off the handle at the slightest criticism? These tips can help you recognize and cope with a narcissist.
- Signs and symptoms of narcissistic personality disorder
- Don’t fall for the fantasy
- Set healthy boundaries
- Don’t take things personally
- Look for support and purpose elsewhere
- How to leave a narcissist
- If you need help for narcissistic personality disorder
- Symptoms of Narcissistic Personality Disorder
- How is Narcissistic Personality Disorder Diagnosed?
- Causes of Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD)
- Treatment of Narcissistic Personality Disorder
- 6 Signs of Narcissism You May Not Know About
- 17 Signs You’re Probably a Narcissist, According to Experts
- 1 You’re charismatic.
- 2 You thrive on being the center of attention.
- 3 You don’t recognize boundaries.
- 4 You don’t listen.
- 5 You feel the need to shame others.
- 6 And blame them for your failures.
- 7 You hold grudges.
- 8 You have frequent fantasies of grand success and perfection.
- 9 You don’t have friends that challenge you.
- 10 You are entitled.
- 11 You feel superior to others.
- 12 You lack empathy.
- 13 You’re overly competitive.
- 14 And overly defensive.
- 15 You’re prone to fits of rage.
- 16 You struggle with severe insecurities.
- 17 You don’t work well with others.
- What is a narcissist?
- How to deal with a narcissist
- Signs someone’s a narcissist
- Narcissistic Personality Disorder Relationships
- Can a Narcissist Love?
- 15 Signs You Are In a Relationship With a Narcissist (And What to Do)
- Signs of a Narcissistic Partner
- 1. Everything Is about Them
- 2. They Are so Charming… At First
- 3. Split Personalities
- 4. Lack of Boundaries
- 5. You Are Isolated
- 6. Disregard for Your Feelings
- 7. Delusions of Grandeur
- 8. They Are Short-fused
- 9. Inability to Let You In
- 10. They Avoid Total Responsibility
- 11. The Green Eyed Monster
- 12. They Are Manipulation Experts
- 13. Crazy-making
- 14. No Grey Area
- 15. Pull And Push
- What Should You Do If Your Partner Is a Narcissist?
- Final Thoughts
- More Resources about Relationships
Narcissistic Personality Disorder
Know someone who expects constant admiration, who thinks they’re better than everyone else, but flies off the handle at the slightest criticism? These tips can help you recognize and cope with a narcissist.
The word narcissism gets tossed around a lot in our selfie-obsessed, celebrity-driven culture, often to describe someone who seems excessively vain or full of themselves. But in psychological terms, narcissism doesn’t mean self-love—at least not of a genuine sort. It’s more accurate to say that people with narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) are in love with an idealized, grandiose image of themselves. And they’re in love with this inflated self-image precisely because it allows them to avoid deep feelings of insecurity. But propping up their delusions of grandeur takes a lot of work—and that’s where the dysfunctional attitudes and behaviors come in.
Narcissistic personality disorder involves a pattern of self-centered, arrogant thinking and behavior, a lack of empathy and consideration for other people, and an excessive need for admiration. Others often describe people with NPD as cocky, manipulative, selfish, patronizing, and demanding. This way of thinking and behaving surfaces in every area of the narcissist’s life: from work and friendships to family and love relationships.
People with narcissistic personality disorder are extremely resistant to changing their behavior, even when it’s causing them problems. Their tendency is to turn the blame on to others. What’s more, they are extremely sensitive and react badly to even the slightest criticisms, disagreements, or perceived slights, which they view as personal attacks. For the people in the narcissist’s life, it’s often easier just to go along with their demands to avoid the coldness and rages. However, by understanding more about narcissistic personality disorder, you can spot the narcissists in your life, protect yourself from their power plays, and establish healthier boundaries.
Signs and symptoms of narcissistic personality disorder
Grandiose sense of self-importance
Grandiosity is the defining characteristic of narcissism. More than just arrogance or vanity, grandiosity is an unrealistic sense of superiority. Narcissists believe they are unique or “special” and can only be understood by other special people. What’s more, they are too good for anything average or ordinary. They only want to associate and be associated with other high-status people, places, and things.
Narcissists also believe that they’re better than everyone else and expect recognition as such—even when they’ve done nothing to earn it. They will often exaggerate or outright lie about their achievements and talents. And when they talk about work or relationships, all you’ll hear is how much they contribute, how great they are, and how lucky the people in their lives are to have them. They are the undisputed star and everyone else is at best a bit player.
Lives in a fantasy world that supports their delusions of grandeur
Since reality doesn’t support their grandiose view of themselves, narcissists live in a fantasy world propped up by distortion, self-deception, and magical thinking. They spin self-glorifying fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, attractiveness, and ideal love that make them feel special and in control. These fantasies protect them from feelings of inner emptiness and shame, so facts and opinions that contradict them are ignored or rationalized away. Anything that threatens to burst the fantasy bubble is met with extreme defensiveness and even rage, so those around the narcissist learn to tread carefully around their denial of reality.
Needs constant praise and admiration
A narcissist’s sense of superiority is like a balloon that gradually loses air without a steady stream of applause and recognition to keep it inflated. The occasional compliment is not enough. Narcissists need constant food for their ego, so they surround themselves with people who are willing to cater to their obsessive craving for affirmation. These relationships are very one-sided. It’s all about what the admirer can do for the narcissist, never the other way around. And if there is ever an interruption or diminishment in the admirer’s attention and praise, the narcissist treats it as a betrayal.
Sense of entitlement
Because they consider themselves special, narcissists expect favorable treatment as their due. They truly believe that whatever they want, they should get. They also expect the people around them to automatically comply with their every wish and whim. That is their only value. If you don’t anticipate and meet their every need, then you’re useless. And if you have the nerve to defy their will or “selfishly” ask for something in return, prepare yourself for aggression, outrage, or the cold shoulder.
Exploits others without guilt or shame
Narcissists never develop the ability to identify with the feelings of others—to put themselves in other people’s shoes. In other words, they lack empathy. In many ways, they view the people in their lives as objects—there to serve their needs. As a consequence, they don’t think twice about taking advantage of others to achieve their own ends. Sometimes this interpersonal exploitation is malicious, but often it is simply oblivious. Narcissists simply don’t think about how their behavior affects others. And if you point it out, they still won’t truly get it. The only thing they understand is their own needs.
Frequently demeans, intimidates, bullies, or belittles others
Narcissists feel threatened whenever they encounter someone who appears to have something they lack—especially those who are confident and popular. They’re also threatened by people who don’t kowtow to them or who challenge them in any way. Their defense mechanism is contempt. The only way to neutralize the threat and prop up their own sagging ego is to put those people down. They may do it in a patronizing or dismissive way as if to demonstrate how little the other person means to them. Or they may go on the attack with insults, name-calling, bullying, and threats to force the other person back into line.
Don’t fall for the fantasy
Narcissists can be very magnetic and charming. They are very good at creating a fantastical, flattering self-image that draw us in. We’re attracted to their apparent confidence and lofty dreams—and the shakier our own self-esteem, the more seductive the allure. It’s easy to get caught up in their web, thinking that they will fulfill our longing to feel more important, more alive. But it’s just a fantasy, and a costly one at that.
Your needs won’t be fulfilled (or even recognized). It’s important to remember that narcissists aren’t looking for partners; they’re looking for obedient admirers. Your sole value to the narcissist is as someone who can tell them how great they are to prop up their insatiable ego. Your desires and feelings don’t count.
Look at the way the narcissist treats others. If the narcissist lies, manipulates, hurts, and disrespects others, he or she will eventually treat you the same way. Don’t fall for the fantasy that you’re different and will be spared.
Take off the rose-colored glasses. It’s important to see the narcissist in your life for who they really are, not who you want them to be. Stop making excuses for bad behavior or minimizing the hurt it’s causing you. Denial will not make it go away. The reality is that narcissists are very resistant to change, so the true question you must ask yourself is whether you can live like this indefinitely.
Focus on your own dreams. Instead of losing yourself in the narcissist’s delusions, focus on the things you want for yourself. What do you want to change in your life? What gifts would you like to develop? What fantasies do you need to give up in order to create a more fulfilling reality?
Set healthy boundaries
Healthy relationships are based on mutual respect and caring. But narcissists aren’t capable of true reciprocity in their relationships. It isn’t just that they’re not willing; they truly aren’t able. They don’t see you. They don’t hear you. They don’t recognize you as someone who exists outside of their own needs. Because of this, narcissists regularly violate the boundaries of others. What’s more, they do so with an absolute sense of entitlement.
