Narcissistic Personality Disorder afflicts up to 6% of people – and there are no numbers to really nail down how many people have garden-variety narcissistic traits. However, regardless as to the exact numbers, there’s a good chance we will come across at least a few narcissists in our lifetimes.
Perhaps even more than a few.
We’d like to think we’d be able to spot a narcissist from a mile away. We might have an image in our head of a conceited, vain individual, persistently checking themselves in the mirror and constantly interrupting you and never paying attention to anything you say. But the reality is narcissistic people come in all shapes and sizes, and sometimes it’s hard to spot at first. The biggest lesson for me to learn was that narcissists rarely fit any one particular category – and their tell-tale signs won’t always be as blatant.
I’ve definitely dealt with a few narcissists in my life – some of whom I didn’t even realize were narcissists until I had cut them out of my life. Here are a few things I wish I had known about narcissists from the get-go:
1. Narcissists aren’t always checking themselves in the mirror…but they are concerned with their image.
This is typically the image we conjure up when we think “narcissist”: every mirror is a chance to make sure the hair and the outfit is just right. Like Narcissus in Greek mythology, they’d spend their days admiring themselves in every reflective surface.
This is probably why I could never actually pinpoint the real narcissists in my life. Save for one narcissistic ex-boyfriend, none of the narcissists that I had interacted with ever did such a thing.
However, for narcissists, how they come across is the most important thing to them. They might not be constantly checking their hair in the mirror, but they might be constantly checking social media. Their image, their reputation, their level of attention is the biggest priority.
Narcissists are constantly concerned with how people regard them. This can come across in a slew of different ways, all of which deserve their own spot on this list. But the reasoning behind it is usually the same: there is an image to uphold, and they’ll do anything to uphold it.
2. Narcissists don’t always love themselves.
This is another false identifier. For years, I had thought narcissism meant that they loved themselves so much that they couldn’t be bothered to love someone else.
That couldn’t be further from the truth. The reality is that narcissists are just consumed with themselves. They don’t have to love – or even like – themselves. In fact, they can even outright hate themselves – and, in an ironic twist, that self-hatred can fuel some severe narcissism.
3. Narcissists are good at “Empathy Theatre”.
Again: narcissists are concerned about their image. They want you to like them. They know certain actions are expected of them, lest people begin to dislike them. So they go through the motions – and sometimes they’ll go over the top with those motions.
I call this “Empathy Theatre”. Especially in the age of social media, it is very easy to go through the motions (especially in very public areas) to show how much they “care”. This can come in the form of exaggeratingly lovey comments on Facebook, or big displays of emotions in public areas, or even a perfectly worded text message (this is also known as love bombing).
But that’s all it is: theatre. Since it’s all a show, the “empathy” is gone whenever they don’t “feel” like it. It can make those around them think they’re going crazy. The narcissist can go from using five exclamation points in how much they “love!!!!!” you, only to turn around and brutally ignore your most basic needs.
4. Narcissists can do good things.
It’s along the same lines as “Empathy Theatre”. The narcissist in your life might actually have an active role in the community, or do lots of volunteer work, or give greatly to charities.
But these are usually the people who do good deeds and immediately look around to see who was paying attention and who will give them recognition. And they’ll usually go out of their way to get that attention if they feel they didn’t get it the first time around.
It goes back to their image. They don’t do good deeds primarily out of civic duty, or even because it makes them feel good inside. They do it to craft their reputation. They do it because of the attention that comes with it.
5. Narcissists play the victim.
Here was another false identifier for me: I had assumed narcissists had far too much pride to even admit to being the victim, let alone play the role of one. There’s something slightly degrading in the act of playing the victim. Surely, someone who thinks that highly of themselves would never act that way.
But it all comes back to image. If something threatens that image, sometimes the easiest way to redirect that threat is by playing the victim. For example, imagine you’ve confronted the narcissist about something mean that they had said to you. Within moments, the conversation shifts to how hard they have it, how tough their day has been – and how, really, you were the one making them feel bad.
Suddenly you’re the one apologizing and feeling bad and wondering what you can do to make things better. Their image is upheld and they’re now getting lots of attention, which only feeds the narcissism.
6. Narcissists will naturally gaslight.
Playing the victim is actually an aspect of gaslighting. Gaslighting is when one manipulates another’s sense of reality until the other person has a hard time distinguishing what is real from what is not real.
