Who among us can say that they haven’t sat in front of a computer screen for hours, playing armchair psychologist while trying to diagnose a friend, lover, family member—or themselves—with some kind of mental illness?
As humans, we love to categorize and to pathologize, but while every individual may contain traces of a number of diagnosable personality disorders, this doesn’t mean they actually have the disorder.
Personality disorders exist on a spectrum, and psychiatric professionals define these conditions with characteristics that everyone possesses to different degrees. As such, diagnosis is a difficult process best left to the professionals.
That said, it’s helpful to know how to identify the signs that you’re being jerked around by someone with a disorder that blunts their capacity to experience empathy or treat you like a human being—for example, a narcissist. We spoke with several experts to learn how narcissism works, how narcissists view themselves, and how to avoid narcissistic manipulation tactics.
1. Narcissism is a spectrum—and it doesn’t always show up the same way.
If you’re picturing a psychologist stamping the word “narcissist” onto a patient’s file in big, red letters, think again; it doesn’t really work that way.
“Narcissistic personality disorder is a pretty severe diagnosis,” Heather Stevenson, PsyD, tells Urbo. “I think that the word gets thrown around a lot. A person can have narcissistic traits and not have the personality disorder.”
I wish people understood that having an ego (big or small) doesn’t make you a narcissist.
— ⛵️ (@earthdomdirtbag) August 22, 2018
Stevenson spent the last several years working in a maximum-security prison with several men who have the actual disorder, and she asked us to make one point clear: There’s a world of difference between people with the narcissistic personality disorder (frequently referred to as NPD) and people with slightly narcissistic tendencies.
“You want to think of it as a spectrum,” she says. “A personality disorder is a very long-standing pattern. I want to really make sure that that’s emphasized.”
Psychologist and certified family law specialist David Glass, CFLS, PhD, explains how that spectrum might look to a layperson.
“At one end of this ‘self-loving’ spectrum is the charismatic leader, who is capable, has friends and family, but whose main vice is his or her inflated sense of self,” Glass tells Urbo. “At the far other end of the spectrum reside individuals who have been diagnosed with narcissistic personality disorder (NPD).”
People with NPD might be unable to function in society, while people with slightly narcissistic behaviors might actually benefit from those behaviors. As Sanam Hafeez, PsyD, explains, that’s why it’s important to exercise some caution before using words like “narcissist.”
“The tricky thing with NPD is that [those with the disorder] rarely believe anything is wrong with them,” Hafeez tells Urbo via email. “Remember, a narcissist places blame on everything outside of themselves for their current state. Less than three percent of the population are actually diagnosed with NPD, yet it seems that … more people are exhibiting the characteristics of narcissism, and many [are doing so] in an extreme way.”
Is narcissism a kind of "charisma"?–supreme narcissist is self-hypnotized, never insecure or self-critical, contagious as airborne anthrax.
— Joyce Carol Oates (@JoyceCarolOates) May 31, 2016
We do know that narcissistic behaviors are surprisingly common and that it’s not always diagnosed. By one estimate, NPD might affect up to 6.2 percent of adults, with rates higher for men (7.7 percent) than for women (4.8 percent).
2. Narcissistic behaviors aren’t always obvious, particularly in the first stages of a relationship.
Narcissism doesn’t always manifest the same way, but the disorder is associated with a poor ability to regulate self-esteem. By definition, narcissists are obsessed with themselves—which doesn’t leave much room for close personal relationships.
“Someone with these narcissistic tendencies, they’re going to be so focused on themselves that any relationship isn’t a reciprocal type of relationship,” Stevenson says. “Someone on the narcissistic side is going to say, ‘How can this person benefit me?’”
That can lead to exploitative behaviors. Narcissists are more likely to feel entitled to certain parts of a relationship and less likely to see others as equal. Those signs might not show up at the outset of a relationship, partially because some narcissistic people can be quite charming at first. The manipulative behaviors—which we’ll explain in a moment—aren’t always immediately apparent.