Narcissists think nothing of going through or borrowing your possessions without asking, snooping through your mail and personal correspondence, eavesdropping on conversations, barging in without an invitation, stealing your ideas, and giving you unwanted opinions and advice. They may even tell you what to think and feel. It’s important to recognize these violations for what they are, so you can begin to create healthier boundaries where your needs are respected.
Make a plan. If you have a long-standing pattern of letting others violate your boundaries, it’s not easy to take back control. Set yourself up for success by carefully considering your goals and the potential obstacles. What are the most important changes you hope to achieve? Is there anything you’ve tried in the past with the narcissist that worked? Anything that hasn’t? What is the balance of power between you and how will that impact your plan? How will you enforce your new boundaries? Answering these questions will help you evaluate your options and develop a realistic plan.
Consider a gentle approach. If preserving your relationship with the narcissist is important to you, you will have to tread softly. By pointing out their hurtful or dysfunctional behavior, you are damaging their self-image of perfection. Try to deliver your message calmly, respectfully, and as gently as possible. Focus on how their behavior makes you feel, rather than on their motivations and intentions. If they respond with anger and defensiveness, try to remain calm. Walk away if need be and revisit the conversation later.
Don’t set a boundary unless you’re willing to keep it. You can count on the narcissist to rebel against new boundaries and test your limits, so be prepared. Follow up with any consequences specified. If you back down, you’re sending the message that you don’t need to be taken seriously.
Be prepared for other changes in the relationship. The narcissist will feel threatened and upset by your attempts to take control of your life. They are used to calling the shots. To compensate, they may step up their demands in other aspects of the relationship, distance themselves to punish you, or attempt to manipulate or charm you into giving up the new boundaries. It’s up to you to stand firm.
Don’t take things personally
To protect themselves from feelings of inferiority and shame, narcissists must always deny their shortcomings, cruelties, and mistakes. Often, they will do so by projecting their own faults on to others. It’s very upsetting to get blamed for something that’s not your fault or be characterized with negative traits you don’t possess. But as difficult as it may be, try not to take it personally. It really isn’t about you.
Don’t buy into the narcissist’s version of who you are. Narcissists don’t live in reality, and that includes their views of other people. Don’t let their shame and blame game undermine your self-esteem. Refuse to accept undeserved responsibility, blame, or criticism. That negativity is the narcissist’s to keep.
Don’t argue with a narcissist. When attacked, the natural instinct is to defend yourself and prove the narcissist wrong. But no matter how rational you are or how sound your argument, they are unlikely to hear you. And arguing the point may escalate the situation in a very unpleasant way. Don’t waste your breath. Simply tell the narcissist you disagree with their assessment, then move on.
Know yourself. The best defense against the insults and projections of the narcissist is a strong sense of self. When you know your own strengths and weaknesses, it’s easier to reject any unfair criticisms leveled against you.
Let go of the need for approval. It’s important to detach from the narcissist’s opinion and any desire to please or appease them at the expense of yourself. You need to be okay with knowing the truth about yourself, even if the narcissist sees the situation differently.
Look for support and purpose elsewhere
If you’re going to stay in a relationship with a narcissist, be honest with yourself about what you can—and can’t—expect. A narcissist isn’t going to change into someone who truly values you, so you’ll need to look elsewhere for emotional support and personal fulfillment.
Learn what healthy relationships look and feel like. If you come from a narcissistic family, you may not have a very good sense of what a healthy give-and-take relationship is. The narcissistic pattern of dysfunction may feel comfortable to you. Just remind yourself that as familiar as it feels, it also makes you feel bad. In a reciprocal relationship, you will feel respected, listened to, and free to be yourself.
Spend time with people who give you an honest reflection of who you are. In order to maintain perspective and avoid buying into the narcissist’s distortions, it’s important to spend time with people who know you as you really are and validate your thoughts and feelings.
Make new friendships, if necessary, outside the narcissist’s orbit. Some narcissists isolate the people in their lives in order to better control them. If this is your situation, you’ll need to invest time into rebuilding lapsed friendships or cultivating new relationships.
Look for meaning and purpose in work, volunteering, and hobbies. Instead of looking to the narcissist to make you feel good about yourself, pursue meaningful activities that make use of your talents and allow you to contribute.
How to leave a narcissist
Ending an abusive relationship is never easy. Ending one with a narcissist can be especially difficult as they can be so charming and charismatic—at least at the start of the relationship or if you threaten to leave. It’s easy to become disoriented by the narcissist’s manipulative behavior, caught up in the need to seek their approval, or even to feel “gaslighted” and doubt your own judgement. If you’re codependent, your desire to be loyal may trump even your need to preserve your safety and sense of self. But it’s important to remember that no one deserves to be bullied, threatened, or verbally and emotionally abused in a relationship. There are ways to escape the narcissist—and the guilt and self-blame—and begin the process of healing.
Educate yourself about narcissistic personality disorder. The more you understand, the better you’ll be able to recognize the techniques a narcissist may use to keep you in the relationship. When you threaten to leave, a narcissist will often resurrect the flattery and adoration (“love bombing”) that caused you to be interested in them in the first place. Or they’ll make grand promises about changing their behavior that they have no intention of keeping.
Write down the reasons why you’re leaving. Being clear on why you need to end the relationship can help prevent you from being sucked back in. Keep your list somewhere handy, such as on your phone, and refer to it when you’re starting to have self-doubts or the narcissist is laying on the charm or making outlandish promises.
Seek support. During your time together, the narcissist may have damaged your relationships with friends and family or limited your social life. But whatever your circumstances, you’re not alone. Even if you can’t reach out to old friends, you can find help from support groups or domestic violence helplines and shelters.
Don’t make empty threats. It’s a better tactic to accept that the narcissist won’t change and when you’re ready, simply leave. Making threats or pronouncements will only forewarn the narcissist and enable them to make it more difficult for you to get away.
Seek immediate help if you’re physically threatened or abused. Call 911 in the U.S. or your country’s local emergency service.
For more tips on leaving, read How to Get Out of an Abusive Relationship.
After you’ve left
Leaving a narcissist can be a huge blow to their sense of entitlement and self-importance. Their huge ego still needs to be fed, so they’ll often continue trying to exert control over you. If charm and “love bombing” doesn’t work, they may resort to threats, denigrating you to mutual friends and acquaintances, or stalking you, on social media or in person.
Cut off all contact with the narcissist. The more contact you have with them, the more hope you’ll give them that they can reel you back in. It’s safer to block their calls, texts, and emails, and disconnect from them on social media. If you have children together, have others with you for any scheduled custody handovers.
Allow yourself to grieve. Breakups can be extremely painful, whatever the circumstances. Even ending a toxic relationship can leave you feeling sad, angry, confused, and grieving the loss of shared dreams and commitments. Healing can take time, so go easy on yourself and turn to family and friends for support.
Don’t expect the narcissist to share your grief. Once the message sinks in that you will no longer be feeding their ego, the narcissist will likely soon move on to exploit someone else. They won’t feel loss or guilt, just that never-ending need for praise and admiration. This is no reflection on you, but rather an illustration of how very one-sided their relationships always are.
If you need help for narcissistic personality disorder
Due to the very nature of the disorder, most people with NPD are reluctant to admit they have a problem—and even more reluctant to seek help. Even when they do, narcissistic personality disorder can be very challenging to treat. But that doesn’t mean there’s no hope or that changes aren’t possible. Mood stabilizers, antidepressants, and antipsychotic drugs are sometimes prescribed in severe cases or if your NPD co-occurs with another disorder. However, in most cases psychotherapy is the primary form of treatment.
Working with a skilled therapist, you can learn to accept responsibility for your actions, develop a better sense of proportion, and build healthier relationships. You can also work on developing your emotional intelligence (EQ). EQ is the ability to understand, use, and manage your emotions in positive ways to empathize with others, communicate effectively, and builder strong relationships. Importantly, the skills that make up emotional intelligence can be learned at any time.
To learn more, see Improving Emotional Intelligence (EQ) and HelpGuide’s free Emotional Intelligence Toolkit.
Jump to: Signs & Symptoms Causes Treatment
What is Narcissistic Personality Disorder?
It’s a nice feeling to be admired. It naturally makes us feel good and feel important. And, yes, we sometimes boast and brag on ourselves as well. But, if people start describing you as cocky, manipulative, and demanding, you might be suffering from a more serious condition. It is disorder is a mental disorder affecting approximately 1% of the population1, with a greater prevalence in men than women. Narcissistic personality disorder is defined as an inflated sense of self-importance, a lack of empathy for others, and a great need for admiration. The hallmark definition of narcissistic personality disorder is grandiosity – the exaggerated sense of self-importance. If you are living with this disorder, you may be preoccupied with power, prestige, vanity, and may think you deserve special treatment and fame.
