Unfortunately, narcissism has become a bit of a buzzword these days.
Whether it’s in reference to the Millennial generation, social media, or the President, narcissism has been thrown around a lot lately as a way to describe someone who is self-absorbed, selfish, or vain.
We think we know who these people are...
- That person on Facebook who won't stop posting selfies.
- The boss who won’t stop talking about his lavish lifestyle.
- The guy at the gym who won't stop checking himself out in the mirror.
- Kim and Kanye.
While cockiness and vanity can definitely be a part of narcissism, they don’t necessarily mean a person is narcissistic in the true sense of the word. True narcissists are not as obvious about their tendencies, which is why so many people fall into their trap.
Because of the confusion surrounding this label, I want to clear up some misconceptions so you can better identify whether or not narcissism is in fact playing a role in your relationship issues.
What is Narcissism?
In the psychological world, narcissism in its most extreme form is seen as a "personality disorder" in which a person exhibits at least 5 or more of the following (according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual 5th Edition):
Preoccupation with fantasies of success, power, beauty, intelligence and/or ideal romance
Belief that he or she is special and can only be understood by other special people or institutions
Constant attention and admiration from others
Unreasonable expectations of favorable treatment
Taking advantage of others to reach his or her own goals
Disregard for the feelings of others, lacks empathy
Feelings of strong envy or beliefs that other people are envious of him or her
Arrogant behaviors and attitudes
Before you start "diagnosing" everyone in your life as a narcissist, keep in mind that we can all be a little narcissistic at times. We can be overly focused on our own needs/goals/feelings sometimes, but this doesn't mean we're “Narcissists with a capital N.” It means we're human and as human beings we are often selfish and seek to feed our ego. Like anything, there's a spectrum and people can land anywhere on that spectrum. Even though I'll be sharing signs to look out for, an official diagnosis can only be made by a qualified mental health professional after a thorough assessment process.
Whether it's an official "disorder" or not, narcissistic tendencies can wreak havoc on our lives if we're not careful. But if we can learn how to spot the warning signs, and understand how narcissism is contributing to the relationship problems we’re experiencing, we can avoid further emotional and mental harm. Keep reading for an understanding of the 10 warning signs you should be looking out for you in your relationship*.
*These signs can also apply to non-romantic relationships.
The Warning Signs
Because narcissists are extremely skilled at manipulating others, it's very easy to fall for a narcissist’s charm without realizing it until it's too late. They make great first impressions and are often very likable people. They're often attractive, successful, and sociable. They can make you feel special at first, like you are lucky to be in their presence or associated with them.
It isn't until later, when their true colors show, that you start feeling like something just isn’t right. But even then, it’s not uncommon to still feel like you're the crazy one…”everyone else thinks they’re so great, so am I wrong here?”
Here are the signs you should really be watching out for (disclaimer: I'm using the "he" pronoun for simplicity's sake, however it is important to note that studies do show men are more likely to exhibit narcissistic traits than women):
1. He is never wrong or to blame- When confronted with wrongdoing, the narcissist will not admit he is wrong, and will instead become incredibly defensive and deny any accountability. If he ever apologizes it is only with the goal of getting something from you or to shut you up.
2. He will brag about you in public or on social media- He wants others to admire how attractive/intelligent/successful you are because you are a reflection of him. In private however, he might put you down and make you feel inferior to him or rarely acknowledge your accomplishments.
3. The conversation will be all about him- He loves to hear himself talk and will primarily talk about himself. He will subtly slip details into a story that show how “great” he is/was. He will only ask questions about your life, your opinions, beliefs, feelings, etc. if he needs some information that relates to him or will benefit him in some way. Anything you share will be related back to something about himself.
4. He is always the victim- This is similar to #1, but the narcissist loves to receive sympathy from others, so he will twist things to make himself look like the world is against him. Because he often truly believes others are trying to undermine or take something from him, he can seem very paranoid and suspicious.
5. He has a strong sense of entitlement- He believes he is special and therefore the world owes him something. Rules don’t apply to him. If he doesn't get his way, he will throw a tantrum or guilt trip you until he gets what he wants.
6. He takes everything personally- If you disagree with him, he will feel as though this is a slight against him. Any criticism towards him will be taken as a personal offense and will result in anger and hostility.
7. He lacks empathy and compassion- This is the number one most toxic trait of a narcissist. He can't genuinely relate to what others are feeling, especially when it comes to negative emotions like sadness or fear. He has a difficult time really putting himself in others' shoes and only shows interest in your feelings because they are inconveniencing him.
8. He'll make you think you're losing your mind- The term for this is 'gaslighting'- manipulation that makes you question your own reality. He'll lie about mundane details, tell you he never said something when he did, tell you everyone else is lying to you.
9. He will give but with strings attached- He will be generous in ways that indirectly benefit him. It doesn’t matter what you want for Christmas, he will get you what you think you “should” want. He will do something nice for you, but then remind you what a sacrifice it was for him.
10. He is a control freak- This is pretty self-explanatory and goes back to the paranoia and suspicion he has of others. He can't stand feeling out of control and will do what it takes to regain a sense of control over you or his environment.
What You Can Do
Unfortunately, the people most vulnerable to being in relationships with narcissists are those that are highly empathic, sensitive, and compassionate. They may also fall into the “codependent” category- the caretakers, sacrificers, givers, martyrs. Because of this, they find it more challenging to disconnect from the relationship, despite feeling more and more unappreciated and resentful.
If this sounds like you, you should consider discussing this with a therapist. I have worked with many clients who have come in identifying themselves as the “problem” in the relationship, when upon further assessment, it turns out they have been led to believe this by a narcissistic partner. As you can imagine given all of the aforementioned behaviors, there is very little hope that your partner will be receptive to any kind of counseling. Regardless, there is a lot of benefit to understanding how these behaviors are contributing to the dissatisfaction you’re experiencing in your relationship, and finding the healthiest way for you to move forward.