Folks who are fun, good at things, and appear in public to be compassionate and generous often make desirable friends and life partners. They can be very enjoyable to hang out with, even if they seem a bit self-preoccupied, as if they are always taking mental selfies. Then can come the rub. Are they also good partners when it comes to talking through differences of opinion in work and/or home situations? Or is there something narcissistic about how they communicate in a relationship that's provocative?
Especially when you hit bumps on the road of your life, ever tried to be friends or a love partner with someone who only listens to him or herself? Who changes the topic, gets defensive or gets mad at you when you try to talk about difficulties you've been experiencing? The desire to sustain a friendship, never mind a love relationship, with these folks can quickly fade.
How about you? Are you someone that your guy friends, girl friends or spouse like and yet often also find demoralizing to be with when serious issues come up? Do people tell you that you seem to take up all the space in the room because conversations with you so frequently take an "it' all about me" turn? When others express feelings and concerns, is your reaction "Well what about me?" Do you monologue or pontificate instead of sharing equal air time?
To identify narcissism a good place to start is with clarity about what healthy versus narcissisitc functioning look like.
You can most quickly tell narcissism by how well a person listens. Someone who is all talk with very little interest in what others say is generally a pretty high likelihood of scoring high on the following narcissism checklist.
Someone who disparages what you say instead of finding what makes sense about it, or who ignores what you say altogether, is likely to be functioning narcissistically.
Not listening leads to showing minimal responsivity to others' concerns. The bottom line is that healthy folks in healthy relationships are able to sustain both responsivity to their own concerns and responsivity to others'. They are able to be self-centered in the best sense (taking care of themselves), and also altruistic (taking heed of others' desires).
I call the ability to hear both oneself and others bilateral (2-sided) listening. Narcissistic listening is one-way, listening to myself only, listening.
When differences arise, folks who do bilateral listening are pros at taking into consideration both their concerns and others'. This bilateral listening ability enables them to routinely seek and create win-win solutions, which in turn sustains their relationships with on-going goodwill.
For instance, if you are tired, you would listen to that feeling and head for bed. At the same time if you have just received a call from a friend who has a problem and urgently wants to talk with you, you might suggest that the two of you talk for a few minutes now, and aim to talk more at length in the morning. That could be a win-win solution.
By contrast, if you function narcissistically you might respond with an immediate”No. I’m too tired,” to your friend’s request. Or with a more gentle, "Yes I hear that you want to talk but I'm just too tired. In the latter case you seemed to be hearing your friend's request, and then your but minimized, dismissed and discarded the data about the friend's need.
Similarly, if your friend is a narcissist, the fact that you are tired would slide by him/her. Talking together now would be the only option. 'It's all about me' would prevail, with anger at you if you were to refrain from complying.
Narcissistic folks can be generous.
Narcissistic folks actually are often very generous. They may, for instance, give away large sums of money to charity. Generous giving makes the giver feel good and also feels appropriate, like "the right" thing to do. They may well therefore pride themselves on their compassion and altruism.
At the same time, in a situation in which someone who tends toward narcissism wants something, and that desire is in conflict with what someone else wants, that's when the selfish side takes over.
Often too, the tendency toward compassionate generosity gets directed toward strangers. The people closest to a narcissist receive far less compassion and far more dismissive listening.
Expanding on this core definition of narcissistic functioing as a difficulty in listening, here’s six signs for sizing up narcissism. Score each dimension from 0 to 10. Zero is not at all. Ten is all the time.
First assess yourself. Then circle back to score someone in your life who is difficult to deal with.
The goal: See your and others' patterns clearly. Clarity is a strong first step toward being able to make changes for the better.
Sign #1: Unilateral listening.
What I want and what I have to say are all that matters when we talk together. When we make decisions what you want, your concerns, your feelings..these are mere whispers, inconveniences and irrelevancies. So when we discuss issues, my opinions are right. Yours are wrong or else of minimal importance. If you expect to have input, you are undermining me.
