It’s fun to toss around the label “narcissist” when talking about the Kardashians or the latest womanizing Hollywood heartthrob. But, as you can imagine, it’s significantly less fun when we’re talking about real life, and you find yourself in a relationship with one. Hearing about my friend’s painful breakup with a man incapable of empathy was probably one of my biggest eye-openers of all time.
Narcissism is as old as it is prolific. As the ancient Greek myth goes, Narcissus was an extremely good-looking hunter and a son of a god—yet unbelievably proud, disdaining those who loved him. One day, he ran across his reflection, fell in love with it, and gazed at it until it killed him.
Allegorically speaking, the Greeks were spot on. Though Narcissistic Personality Disorder obviously doesn’t cause death, narcissists ultimately do lose the ability to relate to the human experience due to their constant self-obsession. Death of soul, perhaps?
Yet unlike the myth, the problem doesn’t stagnate, lying isolated between the narcissist and his or her bloated self-worth. Instead, there’s a whole cast of characters involved. Family members, coworkers, neighbors, and most critically, significant others, are routinely manipulated, trampled on, and left with floods of confusion, pain, and even twisted guilt.
When I was writing “Signs That a Guy Might Be Emotionally Unavailable,” I kept stumbling upon research pointing to narcissism as the epitome of someone who isn’t capable of a deep relationship. “Ultimately, they don’t see you, nor anyone else, as their equal,” shares Anita A. Chlipala, MA, M.Ed., LMFT, from Relationship Reality 312, Inc., who has dealt with both narcissists and victims of narcissists as clients. While they’re not exactly sociopaths, she says “they’ve lost the ability to empathize.”
Narcissism surely is on the rise. While there might be dozens of psychological factors explaining why this is, the fact is, the chance of finding yourself smitten with a narcissist is higher than ever. Considering that there tends to be many more male narcissists than females, what exactly is a modern girl to do?
It can be tricky to step away from the charms of a narcissist—after all, they’re very easy to fall for—so here are some signs to consider before you’re left whirling and confused.
01. At first, they’re everything you’ve ever wanted.
Complimentary, charming, and confident—narcissists come across as your ideal guy. For my dear Jane Austen fans, think of meeting that charming Wickham—not the prideful, but ultimately loving, Darcy. He’s fun, he’s dashing, and he knows how to make you feel like you’re special. “They put up a convincing facade,” Chlipala says. “They really know how to impress.”
In the Harvard Business Review, Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic breaks down why these “selfish, arrogant, and entitled individuals” can easily sweep us off our feet. For one, their self-obsession helps them master first impressions, creating a magnetic personality. Second, they’re skilled at self-promotion and know how to take credit and avoid blame. Because of this, they often seem like natural leaders—and, let’s be honest, considering how many immature man-boys there are out there, suave confidence can be a breath of fresh air.
Don’t get too worried if this is the only sign. Just because he’s complimentary, charming, and confident doesn’t mean that he’s a narcissistic manipulator. However, if this charm seems to be a silver lining masking much darker traits, don’t be naive to his advances.
02. They’re condescending to the service industry.
“A red flag is if they consistently put other people down,” Chlipala points out. “I often tell my clients, don’t be a fool thinking that’s not going to turn onto you sometime in the future.” She explains that when you fall for a narcissist, it actually just reinforces his self-importance. And when you see him consistently putting others down—especially someone who is serving you—it’s an especially bad sign because he’s showing contempt.
“At one point or another, this kind of contempt will spread to you,” Chlipala says. Moreover, she emphasizes that contempt is the most toxic behavior in a relationship—and the biggest predictor of divorce. “This all stems from the fact that they see themselves as better than everyone—even you.”
03. They’re simply not good at intimacy.
Chances are, a narcissist will have a lot of superficial friends but very few real ones. And when it comes to past romantic relationships, their track record isn’t exactly a shining emblem. For instance, while most of us have probably been guilty of occasionally bad-mouthing an ex, a narcissist won’t have anything positive to say about them. Moreover, they probably don’t blame themselves for the relationship disintegrating.
“It’s easy to imagine them leaving a trail of broken relationships,” Chlipala says. “After all, it would be really tough to be truly happy in a relationship with a narcissist, as relationships are about give and take—and a narcissist just takes.”
When one of Chlipala’s clients was breaking up with a narcissist, the client wondered if the narcissist even cared. “I told her, ‘Maybe a little bit, but in reality, no.’ He wasn’t capable of it. The relationship was crafted all around him.”
04. They’re all about those material things.
“They’re consumed with status, success, power,” Chlipala says. A narcissist will want to have the best of everything, and they’ll manipulate and bully until they have it.
Chlipala explains that when she gets a client who is suffering from narcissism to open up and talk, it’s clear that deep down they have very fragile egos, and they measure their self-worth through this kind of materialism. “They want people to be jealous of them,” Chlipala says. “It fuels their fire.”
When asked if they’re ‘one-uppers,’ Chlipala laughs and says, “Oh, yeah. For any good story you have, they have a better one. They can’t help showing themselves off.”
05. They can’t handle criticism.
Sure, no one loves to be criticized—especially if that criticism is delivered poorly or as an insult—but narcissists simply can’t stand it. “Criticism punctures their belief of themselves: that they’re so awesome [and] important, that everyone wants their life.”
Chlipala explains that at their core, narcissists are surprisingly insecure, “so they put themselves in situations where people admire them.” And if you’re not admiring them, they’ll often respond with vindictive anger.
If you’re curious as to whether your romantic interest is a narcissist, here’s a test. When they don’t do something they said they would—like call at a particular time—mention that you don’t like that and it’s not something you want to put up with. See how they react. Do they empathize? Or give a heartfelt sorry? If not, and instead they put you down or blame you and your expectations, that’s not a good sign.
06. They will exhaust you with their need for attention.
A narcissist loves attention—which is one of the reasons that they seem to love having you around so much. Your praise and admiration, especially in those euphoric beginning stages, gives them incredible boosts of self-worth. Yet, the longer you’re with them, the more it seems that they’re never satisfied with the attention and love that you provide. Nothing you do is ever enough.
And as they think that other people are constantly envying them, the relationship by default is always about them and their lives. “Narcissists will leave you exhausted. As you get to know one better, and the charm wanes, you’ll find yourself emotionally tired after interacting with them,” Chlipala explains.
When it gets down to intimacy, it’s not a relationship you want to be in. Narcissists often deem themselves above therapy, so it’s not worth staying around, hoping that they’ll change in a few quick sessions. If you think you’re in a relationship with a narcissist, realize that you’re vulnerable and don’t just leave, but take proactive steps to protect yourself. They might make every empty promise to get you back; remember, a narcissist is a master manipulator.
Remember, it’s healthy to seek a relationship of mutual caring and emotional intimacy, and it’s unhealthy to stay in relationships with those who hurt you. Don’t fall prey to those who want to manipulate you and use you. Oftentimes the best thing you can do for yourself, and those suffering from narcissism, is to detach from the relationship and hope they find healing.
Photo Credit: Nima Salimi