To a narcissist, their interpretation of events – or, at least, the interpretation of events that keeps their image intact – is the only thing that matters. So that means they’re willing to do whatever it takes to keep that version of reality the only version of reality.
This means that a narcissist doesn’t even have to be deliberate in their gaslighting. So long as they’ve been confronted with a version of reality that runs contradictory to what they want, they’ll naturally gaslight.
7. Narcissists don’t necessarily make everything about themselves – but they will take everything personally.
Again, I imagined narcissists to respond to everything with, “…but what about ME?” While some might act that way, the reality is that it’s far subtler than that.
It reminds me of a story I heard, about a man who wrote a blog post about being in pain because of his mother’s actions. She had done something heartless and it made him question if his mother ever really loved him.
While the blog wasn’t public, the post in question still somehow got back to the mother. She then sent her son a long email about how the post had affected her, how he needs to apologize to her, and how he should make a statement on his blog about the heartless thing he had done with the blog post.
So maybe the narcissist doesn’t cut off what you’re saying to ask about themselves. But they might decide that even the most innocent mistake was, in reality, a considerable slight to them. And – since their version of events is the only one that matters – they’ll do what it takes until you apologize.
8. Narcissists can’t form true connections.
Think about it: if your day is spent crafting your image and going through the motions of empathy, there’s a pretty good chance you’ve yet to really connect with anyone.
Being real is radically vulnerable. You don’t get a chance to be in control of how people regard you. You can’t play a role and tweak it until you start getting what you want.
If you can’t be real, you can’t connect. You can have people think they’ve connected with you, but that’s a fake connection, and it’s as unsustainable as the Empathy Theatre.
And it doesn’t even have to be a sinister situation: some narcissists might feel like, since they don’t love themselves, no one else will ever love the real them. So they have to create a role people will admire. They have to put on the veneer. They have to craft their image and their reality.
It’s a pretty brutal irony: they’re so wrapped up in whether or not people will pay attention to them that they never end up really connecting with anyone – and connection is far more satisfying and affirming than any type of superficial attention.
9. Narcissists might not have always been narcissists.
Some have already heard of the empath-narcissist relationship: the empath wants to heal, and the narcissist wants someone to heal them. The empath wants to give, and the narcissist wants to take. So the empath gives and the narcissist takes until the empath doesn’t have anything left. If the empath can’t break free in time, they might become too wrapped up in their own pain and suffering – so wrapped up that they start demonstrating narcissistic traits themselves.
Sometimes narcissists are just born that way. However, sometimes narcissists were once empaths themselves, or just sensitive souls in a cruel world. And, somewhere along the line, they were so hurt, so neglected, so deeply wounded that they started getting wrapped up in their own suffering. And, as a result, their attention on the outside world lessened – until everything around them was filtered through how it could benefit or hurt or serve them.
10. Narcissists aren’t necessarily malicious.
This might’ve been the biggest thing I wish I had known. Since narcissists can create such harm and havoc, it can be easy to create the narrative of narcissists being these nasty, mean people. But narcissists aren’t necessarily the venomous, mean manipulators that we can paint them as. It’s far more complicated than that.
The reality is that so many narcissists don’t even realize what they’re doing. They’re so wrapped up in their world that they might not even notice. Or they might, but quickly point to the pain in their own lives as to why they act they way they do (aka play the victim).
In fact, the narcissist might even have good intentions. It’s just that their methods and mindsets are screwy. It’s not always the case, but it’s a possibility.
Unfortunately, it will never be as simple as telling the narcissist (or narcissists) in your life, “I think you might be a narcissist,” – or even, “I think you have some narcissistic traits.” In fact, that’s a sure-fire way to get them to dig in their heels and refuse to listen to you.
But what their intentions or levels of self-awareness are is irrelevant if they are causing pain in your life. If they refuse to see the hurt their behavior causes – or if they refuse to seek help and change the behavior that causes such hurt – then standing around knowing they mean well will only harm you – mind, body, and soul.
Everyone will have a different way of dealing with their narcissists. Some people can find ways to cope while others will need to cut them out of their lives entirely. But knowing how to spot a narcissist – a real, complex narcissist, not just the caricature we’d built up in our heads – is a vital toolset to have in life. Knowing what we’re dealing with is the first step. Figuring out what is good for us in the long run will be up to us.