A narcissist will bombard you with love & attention from the start, telling you that you are their soul mate and they’ve never met anyone like you. They will flatter your ego & sweep you off your feet
— Ruqaiya (@ruqaiya_h) January 16, 2018
“They are incredibly charming and likable, and they are able to turn the conversation back to themselves,” Hafeez says. “This is why they are exceptionally good at job interviews. They know how to adapt to become the character of who they need to become to achieve their goal.”
But while people with NPD are more likely to be extroverted, they aren’t always tremendous charmers. A paper published in The American Journal of Psychiatry noted that people with NPD “may be grandiose or self-loathing, extraverted or socially isolated, captains of industry or unable to maintain steady employment, model citizens or prone to antisocial activities.”
Needless to say, the spectrum of behaviors is pretty wide, but psychiatrists look for telltale signs when making diagnoses.
“If you see someone who constantly thinks highly of themselves—they can do no wrong, they’re perfect, they’re impervious to any wrongdoing—in the sense that it feels extreme, and it’s a constant pattern, that’s one of the key signs of narcissism,” Stevenson says.
“But perfectionism isn’t the same thing,” emphasizes Stevenson. “These disorders are often intertwined, so I wouldn’t recommend jumping to conclusions if you notice narcissistic behaviors in someone.”
3. Narcissists often think of other people as “objects” to be manipulated, but they’re not incapable of empathy.
“The NPD person is extremely manipulative to the people around him/her and don’t truly think of these people as ‘humans,’ but rather as ‘objects’ that they can move around to meet their needs,” Glass tells Urbo.
Extreme narcissists often place a strong value on appearances, and they’re less likely to feel empathy for others (although they’re not necessarily unable to feel empathy).
“They are often impeccably dressed and groomed, and if they are not, they will have something they use as a reflection of prestige or status,” Hafeez says. “For example, the guy who wears jeans and a t-shirt and drives a $150,000 car or the woman who brags about her $6,000 handbag. When they speak, they never accept any responsibility or speak of the lessons they learned from a challenge.”
4. In relationships, narcissists can become manipulative and distant.
In a typical relationship, a non-narcissistic person will start to notice something over time; the person with narcissistic tendencies won’t be able to communicate his emotions effectively, which will likely create a great deal of stress.
“You’ll feel, I’m constantly giving to this person and not getting anything back, because it is so much more of a one-sided relationship most of the time,” Stevenson says. “That’s not to say that they’re never giving—but everything has this undertone of, ‘What can I get?’ The relationships that they tend to have are very surface-level. They don’t get very deep, and they don’t show a lot of their emotion.”
As narcissists avoid intimacy, they can also become adept at using manipulative tactics to avoid seeing flaws in themselves—and to get their partners more compliant. We asked our experts to detail some of the techniques that a narcissistic person might use to control a relationship.
5. One classic manipulative tactic is “gaslighting.”
Narcissists want to make you unsure of yourself so you are more likely to rely on them for help. This vulnerability makes you susceptible to further harmful tactics. For more information on this common technique and how to respond, watch our video below.
Perhaps most importantly, know that you don’t have to convince the narcissist or win the argument. Maintain your perspective and give yourself credit; you’re not making this up, and your feelings are valid.
6. Narcissists also shame their partners into accepting their point of view.
This classic manipulation technique is also one of the most damaging. While the method may seem obvious, it can be quite subtle if carried out by a narcissist whom you trust.
As Christine Hammond, MS, LMHC, points out at Psych Central, there are a number of ways that narcissists use shame to diminish their victims, including speaking style. For example, Hammond lists “baby talk” as one way a narcissist might break you down.
“In any narcissistic relationship, the narcissist wants to be seen as the adult and the other person as the child,” she writes. “This belittlement is done in several condescending ways such as literally talking down, calling the other person immature, and saying the other person needs to grow up. The implication is that the narcissist is more mature and has developed beyond the level of the other person.”
“Like clockwork in the face of any perceived threat, narcissistic defenses take over, swooping in to attack and belittle others while inflating and reassuring a narcissist’s ego that he or she is ‘fairest of them all.’”
— Dan Neuharth
— Self-Archeology (@SelfArcheology) May 17, 2018
Similarly, the narcissist may “talk over” the other person, using authority to diminish her. Physical posturing can be a part of this process.
