The term narcissist often brings to mind an image of someone who’s self-absorbed and obsessed with their appearance. However, narcissistic personality disorder, or NPD, concerns far more than superficiality and what meets the eye.
Due to this erroneous preconception, it can be difficult to spot a narcissist, particularly when the person is close to you: someone you’re dating, married to, divorcing, working with or for, or parenting. The result is a relationship that can become toxic and heartbreaking.
Narcissists come in all shapes and sizes. However, there’s one quality they all share: they can wreak havoc in your life through various manipulative tactics. Try reasoning with them, and you’ll find yourself wondering why you’re bothering because, based on the clinical definition of narcissistic personality disorder, narcissists don’t know they’re narcissists. Likely neither will you in a diagnostic sense, because narcissists don’t generally seek treatment.
But that doesn’t mean you can’t help yourself and, better yet, seek treatment for yourself, if you realize you’re a victim of narcissistic abuse, which is quite real and quite identifiable. If you suspect you have a narcissist in your life, perhaps are dating one but aren’t sure, your best bet is to learn what narcissism is, what characteristics narcissists exhibit, and, most importantly, how you can protect yourself.
What is NPD?
Narcissistic personality disorder is characterized by an exaggerated sense of self-importance, resulting in an extreme need for admiration, lack of empathy, and difficulty forming healthy relationships. However, a misconception about narcissism is that because narcissists view themselves as superior to others, they have high self-esteem. This is untrue.
The grandiosity displayed by a narcissist is a façade. Narcissists typically suffer from low self-esteem, and even the slightest criticism can fracture their delicate ego, causing what’s known as a narcissistic injury. If you’re the one to have caused it, watch out. A narcissist will do their best to punish you using various techniques, including gaslighting (i.e., making you question your reality), giving you the silent treatment, raging at you, projecting, and shifting blame to others.
According to PsychCentral, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM-V) characterizes individuals suffering from NPD as possessing specific symptoms. For a clinical diagnosis, they must display at least five of the following:
- Grandiosity and an exaggerated sense of self-importance
- Preoccupation with fantasies of success and power
- The belief they’re special and can only be understood by similarly special people
- Need for praise and admiration
- Sense of entitlement
- A pattern of exploiting others for personal gain
- A lack of empathy
- Jealousy, envy, distrust
- Arrogance and scorn
NPD can only be diagnosed by a mental health professional, such as a psychologist or psychiatrist. However, many people go through life without this diagnosis, which can result in interpersonal strife in the romantic lives of narcissists and their partners.
So while you personally may not be qualified to diagnose a narcissist, the characteristics of NPD can result in other behaviors and relationship patterns that you can take note of, especially as you’re dating. If you recognize a cluster of the nine tell-tale signs below, it’s probably time to break up, which with a narcissist can present a host of other problems, then move on to someone else.
1. They’re overly concerned with their appearance and reputation.
A well-known characteristic of a narcissist is their inflated sense of self-worth. But this presents itself as more than constantly staring at themselves in a mirror and admiring how beautiful they are, though they may do this, too. While narcissists may be deeply concerned about their physical appearance, they also tend to spend a great deal of time worrying about how strangers perceive them.
This focus inward can translate to the narcissist you’re dating going above and beyond what would be typical behavior for the situation to win your heart, a phenomenon called love bombing. According to Rebecca Zung, Esq., a divorce lawyer and author who developed courses about how to negotiate with a narcissist, “The first few months are a whirlwind of romantic dinners, getaways, and heady conversations of how you’re soulmates and perfect for each other.”
Zung warns that this behavior should not be confused with empathy or warmth. “During this phase, they’re testing to see if you will be a good source of narcissistic supply.”
The moment you fall for them, a narcissist will stop trying to demonstrate how they care about you and your needs. However, in public, a narcissist will continue to play the role of the perfect boyfriend or girlfriend, so everyone thinks highly of them. Behind closed doors, where there’s no one to impress, they’ll drop the act and emotionally abuse you instead.
A narcissistic partner may also expect you to be perfect and will not accept any of your shortcomings, which everyone has, including them. With a narcissist, it’s these shortcomings along with their self-loathing that plagues them and are at the root of their abusive behavior.
2. Everything is all about them.
When you’re talking to a narcissist, it may feel as though you need to fight to get a word in edgewise about yourself. The conversations you have will generally be about them and their problems.
The moment you start to talk about yourself, a narcissist may become visibly bored, tuning you out because you’re not talking about them. This behavior can cause you to grow resentful and feel as if your emotional needs are not being fulfilled by the relationship. There’s a reason for that: they’re not.
3. They’re manipulative.
A more malignant characteristic of a narcissist is their tendency to manipulate others, particularly those close to them. Because of their excessive need for admiration, they may do almost anything to achieve those ends, no matter how cruel.
A narcissist may manipulate you by making you feel guilty when you do something for yourself that goes against their desires. Or they may blatantly degrade you to keep you feeling trapped in the relationship. For instance, a narcissist may tell you no one else will want you because you’re so fat, ugly, stupid, etc.