Narcissistic personality disorder should not be confused with high self-confidence and self-esteem. Those with high self-esteem are still humble. If you are living with narcissistic personality disorder, you are likely selfish, boastful, and ignore others’ feelings and needs. It was once thought that individuals suffering from narcissistic personality disorder have high self-esteem on the surface, but deep down are insecure. This theory was supported by the defensive state these individuals enter when provoked. Recent research discounts the earlier theory and now indicates that if you are suffering from narcissistic personality disorder, you likely also have high self-esteem – both on the surface and below the surface.
If you are living with narcissistic personality disorder, it is probably affecting your everyday life. . . in a negative way. In general, you may be unhappy with life in general and disappointed when others are not admiring you or giving you special treatment and attention. Your work, personal, and social relationships are likely suffering, though, you are unable to see your own role in these occurrences. Individuals with narcissistic personality disorder are unable to realize the damaging effects their behavior is causing themselves and others. If you have this condition, people likely will not enjoy being around you and you may feel unfulfilled at work, home, and in your social life.
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What are the Symptoms?
Monopolizing conversations? Feelings of entitlement? Belittling others? These are all classic signs of narcissistic personality disorder. Do you know of someone who knows the “right” way and all other ways are wrong? Are they cocky, lack empathy, and think they are largely important? Then it’s possible they might be suffering from this condition.
Signs & Symptoms
Included below is a list of some well-recognized symptoms of narcissistic personality disorder.
- Preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited success
- Belief of great self-importance; only understood and should only associate with individuals of high-status
- Expectations of being realized as superior
- In need of and requiring constant admiration
- Exaggeration of achievements and talents
- Possessing a sense of entitlement
- Being envious of others and the exaggerated belief that others are envious of you
- Thinking about oneself the majority of the time and talking about oneself a lot; self-promotion
- Setting of unrealistic goals
- Expectation that others should do special favors for you
- Belief that nobody should question your motives and should have unwavering compliance with your requests
- Taking advantage of others to move forward in life and/or to get what you want, with no remorse toward the ones you stepped on to get there
- Arrogance, haughtiness
- Easily rejected, hurt
- Power seeking
- Demonstrates superiority
- Responds to criticism with shame, anger, and humiliation
- Easily jealous
Oftentimes, individuals are initially attracted toward people with narcissistic personality disorder. You may find yourself attracted to the confidence, assertiveness, and excitement that surrounds a person with narcissistic personality disorder. However, getting to know the person in depth, you may start to despise the very same traits that initially attracted you to the person. This, of course, after realizing their unemotional response to relationships, the unattractiveness of their lack of empathy for others, and the grandiose belief they are greatly important and you should treat them as such.
What Causes Narcissistic Personality Disorder and How is it Diagnosed?
There is not a single defined cause of narcissistic personality disorder. But, researchers agree that both genetic and environmental causes are at play. Individuals with narcissistic personality disorder have been found to have less volume of gray matter in the left anterior insula, the part of the brain related to empathy, emotional regulation, compassion, and cognitive functioning.
Many of the traits of narcissistic personality disorder occur during normal stages of development. Scientists believe that full onset of narcissistic personality disorder may occur when interpersonal development during these phases is conflicted. Examples of types of negative or destructive interpersonal environments interacting with developmental phases include:
- Being born with an oversensitive temperament
- Learning manipulative behavior from parents or peers
- Being excessively praised for good behaviors and excessively criticized for bad behaviors
- Suffering from severe childhood abuse
- Inconsistent parental care giving – unreliable or unpredictable care
- Being overindulged by parents, peers, or family members
- Being excessively admired with no realistic feedback to balance you with reality
- Receiving excessive praise from parents or others over your looks or abilities
If you are suffering from narcissistic personality disorder, you might never head to the doctor for a diagnosis. Studies have shown that people suffering from this condition rarely enter treatment. If you do enter treatment, progress will be slow. However, if you or a loved one is suffering from narcissistic personality disorder, it’s important to get treatment. Prepare for your appointment by taking note of symptoms, personal experiences, medications, and your medical history. Your doctor will conduct a physical examination to rule out any underlying conditions and will then refer you to a mental health provider. A mental health provider will ask you a number of questions to gather information about your symptoms and the effects they are having on your life.
What are the Treatment Options?
Psychotherapy is the key approach in the treatment of narcissistic personality disorder. Psychotherapy, also known as talk therapy, is used to help you learn how to relate to others better to encourage more functional interpersonal relationships and to gain a better understanding of your emotions and why you feel the way you do.
As noted above, the treatment prevalence for individuals living with narcissistic personality disorder is low and slow going. Because treatment is focused on personality traits, which are pretty steady over time, it may take many years of psychotherapy before realizing a break through. Change behaviors are focused on accepting responsibility for your actions and learning ways to engage inter personally in a more appropriate manner. These include:
- Accepting and maintaining relationships with co-workers and family
- Tolerating criticisms and failures
- Understanding and regulating your feelings
- Minimizing your desire to attain unrealistic goals and ideal conditions
There are no known medications to treat narcissistic personality disorder. But, oftentimes if you are living with this condition, you might also be living with depression and anxiety. Medications are helpful for these conditions and may be used to treat those. Individuals living with narcissistic personality disorder are also at a greater likelihood of abusing drugs and alcohol – so treatment for addiction problems is also beneficial in treating this condition.
Keep an open mind toward treatment, stick to treatment plans, educate yourself about your condition, and stay focused on your goal. You may feel negative toward treatment, but know that it can help.
Article Sources Last Updated: Oct 22, 2019
The symptoms of narcissistic personality disorder include: grandiose sense of importance, preoccupation with unlimited success, belief that one is special and unique, exploitative of others, lack of empathy, arrogance, and jealousy of others. These symptoms cause significant distress in a person’s life.
Narcissistic personality disorder is characterized by a long-standing pattern of grandiosity (either in fantasy or actual behavior), an overwhelming need for admiration, and usually a complete lack of empathy toward others. People with this disorder often believe they are of primary importance in everybody’s life — and to anyone they meet. While this pattern of behavior may be appropriate for a king in 16th century England, it is generally considered inappropriate for most ordinary people today.
People with narcissistic personality disorder often display snobbish, disdainful, or patronizing attitudes. For example, an individual with this disorder may complain about a clumsy waiter’s “rudeness” or “stupidity,” or conclude a medical evaluation with a condescending evaluation of the physician.
In layperson terms, someone with this disorder may be described simply as a “narcissist” or as someone with “narcissism.” Both of these terms generally refer to someone with narcissistic personality disorder.
A personality disorder is an enduring pattern of inner experience and behavior that deviates from the norm of the individual’s culture. The pattern is seen in two or more of the following areas: cognition; affect; interpersonal functioning; or impulse control. The enduring pattern is inflexible and pervasive across a broad range of personal and social situations. It typically leads to significant distress or impairment in social, work or other areas of functioning. The pattern is stable and of long duration, and its onset can be traced back to early adulthood or adolescence.
Symptoms of Narcissistic Personality Disorder
In order for a person to be diagnosed with narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) they must meet five or more of the following symptoms:
- Has a grandiose sense of self-importance (e.g., exaggerates achievements and talents, expects to be recognized as superior without commensurate achievements)
- Is preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love
- Believes that he or she is “special” and unique and can only be understood by, or should associate with, other special or high-status people (or institutions)
- Requires excessive admiration
- Has a very strong sense of entitlement, e.g., unreasonable expectations of especially favorable treatment or automatic compliance with his or her expectations
- Is exploitative of others, e.g., takes advantage of others to achieve his or her own ends
- Lacks empathy, e.g., is unwilling to recognize or identify with the feelings and needs of others
- Is often envious of others or believes that others are envious of him or her
- Regularly shows arrogant, haughty behaviors or attitudes
Because personality disorders describe long-standing and enduring patterns of behavior, they are most often diagnosed in adulthood. It is fairly uncommon for them to be diagnosed in childhood or adolescence, because a child or teen is under constant development, personality changes, and maturation. However, if it is diagnosed in a child or teen, the features must have been present for at least 1 year.
Narcissistic personality disorder is more prevalent in males than females and is thought to occur in around 6 percent of the general population, according to research.
Like most personality disorders, NPD typically will decrease in intensity with age, with many people experiencing few of the most extreme symptoms by the time they are in their 40s or 50s.
Learn more: Symptoms of narcissistic personality disorder
How is Narcissistic Personality Disorder Diagnosed?
Personality disorders such as NPD are typically diagnosed by a trained mental health professional, such as a psychologist or psychiatrist. Family physicians and general practitioners are generally not trained or well-equipped to make this type of psychological diagnosis. So while you can initially consult a family physician about this problem, they should refer you to a mental health professional for diagnosis and treatment. There are no laboratory, blood, or genetic tests that are used to diagnose personality disorder.
