How Can You Tell If Someone Is an Absolute Narcissist?

You can never be absolutely sure. And that's OK.

Posted Feb 27, 2020

To some extent, you get to choose the company you keep. Not always, of course. Sometimes you’re stuck with someone whether you like it or not. Still, you’ve got some freedom of association and dissociation. You want to use it well. 

You want to populate your world with company that affirms you, sure, but not absolute yes-men (and women. I’ll call them yes-persons). You also want different perspectives, second opinions, people who will give you honest feedback you can then evaluate by your own best standards. You want people who are looking out for you in the world even if that means disagreeing with you sometimes. 

Looking out for you in the world means paying attention to you and to the world. Not everyone will be. Some people fall all the way into a habit that comes easily to us all: Confirmation bias, listening only to what affirms them, dismissing what doesn’t. 

We all do some of that. After all, who wants to hear discouragement? But some people go all the way with it. People who make good company recognize that confirmation bias is a problem to be managed. For some people, it becomes a solution to all of their problems. 

For them, never is heard a discouraging word. They absolutely can’t, won’t, or think they shouldn’t have to hear it so they’re ever vigilant, absolutely self-confirming know-it-alls. They make lousy company because they can’t afford to pay attention to anything but staying confirmed no matter what. 

By “absolute” I mean what the word originally meant: “dissolved apart,” in other words, isolated, totally rigid to anything outside themselves. They’re people who can’t engage in give-and-take. They assume that their subjective perspective is objective, that they always “tell it like it is.” The more they insist on something the more it must be true. They might speak from the heart like zealots or speak from their heads like Dr. Spock robots, but whatever they say goes. 

Now if you’re an absolutist, you might fall in with other absolutists who share your rigid opinions. You can “tell it like it is” together. These would be your absolute yes-persons. They say yes to everything you say yes to and no to everything you say no to. They may feel like fabulous company. You can gang up on anyone who challenges either of you. Strength in numbers. If you hang out with people like that and you’ll be protected against anything that challenges any of you. 

But you know from looking around that that’s actually dangerous. That’s how we end up with cults that drink the Koolaid, absolutely isolated from reality. 

You might think that can’t happen to you. But really, why not? What would make you an exception to the natural human tendency to go all the way, treating our confirmation bias as the solution to all our problems? 

Absolutists assume they’re exceptions without wondering why they would be. They just know they are because their sole mission is pretending that they’re superhumanly, absolutely above all human biases. 

Indeed, if you assume you’re absolutely immune to the temptations of absolute yes-person cultism that other people fall for, that’s pretty solid evidence that you’re not an exception but just think you are.

If you’re not an absolutist—if you really care about yourself in the world, you want to use your freedom of association and dissociation to populate your life with non-absolutists, people who can stand a little give and take, people who may have strong temperaments and opinions but are not absolutely rigid. You don’t want to hang out with absolute yes-persons or no-persons.

The question, then, is how can you tell whether you’re dealing with an absolutist? 

Absolute yes-persons are really difficult to spot. You like their company. They “tell it like it is” the way you do. They’re on your side. 

We’re way better at spotting absolute no-persons because they are constantly knocking us. If a person is just heck annoying because they keep challenging you, they must be absolutist no-persons, right? 

It’s not that simple. After all, some of our best teachers challenge us pretty relentlessly. You wouldn’t want to mistake a challenging influence for some absolute no-person. 

Is there any test by which you can be absolutely sure you’re dealing with an absolute yes-person or no-person? 

The short answer is there isn’t. You can only make your best educated guesses. That can leave you feeling a little unsteady in your rejection of someone’s company. Maybe you’ll decide to walk away from someone because they seem like an absolute no-person when they’re really just someone who challenges you a lot. That’s cold. That’s heartless. If you were to walk away from someone you’d want to have more confidence than that. You’d want to be absolutely sure that they’re absolutists.

Imagine someone trying to decide if you were an absolute no-person. They’re going to test you by seeing whether you agree with various assertions. Say they try 100 of them, all 100 happen to be things you firmly disagree with. They say “the earth is flat” and you say “nope.” They say, “the moon is made of green cheese,” and you say “nope.” Are 100 assertions enough to prove absolutely that you’re an absolute no-person? 

Maybe 100 isn’t enough. Suppose they posed 1000 propositions like that and you said “nope” to all of them. That wouldn’t necessarily mean that you’re an absolute no-person. Maybe the 1001st would be something you agreed with. 

There is another test that’s a little better. The question isn’t whether you agree with an assertion but whether you can hear and understand it. Someone challenges you with a proposition you don’t agree with. Can you nonetheless act as a credible advocate for that proposition? Could you make a convincing case that the moon is made of green cheese even if you’re sure that it isn’t? If you can, that’s evidence that you’re at least receptive to hearing opposing opinions. 

Still, it’s not a perfect test. For example, there are plenty of skilled lawyers who can make a strong case for anything and are still absolutists. 

One can’t be absolutely sure who is an absolutist. In a way, that’s a good thing. If you decide to walk away from someone you suspect is an absolutist, they might say, “How dare you draw that conclusion! You can’t be absolutely sure that I’m an absolutist!” 

Absolutists love to say things like that. They don’t hate doubt; they just hate self-doubt. They love to make other people doubt themselves.

To which you can say, “You’re right. I can’t be absolutely sure you’re an absolutist. It’s just my best guess and I’m sticking with it.”

Our lives in the world are full of such uncertainties. Through careful guesswork, we can reduce but not entirely eliminate them. There will be times when you read someone as absolutist when they’re not, and times when you assume someone is not an absolutist when they are. You want to minimize both errors but you can’t eliminate it entirely. When you decide to walk away from someone because you conclude that they’re probably absolutists, expect a little self-doubt. 

After all, only absolutists imagine that they can eliminate all self-doubt. That’s what makes absolutism so appealing to so many of us. The price you pay for not being an absolutist is some ineliminable self-doubt. 

It’s worth it. It will make you better company for others.