Don’t respond in kind; widening your vocabulary, calling the other person immature, or listing your academic credentials won’t strengthen your position with a narcissist.
7. Narcissists will also change the conversation when it isn’t going their way.
It can be frustrating when someone changes the subject in the middle of a conversation, but when a partner does this to avoid taking responsibility for their actions, diversion can be downright dangerous. Narcissists use this tactic to derail conversations that may lead to an unpleasant result.
“If the non-narcissistic person ever starts to get close to the core of any argument or to the core of the narcissist’s deep, true lack of self-regard, the narcissist will go into overdrive to ‘divert’ them away from the topic at hand,” says Glass.
An example of this would be someone turning the conversation to “crazy/off-track topics or escalating” the discussion to something more personal.
Instead, insist on keeping the topic of the conversation out in front. Resist the urge to respond to personal attacks; remain calm and focused, and you’ll be able to maintain control.
8. Narcissists often triangulate to try to bury the real issue.
To make themselves seem more credible—and to dismiss their partner’s feelings—narcissists may bring another person into the mix in an attempt to “stack the deck” in their favor.
This is an especially insidious technique when the narcissist uses someone you personally trust or admire to diminish you.
‘They might say, ‘Well it’s not only me who thinks this way. Did you know that Mary said the same thing? In fact, she told me that she had reason not to trust you because…’ and so on,” Glass tells Urbo.
The narcissist may also use a third person who could be a threat to you—an ex-lover, for instance—in an effort to force you into submission. You may feel forced to compete with the third person.
9. Projection is a classic narcissistic tactic (and one of the most damaging).
Projection is the act of taking your own thoughts, feelings, or behaviors and pushing them onto others.
For example, a boyfriend who is highly suspicious of his girlfriend and who repeatedly accuses her of cheating, despite her having given no evidence to support his suspicions, may be projecting his own wandering eye or sexual indiscretions onto his SO.
There are several different kinds of projection—neurotic, complementary, and complimentary. And while most people project on occasion, narcissists frequently employ projection as a means of psychological abuse.
This is another way in which the narcissist avoids addressing their own imperfections; rather than taking responsibility for their behaviors, they force their victims to assume that responsibility.
10. Finally, narcissists aren’t above name calling.
Sticks and stones may break your bones, but words will never hurt you—except when they do. When that’s the case, they really hurt, and that’s by design; narcissists know how to leverage the power of insults to their advantage.
Narcissists smear and discredit people who hold them accountable, who may expose them or who they feel threatened by. They use name calling, mocking and lies usually behind the target’s back.
— AntiNarcopathyPharmD (@narceducator) March 15, 2018
Of course, there’s something undeniably childish about resorting to name-calling, and that’s typically not the approach you would expect from someone who has spent their life refining manipulation tactics.
Turns out, though, that this form of belittling is not too low for even the most sophisticated of toxic humans. And, in fact, there is something sophisticated about this tactic—it can be a powerful reminder of past bullying, pulling you back into a fearful, vulnerable mind space that you may have only associated with childhood.
A bad nickname affects your self-esteem, and studies show that name-calling affects compliance. The narcissist may or may not be aware that he’s using this form of manipulation, but the malicious intent is usually clear to everyone (except, perhaps, the victim).
11. Narcissists can get help, but usually, they’re not inclined to seek therapy.
Here’s the thing about narcissists: They rarely admit that they have flaws, and as a result, they rarely seek help from psychiatric professionals.
“People don’t necessarily come in to get treatment for [NPD],” Stevenson says. “After all, they don’t think anything’s wrong with themselves. They might feel the pressure from other people—they don’t necessarily feel it’s because of something they’re doing wrong.”
“Typically, something has to happen to the narcissist where they spiral downward,” Hafeez says. “Perhaps they get into trouble legally by someone who they’ve wronged and are ordered to have a psychological evaluation. Through there, it’s diagnosed.”
Both Stevenson and Hafeez say that narcissism isn’t curable, per se, but it is changeable. Regular treatment can provide a patient with the tools needed to manage the disorder.
