The word “narcissist” has become the pop psychology go-to buzzword, a fast and easy synonym for the bad guy who broke your heart or your bank account, the liar and plunderer, the in-it-to-win it dude who you didn’t recognize for who he was until it was way too late. (I’m using the male narcissist here to avoid a pile-up of pronouns and because there are more men on the end of the spectrum than women. But women can be high in narcissistic traits too so feel free to switch up the genders.)
There are easy-to-understand reasons someone high in narcissistic traits can be hard to spot at first, among them being that he curates his image and behaviors very carefully and he’s likely to “love-bomb” you with all manner of grand gestures, gifts, and an amount of attention that will simply make even a relatively sane woman giddy with joy. In fact, you’re probably not going to notice that it’s all a bit much in the early stages because it all seems so romantic. Yes, part of his camouflage is the cultural vision of romantic love that includes being “swept up” and subsumed, rather than a slow dance of mutual discovery.
Then, too, he’s likely to focus in on a possible partner who’s more amenable to his charms—more insecure than not, a peacemaker at heart who’s not likely to challenge him or make a fuss, someone who tries to avoid direct confrontation, and, most important, who is grateful and eager for the attention. She’s most likely to have an adult attachment style that’s anxious-preoccupied, rather than secure, which makes her an ideal candidate for mistaking the narcissist’s whirlwind courtship for love and to think that the rollercoaster ride he’s put her on is really what passion looks like. (How childhood experiences affect our vision of love and relationship as well as our behaviors is fully explained in my book, Daughter Detox.)
But still, why does recognition of the narcissist’s true nature often come so late in a relationship? In part, the traits listed as part of the narcissistic modus operandi are more nuanced and subtle than the listicles would have you believe. I recently got a message from someone who asked whether crying at a funeral meant that his wife wasn’t a narcissist after all; of course, having a deficit in empathy doesn’t mean you never feel anything.
Many come to the realization that they’re dealing with someone high in narcissistic traits when there’s a conflict, especially a divorce; this was my experience and it’s shared by many people, alas. The narcissist’s drive to win at all costs—never mind the emotional toll taken on others or the financial one—is revelatory; when there are minor children involved, alas, a divorce decree may not signal an end to litigation but a beginning, as has been documented by many, including Tina Swithin, founder of One Mom’s Battle, and is described in a post I wrote with divorce attorney Mary Kirkpatrick and narcissism expert and fellow blogger Dr. Craig Malkin here. The narcissist’s conflicts with others and his inability to settle a dispute may also give you insight into his all-or-nothing vindictiveness, a trait Dr. Joseph Burgo identifies in his book, The Narcissist You Know.
So, barring conflict, what behaviors reveal the narcissist and his true colors? Here are some of them.
Some revelatory behaviors that may help you wise up sooner
1. Only pays lip service to joint decisions
This point is taken from Dr. Malkin’s book, Rethinking Narcissism, in which he describes the narcissist’s “stealth control” as one of the red flags. In the early stages of a relationship, he may simply change up plans you’ve already made, substituting something else which he bills as “better” or “more fun or glamorous.” Unlike the controlling type who makes it clear it’s his way or the highway, stealth control permits the narcissist to get what he wants without ever articulating his needs; it’s got the added benefit of putting you in a place where you start forgetting your own needs and wants.
Mind you, this starts small—switching up dinner reservations or perhaps plans you’ve made with others—but ultimately becomes the norm.
If you’re in a relationship, living with or married to the narcissist, the ongoing unraveling of things you thought you’d agreed on can be a constant source of tension, and another way of seeing him clearly is to pay attention to how he deals with being called out. Does he deny that he agreed in the first place or that you misunderstood? (Yes, that’s called gaslighting.) Does he laugh it off, mocking you, saying that he only agreed to mollify you? (Yes, that’s abusive behavior.) Does he simply stonewall you, refusing even to discuss it? (More abusive behavior.) If so, pay attention.
2. Curates the past
In the beginning stages of a relationship, when courtship and love-bombing are ongoing, you may not notice that he doesn’t open up about his past. In fact, the likelihood is that he wants to come across as private and not a gossip or a sharer; that has the added advantage of making you feel safe because he won’t gossip about you if things don’t work out and it adds to his mystery. When he does open up, you’ll be hugely empathic, given all the miserable women who have done him wrong. There might be the wife whom he only wanted to make happy, although that doesn’t quite sync with the extramarital affairs you learn about. Oh wait, those were a function of his unhappiness; yes, you get it and maybe there’s something endearing about this so-perfect guy being so ordinarily lonely. Or maybe there was no one except an endless string of girlfriends who weren’t right for him. Okay, you get that too; finding someone you can do life with is hard.
But it’s the curation of childhood that’s the real tip-off, if you’re paying attention, as Dr. Malkin points out. Narcissists often portray their families of origin as perfect and their childhoods as idyllic but you may begin to notice, especially if you get to meet the family, that there are glaring contradictions. That perfect marriage he sketched between his brother and sister-in-law and held up as an example turns out to be held together together by basting since she’s left him numerous times and his brother’s in therapy for anger management. His stories of going sailing with dad and Saturdays on the golf course don’t quite mesh with the fact that his father was a binge-drinker who’d would disappear for days at a time. The recounted idyllic moments and the revelatory ones run on parallel tracks and are never reconciled by him; if asked, he says his childhood was just terrific.
