When it comes to determining whether someone you know is a narcissist, most people make it more complicated than it needs to be. I use the duck test—that is, if it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it probably is a duck. There are no physical blood tests, MRIs, or exact determinations that can identify narcissism. Even therapists have to go on their observations of the behavior, attitudes, and reactions that a person presents to determine narcissism.
What makes it simple is the fact that we know exactly what a narcissist looks like. Below, I’ve listed all the symptoms and behaviors you should look for. Keep in mind that not all of these have to be present to make a determination of narcissism. According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, which therapists use as a guide, a person needs to exhibit only 55 percent of the identified characteristics to be considered narcissistic. The list I’ve made here is descriptive, so you can get a more in-depth picture of a narcissist’s common behaviors.
1. Superiority and entitlement
The world of the narcissist is all about good/bad, superior/inferior, and right/wrong. There is a definite hierarchy, with the narcissist at the top—which is the only place he feels safe. Narcissists have to be the best, the most right, and the most competent; do everything their way; own everything; and control everyone. Interestingly enough, narcissists can also get that superior feeling by being the worst; the most wrong; or the most ill, upset, or injured for a period of time. Then they feel entitled to receive soothing concern and recompense and even the right to hurt you or demand apologies to “make things even.”
2. Exaggerated need for attention and validation
Narcissists need constant attention—even following you around the house, asking you to find things, or constantly saying something to grab your attention. Validation for a narcissist counts only if it comes from others. Even then, it doesn’t count for much. A narcissist’s need for validation is like a funnel. You pour in positive, supportive words, and they just flow out the other end and are gone. No matter how much you tell narcissists you love them, admire them, or approve of them, they never feel it’s enough—because deep down they don’t believe anyone can love them. Despite all their self-absorbed, grandiose bragging, narcissists are actually very insecure and fearful of not measuring up. They constantly try to elicit praise and approval from others to shore up their fragile egos, but no matter how much they’re given, they always want more.
Narcissists have an extremely high need for everything to be perfect. They believe they should be perfect, you should be perfect, events should happen exactly as expected, and life should play out precisely as they envision it. This is an excruciatingly impossible demand, which results in the narcissist feeling dissatisfied and miserable much of the time. The demand for perfection leads the narcissist to complain and be constantly dissatisfied.
4. Great need for control
Since narcissists are continually disappointed with the imperfect way life unfolds, they want to do as much as possible to control it and mold it to their liking. They want and demand to be in control, and their sense of entitlement makes it seem logical to them that they should be in control—of everything. Narcissists always have a story line in mind about what each “character” in their interaction should be saying and doing. When you don’t behave as expected, they become quite upset and unsettled. They don’t know what to expect next, because you’re off script. They demand that you say and do exactly what they have in mind so they can reach their desired conclusion. You are a character in their internal play, not a real person with your own thoughts and feelings.
5. Lack of responsibility—blaming and deflecting
Although narcissists want to be in control, they never want to be responsible for the results—unless, of course, everything goes exactly their way and their desired result occurs. When things don’t go according to their plan or they feel criticized or less than perfect, the narcissist places all the blame and responsibility on you. It has to be someone else’s fault. Sometimes that blame is generalized—all police, all bosses, all teachers, all Democrats, and so on. At other times the narcissist picks a particular person or rule to blame—his mother, the judge, or laws that limit what he wants to do. Most often, however, the narcissist blames the one person who is the most emotionally close, most attached, loyal, and loving in his life—you. To maintain the façade of perfection, narcissists always have to blame someone or something else. You are the safest person to blame, because you are least likely to leave or reject him.
6. Lack of boundaries
Narcissists can’t accurately see where they end and you begin. They are a lot like 2-year-olds. They believe that everything belongs to them, everyone thinks and feels the same as they do, and everyone wants the same things they do. They are shocked and highly insulted to be told no. If a narcissist wants something from you, he’ll go to great lengths to figure out how to get it through persistence, cajoling, demanding, rejecting, or pouting.
7. Lack of empathy
Narcissists have very little ability to empathize with others. They tend to be selfish and self-involved and are usually unable to understand what other people are feeling. Narcissists expect others to think and feel the same as they do and seldom give any thought to how others feel. They are also rarely apologetic, remorseful, or guilty.
But narcissists are highly attuned to perceived threats, anger, and rejection from others. At the same time, they are nearly blind to the other feelings of the people around them. They frequently misread subtle facial expressions and are typically biased toward interpreting facial expressions as negative. Unless you are acting out your emotions dramatically, the narcissist won’t accurately perceive what you’re feeling. Even saying “I’m sorry” or “I love you” when the narcissist is on edge and angry can backfire. He won’t believe you and may even misperceive your comment as an attack.
In addition, if your words and expressions aren’t congruent, the narcissist will likely respond erroneously. This is why narcissists often misinterpret sarcasm as actual agreement or joking from others as a personal attack. Their lack of ability to correctly read body language is one reason narcissists are deficiently empathetic to your feelings. They don’t see them, they don’t interpret them correctly, and overall they don’t believe you feel any differently than they do.
