Narcissists are all around us. In their various forms, ranging from somewhat benign to extremely toxic, they dominate reality TV shows, political campaigns, and the world of movies and music. While they can be attractive, entertaining, sharp, and funny to watch from a distance, you don’t want to date or marry one. And if you are already entangled with one, you may be reeling with confusion, self-doubt, and damaged self-esteem. Unfortunately, the chances of hooking up with a narcissist at some time in your dating or relationship life are pretty strong. Their physical attractiveness, charm, intelligence, and laser-like focus on going after what they want mean that they can reel you in, frantically romance you, devour you, and spit you out in a heartbeat. If you are beautiful and insecure or a “giver” in relationships, you are a prime target.
So how do you avoid the bait? The key is to identify them early and make a quick exit.
The term narcissism was originally coined from the Greek legend in which a hunter named Narcissus was known for his outer beauty and disdain for others. Narcissus fell in love with his own reflection in the water. Not knowing the beautiful image was his own and needing to possess it, he eventually drowned. Today we use the term narcissism broadly to describe somebody who is arrogant, grandiose, selfish, and superficially charming. There is a spectrum of narcissism, ranging from that which is benign or even socially advantageous, to the more pathological types.
The Narcissistic Personality Inventory (NPI), used in many research studies of narcissism, measures both Healthy and Unhealthy Narcissism, while the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM 5) lists Narcissistic Personality Disorder as a long-term mental health condition. On the healthy end are narcissistic traits like Authority, Willfulness, and Self-Sufficiency are very useful to have if you want to climb the corporate ladder or be a super-star entrepreneur. On the unhealthy side are traits like entitlement, exhibitionism, and exploitativeness, which can make it difficult to maintain close relationships over long periods. Entitlement means that you see yourself as deserving special treatment and extra privileges that others don’t get. Exhibitionism means you like to show off, often inappropriately. Exploitativeness means that you use other people to advance your own goals or meet your own needs, rather than seeing them as intrinsically valuable. These traits may explain why people in relationships with narcissists often don’t feel seen and respected.
Below are six red flags that suggest your partner may be a narcissist.
Hey Good-Looking, What’s Cooking?
Narcissists are preoccupied with the superficial aspects of life like status, weight, and physical beauty, at the expense of committing to deeper values. They tend to indulge themselves by shopping a lot, getting mani-pedi’s or spending a lot of time in the gym building muscle. They present well, but they don’t necessarily play well with others. And if you think someone is a narcissist based on appearance, they probably are! In one study, researchers asked participants to fill out a scale measuring narcissism and then photographed them. Observers who did not know them or their score on the scale were able to identify those higher in narcissism by the photographs alone! Narcissists were more likely to have spent time on their appearance, be wearing makeup, showing cleavage, or have muscular arms. Perhaps because of this, they were rated as more physically attractive. So that tall, dark, and handsome guy buying you a drink may be a narcissist in sheep’s clothing!
Narcissists are Sensation-Seekers
Many narcissists are risk-takers. They don’t like rules and get bored with routines. They seek excitement and challenge in their work, intimate relationships, sexuality, exercise, or possessions. Many narcissists love to travel and have other novel and “special” experiences. They like to possess beautiful things (including possibly you). They may be wine or art collectors, athletes, high-powered lawyers, bond traders, models, or surgeons. Many narcissists make successful entrepreneurs both because they like to be running the show and because they find it meaningful to build an empire of sorts. Research shows narcissists seek more variety in their sex lives and are drawn to drugs and alcohol. They also thrive on drama and intensity and hate to be ignored.
It’s All About Them
Narcissists are so preoccupied with themselves, their goals and gratification that they seldom or never focus on you. When you are first dating and seen as a prize, they may lavish you with attention, compliments, gifts, and expensive dinners (or not, if they’re cheap). But when they know that have you, you cease to be a new, shiny object for them and they quickly get bored. They may be womanizers who are constantly on the lookout for a more attractive and interesting partner that they feel is truly worthy of them. They may have problems with commitment and not want to restrict their options. Or they may move in with you, but then expect you to do all the routine, dirty, or unrewarding household tasks and complaining that you don’t do them well enough. After years of trying to please them or meet their exacting standards, many partners give up on them and leave.
Narcissists May Not Know How You Feel and They Don’t Care
There are two ways to empathize with another person’s feelings and experiences. Cognitive empathy means that you understand what they feel in an intellectual way (“Sure you’re mad that I had an affair”). Emotional empathy means that you can put yourself in the other person’s shoes, understand deeply how they feel and have caring and compassion for them. Some research shows that if you ask narcissists to stand in your shoes and see things from your perspective, they can understand what you feel, although this is not their default mode. On the other hand, narcissists do very poorly on emotional empathy. If you are hurt and angry for valid reasons and try to express this to them, they may simply walk away, pretend they didn’t hear, or get rageful and defensive.And if you have ever been on the receiving end of a narcissist’s rage, it’s not a pretty picture! If you're upset for reasons that are not about them, they will probably tell you to get over it, that you're overreacting, or that they don't understand why you got into the situation in the first place. The narcissist may actually have a brain that is less able to empathize with you. A few brain research studies have shown that narcissists have less grey matter in the left anterior insula, a part of the brain associated with feeling empathy and compassion.
They Never Take Responsibility
The narcissist is an expert at evading responsibility for their hurtful, neglectful, or downright mean behavior. Some psychological theories suggest that narcissists construct a “false self” that is superior in every way, in order to defend against underlying feelings of shame and vulnerability. Research studies show that although narcissists report high explicit (conscious) self-esteem, they show low implicit (unconscious) self-esteem when this is tested outside of their knowledge. Many narcissists were raised in households in which love, praise, and attention were given only for excellent performance, taking care of their parents’ emotional needs, or acting in ways that made the family appear in a good light. This makes criticism and accusations of imperfection personally threatening to them.
Narcissists Talk the Talk But Don’t Walk the Walk
Some narcissists may say that they care about you or may apologize for bad behavior and state strong intentions to do better … but they invariably don’t follow through in a consistent manner. This may be due to their difficulties with controlling their impulses—some brain studies show deficits in parts of the cortex and limbic (emotional) areas of the brain that result in difficulty regulating negative emotions and controlling impulses. Therefore, although the narcissist may have good intentions, he struggles to be consistent or she gets distracted by things that are more rewarding to her and relevant to her needs.
After reading this article, you will have a better sense of whether your partner or date is a narcissist. If they are, they are likely to be seductive, exciting, and intense or they may be arrogant and dismissive and “play games.” It is very easy to get hooked on the adrenalin a narcissist provokes or to fall for their promises to change. But you need to know that narcissism is a strongly heritable biological-behavioral condition that will make it very difficult for them to be an authentic and trustworthy partner for the long-term.
I am a practicing psychologist in Mill Valley, California, and an expert on relationships and narcissism. Sign up for my newsletter.