Many people with this disorder don’t seek out treatment. People with personality disorders, in general, do not often seek out treatment until the disorder starts to significantly interfere or otherwise impact a person’s life. This most often happens when a person’s coping resources are stretched too thin to deal with stress or other life events.
A diagnosis for narcissistic personality disorder is made by a mental health professional comparing your symptoms and life history with those listed here. They will make a determination whether your symptoms meet the criteria necessary for a personality disorder diagnosis.
Causes of Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD)
Researchers today don’t know what causes NPD. There are many theories, however, about the possible causes of narcissistic personality disorder.
Most professionals subscribe to a biopsychosocial model of causation — that is, the causes are likely due to biological and genetic factors, social factors (such as how a person interacts in their early development with their family and friends and other children), and psychological factors (the individual’s personality and temperament, shaped by their environment and learned coping skills to deal with stress). This suggests that no single factor is responsible — rather, it is the complex and likely intertwined nature of all three factors that are important.
If a person has this personality disorder, research suggests that there is a slightly increased risk for this disorder to be “passed down” to their children. While some of this has to do with genetics, some of is also likely due to the child’s personality, as well as the parenting behavior of one or both of the parents.
Treatment of Narcissistic Personality Disorder
Treatment of narcissistic personality disorder typically involves long-term psychotherapy with a therapist that has experience in treating this kind of personality disorder. Medications may also be prescribed to help with specific troubling and debilitating symptoms.
Learn more: Narcissistic personality disorder treatment
6 Signs of Narcissism You May Not Know About
The recently published 5th edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) lists precisely the same nine criteria for narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) as did the previous version, published 19 years earlier. So these longstanding diagnostic yardsticks are by now quite familiar—not only to professionals but to interested laypeople as well. Because only the extreme, or “classic,” narcissist fits all of these criteria, DSM specifies that an individual need only meet five of them (barely more than half) to warrant this unflattering label.
As a starting point, I’ll reiterate these selected criteria—before, that is, adding six important ones of my own, which either complement or extend these “official” yardsticks. My particular measures for identifying pathological narcissists are based not only on my exposure to the voluminous writings on this character disorder but also on 30+ years of clinical experience. This experience includes doing personal, couples, and family counseling with such troublesome individuals. But it also involves working independently with those involved with narcissists—whether their distressed children, spouses, parents, friends, or business associates—who repeatedly express enormous frustration in trying to cope with them.
To begin, however, here are DSM’s requirements (slightly condensed, and with minor bracketed amendments) for “earning” the unenviable diagnosis of Narcissistic Personality Disorder:
1. Has a grandiose sense of self-importance.
2. Is preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love.
3. Believes that he or she is “special” and unique and can only be understood by, or should associate with, other special or high-status people (or institutions).
4. Requires excessive admiration .
5. Has a sense of entitlement.
6. Is interpersonally exploitative.
7. Lacks empathy: is unwilling to recognize or identify with the feelings and needs of others.
8. Is often envious of others or believes that others are envious of him or her.
9. Shows arrogant, haughty behaviors or attitudes.
So what’s left out here? Actually, as regards identifying descriptors, quite a bit. And I’ve no doubt that other therapists could add further to the six additional characteristics I’ll provide here—features that, although regrettably minimized or omitted from DSM, I‘ve routinely seen displayed by the many dysfunctional narcissists I’ve worked with. So, to enumerate them, such individuals:
1. They are highly reactive to criticism. Or anything they assume or interpret as negatively evaluating their personality or performance. This is why if they’re asked a question that might oblige them to admit some vulnerability, deficiency, or culpability, they’re apt to falsify the evidence (i.e., lie—yet without really acknowledging such prevarication to themselves), hastily change the subject, or respond as though they’d been asked something entirely different. Earlier for Psychology Today I wrote a post highlighting this supercharged sensitivity called “The Narcissist’s Dilemma: They Can Dish It Out, But . . . ”. And this aspect of their disturbance underscores that their ego—oversized, or rather artificially “inflated”—can hardly be viewed as strong or resilient. On the contrary, it’s very easily punctured. (And note here another related piece of mine, “Our Egos: Do They Need Strengthening—or Shrinking?”). What these characteristics suggest is that, at the bottom and despite all their egotistic grandiosity, they…
2. …Have low self-esteem. This facet of their psyche is complicated because superficially their self-regard would appear to be higher and more assured than just about anyone else’s. Additionally, given their customary “drivenness,” it’s not uncommon for them to rise to positions of power and influence, as well as amass a fortune (and see here my post “Narcissism: Why It’s So Rampant in Politics”). But if we examine what’s beneath the surface of such elevated social, political, or economic stature—or their accomplishments generally—what typically can be inferred is a degree of insecurity vastly beyond anything they might be willing to avow.
That is, in various ways, they’re constantly driven to prove themselves, both to others and to their not-so-confident “inner child” self. This is the self-doubting, recessive part of their being that, though well hidden from sight, is nonetheless afflicted with feelings and fears of inferiority. Inasmuch as their elaborate defense system effectively wards off their having to face what their bravado masks, they’re highly skilled at exhibiting, or “posturing,” exceptionally high self-esteem. But their deeper insecurities are yet discernible in their so often fishing for compliments and their penchant for bragging and boasting about their (frequently exaggerated) achievements. That is, they’re experts at complimenting themselves! And when—despite all their self-aggrandizement— others are critical of them, they…
3. Can be inordinately self-righteous and defensive. Needing so much to protect their overblown but fragile ego, their ever-vigilant defense system can be extraordinarily easy to set off. I’ve already mentioned how reactive they typically are to criticism, but in fact, anything said or done that they perceive as questioning their competence can activate their robust self-protective mechanisms. This is why so many non-narcissists I’ve worked with have shared how difficult it is to get through to them in situations of conflict. For in challenging circumstances it’s almost as though their very survival depends on being right or justified, whereas flat out (or humbly) admitting a mistake—or, for that matter, uttering the words “I’m sorry” for some transgression—seem difficult to impossible for them.
Further, their “my way or the highway” attitude in decision-making—their stubborn, competitive insistence that their point of view prevails—betrays (even as it endeavors to conceal) their underlying doubts about not being good, strong, or smart enough. And the more their pretentious, privileged, exaggeratedly puffed-up self-image feels endangered by another’s position, the more likely they are to…
4. React to contrary viewpoints with anger or rage. In fact, this characteristic is so common in narcissists that it’s always surprised me that DSM doesn’t specifically refer to it among its nine criteria. Repeatedly, writers have noted that angry outbursts are almost intrinsic to both narcissistic and borderline personality disorders. And although (unlike the borderline) it’s not particular fears of abandonment that bring out their so-called “narcissistic rage,” both personality disorders generally react with heated emotion when others bring their deepest insecurities too close to the surface.
The reason that feelings of anger and rage are so typically expressed by them is that at the moment they externalize the far more painful anxiety- or shame-related emotions hiding just beneath them. When they’re on the verge of feeling—or re-feeling—some hurt or humiliation from their past, their consequent rage conveniently “transfers” these unwanted feelings to another (and see here my PT post “Anger—How We Transfer Feelings of Guilt, Hurt, and Fear”).
The accompanying message that gets communicated through such antagonistic emotions is “I’m not bad (wrong, stupid, mean, etc.), you are!” Or, it could even be: “I’m not narcissistic, or borderline! You are!” (Or, in slightly milder version, “If I’m narcissistic, or borderline, then so are you!”) And if the mentally healthier individual has no clue as to what provoked their outburst in the first place, such a sudden explosion is likely to make them feel not only baffled but hurt, and maybe even frightened. But what cannot be overemphasized here is that narcissists.
5. Project onto others qualities, traits, and behaviors they can’t—or won’t—accept in themselves. Because they’re compelled from deep within to conceal deficits or weaknesses in their self-image, they habitually redirect any unfavorable appraisal of themselves outwards, unconsciously trusting that doing so will forever keep at bay their deepest suspicions about themselves. Getting anywhere close to being obliged to confront the darkness at their innermost core can be very scary, for in reality, their emotional resources are woefully underdeveloped.