Narcissists also lack an understanding about the nature of feelings. They don’t understand how their feelings occur. They think their feelings are caused by someone or something outside of themselves. They don’t realize that their feelings are caused by their own biochemistry, thoughts, and interpretations. In a nutshell, narcissists always think you cause their feelings—especially the negative ones. They conclude that because you didn’t follow their plan or because you made them feel vulnerable, you are to blame.
This lack of empathy makes true relationships and emotional connection with narcissists difficult or impossible. They just don’t notice what anyone else is feeling.
8. Emotional reasoning
You’ve probably made the mistake of trying to reason and use logic with the narcissist to get him to understand the painful effect his behaviors have on you. You think that if he understands how much his behavior hurt you, he’ll change. Your explanations, however, don’t make sense to the narcissist, who only seems able to be aware of his own thoughts and feelings. Although narcissists may say they understand, they honestly don’t.
Therefore, narcissists make most of their decisions based on how they feel about something. They simply must have that red sports car, based entirely on how they feel driving it, not by whether it is a good choice to make for the family or for the budget. If they’re bored or depressed, they want to move or end the relationship or start a new business. They always look to something or someone outside themselves to solve their feelings and needs. They expect you to go along with their “solutions,” and they react with irritation and resentment if you don’t.
The narcissist’s personality is split into good and bad parts, and they also split everything in their relationships into good and bad. Any negative thoughts or behaviors are blamed on you or others, whereas they take credit for everything that is positive and good. They deny their negative words and actions while continually accusing you of disapproving.
They also remember things as completely good and wonderful or as bad and horrible. They can’t seem to mix these two constructs:
Marty labeled the whole vacation ruined and the worst ever because the hotel room didn’t meet his expectations and the weather wasn’t perfect. Bob was blamed for 20 years because he wasn’t there when his wife had their first child even though he was stranded in Chicago in a snowstorm. Marie’s husband dismissed her concerns about the $30,000 cost for the new landscaping because he loved it.
Narcissists aren’t able to see, feel, or remember both the positive and the negative in a situation. They can deal with only one perspective at a time—theirs.
The narcissist’s entire life is motivated and energized by fear. Most narcissists’ fears are deeply buried and repressed. They’re constantly afraid of being ridiculed, rejected, or wrong. They may have fears about germs, about losing all their money, about being emotionally or physically attacked, about being seen as bad or inadequate, or about being abandoned. This makes it difficult and sometimes impossible for the narcissist to trust anyone else.
In fact, the closer your relationship becomes, the less he will trust you. Narcissists fear any true intimacy or vulnerability because they’re afraid you’ll see their imperfections and judge or reject them. No amount of reassurance seems to make a difference, because narcissists deeply hate and reject their own shameful imperfections. Narcissists never seem to develop trust in the love of others, and they continually test you with worse and worse behaviors to try to find your breaking point. Their gripping fear of being “found out” or abandoned never seems to dissipate.
Anxiety is an ongoing, vague feeling that something bad is happening or about to happen. Some narcissists show their anxiety by talking constantly about the doom that is about to happen, while some hide and repress their anxiety. But most narcissists project their anxiety onto their closest loved ones, accusing them of being negative, unsupportive, mentally ill, not putting them first, not responding to their needs, or being selfish. All this is designed to transfer anxiety to the loved one in an attempt to not feel it themselves. As you feel worse and worse, the narcissist feels better and better. In fact he feels stronger and more superior as you feel your anxiety and depression grow.
Narcissists don’t feel much guilt because they think they are always right, and they don’t believe their behaviors really affect anyone else. But they harbor a lot of shame. Shame is the belief that there is something deeply and permanently wrong or bad about who you are. Buried in a deeply repressed part of the narcissist are all the insecurities, fears, and rejected traits that he is constantly on guard to hide from everyone, including himself. The narcissist is acutely ashamed of all these rejected thoughts and feelings. For example, I had one narcissistic client who was into skydiving and other intense risk-taking behaviors tell me that he never felt fear. “Fear,” he said, “was evil.” He was clearly on a crusade to defeat it.
Keeping his vulnerabilities hidden is essential to the narcissist’s pretend self-esteem or false self. Ultimately, however, this makes it impossible for them to be completely real and transparent.
13. An inability to be truly vulnerable
Because of their inability to understand feelings, their lack of empathy, and constant need for self-protection, narcissists can’t truly love or connect emotionally with other people. They cannot look at the world from anyone else’s perspective. They’re essentially emotionally blind and alone. This makes them emotionally needy. When one relationship is no longer satisfying, they often overlap relationships or start a new one as soon as possible. They desperately want someone to feel their pain, to sympathize with them, and make everything just as they want it to be. But they have little ability to respond to your pain or fear or even your day-to-day need for care and sympathy.
14. An inability to communicate or work as part of a team
Thoughtful, cooperative behaviors require a real understanding of each other’s feelings. How will the other person feel? Will this action make both of us happy? How will this affect our relationship? These are questions that narcissists don’t have the capacity or the motivation to think about. Don’t expect the narcissist to understand your feelings, give in, or give up anything he wants for your benefit; it’s useless.
Want more insight into the relationships in your life? Find out the things you should always be selfish about in your partnerships and the questions that could keep your marriage from ending.