Many people attend counseling because they are attempting to recover from a relationship with a narcissist. After spending a substantial amount of time re-assembling a dismantled sense of self, it is natural for a person to fear diving into the dating pool again. The possibility of encountering another narcissist is terrifying. Yet, picking up on early warning signs may protect a person.
Initially, a narcissist is masterful at creating an image of himself or herself that is very different from reality. Often, it is only after a person invests in the relationship that the narcissist slowly exhibits his or her true colors. However, by this time, it may be too late. Committed and already convinced that he or she is the problem, not the narcissist, the person is trapped.
So, how can a person see through the narcissist’s facade in order to avoid involvement in a toxic relationship? Eight red flags may help you identify a narcissist before you decide to make a serious commitment. When considering these points, try not to rush to judgment or perceive them in absolutes. Instead, thoughtfully consider these concepts. They may help uncover personality traits that point to trouble in the future.
1. The individual’s actions do not match his or her words. For example, say a person gloats about being savvy financially, but two weeks later needs to borrow money, or he or she brags about being good with kids, but then treats a child callously. It is easy to excuse these behaviors as the product of a bad day or an isolated incident, yet if the trend of talking the talk, but not walking the walk continues, it may be a sign of narcissism. Narcissists often lack self-awareness and insight, so they do not realize the disconnect between their self-perception and actual behavior.
2. He or she is “too cool for school.” A healthy desire to be liked and accepted is normal, but a narcissist sometimes needs to be perceived as “cool.” Often, he or she enjoys being the center of attention and must be in control of social situations. It is ego-gratifying and fuels a narcissist’s grandiosity.
3. He or she oscillates from nice to indifferent. If a person starts to pick up on the narcissist’s manipulations, the narcissist may revert to extreme niceties. This throws the individual off the narcissist’s trail. It also keeps the person in the relationship, because he or she longs to regain a valued status after being devalued by the narcissist.
4. He or she has a desire to be perceived as deep. Often a narcissist desperately wishes to be viewed as deep, so espousing their passions, hobbies, and relationships as more meaningful than others' is common. For example, a narcissist may spend $800 dollars on a concert ticket to show off his or her passion for music, so it appears it is superior to others.
5. The individual constantly “throws people under the bus.” Occasionally venting to a confidant in private is healthy and necessary. Yet, a narcissist constantly talks about friends and family when they are not present. He or she seizes opportunities in front of an “audience” to gossip about a person behind his or her back. Deflection and projection are several defense mechanisms at play when the narcissist attempts to discredit someone he or she is jealous of.
6. He or she makes backhanded comments. A narcissist routinely disguises a degrading sentiment as a compliment or a joke. However, these comments sting and swim in the receiving person’s head for days. An example includes, “You’d be so successful if you were more organized.” Backhanded statements are a narcissist’s way of eroding their partner’s self-esteem in a covert manner. By making someone feel small, they feel big. Many psychotherapists refer to this as projective identification.
7. The individual frequently takes a victim stance. Acting as though aspects of his or her life are more difficult than anyone else’s, a narcissist easily garners sympathy and resources. If a person is on the receiving end of an ongoing supply of sob stories, they may be with a narcissist.
8. Minor disagreements frequently turn into blow-out fights. Often a narcissist is unable to be authentically accountable for his or her behavior, distorting the situation in order to place blame on the other person. By unconsciously altering his or her version of reality, the narcissist perceives himself or herself as a victim and their partner as the villain. Because the interaction is viewed through a distorted lens, the narcissist accuses the other person of doing what they are actually doing. For example, often a narcissist attacks his or her partner for being a narcissist.
If a person recognizes these emotionally abusive tendencies, he or she may hope that the narcissist can or will change. Unfortunately, due to the narcissist’s lack of insight, inability to integrate sincere accountability, and distorted version of reality, it may be difficult for him or her to evolve and mature. Banking on a narcissist changing may be futile.
It’s important to take red flags seriously. In isolation, they are easy to excuse, but over time, if they persist, a person may detect a pattern of relating that is dysfunctional. Listening to your intuition is critical, because a narcissist may not show his or her true colors until the other person is invested. Once the narcissist gains their partner’s complete trust, they may slowly exhibit emotionally abusive tendencies, but by this time it may be too late. The person dating the narcissist may be desperate for the relationship to work out, so he or she excuses, rationalizes, rescinds boundaries, make sacrifices, and appeases. The narcissist takes advantage of this selflessness and demands more and gives less until he or she has almost complete control. Thus, a thoughtful and insightful evaluation of the relationship is critical. Ending the relationship before too much damage is done may be the key.