12. Diagnosing a narcissist isn’t an easy or straightforward process.
“First, there’s a full evaluation to see if there are other personality disorders present, which is possible,” Hafeez says. “Psychotherapy or talk therapy is usually the approach. Medication isn’t necessary unless there’s another issue prevalent. …Through psychotherapy, narcissists can learn how to cultivate healthy relationships and set more realistic goals for themselves based on their actual strengths and talents.”
“They can gain more awareness of their feelings so that they can manage them by assuming more responsibility for outcomes in their lives.”
Stevenson says that diagnosed narcissists need ongoing therapy to address the negative aspects of the disorder.
“It’s a lot of work trying to help them get more aware of and in touch with their own emotions and emotional states,” she notes. “A lot of times, the people who have these types of personalities are shutting off a lot their emotions and only living in a small spectrum of emotion.”
“One way to treat some of that is to open up their emotional world—to be bigger, to have more language for it, to identify and see different things going on, not only within themselves but with emotional expressions of other people. We’re really just trying to build that kind of language and awareness. That’s one of the core things.”
To build those emotional experiments, therapists will often ask questions.
“If they’ve got a partner who’s upset, we’ll ask, ‘How do we work on that? What made them upset? Is there anything you did that contributed to that?’” Stevenson says. “We want to have a dialogue [with] more open communication and less defensiveness. There’s a lot of skill building around those areas to help manage NPD.”
It’s a long, difficult process, and narcissistic people rarely take the first step unless they’re facing serious consequences as a result of their behavior.
13. If you believe you’re in a relationship with a narcissist, here’s what you can do.
First, don’t use the word “narcissist.” Stevenson says that she doesn’t bring up that term when working with patients since the label isn’t exactly useful from a therapeutic standpoint.
“Calling someone a narcissist is a great way to get them angry with you,” she says. “It’s not a great way to get them into therapy.”
Remember, narcissism is a spectrum, and a person displaying some narcissistic behaviors—for instance, wearing ostentatious clothing or disregarding the feelings of others—isn’t necessarily diagnosable with NPD.
“If you see some [narcissistic behaviors], don’t assume that it’s the worst-case scenario,” Stevenson says. “I’d encourage people, if they feel like they’re in that type of relationship or situation, to seek help for themselves. That’s the best way to address the issue; ask, ‘What is it that drew me to this type of relationship? Why do I want to stay in this type of relationship?’”
Of course, if you don’t want to maintain the relationship, you can always end it. Through therapy, you can gain the emotional tools you need to either end the relationship or guide the other person toward help. Just remember that you can only guide another person; you certainly can’t force them into a therapist’s office.
People always have the capacity to change, but many choose not to. Some don't choose at all, it never even crossed their radar that it was an option. The modern human aren't aware of themself and exist almost entirely in ignorance.
— Nimble Steward (@AndeeCurt) July 16, 2018
“You can’t control anyone other than yourself,” Stevenson says. “You can’t push someone else to help or therapy, but you can work on yourself.”
14. In some cases, the safest course of action is to leave the relationship.
That is, of course, easier said than done. Emotional manipulation can be extraordinarily difficult to overcome, and it’s much more common than most people know; one 1999 survey showed that 35 percent of women reported emotional abuse from a partner or spouse.
However, severe situations require immediate action. Realize that you cannot change or reason with an extreme narcissist and that any attempts can lead to them working themselves back into your life.
If you decide to end a relationship with an extreme narcissist, Glass recommends making a clean break if possible.
“It’s the exact opposite of how they sell the lottery,” he says. “The only way to win is not to play.”
You can't conquer Narcissists. They self-destruct as long as you do not feed them by being player 2.
— Nimble Steward (@AndeeCurt) July 22, 2018
Use your support system and don’t allow the conversation to continue. Block the narcissist’s number and email address and cut off any communication outlets. While this might seem harsh, it’s the only way to truly keep them out of your life.
“You should rely on one or two close friends or family members. Tell them all that the narcissist has been doing to you,” says Glass. “Warn them that the narcissist will likely contact them to try to convince them that you are the person causing the problems.”
We should note that the suggestions in this article don’t apply to every situation, and severely abusive relationships often need to be handled differently to ensure your safety.