How to identify a narcissist

Man looking at his face in the mirror.

Maybe you’ve been in a conversation before with someone who almost exclusively talked about themselves, their accomplishments, their children’s latest feats.

You offer “wows,” and you’re being sincere. What you’re hearing is impressive and, at first, interesting. But when the monologue goes on a while without the person asking much, if anything, about you, you might think: narcissist.

But is it really narcissism? It could be. Narcissism falls on a spectrum. It’s possible to have one or two narcissistic traits, or enough to be diagnosed with narcissistic personality disorder.

Traits of a narcissist:

Key features for the diagnosis of narcissistic personality disorder:

  • An inflated sense of self-importance, such as regarding intelligence or success
  • A desire to be admired by others
  • Difficulty empathizing with others

While someone with these traits can come across as extremely confident, they often fear  failing and struggle with low self-esteem. They can be easily hurt by criticism, even if it’s only minor criticism.

Why are people sometimes drawn to narcissists?

Their charming nature and interesting stories about their accomplishments and exploits may draw you in. But over time, their charm may fade. You may begin to notice the narcissist’s focus is always on themselves, without much — if any — interest in you. Friends and family of someone with narcissistic traits may also begin to feel put down or disrespected.

Can narcissism be confused with other disorders?

Yes. If you have antisocial personality disorder, you typically lack empathy and sometimes you may come across as charming, similar to someone with narcissistic personality disorder. But an antisocial individual is more likely to intentionally harm another, for example, by attacking or stealing from them. Narcissism is characterized more by self-centeredness, while antisocial individuals have a disregard for the rights of others, often leading to criminal behavior and lack of remorse for what they’ve done.

Is narcissism curable?

It’s difficult to change our personalities. We take our personalities wherever we go. But with age and experience, some of our behaviors can lessen, and we can develop healthier patterns.

Psychotherapy, or talk therapy, can be helpful, allowing us to understand our emotions, motivations, and behaviors. Therapy can also help us develop effective ways of coping with life’s difficulties, view our goals and accomplishments more realistically and better manage relationships with people.

What shouldn’t you say to a narcissist?

While narcissists can come across as very confident, their low self-esteem can make it hard for them to receive negative feedback, and they can be easily offended. Consider first offering a compliment and then constructive feedback, though perhaps briefly and as gently as possible.

Also, establish boundaries and limit your communication if you often find yourself feeling drained, demeaned or manipulated. You might say: “I’m going to walk away if you talk to me that way.” If someone is repeatedly being abusive in what they’re saying or doing, it might be appropriate to end the relationship.

Why can’t narcissists be alone?

If you have narcissistic traits, being alone could leave you with uncomfortable feelings of inadequacy and fear of failure. But having people around to admire you and your accomplishments can feed that feeling of being special.

Can you have a healthy relationship with a narcissist?

They are possible, though they can be very challenging. The relationship will likely require you to establish appropriate limitations and boundaries. Sometimes relationships with narcissists have to end, but it’s very possible to have a healthy relationship.

People can change, especially with treatment, such as with therapy. If you’re in a relationship with a narcissist, understanding the nature of narcissism can help you better figure out what drives them and how to adapt when you deal with them. If they can recognize their struggles and seek treatment, this can bring about better balance from both sides of the friendship or relationship. Over time, you may notice your relationship improves, but it requires work.

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