What is a narcissist?
When someone posts one too many selfies on their social media or talks about themselves constantly during a first date, you might call them a narcissist.
But a true narcissist is someone who has narcissistic personality disorder (NPD). Individuals who have NPD believe they are superior and unique compared to others, and they expect to be recognized and treated as such.
They are often unable Trusted Source to recognize the opinions and needs of others and are dismissive of others’ problems.
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) lists nine criteria for NPD, but it specifies that someone only needs to meet five of them to clinically qualify as a narcissist.
What it boils down to, according to licensed therapist Rebecca Weiler, LMHC, is selfishness at the expense of others, plus the inability to consider others’ feelings at all.
Like most mental health or personality disorders, there are varying degrees Trusted Source of NPD severity.
“Narcissism falls on a spectrum,” says Beverly Hills family and relationship psychotherapist Dr. Fran Walfish, the author of “The Self-Aware Parent.”
In outpatient settings, for example, people who have a narcissistic personality disorder may be high functioning and relatable Trusted Source
, but in the inpatient settings, they can be aggressive and challenging. A person’s aggression typically indicates the severity of the disorder.
Additionally, people who have NPD often experience Trusted Source other physical and mental health conditions, like substance use disorder and anxiety, which may further complicate close relationships.
All that said, knowing the “official” diagnostic criteria doesn’t usually make it easier to spot someone with NPD, especially when you’re romantically involved with one. A qualified expert will typically have to administer Trusted Source a standard psychiatric interview to determine if someone has NPD.
Still, knowing the signs of NPD may help give your relationship some context. Here are some signs to look out for and tips to handle them.
1. They were charming at first
People who have NPD gravitate toward Trusted Source grandiosity and fantasy. Your relationship might have felt like a fairytale at first — maybe they complimented you constantly or told you they loved you within the first month.
Maybe they tell you how smart you are or emphasize how compatible you are, even if you just started seeing each other.
“Narcissists think that they deserve to be with other people who are special, and that special people are the only ones who can appreciate them fully,” says Nedra Glover Tawwab, LCSW, the founder of Kaleidoscope Counseling in Charlotte, North Carolina.
Weiler’s advice: If someone came on too strong at the beginning, be wary. Sure, we all love to feel lusted for. But real love has to be nurtured and grown.
“If you think it’s too early for them to really love you, it probably is. Or if you feel like they don’t know enough about you to actually love you, they probably don’t,” Weiler says.
People with NPD will try to manufacture superficial connections early on in a relationship.
2. They hog the conversation, talking about how great they are
People with NPD have an inflated sense of self-importanceTrusted Source
and are prone to exaggerating achievements and expecting to be recognized as superior.
“Narcissists love to constantly talk about their own accomplishments and achievements with grandiose,” says psychotherapist Jacklyn Krol, LCSW, of Mind Rejuvenation Therapy. “They do this because they feel better and smarter than everyone else, and also because it helps them create an appearance of being self-assured.”
Clinical psychologist Dr. Angela Grace, PhD, MEd, BFA, BEd, adds that narcissists will often exaggerate their accomplishments and embellish their talents in these stories in order to gain adoration from others.
They’re also too busy talking about themselves to listen to you.
The warning is two-part here, says Grace. First, your partner won’t stop talking about themselves, and second, your partner won’t engage in conversation about you.
Consider these questions: What happens when you do talk about yourself? Do they ask follow-up questions and express interest to learn more about you? Or do they make it about them?
3. They feed off your compliments
Narcissists may seem like they’re super self-confident. But according to Tawwab, most people with NPD actually lack self-esteem and require excessive attention Trusted Source and admiration.
“They need a lot of praise, and if you’re not giving it to them, they’ll fish for it,” she says. That’s why they’re constantly looking at you to tell them how great they are.
“Narcissists use other people — people who are typically highly empathic — to supply their sense of self-worth and make them feel powerful. But because of their low self-esteem, their egos can be slighted very easily, which increases their need for compliments,” adds Shirin Peykar, LMFT.
“The main difference between folks who are confident and those with NPD is that narcissists need others to lift them up, and lift themselves up only by putting others down. Two things people with high self-confidence do not do,” Peykar says.
As Weiler explains it, “Narcissists punish everyone around them for their lack of self-confidence.”
4. They lack empathy
Lack of empathy, or the ability to feel how another person is feeling, is one of the hallmark characteristics of a narcissist, Walfish says. People who have NPD are often unable to apologize Trusted Source and understand the feelings and perspectives of others.
“Narcissists lack the skill to make you feel seen, validating, understood, or accepted, because they don’t grasp the concept of feelings,” she says.
