5 Early Warning Signs You’re With a Narcissist

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It’s not easy loving someone with Narcissistic Personality Disorder. Dr. Craig Malkin offers a helpful guide to catching the signs of NPD early on in a relationship.

 

At the beginning of April this year, I was tapped by the Huffington Post Live team for a discussion on narcissism. I happily agreed to appear, for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that narcissism happens to be one of my favorite subjects. Early in my training, I had the pleasure of working with one of the foremost authorities on narcissism in our field, and in part because of that experience, I went on to work with quite a few clients who’d been diagnosed with narcissistic personality disorder. That’s where I learned that the formal diagnostic label hardly does justice to the richness and complexity of this condition. The most glaring problems are easy to spot — the apparent absence of even a shred of empathy, the grandiose plans and posturing, the rage at being called out on the slightest of imperfections or normal human missteps — but if you get too hung up on the obvious traits, you can easily miss the subtle (and often more common) features that allow a narcissist to sneak into your life and wreak havoc.

Just ask Tina Swithin, who went on to write a book about surviving her experience with a man who clearly meets criteria for NPD (and very likely, a few other diagnoses). To her lovestruck eyes, her soon-to-be husband seemed more like a prince charming than the callous, deceitful spendthrift he later proved to be. Looking back, Tina explains, there were signs of trouble from the start, but they were far from obvious at the time. In real life, the most dangerous villains rarely advertise their malevolence.

So what are we to do? How do we protect ourselves from narcissists if they’re so adept at slipping into our lives unnoticed?

I shared some of my answers to that question in our conversation, and I encourage you to watch it. But there were a few I didn’t get to, and others I didn’t have the chance to describe in depth, so I thought I’d take the opportunity to revisit the topic here. Tread carefully if you catch a glimpse of any of these subtler signs:

1) Projected Feelings of Insecurity: I don’t mean that narcissists see insecurity everywhere. I’m talking about a different kind of projection altogether, akin to playing hot potato with a sense of smallness and deficiency. Narcissists say and do things, subtle or obvious, that make you feel less smart, less accomplished, less competent. It’s as if they’re saying, “I don’t want to feel this insecure and small; here, you take the feelings.” Picture the boss who questions your methods after their own decision derails an important project, the date who frequently claims not to understand what you’ve said, even when you’ve been perfectly clear, or the friend who always damns you with faint praise (“Pretty good job this time!”). Remember the saying: “Don’t knock your neighbor’s porch light out to make yours shine brighter.” Well, the narcissist loves to knock out your lights to seem brighter by comparison.

2) Emotion-phobia: Feelings are a natural consequence of being human, and we tend to have lots of them in the course of normal interactions. But the very fact of having a feeling in the presence of another person suggests you can be touched emotionally by friends, family, partners, and even the occasional tragedy or failure. Narcissists abhor feeling influenced in any significant way. It challenges their sense of perfect autonomy; to admit to a feeling of any kind suggests they can be affected by someone or something outside of them. So they often change the subject when feelings come up, especially their own, and as quick as they might be to anger, it’s often like pulling teeth to get them to admit that they’ve reached the boiling point — even when they’re in the midst of the most terrifying tirade.

3) A Fragmented Family Story: Narcissism seems to be born of neglect and abuse, both of which are notorious for creating an insecure attachment style (for more on attachment, see here and here). But the very fact that narcissists, for all their posturing, are deeply insecure, also gives us an easy way to spot them. Insecurely attached people can’t talk coherently about their family and childhood; their early memories are confused, contradictory, and riddled with gaps. Narcissists often give themselves away precisely because their childhood story makes no sense, and the most common myth they carry around is the perfect family story. If your date sings their praises for their exalted family but the reasons for their panegyric seem vague or discursive, look out. The devil is in the details, as they say — and very likely, that’s why you’re not hearing them.

4) Idol Worship: Another common narcissistic tendency you might be less familiar with is the habit of putting people on pedestals. The logic goes a bit like this: “If I find someone perfect to be close to, maybe some of their perfection will rub off on me, and I’ll become perfect by association.” The fact that no one can be perfect is usually lost on the idol-worshipping narcissist — at least until they discover, as they inevitably do, that their idol has clay feet. And stand back once that happens. Few experiences can prepare you for the vitriol of a suddenly disappointed narcissist. Look out for any pressure to conform to an image of perfection, no matter how lovely or magical the compulsive flattery might feel.

5) A High Need for Control: For the same reason narcissists often loathe the subject of feelings, they can’t stand to be at the mercy of other people’s preferences; it reminds them that they aren’t invulnerable or completely independent — that, in fact, they might have to ask for what they want — and even worse, people may not feel like meeting the request. Rather than express needs or preferences themselves, they often arrange events (and maneuver people) to orchestrate the outcomes they desire. In the extreme form, this can manifest as abusive, controlling behaviors. (Think of the man who berates his wife when dinner isn’t ready as soon as he comes home. He lashes out precisely because at that very moment, he’s forced to acknowledge that he depends on his wife, something he’d rather avoid.) But as with most of these red flags, the efforts at control are often far subtler than outright abuse. Be on the look out for anyone who leaves you feeling nervous about approaching certain topics or sharing your own preferences. Narcissists have a way of making choices feel off-limits without expressing any anger at all — a disapproving wince, a last-minute call to preempt the plans, chronic lateness whenever you’re in charge of arranging a night together. It’s more like a war of attrition on your will than an outright assault on your freedom.

None of these signs, in isolation, proves that you’re with a narcissist. But if you see a lot of them, it’s best to sit up and take notice. They’re all way of dodging vulnerability, and that’s a narcissist’s favorite tactic.