Narcissistic listening often dismisses, negates, ignores, minimizes, denigrates or otherwise renders irrelevant other people’s concerns and comments.
One sign of narcissistic non-listening: a tone of contempt instead of interest.
Another: frequent responses that begin with "But....", which is a backspace-delete key that negates whatever came before, in this case, what someone else has said.
Yet another: because 'I'm right and you're wrong,' I tend to listen for what I don't like in what you say so that I can respond by telling you how what you have said is wrong.
Score: 0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10
SIgn #2 It’s all about me.
I know more, I know better, I’m more interesting, When we talk, it’s mostly about me. In conversations, I take up most of the air time. Almost all of my chatter is about what I have done, what I am thinking about.
If you begin to talk about yourself, I link back to something in my life so that the focus of the discussion again turns onto me. Maybe that's why people say I suck up all the air in a room.
When I want something, I need to have it. Never mind how you feel about it; it’s all about me. I’m big and important and you are merely also here, mostly to do things for me, like a third arm.
Score: 0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10
Sign #3: The rules don’t apply to me.
I can have affairs, cut into a line where others are waiting, cheat on my taxes, and ignore rules that get in the way of my doing what I want.. Rules are for other people to follow.
Narcissists suffer from what I call Tall Man Syndrome. They experience themselves as above others, so the rules don't apply to them.
Score: 0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10
Sign #4: Your concerns are really criticisms of me, and I hate being criticized.
If you insist on my listening and taking your concerns seriously I’m likely to get mad. Criticism hurts. I can criticize others, and often do, but if you criticize me you’re hurting my feelings so I’ll hurt you back. And if you say you are at all unhappy, that's a way of indirectly criticizing me. Since "it's all about me" your feelings must be about what I have been doing.
Narcissists paradoxically manifest both an inflated idea of their own importance and quickness to feel deflated by negative feedback.
In addition, because they think everything is about them, they hear others’ attempts to talk about personal feelings as veiled criticisms of themselves.
The clinical term for taking others' concerns as personal criticism is personalizing. E.g., If she says "I'm feeling lonely," her narcissistic friend will hear the self-statement as an acusation, "You don't spend enough time with me."
Score: 0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10
Sign #5: When things go wrong between us, it’s always your fault.
I can’t be expected to apologize or to admit blame. I’m above others and above reproach. You shouldn’t have… . Don’t threaten me with expecting me to say how I’ve contributed to a problem or I’ll get mad at you.
Unwillingness to take responsibility for mistakes goes hand-in-hand with quickness to blame. This trait may come from confusing the part with the whole. "If I've done one thing that's not right, then I must be all bad." That's also all-or-nothing thinking.
Whatever the source of the sensitivity to criticism and difficulty admitting mistakes, the upshot is a tendency to blame others when anything has gone wrong. Blaming and fault-finding in others feel safer to narcissists than looking to discover, learn and grow from their own part in difficulties.
While narcissists are quick to blame, they may be slow to appreciate. Appreciation and gratitude require listening.
Score: 0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10
Sign #6: If I’m angry, it’s your fault.
You made me mad. You didn’t listen to me. You criticized me. You’re trying to control me. Your view is wrong. So you need to apologize, not me.
I’m not responsible either for my anger. If I’m mad, it's because I'm frustrated by what you are doing. My anger is your fault. I'm only made because you ... "
Some narcissists show major charm and social agility. At the same time, these seemintly super-confident folks also can be quick to anger. When they do become inflamed, they then immediately blame their anger on others.
What are typical anger triggers for people with narcissistic tendencies?
Critical comments will do it. As I said above, as much as narcissisitc folks see themselves as special, they also can be remarkably thin-skinned. Any feedback that punctures their belief in total specialness can feel quite threatening. The immediate response will be to issue blame.
Telling anyone what to do, or sounding even somewhat like you are telling them what to do, also is likely to provoke irritation. Pretty much everyone prefers autonomy (unless the two people have an agreed-upon boss-worker or similar relationship). Narcissists however tend to be hyper-sensitive about feeling controlled. Any request therefore to a narcissist is at risk for sounding to them like a demand and therefore triggering irritation.
