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Anyone is capable of exhibiting narcissistic traits once in a while. But there’s a difference between selfish-grandeur after, say, getting a promotion at work and routinely manipulating or exploiting others to serve your own interest.
The latter is an example of someone with a diagnosable psychological condition known as narcissistic personality disorder (NPD).
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NPD may stem from a combination of factors like trauma, neglectful or chaotic childhoods, overindulged childhoods that lacked emotional support, and entitlement due to culture or social class, says Ramani Durvasula, PhD, clinical psychologist and professor of psychology at California State University, Los Angeles.
Here are eight signs to help you identify someone with NPD as well as some tips on what to do when you’re around them.
1. They have an egregious sense of entitlement
Narcissistic individuals often have an exaggerated sense of self-importance, so they think everyone should follow what they want and give them special treatment. They may violate personal boundaries because they feel entitled to other people’s time and possessions.
2. They’re manipulative
Narcissists believe that they are superior to everyone else, and they are willing to take advantage of other people for their own gain. A survey of 2219 relatives of narcissists indicated that this could also extend to misusing or exploiting certain power dynamics to further assert superiority and control.
For example, a narcissist may use religion to manipulate others by asserting their interpretation of a religious text to serve their own purpose.
People with fragile self-esteem may fail to take others’ needs into account or act in exploitative ways, says Seth Axelrod, PhD, psychologist at Yale Medicine and director of Yale Instruction/Investigation/Intervention in Emotional Lability and Dysregulation (YIELD).
3. They need constant admiration and validation
Narcissists have an excessive need for the attention and validation of other people. According to Durvasula, their posts on social media are often designed to receive validation, gain sympathy, or inspire controversy.
“They will put out a passive aggressive or politically volatile comment just to get people fired up and just to get into the fight with them, for narcissists sometimes they just want any attention they can get and enjoy being at the center of a storm,” Durvasula says.
4. They lack empathy
For example, “they will spend hours talking about themselves and their issues, but the moment you talk about yourself, they are distractible and uninterested, and when you point this out to them they call you selfish,” says Durvasula.
5. They’re superficial
According to Durvasula, narcissists are often vain and materialistic, so they concern themselves with buying designer clothes and bags, owning the right house and car, going on luxurious vacations, or having the perfect partner who may be wealthy, famous, or successful.
“Narcissistic people will also judge people who are lacking on the superficial characteristics that they value,” says Durvasula.
6. They’re egocentric
A narcissist may be egocentric, or self-centered to the point that they prioritize their own needs and welfare over that of others. They have difficulty seeing a situation from another person’s point of view, assuming that people think the same way they do and share their perspective or opinion as well.
“They tend to be quite insecure, but at a deep level of which they aren’t really aware and their defenses are designed to protect them against that insecurity. It also results in a deep egocentricity because they invest all of their psychological resources into self-protection,” says Durvasula.
7. Exhibits dysregulated emotions
Emotional dysregulation is the inability to handle and respond to negative feelings, which results in unhealthy emotional responses. When narcissists don’t get their way, fall short of perfection, and don’t receive special treatment, they can get angry and then say or do hurtful things to the people around them.
“Narcissistic people cannot regulate emotions related to disappointment or frustration because their shame gets activated,” says Durvasula. “The primary dysregulated emotion we observe in narcissism is rage, and if they don’t get their way or their entitlement is not met, they throw tantrums.”
Grandiosity, or having an unrealistic sense or illusions of superiority, is often observed in many narcissists. They will exaggerate or lie about their achievements and talents, and focus on associating themselves with high-status individuals that they think are equal to them. Narcissists portray a larger-than-life reality and an idealized lifestyle, says Durvasula.
For example, they might brag about knowing successful or famous people to make themselves look better, or casually drop the names of these people in conversations to pretend that they have a close relationship.
How should you deal with a narcissist?
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Having a narcissistic parent, partner, or friend in your life can be difficult because “this pattern is associated with a lack of empathy, entitlement, grandiosity, rage, manipulation, so it is antagonistic and uncomfortable,” says Durvasula.
Here are some strategies to deal with a narcissist:
- Approach them gently: If you’d like to preserve your relationship with them, have a gentle conversation about how they make you feel. “Some individuals who struggle with narcissistic traits or personality disorder are open to feedback about their problematic behaviors and interested in learning how to be more empathic of others,” says Axelrod.
- Don’t argue with them: If they are angry or defensive, avoid escalating the situation. “Talk with them like you are trying to negotiate a hostage situation — calm voice, sparse answers, do not defend yourself, do not personalize what is happening, and do not explain yourself,” Durvasula says. “Get out of the situation as quickly as possible and as gracefully as possible. It’s a no win, so you may as well exit with grace.” If you’re in a situation where the narcissist in your life is a parent or parent of your child, you may not be able to completely cut someone out of your life. Trying to set healthy boundaries, and diffusing volatile situations is the best thing you can do to mitigate the impact on your life.
- Avoid taking things personally: Narcissists tend to project their own shortcomings onto those around them, especially the people closest to them, says Durvasula. Try not to take their words or actions personally and remember that they are like this with everyone. When they say something hurtful or offensive toward you, don’t engage with them because they are just trying to get a rise out of you.
- Set healthy boundaries: It’s essential to take back control and minimize harm by making the necessary changes to your relationship, whether that means distancing yourself and establishing some space, physically moving out if you live with one, or cutting ties permanently. “If the individual is not open to working on their narcissistic expressions, then friends and family may find that it is most helpful to establish clear limits in their relationships,” says Axelrod.
- Look for love and support elsewhere: Having a narcissistic family member, friend, or partner can twist your idea of a supportive and healthy relationship. It’s important to spend time with people or do activities outside of the narcissist’s control to know who you are without their interference and seek emotional support. “It is a pattern that does not change, so if you keep them in your life, the best you can do is maintain realistic expectations and radical acceptance and recognize that this is it — and adjust accordingly during the time you are with them,” Durvasula says.
Narcissists believe that they are superior to other people, so they always expect admiration and special treatment. They fail to acknowledge their own insecurity, resulting in narcissistic behaviors like superficiality, a sense of entitlement, and an extreme need for attention and validation.
It may be difficult, but it’s crucial to learn how to deal with them so you can protect yourself. Don’t argue with them, avoid taking things personally, and set healthy boundaries as much as possible to avoid further harm.
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