- The DSM-5 suggests that up to 6.2 percent of the adult population may have narcissistic personality disorder.
- Those with narcissistic personality disorder have a narrow, enduring pattern of behavior that repeats and repeats—regardless of what you do.
- One warning sign of being in the presence of a narcissist is feeling extremely loved, flattered, or even euphoric. Narcissists are seductive.
Whether you’re dating, making friends, looking for a job, hiring employees, or joining a club or organization, it can be helpful to know some of the warning signs for people with narcissistic personality disorder or significant narcissistic traits.
In relationships, they usually consider themselves superior, may be insulting and demeaning, do not reciprocate attention, demand constant admiration, may lose interest in you, may be promiscuous, may spend your money on others, and may humiliate you in public to enhance their own image.
In the workplace, they may spend inordinate amounts of time chatting with co-workers to impress them, make promises they don’t keep and take credit for your hard work. As supervisors, they may bully you alone or in front of others. They may speak disparagingly of those above them, but only have good things to say in their presence. (Kicking down and kissing up!)
The Theme of Superiority
The DSM-5 lists nine potential criteria for narcissistic personality disorder. In relationships, these emphasize superiority, including being arrogant, believing they are special, demanding admiration, lacking empathy, and taking advantage of others. The DSM-5 suggests that up to 6.2 percent of the adult population may have this disorder.1 You have surely met some of them. If they have the personality disorder, then they have a narrow, enduring pattern of behavior that repeats and repeats and repeats, regardless of what you do. It’s important to realize that you can’t change them.
As a therapist, I have helped many clients learn tools for coping with a narcissistic partner. It’s not about you; this is what they do. Don’t bother trying to give them insight into their past behavior: They won’t get it, and it creates a power struggle. Focus on what your choices are in the moment.
As a family lawyer, I have helped many women and several men separate from their narcissistic partners after years of verbal (and sometimes physical) abuse. Even getting divorced can be a very rocky road, but manageable if you know what you’re dealing with.
The WEB Method
With this in mind, let’s look at some of the warning signs that you might be getting into a relationship of one type or another with a narcissist. I recommend a three-step approach that I call the WEB Method®: Pay attention to their words, your emotions, and their behavior. (For more, see my book, 5 Types of People Who Can Ruin Your Life.)
1. Their Words
Watch for both extremely positive and extremely negative words, about you or others.
Extremely positive (seductive) words: I love you, you’re so wonderful! I’ve never met someone as great as you are! You’re so much better than all the others. You’re the center of my life! I will give you everything you deserve. No one has treated you as well as I will treat you. The person you were with before was a real loser. I have this great idea that will make me really famous someday. Let me tell you about it. (Notice that much of this is very comparative — that’s a warning sign that you will get compared negatively later on.)
Extremely negative (disparaging) words: That person over there is a real loser. Let me tell you about him (or her). The people who rejected my great idea are some of the stupidest people I have ever met. They don’t know brilliance when it’s staring them in the face. My boss is really treating me unfairly. I’m thinking of going over his head and getting him fired. I can’t wait until everyone sees him being walked out of the office for good! He’ll be totally humiliated. (Notice the thrill of superiority and lack of empathy, even if the other person is a lousy boss.)
Words that show a lack of empathy or interest: The following happens a lot with narcissists. If you tell the person about a bad experience or vulnerability that you have, their response will often begin with: "Well, let me tell you what happened to me once!" There’s often no recognition of your concern — or even your existence, sometimes. They lose interest quickly, once they think they have you.
Victim words: Narcissists perpetually see themselves as superior, but also perpetually as victims. When they are exposed as not being so superior after all, they suffer what is often called “a narcissistic injury.” Maybe they were turned down for a job promotion in favor of someone else. After such an “injury,” they will become obsessed with proving how bad the other person is and how wonderful they are. They may go on a long rant: It’s so unfair what they did/said/are. I will show them! They’re punishing me for being better than they will ever be!