Does your partner care when you’ve had a bad day at work, fight with your best friend, or scuffle with your parents? Or do they get bored when you express the things making you mad and sad?
Walfish says this inability to empathize, or even sympathize, is often the reason why many, if not all, relationships of people with NPD eventually collapse, whether they’re romantic or not.
5. They don’t have any (or many) long-term friends
for people with NPD to have frequent conflicts with others. Dig deeper into their connections and you may notice they have few close friends.
On top of this, people with NPD can be
hypersensitive and insecure. As a result, they might lash out when you want to hang out with other people.
They might claim that you don’t spend enough time with them, make you feel guilty for spending time with your friends, or berate you for the types of friends you have.
Questions to ask yourself
6. They pick on you constantly
Maybe, at first, it felt like teasing, but then it became mean. Suddenly, everything you do, from what you wear and eat to who you hang out with and what you watch on TV, is a problem for them.
Antagonism and hostility are well-documented traits Trusted Source
in people who have NPD, and their toll on other people is large.
“They’ll put you down, call you names, hit you with hurtful one-liners, and make jokes that aren’t quite funny,” Peykar says. “Their goal is to lower others’ self-esteem so that they can increase their own because it makes them feel powerful.”
What’s more, reacting to what they say may only reinforce their behavior. “A narcissist loves a reaction,” Peykar says. That’s because it shows them they have the power to affect another’s emotional state.
A warning sign: If they knock you down with insults when you do something worth celebrating, get yourself out of there.
“A narcissist might say ‘You were able to do that because I didn’t sleep well’ or some excuse to make it seem like you have an advantage that they didn’t have,” Tawwab says.
They want you to know that you’re not better than them. Because, to them, nobody is.
7. They gaslight you
Gaslighting is a form of manipulation and emotional abuse, and it’s a hallmark of narcissism. People with NPD may tell blatant lies, falsely accuse others, spin the truth, and ultimately distort your reality — especially in response to
perceived challenges of authority or fear of abandonment.
Signs of gaslighting include the following:
“They do this to cause others to doubt themselves as a way to gain superiority. Narcissists thrive off of being worshipped, so they use manipulation tactics to get you to do just that,” Peykar says.
8. They think they’re right about everything, and never apologize
People with NPD are often described
as being arrogant and having haughty behaviors or attitudes. That’s why fighting with a narcissist may feel impossible.
“There is no debating or compromising with a narcissist, because they are always right,” Tawwab says. “They won’t necessarily see a disagreement as a disagreement. They’ll just see it as them teaching you some truth.”
According to Peykar, you may be dating a narcissist if you feel like your partner:
While ending the relationship is the best game plan with someone who has NPD, Weiler advises avoiding negotiation and arguments.
“The thing that drives a narcissist crazy is the lack of control and the lack of a fight. The less you fight back, the less power you can give them over you, the better,” she says.
And because they never think they’re wrong, they rarely apologize.
9. When you show them you’re really done, they lash out
People with NPD are extremely vulnerable to humiliation and shame, and they often lash out at others when they feel their self-esteem has taken a hit.
If you insist you’re done with the relationship, they’ll make it their goal to hurt you for abandoning them, Peykar says.
“Their ego is so severely bruised that it causes them to feel rage and hatred for anyone who ‘wronged’ them. That’s because everything is everyone else’s fault. Including the breakup,” she adds.
OK, so you’re dating a narcissist — now what?
If you’re in a relationship with someone who has NPD, chances are you’ve already experienced quite a bit.
Being in a relationship with someone who’s constantly criticizing, belittling, gaslighting, and not committing to you may feel emotionally exhausting.
How to prepare for the breakup
“You cannot change a person with NPD or make them happy by loving them enough or by changing yourself to meet their whims and desires. They will never be in tune with you, never empathic to your experiences, and you will always feel empty after an interaction with them,” Grace says.
“Narcissists can’t feel fulfilled in relationships, or in any area of their lives, because nothing is ever special enough for them,” she adds.
Essentially, you’ll never be enough for them, because they’re never enough for themselves.
“The best thing you can do is cut ties. Offer them no explanation. Offer no second chance. Break up with them, and offer no second, third, or fourth chance,” Grace says.
Because someone with NPD will most likely make attempts at contacting you and harassing you with calls or texts once they’ve fully processed the rejection, Krol recommends blocking them to help you stick to your decision.
Remember: This article isn’t meant to diagnose your partner.
Instead, this article is meant to outline unacceptable behaviors and reactions in the context of a loving, equitable partnership. Having one or six of these signs doesn’t make your partner a narcissist. Rather, it’s a good cause for re-evaluating whether or not you’re thriving in your relationship."