- A tone of contempt is a particularly strong narcissistic indicator, as is the inability to listen.
- Instead of trying to change a narcissist, change your reaction — such as deciding to no longer be intimidated or controlled by fear of anger.
- Often, narcissism is a skills deficit. If you think you have narcissistic tendencies, upgrade your listening and shared-decision-making skills.
Narcissistic folks who are fun, good at things, and appear in public to be compassionate and generous often look like they would be desirable as friends and even as marriage partners. They can be very enjoyable to hang out with. At the same time, are they also good partners when it comes to talking through differences of opinion? Or is there something about how they communicate in a relationship that makes narcissistic folks provocative?
Ever tried to be friends or a love partner with someone who is all about me? Someone who only listens to him or herself? A partner who changes the topic, gets defensive or mad at you when you try to talk about difficulties you've been experiencing?
Narcissistic functioning, at its core, is a disorder of listening. Think of it as one-sided listening, with multiple features that emerge as a result. The desire to sustain a friendship—never mind a love relationship—can quickly fade with someone who does not seem to see or hear you, who dismissively pushes away what you say, and who may be quick to anger if you nonetheless attempt to express your viewpoint.
The Narcissism Quiz
Wondering if you or someone you know is a narcissist? The following quiz suggests six dimensions for assessing narcissism. Score each dimension from 0 to 5. (Zero is not at all. Five 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. 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 dismisses, negates, ignores, minimizes, denigrates, or otherwise renders irrelevant other people’s concerns and comments. A tone of contempt is a particularly strong narcissistic indicator.
Another narcissistic indicator is responding to what others say by beginning with the word "But...." But is a backspace-delete key that negates whatever came before—such as what someone else has said. The but eraser deletes others' viewpoints from the discussion.
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, or 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.
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.
Sign #4: Your concerns are really criticisms of me, and I hate being criticized.
I can criticize others, and often do—but if you criticize me you’re hurting my feelings, so I’ll hurt you back. 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. If you are talking about your feelings, even if they were engendered by situations at work or with friends that have nothing to do with me, I interpret your negative feelings as criticism of me.
Narcissists paradoxically manifest both an inflated idea of their own importance and quickness to feel deflated by negative feedback. Criticism hurts—and because narcissists 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. "I'm feeling lonely" gets heard by someone who is narcissistic as an accusation: "You don't spend enough time with me."
Sign #5: I'm right. You're wrong. So 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. If you expect me to say how I’ve contributed to a problem, I’ll get mad at you.
Unwillingness to take responsibility for mistakes may come from confusing the part with the whole, or all-or-nothing thinking. Narcissists think, "If I've done one thing that's not right, then I must be all bad"—which is why they're so resistant to admitting any wrong things at all. Whatever the source of the sensitivity to criticism and difficulty admitting mistakes, they have a tendency to blame others when anything goes 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.
Sign #6: I may be quick to anger—but when I get angry, it's because of you.
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. If I’m mad, it's because I'm frustrated by what you are doing. I'm only mad because of you.
Narcissists often show major charm and social agility. At the same time, these seemingly super-confident folks can be quick to anger. When they do become inflamed, they then immediately blame their anger on others.
TOTAL SCORE: ___
What does this score indicate?
Scores of 10 or less indicate a healthy to average range.
A bit too much narcissism in your habits is indicated by a total score between 10 and 17. Pay a little more attention to your more narcissistic habits, and you may be able to lower that score considerably, with only a moderate amount of effort.
A total score of 18 or higher spells significant narcissistic habits that probably do not serve you well. It may be time to make some serious habit changes!
A score of 24 or higher would indicate serious problems with narcissism. Hopefully, you're willing to commit yourself to some serious personal growth.
(Note that these score interpretations are based on general patterns, not an experimentally validated scoring system. They are meant as a personal heads-up, not a clinical diagnosis.)
How well—or poorly— a person listens is a primary indicator of narcissism. Someone who looks to understand what's interesting in what others say, and what makes sense about it, is probably reasonably emotionally healthy. Disparaging or ignoring others' input suggests narcissistic patterns. (Similarly, being all about others can be problematic. Excessive altruism invites co-dependency and enabling behaviors.)
The bottom line is that healthy folks in healthy relationships are able to listen responsively to their own concerns and also 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 refer to the ability to hear both oneself and others as bilateral (2-sided) listening. When differences arise, the ability to do bilateral listening enables the creation of win-win solutions, sustaining ongoing goodwill in their relationships.
For instance, if you were 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 at least for a few minutes now, and plan to talk more at length in the morning. That could be a win-win solution.
By contrast, if you tend toward narcissism, you might respond with an immediate, "No, I’m too tired,” to your friend’s request. Narcissistic listening is one-sided listening. What I want, think, or feel is all that matters. What you want, think, or feel does not register as information worth attending to.
The Paradoxes of Narcissism
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, narcissistic individuals can show compassionate generosity toward strangers, yet not to the people they are supposed to love. In part, this may stem from narcissistic tendencies to judge everyone as either higher or lower than themselves. Family members may be treated as lowly, while outsiders—or those with high status, such as power or wealth—get treated with respect.
Options If You're Uncomfortable With Your Score
The bottom line is that "narcissism" is basically habit-patterns, and habits can be changed. Awareness of your own narcissistic tendencies is a strong first step that can empower you to notice and fix slippages. Learning skills for becoming a better listener can be an important next step. You also might want to check out my blog post 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. Instead, it's likely 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.
Just about everyone becomes increasingly narcissistic with 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.
The Bottom Line About Narcissism
For a happier life and more gratifying relationships, especially if your scores indicated some narcissistic tendencies, tame these trends with better skills. Though some folks are more prone to narcissism than others, narcissism generally is not a fixed phenomenon like height or eye color. Rather, much of the time narcissism is a skills deficit. Upgrade your listening and shared-decision-making skills and be delightfully surprised as less conflict and more gratifying relationships flow your way.