Broadly recognized as narcissists by their fundamental lack of self-insight, very few of them (depending, of course, on how far out they are on the narcissistic continuum) can achieve such interior knowledge. For in a variety of ways their rigid, unyielding defenses can be seen as more or less defining their whole personality. And that’s why one of the most reliable ways for them to feel good about themselves—and “safe” in the world they’re essentially so alienated from—is to invalidate, devalue, or denigrate others. So they’ll focus on others’ flaws (whether or not they really exist) rather than acknowledge and come to terms with, their own. And in many curious ways, this habit causes them to…
6. …Have poor interpersonal boundaries. It’s been said about narcissists that they can’t tell where they end and the other person begins. Unconsciously viewing others as “extensions” of themselves, they regard them as existing primarily to serve their own needs—just as they routinely put their needs before everyone else’s (frequently, even their own children). Since others are regarded (if they’re regarded at all!) as what in the literature is often called “narcissistic supplies”—that is, existing chiefly to cater to their personal desires—they generally don’t think about others independently of how they might “use” them to their own advantage. Whatever narcissists seek to give themselves, they generally expect to get from others, too (which is yet another dimension of their famous—or infamous—sense of entitlement).
Even beyond this, their porous boundaries and unevenly developed interpersonal skills may prompt them to inappropriately dominate conversations and share with others intimate details about their life (though some narcissists, it should be noted, can display an extraordinary, however Machiavellian, social savvy). Such private information would probably focus on disclosing facts others would be apt to withhold. But having (at least consciously) much less of a sense of shame, they’re likely to share things they’ve said or done that most of us would be too embarrassed or humiliated to admit. Still, with an at times gross insensitivity to how others might react to their words, they’re likely to blurt out things, or even boast about them, that others can’t help but view as tasteless, demeaning, insulting, or otherwise offensive.
They might, for instance, share—and with considerable pride—how they “chewed” someone out, and expect the other person to be impressed by their courage or cleverness, when in fact the listener may be appalled by their lack of kindness, tact, or restraint. Additionally, they may ask others questions that are far too personal or intimate—again unwittingly irritating or upsetting them. And such a situation can be particularly difficult for the other person if the narcissist is in a position of authority over them so that not responding could, practically, put them in some jeopardy.
To conclude, I can only hope that these additional characterizations of the pathological narcissist (vs. those with less pronounced narcissistic qualities) may be helpful in enabling you to identify them before their “malignancy” does a number on you. And if you’ve already been duped by their machinations or manipulations, perhaps this piece will be a “heads up” for you to prevent them from wreaking any further havoc in your life.
NOTE 1: I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out that the narcissism addressed here centers on its most maladaptive, or “toxic,” forms. Unlike DSM (the standard diagnostic reference tool for mental health professionals), the Psychodynamic Diagnostic Manual (PDM, 2006)—respected, but much less well known than this official volume—explicitly notes that the disorder exists “along a continuum of severity, from the border with neurotic personality disorders to the more severely disturbed levels.” And additionally, that “toward the neurotic end narcissistic individuals may be socially appropriate, personally successful, charming and, although somewhat deficient in the capacity for intimacy, reasonably well adapted to their family circumstances, work, and interests.”
17 Signs You’re Probably a Narcissist, According to Experts
It’s usually not terribly difficult to spot a narcissist, or at least someone that displays narcissistic tendencies. After all, it’s a genuine psychological disorder, which the American Psychiatric Association defines as “comprising pervasive pattern of grandiosity, a constant need for admiration, and a lack of empathy.” Purportedly, narcissistic personality disorder, or NPD, affects about 1 percent of the population, according to a 2016 cover story in Psychology Today.
To ID a narcissist in the wild, look for the person who hijacks nearly every conversation you have with them. Or the friend that never seems to make any effort to understand your problems. Both are exhibiting traits used to classify someone with NPD.
But when it comes to turning the lens on yourself, well, that can be a bit more difficult. After all, it’s human nature to turn a blind eye to personal bad behavior—and that’s especially true for narcissists. To that end, we’ve rounded up, straight from mental health experts, all the dead giveaways and tell-tale signs true narcissists exhibit on a regular basis.
1 You’re charismatic.
Though narcissists struggle to form true connections with peers and partners, “they can be charismatic, often quite smart, charming, and very gripping,” says Ramani Durvasula, PhD, a licensed clinical psychologist. Ultimately, what separates a caring, charismatic individual from a deceptively charming one is whether they maintain their manners or slowly devolve into someone who doesn’t listen and lacks empathy.
2 You thrive on being the center of attention.
The need for attention likely stems from childhood, according to psychotherapist Kimberly Hershenson. “If the individual was either overly pampered or overly criticized they may be struggling with insecurity, low self-esteem, or jealousy,” she says. “In order to combat these feelings, they may try and put on a pedestal in an attempt to feel better.”
3 You don’t recognize boundaries.
If you’re a narcissist, the only boundaries you recognize are you own. In some cases, you may not be aware of a person’s boundaries, while in others, you are aware, but don’t care that you may be crossing them. According to PsychCentral, narcissists often react to set boundaries with accusations—for instance, continually asking “why” instead of respecting the other person’s wishes and leaving them alone.
“Narcissists also manipulate situations and violate boundaries, so trust becomes an issue,” Hershenson says. “Communication and trust are two of the most important traits in a healthy relationship, and with a narcissist, it is nearly impossible.”
4 You don’t listen.
Being a poor listener is an unseemly quality on its own, but when you combine it with a tendency to take control of conversations, you are exhibiting behavior characteristic of a narcissist.
“You could be talking to someone about a health scare you had, and the conversation drifts to upcoming vacation,” Hershenson says. “It is difficult to have a meaningful relationship with a narcissist because conversations are always one-sided and about them.”
5 You feel the need to shame others.
PsychCentral reports that narcissists actually use shame to control others as a way to beat them to the punch and avoid embarrassment. But Deborah Serani, PsyD, a professor at Adelphi University, says that a narcissist’s goal is always to have a flowing supply of others to fulfill his or her needs. “So, in order to do this, narcissists exert great control over their environment and their relationships,” she says. “Much of what is done is intellectual and calculated, planned, and well-rehearsed.”
6 And blame them for your failures.
To be sure, no one likes to fail or make mistakes. But narcissists are particularly sensitive to those ego-bruising occurrences. In fact, anything remotely threatening to their sense of self has to be eliminated, according to Serani. “The narcissist will use techniques like denial, deflection, and blame-shifting,” she says. “Most narcissists are very skilled at double-talk and can find the right way to twist blame away from themselves—and onto you.”
7 You hold grudges.
Some people argue that holding a grudge is an art, and for the narcissist, that may very well be true. “An individual with narcissism generally responds to threats to his or her sense of self by using the silent treatment or rage,” Serani says. “Because they cannot and will not own mistakes, the grudge services as a way of holding on to their need for vindication and rightness.”
8 You have frequent fantasies of grand success and perfection.
Serani says that the damage done in the narcissist occurs very young in life, where the sense of self doesn’t develop cohesively. “The narcissist is aware of these deficiencies, so the dreams, fantasies, or aspirations for the best, the most, the perfect, are deeply wished for to remedy the pathological defect,” she says.
9 You don’t have friends that challenge you.
Superficial friendships are the norm for narcissists. In fact, Serani says these are the only types of friendships they can manage. “Deep, caring, thoughtful relationships are not tolerated well by someone with narcissism,” she says. “This is because empathy and compassion are not traits found in a person with narcissism.”
10 You are entitled.
Special treatment is the only treatment narcissists believe they should get. According to Serani, too much entitlement creates a particularly pathological strain of narcissism, where you don’t really consider the needs of others, but rather only the ones that pertain to yourself.
11 You feel superior to others.
Narcissists often consider themselves to be above or better in some way than those around them, including friends, co-workers, and family. This sense of superiority, however, is little more than a mask, Psychology Today reports. Leon F. Seltzer, PhD, author of the blog Evolution on the Self, says that a narcissist’s grand sense of self-importance generally goes well beyond their actual beauty, brilliance, or level of achievement.
12 You lack empathy.
A lack of empathy is one of the most identifiable qualities of a narcissist, according to Seltzer. “They literally are unable to feel another’s distress and act with any genuine compassion for them,” he says.
13 You’re overly competitive.
A healthy competitive nature is one thing, but narcissists take things to the extreme. “When criticism and shaming from others lead us to question whether we’re good enough, we’re likely to overcompensate for these perceived flaws by doing things that might help us feel better than others,” Seltzer says. “Since, deep down, we question whether we’re really as good as them.”
14 And overly defensive.
“Needing so much to protect their overblown but fragile ego, ever-vigilant defense system can be extraordinarily easy to set off,” Seltzer says. “In challenging circumstances it’s almost as though their very survival depends on being right or justified, whereas flat out (or humbly) admitting a mistake—or, for that matter, uttering the words ‘I’m sorry’ for some transgression—seem difficult to impossible for them.”
15 You’re prone to fits of rage.
Both narcissists and patients with borderline personality disorder suffer from uncontrollable fits of rage.
