The term narcissist is thrown around a fair bit. I’m sure at least one of your friends has complained about their ex ‘the narcissist’ to you at some point. Whether or not they’re right about that characterisation is another matter entirely.
Snide comments aside, narcissistic tendencies can cause a whole heap of problems in relationships so it’s pretty useful to figure out whether or not the person you’re dating (or friends with) displays the traits consistent with this condition.
Psychologist Nancy Sokarno, who works with digital health platform Lysn, shared her insights on the area.
First of all, what is a narcissist?
Diving right in, Sokarno explained that a narcissist is someone who “suffers from a disorder where they have an inflated sense of self-importance”.
Sounds bizarre, but it’s a thing. And yes, it goes beyond ‘main character syndrome’.
We don’t know exactly what causes narcissism but Sokarno shared that its cause could be rooted in genetics or environmental factors. In other words, this could be a nature or nurture situation – we don’t really know.
“Symptoms of a narcissist typically include an excessive need for admiration and validation, often disregarding others’ feelings,” Sokarno said.
“A typical trait for a person with Narcissist Personality Disorder (NPD) is the exaggerated need for, or chase of ‘narcissistic supply’ of external validation. This refers to their constant need for others to fill this craving.”
She explained that for a narcissist, ‘true’ validation only comes from others – so they come to rely on hearing words of praise.
How to spot a narcissist
If you’re worried you’re dating a narcissist – first of all, I’d say there’s probably a red flag to consider if you’re having that thought at all – but there are some key signs to look out for.
“Traits of a narcissist are a lot more nuanced than someone [who] repeatedly takes selfies or likes the vision they see reflected back at themselves in the mirror,” Sokarno explained.
“Recognising the kinds of behaviour you’re dealing with can help for you to learn how to respond.”
She shared that understanding the circumstances will better help you navigate your relationship going forward. (And no, your relationship is not necessarily doomed because your partner is a narcissist.)
Here are the three traits to look out for in narcissists:
Sokarno shared the following descriptions.
1. Strong sense of self-entitlement
A sense of self entitlement often comes with either a good or bad connotation. However, in a narcissists case it could be considered a bad trait because they believe they are truly special and expect to be treated as such. A narcissist believes that whatever they want, they deserve to get. In turn, they expect the people around them to automatically comply with their wishes and [they] demand a certain level of attention. Their higher sense of self-entitlement and over-exaggerated sense of self-importance means they usually expect their partners to put them on a pedestal above all others.
2. A need to feed their narcissistic supply
A narcissist, at heart, is often low on self-esteem and will look to others to define their sense of self. The term ‘narcissistic supply’ refers to a form of psychological addiction where a narcissist can demand special treatment, admiration and validation from others to feed their sense of entitlement and self-worth. They will use others to prop up their self-worth and will constantly seek out praise and admiration from others. This often means they can be manipulative and exploitative in their efforts to fulfil their ‘narcissist supply’. Oftentimes, they will do whatever it takes to get this admiration and validation, without being concerned how their behaviour could be affecting you or others.
3. Deep sense of insecurity
Whilst on the surface a narcissist may come across as full of self-confidence and self-worth, deep down they are actually really insecure.
…That’s why narcissists often crave constant praise, admiration and validation from others. Unfortunately, they are never willing to admit they are insecure and as such, are less likely to change these kinds of behaviours. This also means they have a hard time accepting their own failures and won’t want to admit when they are wrong.
4. Delusions of grandeur
At times a narcissist can seem like they are living in a fantasy world that is completely out of touch with reality. They like to be associated with a higher status and have fantasies of this kind of lifestyle (even if they can’t afford it – they think they deserve it)!
Narcissists will often lie or exaggerate compulsively in order to bolster themselves up or glorify themselves in front of others. They will often attempt to portray an unrealistic sense of superiority or [to] create an idealised version of themselves that is far from the truth. If you catch your partner constantly lying or exaggerating the truth to make themselves look better, you could be dealing with some traits of narcissism.
5. Lack of empathy
A lack of empathy is a trait that is often considered to be one of the most distinctive features of narcissism. Narcissists seem to have an inability to relate to others, or to put themselves in other people’s shoes. For a narcissist, they often view other people as lesser than themselves, often as more transactional, or as ‘objects’ that can fill their needs.
There is a possibility that a narcissist can feel empathy, however their strong need for self-protection often limits their freedom to express it.
So, your fears have been confirmed – now what?
If you’ve come to this point in the article and feel strongly that the person you’re dating (or someone else close to you) has narcissistic tendencies, don’t panic. It doesn’t always mean your relationship is about to go down the toilet.
Naturally, if you’re unhappy and this person is not fulfilling your needs or treating you with compassion then it’s probably worth reconsidering the relationship. And it is important to note that Sokarno pointed out the unfortunate reality is that “relationships with narcissists are typically toxic”, but that’s not the case universally. In some circumstances, it’s simply a matter of working together.
“The best way to deal with dating a narcissist is by firstly understanding that much of their behaviour comes from their own insecurity – meaning their behaviour isn’t always intentional,” Sokarno said.
“Once you recognise that they are coming from a place of insecurity, you can try to minimise or gently cut off their narcissistic supply.”
The key part in having this relationship work, she stressed, is that the person with narcissistic tendencies “needs to be proactive about changing”.
If that does not happen, you’ll need to assess what you need from your relationship and make a decision based on that.
Best of luck out there, folks.
This article has been updated since its original publish date.