Narcissists may also gaslight you by lying straight to your face, causing you to question what you know to be real: something about them and your relationship isn’t right. It’s the precise reason you should always trust your gut, which is also what a narcissist doesn’t want you to do.
4. They put you down.
When you have high self-esteem and are independent, you’ll be much more likely to leave and not put up with narcissistic abuse. In an effort to become more effective and break you down, a narcissist may gradually belittle you over time, lowering your self-esteem and making you feel as if there’s nothing out there for you should you choose to leave the relationship. They may even tell you they’re protecting you from others’ ill-treatment of you by keeping you in the relationship.
A narcissist wants you to believe they’re the best possible person you could date or the only person who would put up with you. The narcissist needs to feel important, so they may try to isolate you from other friends and family, who would be much more likely to see through their behavior and urge you to leave.
5. They lack empathy.
One criterion of NPD is a lack of empathy. Empathy is the ability to pick up on and experience feelings someone else has. The way a narcissist experiences emotion is different from most individuals. They may know why someone might feel a certain way in a superficial sense but cannot share those emotions.
In a relationship, this would translate to a narcissist behaving in a way they know will upset you but not caring because they don’t consider anyone else’s feelings. That is except for their own.
6. They’re cold.
Because a narcissist lacks empathy, they may not emote the same way a person who’s not narcissistic would and come off cold as a result. In a romantic relationship with a narcissist, you may find yourself opening up about a subject that’s not easy to talk about, only to feel as though your partner isn’t there for you. They are often subdued or don’t react during moments when you would expect them to express warmth.
Alternatively, a narcissist may approach decision-making entirely with reason and without emotion. They may disregard your feelings because they’re not affected the way you might be.
Finally, running hot and cold with a partner is a common manipulation tactic among narcissists. They can also dole the coldness out as a punishment.
7. They used to be overly affectionate and attentive but now only give breadcrumbs.
Like anyone else you date, a narcissist has the objective of winning you over when you first start dating. The difference is a narcissist takes this to the next level, love bombing you by showering you with affection and attention to get you hooked on their love.
Zung says a narcissist will also want to advance a new relationship fast. “They want to be moved in, have their names on your accounts, and have total control over your life as quickly as possible before you have a chance to figure out who they actually are.”
But once you’ve fallen for them, they dramatically pull back and only occasionally text, call, or see you, if that. The narcissist may disappear without notice, only to return the same way, which is out of nowhere.
Where the narcissist once called you beautiful and gave you praise, they may now have little or nothing to say that’s nice. Where they once said and behaved as though they wanted to build a life with you, they tell you they no longer want to. These tactics are intended to make you feel insecure in the relationship, leaving you craving your next hit of affection from them.
Zung says, “It makes it much more difficult to get them out of your life, and they can continue to exert control over you.”
8. They have few long-lasting friendships.
Due to the immaculate image they want to present to the world, narcissists can be charming and have no problem making friends. However, when an individual is pathologically self-absorbed, it can be challenging to keep friends.
True friends take on a selfless role and listen to their friends’ problems rather than make everything about them. Like romantic relationships, platonic friendships function as a two-way street, meaning there’s give and take. Because the world revolves around a narcissist, they may struggle to behave like a good friend, resulting in friendships that tend to fizzle out quickly.
9. They keep a narcissistic supply.
A narcissist is often afraid of making a long-term commitment, though narcissists do marry. Those who are afraid to commit tend to keep a lot of romantic interests around, known as narcissistic supply or a narcissistic harem, just in case one of them begins making demands the narcissist can’t and won’t meet. When that happens, the narcissist generally pulls back using one of their manipulation tactics or disappears.
When the narcissist returns without warning, the same way they left, and successfully reels their target back in, they can effectively reset the relationship to a place where they’re comfortable. Usually, the target won’t be so quick to make demands the next time, fearing what happened when they did. If they become so bold, the punishment typically escalates; the time the narcissist disappears becomes longer, the verbal abuse becomes more severe, etc.
The longer the cycle continues, the harder it becomes to break away for good. A narcissist always comes back. Nobody, so says the narcissist, leaves them.
It’s why the best way to protect yourself from a narcissist is to have nothing to do with them and go what’s referred to as no contact. No contact means exactly how it sounds: no social media connections, no texts, no calls, no visits, no drive-bys or social media stalking on your part, no reminiscing about them, nothing, no matter how hard the narcissist tries to get your attention. Because, as Zung says, “the best way to date a narcissist is not to.”
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Cassie Zampa-Keim is a nationally known matchmaker, relationship coach, and online dating strategist based in Marin County, C.A. For more than three decades, Cassie has helped thousands of clients find satisfying relationships and love. Cassie has been happily married to her husband, Mike, for over 20 years. Together they share two daughters, Kaylie (20) and Lauren (17), a son, Evan (13), one dog, a bunny, and lots of laughs.