“The reason that feelings of anger and rage are so typically expressed by them is that in the moment they externalize the far more painful anxiety- or shame-related emotions hiding just beneath them,” Seltzer explains. “When they’re on the verge of feeling—or re-feeling—some hurt or humiliation from their past, their consequent rage conveniently ‘transfers’ these unwanted feelings to another.”
16 You struggle with severe insecurities.
Narcissists are always seeking validation and praise from others. As marriage and family therapist Margalis Fjelstad explains: “They’re constantly afraid of being ridiculed, rejected, or wrong. Narcissists fear any true intimacy or vulnerability because they’re afraid you’ll see their imperfections and judge or reject them. No amount of reassurance seems to make a difference, because narcissists deeply hate and reject their own shameful imperfections.”
17 You don’t work well with others.
In order to work on a team, you need to be able to empathize with your teammates and have everyone’s best interests in mind. “Don’t expect the narcissist to understand your feelings, give in, or give up anything he wants for your benefit,” says Fjelstad. “It’s useless.”
We’ve all tossed around the word “narcissist” to describe a self-absorbed person, especially when it comes to relationships of all kinds—romantic, familial, workplace, even friendships. Maybe it’s an ex who constantly put his own needs and desires above yours, or maybe it’s a boss who continually cuts you off in meetings and takes credit for your accomplishments.
But what does a true narcissist (someone with narcissistic personality disorder, or NPD) actually look like? Research suggests that anywhere between 1 and 6 percent of the population may have this personality disorder, and about 50 to 75 percent of those are men.
What is a narcissist?
Not every self-centered jerk in your life is a true narcissist. But there is a tipping point you can try to spot: “A narcissist, by definition, is someone with a pervasive pattern of grandiosity, need for admiration, and lack of empathy, whose symptoms begin in early adulthood,” says Cory Newman, PhD, a professor of psychology at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania who has written on narcissistic personality disorder. “These traits can present in a number of ways.”
It’s hard to say exactly, but both genetics and upbringing likely play a role. “To quite a degree, personalities are inherited,” says Newman. “But if someone was super indulged, always told that he or she was special or better than other kids, and never given limits, that would likely contribute.” At the other end of the spectrum, some researchers think that parental neglect can also contribute to narcissism.
How to deal with a narcissist
It’s best to stay below a narcissist’s radar. “If you work with them or know them as an acquaintance, you just quietly steer clear without making it obvious that you’re avoiding them,” says Newman. “In conversations, let the NPD person have the last word, because if you don’t, it could escalate into a fight.”
If it’s a family member you suspect has NPD, avoidance probably won’t work, but you should still establish clear boundaries. “If they’re always taking advantage of you for money and never pay you back, you need to make it clear that those days are done,” says Newman. “It’s hard when you have someone who’s skilled at manipulating you, but you have to set limits.”
Signs someone’s a narcissist
If the broad definition of narcissistic personality disorder sounds frighteningly familiar, don’t jump to conclusions about someone you know (or even yourself) just yet. A true narcissist, according to the American Psychiatric Association’s diagnostic manual (DSM-5), will display five or more of the following characteristics.
Narcissistic Personality Disorder Relationships
Many narcissists are unable to accept themselves and others as integrated whole selves, complete with both good and bad qualities. In addition, narcissists tend to judge others as either perfect or flawed, based on the treatment they are receiving. These traits manifest themselves in three fairly predictable patterns:
- Idealizing phase: For many, loving a narcissist is quite easy at the onset of the relationship. People with NPD can be charming in the courtship stage, largely due to their romanticized idea of the “perfect relationship.” For you, this may feel like the typical honeymoon phase that many couples experience early on. For narcissists, however, this phase is much more extreme. It involves living out romantic fantasies, showing you and the rest of the world all their good parts without revealing any vulnerability.
- Waning phase: Over time—or sometimes, overnight—the honeymoon phase comes to an end. Instead of growing closer in authenticity, this is a time when a narcissists’ resistance to vulnerability starts to come through. Your partner begins to notice your less-than-perfect qualities and may make frequent comments about necessary improvements. If you reject these suggestions, your partner feels insulted. Because narcissists view any slight to themselves as a flaw in others’ behavior, they may begin distancing themselves at this point.
- Discarding phase: Many relationships with narcissists end in disregard for the other partner. Even if they look back on the relationship with fondness, narcissists typically will not accept any of the blame for how things turned out. If there is abuse involved, sometimes the partner will be the one to end the relationship.
While many relationships with narcissists follow this pattern, it is still possible to support your loved one on the path to healing.
Can a Narcissist Love?
Anyone who’s loved a narcissist wonders, “Does he really love me?” “Does she appreciate me?” They’re torn between their love and their pain, between staying and leaving, but can’t seem to do either. Some swear they’re loved; others are convinced they’re not. It’s confusing because sometimes they experience the caring person they love, whose company is a pleasure, only to be followed by behavior that makes them feel unimportant or inadequate.
Narcissists claim to love their family and partners, but do they?
Romance vs. Love
Narcissists may show passion in the early stages of dating. But that sort of passion, according to Jungian analyst Robert Johnson, “is always directed at our own projections, our own expectations, our own fantasies … It is a love not of another person, but of ourselves.” Such relationships provide positive attention and sexual satisfaction to support a narcissist’s ego and self-esteem.
For most narcissists, their relationships are transactional. Their objective is to enjoy uncommitted pleasure (Campbell et al., 2002). They’re playing a game, and winning is the goal. They’re engaging and energetic and possess emotional intelligence that helps them perceive, express, understand, and manage emotions (Dellic et al., 2011). This helps them manipulate people to win their love and admiration. They brag to be respected, loved, and gratified. Additionally, their good social skills allow them to make a good initial first impression.
They can show great interest in romantic prospects and seduce with generosity, expressions of love, flattery, sex, romance, and promises of commitment. Amorous narcissists (Don Juan and Mata Hari types) are adept and persuasive lovers and may have many conquests, yet remain single. Some narcissists lie and/or practice love-bombing by overwhelming their prey with verbal, physical, and material expressions of love.
Narcissists lose interest as the expectation of intimacy increases or when they’ve won at their game. Many have trouble sustaining a relationship more than six months to a few years. They prioritize power over intimacy and loathe vulnerability, which they consider weak (Lancer, 2014). To maintain control, they avoid closeness and prefer dominance and superiority over others. Game-playing thus strikes the perfect balance to both get their needs met and keep their options open to flirt or date multiple partners (Campbell et al., 2002).
A sudden breakup can be traumatic to their ex, who is bewildered by their unexpected change of heart — proposing one minute, and then exiting the next. They feel confused, crushed, discarded, and betrayed. If the relationship had continued, eventually they would have seen through the narcissist’s seductive veneer.
Some narcissists are pragmatic in their approach to relationships, focusing on their goals. They may also develop positive feelings toward their partner, but more based on friendship and shared interests. If they marry, they lack the motivation to maintain their romantic façade, and employ defenses to avoid closeness. They become cold, critical and angry, especially when they’re challenged or don’t get their way. They’re likely to support their spouse’s needs and wants only when it’s inconvenient and their ego is satisfied. After devaluing their partner, they need to look elsewhere to prop up their inflated ego.
How is love defined?
Real love is not romance, and it’s not codependency. For Aristotle and St. Thomas Aquinas, it’s “to will the good of another.” In The Psychology of Romantic Love (1980), Nathaniel Branden states that “To love a human being is to know and love his or her person.” It’s a union of two individuals, which requires that we see another person as separate from ourselves. Further, in The Art of Loving (1945), Erich Fromm emphasizes that love entails effort to develop knowledge, responsibility, and commitment. We must be motivated to know another’s wants, needs, and feelings and provide encouragement and support. We take pleasure in their happiness and try not to hurt them.
When we love, we show active concern for their life and growth. We try to understand their experience and worldview, though it may differ from ours. Caring involves offering attention, respect, support, compassion, and acceptance. We must devote the necessary time and discipline. Romantic love can evolve into love, but narcissists aren’t motivated to really know and understand others (Ritter et al., 2010).
According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, narcissists “lack empathy and have difficulty recognizing desires, subjective experiences, and feelings of others” (p. 670). Research shows that they have structural abnormalities in brain regions associated with emotional empathy (Schulze et al., 2013). Hence, their ability to appropriately respond emotionally and express care and concern is significantly impaired.
Narcissists have s several hurdles to loving. First, they neither see themselves nor others clearly. First, they experience people as extensions of themselves, rather than separate individuals with differing needs, desires, and feelings. Second, they overestimate their own emotional empathy (Ritter et al., 2010). Third, their defenses distort their perceptions and interactions with others. They brag and withdraw to control closeness and vulnerability, project onto others unwanted, negative aspects of themselves, and they use denial, entitlement, and narcissistic abuse, including blame, contempt, criticism, and aggression, to ward off shame. Perfectionistic narcissists callously put down others and may attempt to destroy adversaries in order to sustain their illusion of perfection (Lancer, 2017). All these issues impair narcissists’ capacity to accurately take in another person’s reality, including that person’s love for them. In fact, narcissists emotional intelligence helps them manipulate and exploit others to get what they want, while their impaired emotional empathy desensitizes them to the pain they inflict.