Asking someone who is narcissistic to do something your way rather than theirs is particularly likely to sound to them like you are telling them what to do. Their anger in response, of course, is your fault.
Score: 0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10
TOTAL SCORE: ___ What does this score indicate?
The interpretations below are based on my clinical hunches, not any scientific testing. They're meant just to give you a general indicate of what your quiz suggests.
Scores that total 5-10 probably indicate normal human fallibilities with room for improvement. No one is perfect. If you think you are perfect, and scored therefore below 5, you might check again. Be sure your scores do not indicate a narcissism of excessive belief that you are perfect, another potential sign of narcissism
Too much narcissism in your habits would be indicated by a total score of 10 to 30. Pay attention to your "narcissism lite" and you may fairly easily be able to lower that score considerably.
A total score of 30 or higher spells significant narcissistic habits that probably do not serve you well. Time to make some serious habit changes!
40 to 60 or higher would indicate to me severe problems with narcissism. With this understanding of why your relationships become distressed, hopefully you will commit yourself to some serious personal growth.
Again, note that these score interpretations are based on hunches, not an experimentally validated scoring system. They are meant as a personal heads-up, not a clinical diagnosis.
What are your options if you are uncomfortable with the score?
The bottom line is that "narcissism" is basically habit-patterns, and habits can be changed. Awareness of your narcissistic tendencies is a strong first step that can empower you to notice and fix slippages.
You also might want to check out my blogpost on overcoming narcissism and borderline personality habits.
What if you are using this checklist to score how narcissistic someone you know may be?
If someone you interact with regularly shows narcissistic patterns, it's not up to you to change them. Better for you to focus on how you yourself can change the dance you do with that person.
For instance, you can choose that you will no longer let yourself be intimidated or controlled by fear of anger. Just gracefully leave the situation for a cool down period (“I need to get a drink of water.”), and then return for a calmer second-go at the conversation.
When you have something important to communicate with a narcissistic loved one, what can help? Be sure to follow the rule of talking about yourself, not about the other person. See my post on 6 sentence starters for sensitive discussions for illustrations of how to follow this rule to more effectively be past the deafness wall.
Having trouble getting your views heard? You can choose to speak up a second or third time about your concerns to increase the odds that your concerns or viewpoint will eventually get heard.
You can ask, after sharing a concern, “So what made sense to you in what I said?”
You can digest aloud what makes sense in what your partner said, and then make a second attempt to say your viewpoint. Once your partner feels heard, the odds go up that he or she will mirror your good hearing habits.
And becoming a master at win-win problem-solving can put you in a leadership role for situations in which you need to make a decision together so that your eventual plan of action heeds both of your concerns. This earlier post on win-win decision-making may help so that your partner feels that s/he has gotten what s/he wants even though your concerns also have been responded to in your plan of action.
Almost everyone tends to behave less narcissistically when they are happy. Most of us tend to become increasingly narcissistic as anxieties prime the pump of anger.
Anger promotes the sense that “What I want is holy, and what you want is irrelevant.” That's why it's so vital that in important conversations you stay calm. Talking about sensitive issues in calm good-humored ways without arguing has the highest odds of leading to mutual understandings instead of the narcissism trap.
The bottom line? For a happier life and more gratifing relationships, especially if your scores indicated some narcissistic tendencies, tame these trends with better skills. Narcissism is not like height or eye color. It's a behavior problem. Upgrading your listening and shared-decision-making skills can make a huge difference!
For therapists, I recently gave this webinar on treatment techniques for intervening with narcissistic habits.
Denver clinical psychologist Susan Heitler, Ph.D, a graduate of Harvard and NYU, is author of Power of Two, a book, a workbook, and a website that teach the communication skills that sustain positive relationships.
Click here for a free Power of Two relationship test.
Click the Power of Two logo to learn the skills for a strong, emotionally healthy and loving marriage.