 

Originally appeared at The Huffington Post

Photo: Flickr/Dennis Brekke

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About Dr. Craig Malkin

Dr. Craig Malkin is an author, clinical psychologist, and Instructor of Psychology for Harvard Medical School (HMS) with two decades of experience helping individuals, couples, and families. His unique, practical approach to helping people break out of painful romantic patterns combines an in-depth knowledge of the science of attraction with a broad, interdisciplinary understanding of how relationships work. He serves as president and director of YM Psychotherapy and Consultation, Inc., which provides psychotherapy and evidence-based couples workshops. He's also currently writing a self-help book designed to help people break bad romantic patterns.

Comments

  1. I agree there are similar personality traits of a NPD and a socio path. Dealing with being book ended by a mother and sister who were both it has made my life more difficult. I have fought hard to get away from them both. As mentioned they both seem to have gotten away with much stuff. They both co enable one another and they both have at times usurped my identity (literally by stealing my identity, my trust funds, and my school funds and metaphorically ) what blows my mind is how they have gone about getting others on board to abuse me and convince others I am the problem. They have stole my identity but then pretended that I had no accomplishments both while stealing my educational back ground. My sister built her career on false documentations and she has got away with it! She even convinced the Prime Minister of Canada! She has even put people in jail and had families divided because she can come across as such an authority figure…she does not even have grade nine education!! By pubically saying this out loud I am putting myself in danger because she has people whom are co dependant and willing to do me harm for speaking the truth about her. I have had my house vandalized, she vandalize the property the day before my wedding, she has stolen from me, convinced people to beat me up, poisoned me, stole money and property from me, created lies about me, and all while convincing others I am the problem! The more I try to get away from her the more she obsesses and finds ways to get back into my life. She has even hired a private detective agency to follow me. Her main MO is to always find someone who is vulnerable and needy and will take a bribe to do her dirty work. This is one of the reasons it took me so long to figure her out. In addition she sucked me in with compassion and believing I could help her. The list goes on and on.

  2. Thanks for this. The article and the comments together are helping me make sense of a lot that had happened in my life, including right now. I feel like I’ve received better tools fory toolbox, permission to use them, and the realization that the permission comes from me. I feel for those still caught up in the more extreme nets of those who will go to any length to protect their world view. Persist, and know that you yourself are worth standing up for.

  3. David Wise says:

    Oops.

  4. And, sometimes, they’re your father or mother, and you find yourself lucky to have escaped them…even if the memories can still hurt you.

    Thank you for this.

  5. Beautifully written well done clearly explained!
    Thank you! As a child psychotherapist
    I have worked with a number of parents like this!
    This article gives parents a look into
    why it’s so important as parents to learn from a child therapist how to teach children emotional intelligence skills correctly. Knowing how you feel and being able to manage those feelings is important to success in life. It’s also the key to Prevention! Easier to prevent and very hard to cure!
    Even if you don’t have npd most of us were not taught healthy emotional intelligence skills and had to learn better coping methods as adults.
    So better to learn early from an expert!

  6. Sorta wished he had flushed out the paragraph on fragmented family history more; funnily enough it seemed a bit fragmented! Also, there are many with “non-normal” child histories who are not Narcissist. Further I have met folks who are clearly narcissist, but were not abused.

  7. This is spot on….

  8. Robert Hartman says:

    Number 4 seems like more of an indicator for borderline personality disorder. The borderline flip is a telltale sign of real and persistent trouble. Perhaps the difference is that once narcissistic sufferers recognize that their idols were undermining their autonomy, they just move on. Instead of moving on, the borderline sufferer adopts the role of a toxic avenger.

  9. I think articles need to stop demonizing childhood abuse survivors. It’s true that abusers have higher percentages of previous abuse than non-abusers but it’s also true that most survivors DON’T go on to abuse others. There is a trend at the moment to say survivors are all these bad things and you should avoid being with one. This is further abuse and stigma. It’s not ok.

  10. I have been trying to put my finger on what was wrong with the relationship I was in. This is what I was experiencing but never knew until now. Thank you.

  11. So, what if you know someone with these symptoms and want to help them. Coz the fact is, they are hurting themselves too. And it’s not always possible to run away from all relationships. Example what if the person is your mom/ dad/ sibling. Is there no way to change an NPD?

Trackbacks

  1. [...] It's not easy loving someone with Narcissistic Personality Disorder. Dr. Craig Malkin offers a helpful guide to catching the signs of NPD early on in a relationship. narcissistic personality disorder. That’s where I learned that the formal diagnostic label hardly does justice to the richness and complexity of this condition. The most glaring problems are easy to spot — the apparent absence of even a shred of empathy, the grandiose plans and posturing, the rage at being called out on the slightest of imperfections or normal human missteps — but if you get too hung up on the obvious traits, you can easily miss the subtle  [...]

  2. [...] It's not easy loving someone with Narcissistic Personality Disorder. Dr. Craig Malkin offers a helpful guide to catching the signs of NPD early on in a relationship. Narcissistic Personality Disorder. I learned that the formal diagnostic label hardly does justice to the richness and complexity of this condition. The most glaring problems are easy to spot — the apparent absence of even a shred of empathy, the grandiose plans and posturing, the rage at being called out on the slightest of imperfections or normal human missteps — but if you get too hung up on the obvious traits, you can easily miss the subtle (and often more common) features that allow a narcissist to sneak into your life and wreak havoc.  [...]

  3. […] lens than the narcissistic worldview. Read Dr. Malkin’s runaway hit article, 5 Early Warning Signs You’re With a Narcissist Originally appeared at The Huffington […]

  4. […] It's not easy loving someone with Narcissistic Personality Disorder. Dr. Craig Malkin offers a helpful guide to catching the signs of NPD early on in a relationship.  […]

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