Can we measure love?
Love is difficult to measure, but research shows that people feel love expressed by: 1) words of affirmation, 2) spending quality time, 3) giving gifts, 4) acts of service, and 5) physical touch (Goff, et al. 2007). Another study revealed that participants also felt loved by a partner who: 1) showed interest in their affairs; 2) gave them emotional and moral support; (3) disclosed intimate facts; 4) expressed feelings for them, such as “I’m happier when I’m near you”; and 5) tolerated their demands and flaws in order to maintain the relationship (Swenson, 1992, p. 92).
People who love narcissists are starved for many of these expressions of love. Sometimes, narcissists are remote, dismissive, or aggressive; other times, they show care and concern and are helpful. It’s not that narcissists are incapable of feeling or even intellectually understanding someone’s feelings. The problem appears to be rooted in childhood trauma and physiological deficits that impact emotional assessment, mirroring, and appropriate empathic expression. (Unconscious or unexpressed: “I love you, but”); Expressed: “I’m too busy to come to the hospital,” sounds pretty cold, but may not reflect the narcissist’s love for the person hospitalized. When the importance of a visit is explained to them, they might make the trip.
They may show love when they’re motivated. Their love is conditional, depending upon impact on the narcissist. My book Dealing with a Narcissist explains in detail how to navigate and beneficially use this in relationships with narcissists, addicts, or anyone highly defensive. Because narcissism exists on a continuum from mild to malignant, when it’s severe, selfishness and inability to express love become more apparent when greater demands are placed on a narcissist. Dating or long-distance relationships that have fewer expectations are easier.
Bottom line: Wondering whether a narcissist loves you is the wrong question. Although it’s wise to understand a narcissist’s mind, like Echo in the myth of Narcissus, partners overly focus on the narcissist to their detriment. Instead, ask yourself whether you feel valued, respected, and cared about. Are you getting your needs met? If not, how is that affecting you and your self-esteem and what can you do about that?
American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Publishing.
Branden, N. (1980). The Psychology of Romantic Love. Los Angeles: J.P. Tarcher, Inc.
Fromm, E., (1956). The Art of Loving. New York: Harper & Brothers Publishers.
Johnson, R. A. (1945). We, Understanding the psychology of Romantic Love. San Francisco: Harper & Row Publishers.
Lancer, D.A. (2017). “I’m Not Perfect, I’m Only Human” – How to Beat Perfectionism. Los Angeles: Carousel Books.
Lancer, D.A. (2014). Conquering Shame and Codependency: 8 Steps to Freeing the True You. Center City: Hazelden Foundation.
Swenson, C. (1972). The Behavior of Love. In H.A. Otto (Ed.) Love Today (pp. 86-101). New York: Dell Publishing.
© Darlene Lancer 2018
Can a Narcissist Love?
15 Signs You Are In a Relationship With a Narcissist (And What to Do)
Being in a relationship with a narcissist is not a pleasant experience. The negative impact ripples out to all areas of your life – from your ability to focus at work all the way through to affecting your emotional and physical health.
The difficult part is knowing whether your partner really is a narcissist (or are they just overly confident); and the even trickier part – if you know they are a narcissist, what can you do about it?
In this article, we go through the signs (also known as red flags) to indicate you are more than likely in a relationship with a narcissist, and what you can do if you are in this situation.
Signs of a Narcissistic Partner
If your partner exhibits 5 or more of these signs, there is a very high chance you are in a relationship with a narcissist (otherwise known as someone with a narcissistic personality type); or in extreme cases where you are experiencing a relationship with someone that shows all of these signs, they will likely have what’s called Narcissistic Personality Disorder or “NPD”.
1. Everything Is about Them
Ever tried to have a conversation with someone who is “all about me“? Someone who only listens to him or herself? One thing that will be noticeable is that every conversation will be hijacked and redirected back to them.
Narcissists have a constant need for attention, and if this need is not met, you can expect irritation and resentment. Being in a relationship with a narcissist means that not only every conversation is about them, but every decision, opinion, thought, goal, choice (e.v.e.r.y.t.h.i.n.g.) is about them.
Part of this all-about-me-syndrome is a sense of entitlement. In relationships, this can come across as “my way or the highway” where your thoughts, feelings and opinions really aren’t valid. The narcissist with NPD truly believes the world revolves around them and that they are entitled to have constant, excessive attention and admiration; and to have everything the way they want it.
2. They Are so Charming… At First
Early in the relationship, you will experience the highest highs you have ever experienced when dating someone. You will be spoilt, pampered, showered with affection and flattery. You will feel like the most special person on the planet, and think to yourself “how did I get so lucky?” and “is this person real?”. Narcissists are highly skilled at turning on the charm to get what they want.
Research by Michael Dufner and others found that narcissists are considered to be appealing short-term romantic or sexual partners. They found that the mate appeal of narcissists stems from their physical attractiveness and their social boldness – displays of characteristics such as confidence, charm and charisma.
However, with anyone putting on a show, there is only so long you can sustain this act before your true colours start to shine through. And the narcissist’s act is no exception.
3. Split Personalities
The charm and appeal experienced at the start of a relationship with a narcissist doesn’t last forever. It may take days, weeks, months or in some cases up to a year. The switch from the charming person you fell so hard for, to someone you feel like you barely know can feel like the wind has been knocked out of your sails.
One minute you feel like you are gliding along the water with the sun beaming on your face, the next you feel like you are in the middle of a ferocious, scary storm.
If you have experienced the Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde switch, where one minute you feel as though you’ve found ‘the one’; and then the next minute wonder who this nasty person is in front of you – you are experiencing the “splitting” personality of the narcissist.
Andrea Schneider, Narcissism Topic Expert explains that the cracks will usually start to show slowly:
“The person with narcissism often may begin—subtly, insidiously, and covertly—to devalue his or her significant other. This may happen via putdowns, gaslighting, intermittently lacking emotional or physical intimacy, withdrawing affection, seductive withholding, inexplicably disappearing from contact, or blaming the target for the narcissistic person’s issues (projection).”
Some narcissists will continue to ‘reward’ their partner with affection (on their terms) or gifts while at the same time devaluing them. This can be a very confusing time for the person on the receiving end.
4. Lack of Boundaries
People with narcissistic tendencies show deliberate disregard for other people’s boundaries. They regularly overstep the mark and use others without a second thought for the affect they may have on them.
The narcissist shows disregard for other people’s boundaries in many different ways including regularly breaking promises or obligations, borrowing items or money without returning them (and with no intent to ever return or repay), and showing little remorse and blaming the other person when they have overstepped the mark.
5. You Are Isolated
Isolation is one of the more common ways a narcissist can gain control in a relationship. This control feeds their need to have everything their way, and to have their partner become fully dependent on them.
Some of the ways a narcissist can isolate you are: cutting you off from friends and family; controlling use of and monitoring social media and phone calls; controlling the use of vehicles; pulling you away from hobbies; and even in some cases, disengaging you from the workforce, therefore having full financial control.
Narcissists will use manipulative comments like “Why do you bother spending your time and effort on her when you don’t even like her?”; or “I paid for this car, so of course I get to say when you can use it”; or “I thought you loved me? Why are you spending so many hours at work?”.
Over time hearing continual put-downs, doubts, and jealous comments leads to giving up all of the things that give you your own identity. You become a diminished version of yourself that you don’t even recognize anymore. Someone the narcissist has moulded to suit their own lifestyle and needs.
6. Disregard for Your Feelings
An important part of any relationship is the need to be understood, and to be able to freely express your feelings, desires, aspirations and needs with your partner.
Because of the narcissist’s need to be wanted, they may come across as caring and that they truly want what’s best for you; but the harsh reality is that beneath it all, they are actually more concerned about “what’s in it for me”.
The narcissist will make decisions based on what will benefit them, not what will benefit (or affect) their relationship. They simply don’t have the capacity to take on board your feelings, because they are too concerned about their own.
7. Delusions of Grandeur
People with NPD believe they are superior to everyone and anyone else, and this delusion of grandeur is the primary reason they are unable to experience love. They do not view others to be in any way equal to them, and they genuinely believe that they are superior in virtually all respects.
8. They Are Short-fused
As I already mentioned, the narcissist believes everything is about them, and that their way is the only way. When things don’t go their way or when they aren’t getting all the attention, or when someone disagrees with them, this can be like entering a lion’s den. They have trouble regulating emotions and behaviour, handling criticism and can feel hurt very easily.