2. Your Emotions
Now pay attention to your own emotions. How do you feel around the person?
Feel too good to be true? This person is so nice to you, you feel extremely loved and flattered. You may have a euphoric feeling. They almost seem too good to be true. That’s a warning sign because people who intensely and endlessly flatter you are often not who they seem. Their charm for you is a warning sign. Sometimes, they are simply charming and not a narcissist. But sometimes it means you are being seduced in the moment with lovely words by a narcissist, who will say them soon to the next person or organization they meet. They like winning more than having.
Feel stupid and inadequate? Some narcissists are so busy puffing themselves up that they don’t realize they are putting you down in the process — it’s so automatic for them. You may not even notice it consciously at first, but soon you may be filled with self-doubt: I wonder what they think of me? I’m not really that smart, talented, or attractive, after all. I’m certainly not in their league, am I?
Feel like you can't breathe? It’s common for narcissists to “suck up all the oxygen in the room.” Other people start feeling like they can’t breathe, because they can’t get a word in. Whatever someone else says, the conversation gets steered back to the narcissist somehow.
3. Their Behavior
Notice what they do, more than what they say. Narcissists have lots of words to distract from and make up for their insensitive behavior. People constantly confront narcissists and constantly are frustrated. Rather than reflecting on their past behavior, narcissists defend it and attack you for criticizing them (“How dare you, after all I’ve done for you!”). So just become aware of their behavior, and ignore their words excusing or distracting from it.
For example, instead of saying: “Why were you late?!” You could say: “I’d prefer if you would let me know ahead of time if you’re going to be late, so I can make other plans.” Then, just leave it at that, and notice if they fulfill or ignore your request. If they try to fulfill your request, that’s a good sign. But if there’s an unchanging pattern of disregard for you and your requests, then you may consider ending that relationship, since you’re not going to change that person. If you feel taken for granted, remember that narcissists like winning relationships, not having relationships. They may be on to the next conquest.
Targets of blame: If a narcissist also has a high-conflict personality, that means that they will look for a target of blame when something goes wrong for them. They may intensely blame you for something minor or non-existent or done by someone else (perhaps even by themselves, which is called “projection”). When they mess up, they often look for someone close by to blame: It’s all your fault that I didn’t get that promotion! You should have spoken to the boss like I asked you to. Now what are you going to do about it?!
As with all of the high-conflict personalities, they tend to blame people in close relationships with them (girlfriends, boyfriends, wives, husbands, kids, parents, close friends, close neighbors, etc.) or people in authority positions (supervisors, business owners, police, government agencies, etc.). They often get stuck in a cycle of attacking a target of blame and defending themselves, rather than getting any work done or paying attention to their family: This includes taking actions, such as making angry phone calls, writing long email rants, or engaging in social media meltdowns.
Notice if they have ever done something that 90 percent of people would never do ("The 90 Percent Rule"). Something that you would never do. If so, regardless of their excuses, it usually means there’s a pattern of high-conflict behavior under the surface which would support such extreme behavior. For narcissists, this often includes humiliating a partner or child in public, sabotaging a co-worker, or verbally attacking a colleague or employee in a meeting for something the narcissist actually did.
Think of all of these patterns—of words, emotions, and behavior—as potential warning signs. None of this is a diagnosis but rather hints to help you decide who you want in your relationships at home, at work, and in your community. Of course, you may not be able to avoid the person, or you may decide there are benefits that you will get with someone with these traits, in which case think about how to carefully manage the relationship.
I always want to emphasize that no one chooses to have a personality disorder or high-conflict personality, so it's good to have empathy and compassion for them and treat them with respect, regardless of whether you distance yourself from them or manage a relationship with them.
Whatever you decide to do, it helps to know what you’re getting into. Therefore, be aware of their words, your emotions, and their behavior, especially the 90 percent rule.
1. American Psychiatric Association: Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition. Arlington, VA, American Psychiatric Association, 2013.