3. Only mimics caring behaviors
You know how realtors always focus on location when they’re assessing a house? Well, to spot a narcissist, the key is to get a bead on motivation, and it’s way harder to figure out than the location of a house. Here’s what complicates things: The narcissist likes thinking of himself as a good guy and he wants you to think so too so he may actually do things that are nice but they’re not really about you or the person he’s doing something kind for. Everything he does is self-referential and has nothing to do with anyone else. Pitching in to help the neighbor? Check! Taking the time to figure out what you really want for your birthday and finding it? Check!
Oh, and volunteering and taking the helm for charity? Double check to that, and did you know there’s even a term for these narcissists?
Say hello and hopefully goodbye to the communal narcissist. This is a relatively new term and these narcissists are different in that they see themselves as, in Dr. Malkin’s words, “especially nurturing, understanding, and empathic.” They don’t brag about their accomplishments like their cousins, the grandiose narcissists, but about how giving they are. He’s going to remind you of his every good deed and how helpful he’s been to everyone. But, once again, the communal narcissist—all appearances to the contrary—is focused on how giving makes him feel and look, not the rewards of giving selflessly. It’s a resume builder, you see.
Because the cultural tropes about narcissists use a very broad brush and reduce them to “bad guys you want to avoid like the plague,” recognizing that they’re capable of doing good things but that what matters is what drives them will let you see their stripes sooner.
4. Lies and then denies or shifts blame
You know how in the song “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” there’s a whole list of things the singer will overcome because nothing can keep her from getting to you; well, that’s true of the narcissist too but in a very bad way. No matter where he starts, it will always come back to you, especially when he’s lying.
The narcissist lies for different reasons than the rest of us do (for more on that, see my post here) and the reality, as Dr. Burgo points out, is that he actually doesn’t see himself as lying but rather as defending his truth. As Burgo notes, “As hard as it may be for most of us to believe, the Extreme Narcissist who lies doesn’t always do so in a self-aware way, consciously attempting to disguise the truth. Rather, he tells lies to support a defensive identity he has come to see as synonymous with himself.” All of this is to defend against shame.
This is one reason the narcissist is often revealed in a legal conflict; it’s mind-boggling how the narcissist lies when he’ll easily be found out by a judge or even his own lawyer, and it doesn’t seem to matter to him. He’ll have his lawyer file motion after motion, all peppered with lies, because being shown up as a liar doesn’t matter nearly as much as winning the point and hoping you’ll grow faint of heart.
Outside of a court of law, watch for denial or blame-shifting when you call him out on the lie. Typically, he may start with denial (“I never said that”) to blame-shifting (“I didn’t lie exactly; you didn’t ask me the right question. I would have told you the truth if you’d asked”) or saying that you misheard or misunderstood him (an effort to gaslight you) or using contempt as a last resort (“I didn’t lie. I only said that to get you off my back. You bore me with your constant nagging.”)
It’s the pattern of never taking responsibility for his words or actions that is the ultimate tip-off.
5. Unable to let anything go
The ultimate grudge-holder, the narcissist never forgives nor forgets. He always remembers how he was bested or slighted, and that just fuels the fire for his vindictiveness. Dr. Joseph Burgo singles out the vindictive narcissist as a type, and notes that while the narcissist may portray himself as a victim when he feels under attack, he’s also likely to wage outright war along with maintaining a list of grievances.
Securely attached and healthy people process negative emotions, including disappointment, pain, anger, and rejection; this isn’t easy, obviously, and there’s a time of struggle but they get there. Yes, they may get into fights or disagreements but, eventually, they let go. The narcissist simply can’t disengage; no one ever disappears from his grievance list.
6. His default setting is us against them or me against you
Most of us approach conflict with trepidation but that’s just not true of the narcissist who relishes the opportunity to go mano a mano which he sees as the only solution to any discord or disagreement. Do not expect him to mediate or negotiate because when he feels any kind of threat, he always has to be the clear winner; the give-and-take that fosters continuing civility and relationship is not his thing. His black-and-white way of seeing things means that he also works hard at cultivating alliances, making his grievances a team effort, and triangulating.
When the narcissist is your parent—either your mother or father—any protests on your part or efforts to set boundaries will most usually be countered with a smear campaign. This is especially true if you’ve chosen to go no contact, as my interviews for Daughter Detox revealed. Anecdotally at least, the narcissistic parent won’t be content until he or she has shattered both your reputation and your relationships to other relatives and anyone else he or she can co-opt.
The narcissist doesn’t just relish all-out-war; he or she adheres to a scorched earth policy, leaving nothing but ruins behind.
Unmasking the narcissist is more of a process than an exercise in spotting. Proceed with caution.
Copyright © Peg Streep 2018