Narcissists can also become impatient or angry when they don’t receive the “VIP treatment” they believe they rightfully deserve.
9. Inability to Let You In
Underneath the wall that the narcissist has built to keep themselves above others, there is an underlying current of insecurity, fear, anxiety and shame. Because of their need to feel superior, they will not let this wall down.
To let others in and to be truly vulnerable would be too risky, so they portray a very high level of self-esteem and false bravado and keep people at arm’s length. In intimate relationships, this can be a detrimental game of cat and mouse, with the narcissist continuously baiting for attention, then pushing away when you get too close.
10. They Avoid Total Responsibility
In a relationship with a narcissist, you will notice they are very quick to take responsibility – when something has gone right. The credit, praise, positive and good feeds the narcissist’s ego.
One thing you will never see or hear is a narcissist taking responsibility when something has gone wrong. In these circumstances, they will blame, deflect, avoid and deny, truly believing it had nothing to do with them, and act hurt that someone could imply it was their fault to begin with.
11. The Green Eyed Monster
People with narcissistic personalities typically obsess over power, status, beauty, success, class and status. They exhibit jealousy towards people who have what they want. On the flip side, narcissists may also accuse others of being envious of them, including their own partner.
The critical point in this, is that how the narcissist presents on the surface is entirely different from how the narcissist feels deep down inside. There are two selves at work with the narcissist: their authentic self (the one experiencing jealousy), and the fraudulent, fantasy self they try to sell to the public (the egotistical self accusing others of being jealous of them).
12. They Are Manipulation Experts
Although I have already covered some of the ways a narcissistic partner can manipulate you, it is worth delving into their manipulation techniques a little deeper.
Most people can identify when someone is trying to manipulate them, and avoid them completely; but the narcissist has a very stealth, underhanded way of manipulating those around them, especially their partner.
Here are two common narcissistic manipulation tactics:
- Belittling – Whether in the comfort of your own home or out in public, the narcissist won’t have any issues with putting you down. They will cover up their put-downs with phrases like “can’t you take a joke?” or “come on, we were all thinking it”
- Playing the victim – Think of this scenario, you are trying to explain how much you hate it when they argue with you, and the narcissist turns around and says “See? You’re always trying to start an argument with me”. Which leaves you baffled, because that’s the exact topic you are trying to raise with them. The narcissist will always turn things around to make themselves out to be the victim.
Also known as “gaslighting”, is a slow, calculated process to have you believing that you are crazy, and that you can’t trust your own judgement. It is the height of deception and a means of control.
Gaslighting starts with the narcissist planting seeds of doubt. You may notice something your partner is doing or saying that doesn’t seem to add up, but when you mention it, you are made to feel like it’s the most absurd thing you have ever said. You start to doubt yourself.
Then the next time, you actually DO catch them out with a lie. Again, you are confronted in such a way that they have you convinced you somehow got it wrong. They will deny things they have said. They will change the story to confuse you. They will project their behaviour on to you. And they may even form alliances to reinforce ‘just how crazy you are’.
14. No Grey Area
The narcissist sees the world in black and white. There is no grey area. This is part of their personality splitting mentioned previously, and includes two very strict categories – winners or losers.
According to Seth Meyers Psy.D.:
“There is no possible outcome they can conceive of in which everyone gets their needs met. There isn’t enough attention and praise for everyone to go around, so according to narcissistic logic, only a few lucky ones will be selected.”
He goes on to explain that if the narcissist sees any threat to their ego, they will get in first to seek and destroy, and ultimately win. They will do whatever it takes to ensure they don’t feel weak, unnoticed, defective or defeated. Even if it means verbally or emotionally destroying their ‘opponent’ (yes, this includes their partner).
15. Pull And Push
The narcissistic partner will pull you into their world. They will take all of your love, money and respect, drawing you into their world like a tornado. But just as easily, they will spit you out. Once you are of no use to a narcissist, they will discard you like you never existed; as long as it is on their terms.
If you try to end the relationship before they have finished with you, the force of the tornado pulling you back in will be the strongest it has ever been, as the narcissist pulls out every trick in the book to get you back.
What Should You Do If Your Partner Is a Narcissist?
I’m not going to sugar-coat things here, speaking from personal experience leaving a narcissistic relationship is no easy feat. But for me, the reward on the other side was worth the initial discomfort.
According to Psychology Today author Elinor Greenberg, Ph.D., one of the main reasons it’s so hard to leave a relationship with a narcissist is because “you have become ‘Trauma Bonded’ to this person”. Because of the initial showering of love, and feeling like all of your dreams have come true then the slow process of isolation, manipulation, crazy-making, control, loss of self, and confusion sprinkled with reward and a dash of intimacy; you are now addicted and bonded emotionally, physically and more importantly mentally to your narcissistic partner.
So what on earth can you do when you are Trauma Bonded to another person?
1. Educate Yourself
The first step is to educate yourself on what narcissism is, and how it works. The more you understand your partner’s condition, the more you will understand their behaviour.
This isn’t to say you can excuse or dismiss the behavior, but that you can get a greater insight into why they do what they do, and say what they say.
Researching online is a great place to start.
2. Make a Choice
Once you know everything there is to know about narcissism, you have a choice — either stay and put up with the behaviour, and / or try to convince your partner to seek help; or leave.
And if you choose to stay, you now know exactly what to expect from your partner, and what they aren’t able to give you if they don’t seek help.
And if you leave, you will need to ensure you are prepared for what comes next.
3. Be Prepared
Whichever way you decide, you will need to be prepared. Educating yourself is not enough to keep you safe if you decide to stay in a relationship with a true narcissist. You will need to go above and beyond to ensure you are protecting yourself emotionally, physically, financially and mentally.
And if you decide to leave, you will need to be prepared for the tornado force that is the narcissist trying to pull you back in. One of the best ways to do this is to leave quickly and cut all contact. This may be easier said than done if you have children or assets with the narcissist, however there are qualified professionals that can get involved in these circumstances.
Another way to prepare yourself is to make a list of all the reasons you want to leave — this will be an important reminder when the tornado is in full force. Also, because of the trauma bonding, there will be a grief process to go through. Ensuring you have plenty of support throughout this process is integral.
You can learn more about how to deal with a narcissist in this guide:
Narcissistic Personality: What Is It and How to Deal with a Narcissist?
Healthy, fulfilling relationships are formed when both partners can feel safe to express who they really are, and be all of themselves without judgement or criticism.
Being in a relationship with a narcissist is the opposite of this experience, and unless your partner is open to the idea and has the financial means to seek professional help, the reality is they probably won’t change.
You do have a choice though. And whichever way you choose, take care of yourself first.
More Resources about Relationships
- The Invisible Violence in Relationships That Destroys People
- Why Trying Hard to Stay in an Unhappy Relationship Is Not Love, but Fear
- 8 Signs It’s Time To End The Relationship
- How to Recognize a Controlling Relationship and What to Do About It
- 12 Signs It’s Time To Move On From a Relationship
- What You Really Need to Feel Secure in a Relationship
- If Opposites Attract, Why Do They Retract?
Featured photo credit: Parker Whitson via unsplash.com
|^||Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin: Are Narcissists Sexy? Zeroing in on the Effect of Narcissism on Short-Term Mate Appeal|
|^||Good Therapy: Idealize, Devalue, Discard: The Dizzying Cycle of Narcissism|
|^||Psychology Today: Why Narcissists May Be So Jealous, Competitive, and Mean|
|^||Psychology Today: Understanding Narcissism|
Individuals with narcissistic personality disorder, according to the DSM-5, exhibit five or more of the following, which are present by early adulthood and across contexts:
- A grandiose sense of self-importance
- Preoccupation with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love
- Belief that one is special and can only be understood by or associate with special people or institutions
- A need for excessive admiration
- A sense of entitlement (to special treatment)
- Exploitation of others
- A lack of empathy
- Envy of others or the belief that one is the object of envy
- Arrogant, haughty behavior or attitudes
Individuals with NPD can be easily stung by criticism or defeat and may react with disdain or anger—but social withdrawal or the false appearance of humility may also follow according to the DSM-5.
A sense of entitlement, disregard for other people, and other aspects of NPD can damage relationships. While a person with NPD may be a high-achiever, the personality disorder can also have a negative impact on performance (due to, for instance, one’s sensitivity to criticism).
Researchers have reported associations between NPD and high rates of substance abuse, mood, and anxiety disorders. These may be attributable to characteristics such as impulsivity and the increased experience of shame in people with NPD.
The presence of narcissistic traits in adolescence does not necessarily imply that a person will have NPD as an adult.
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