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How to Detect the Narcissists in Your Life

Identifying the narcissist in your life can make them much less bothersome.

Key points

  • Narcissists can be tricky to identify because they overlap with people who are toxic, mean, fake, and deeply insecure for other reasons.
  • Accurately detecting the narcissist in your life can make them much less bothersome.
  • Three main clues to narcissism are: 1) deep insecurity; 2) devaluing others' successes; and 3) being eerily empty as human beings.
detective's tool: magnifying glass
Source: wikicommons

My last post about how narcissists in your life can inadvertently “gift” you with being more resilient resonated with many people. Some readers told me it was “productive,” which I take to mean helpful in an action-steps kind of way for coping with these toxic people. In this post, I address the first imperative action step: detecting the narcissist(s) in your life.

Detecting narcissists can be tricky because although you’ve likely already identified this person in your life as difficult or toxic or fake, you might not yet have identified them as narcissistic. To be clear, people can be difficult or mean for all sorts of reasons and not be narcissistic.

Narcissism is a very particular brand of toxic personality that, once identified, can become a lot less bothersome in your life. There are exceptions: things obviously get more complicated if you’re married to and/or share children with a narcissist. But if the narcissist in your life is a sibling or “friend,” or coworker from whom you can distance yourself, this post is for you.

What's the Value in Detecting the Narcissist in Your Life?

Why does identifying a narcissist as such make them less bothersome in your life? Because you finally understand the problem lies with them and not with you. Narcissists live by blaming others and never apologizing. In their view, they’re never in the wrong. This can make you feel awful when you’re on the receiving end of guilt trips and overreactions galore. But once you understand this person is out of touch with reality in a very fundamental way, you can more easily reject the intended guilt trip and ignore the overreactions and carry on with your life less bothered by the drama and toxicity.

An essential message emphasized by Dr. Ramani, an expert on narcissism, is to never, ever take their nonsense personally. They will rage and throw adult temper tantrums and say nasty things and exit the stage only when they’re satisfied. And, in time, you’ll learn not to internalize any of it.

Three Helpful Clues to Detecting the Narcissist in Your Life

So, if it’s helpful to detect narcissists in your life, how do you do this? There are many markers, but here are three that might be productive—first, deep insecurity: narcissists are extremely sensitive to what people think and say about them. This trait manifests in everything from perceiving social slights where there is none to rejecting criticism no matter how well-intended and, for younger generations, likely being overly preoccupied with their online persona.

Because narcissists are so fake (more on that below), social media is their dream come true: they get to create a shiny online façade that feeds their need for looking good to the world, which is much more important to them than being good in real life.

Second, narcissists cannot celebrate other people’s accomplishments and successes except in a very phony and shallow way. They may act over the top excited about their child’s small accomplishment because it gives them a chance to stand in the child’s spotlight for a moment. They can look generous to other people, for example, for hosting a friend’s baby shower, but they do this only to be the recipient of thanks and compliments about “a great party.” Narcissists need praise and validation the way a crack addict needs crack.

When a friend or family member’s accomplishment feels like competition in any way, they will devalue it or make fun of it. Let’s take a concrete example: say you were friends with a chubby kid in grade school who was terrible at sports and always faked a stomachache when it came time for gym class.

Fast forward 15 years, and you find out this former gym class dasher now plays major league baseball. You’re thrilled for him and share the news with a mutual friend who says, “anyone can play major league baseball.” You think, what?! What a weird thing to say. If only logic worked on narcissists. We all know how hard it is to make the major leagues. So, what motivates a comment like this? Not logic, but feelings: shame and resentment are triggered in the narcissist when they hear of others’ successes, even things they themselves have no interest in accomplishing—that’s the weird part.

Last, narcissists are eerily empty as far as human beings go. They’re shallow (materialistic, fake, obsessed with their façade, etc.) and hollow (devoid of fundamental human stuff like empathy and human understanding). You can know them for years (or your whole life) and not really know them at all. What do they really believe and why? Why are they the way they are? You won’t know any of these things about the narcissist because, sadly, they don’t know these things about themselves.

Once you’ve detected the narcissist in your life, you’ve taken a major step forward in detoxing your life and mind.