Do you think you know a narcissist? Narcissism is a particularly difficult personality trait, and it is important you know how to identify and deal with a narcissist in your life.

What is a narcissist?

A narcissism is a mental health condition characterized by an inflated sense of self worth, an excessive need for admiration and attention, and a history of making choices to benefit themselves, along with a lack of empathy for the people that choice might hurt.

However, behind this confidence in people with narcissistic personality disorder, is a fragile self-esteem.

In a more general sense (and the type of narcissist that I am talking about in this article) a narcissist is someone who holds some of the traits of narcissism– doesn’t necessarily meet the diagnostic criteria for narcissism as a personality disorder.

Narcissism and narcissistic traits often begin to show up in teens and early adulthood, and the factors that lead to it are, without doubt, complex. It’s probably a combination of genetics, neurobiology (meaning how the brain is wired and how it affects behavior and thinking), and environment (the way the person was raised).

Behind every narcissist is a deeply insecure person.

Studies suggest that as many as 6.2% of the population of the US have narcissistic personality disorder. However, many more will have enough narcissistic traits that they can be harmful to others around them.

Understanding Narcissism

It’s important to understand why these people act the way they are acting. It doesn’t mean they are bad people, or sinister, or out to hurt anyone. Unfortunately, however, narcissists can be toxic–even though they rarely intend to be.

Psychiatrists and psychologists aren’t entirely sure why people develop narcissism, but they have suggested it may be a combination of genetics and childhood experience.

Some studies suggest that narcissism may be caused by parents who overvalued the child (i.e., told them they are worthy of special treatment because they are superior and have treated them as such), or by parents who undervalued them (i.e., shown them little love, attention, or praise).

Whatever the cause is for developing narcissistic traits, we do know that narcissists find it very difficult to have any healthy or meaningful relationships–in either their personal or work life.

Psychological analysis of narcissist has revealed that on the outside, they look like they are assertive, arrogant, and full of confidence; but really they are anxious, suspicious, and sensitive.

Because a narcissist feels “small,” they find ways to make themselves look “big.”

Different Types of Narcissists

Narcissists can be divided into two large groups. Cast your eyes over the office for a second. You can probably spot a narcissist. Look for the person leaned against the wall, bragging about his new car and telling everyone how much he deadlifted at the gym this morning. He’s probably gesticulating wildly with his hands, standing a little closer to people than they are comfortable with, and speaking louder than is appropriate.

  1. This is the overt narcissist. This type of narcissist is easy to identify. They brag; they boast; they show-off.
  2. The covert narcissist, however, has the same selfish ulterior motives and the callous disregard for the feelings of others, but, at first glance, might seem the same as everyone else. These people are like chameleons. Instead of being loud and arrogant and obnoxious, they are more withdrawn and are easily overlooked as narcissists.

Where an overt narcissist will criticize people and put others down, the covert narcissist has more subtle mannerisms.

A covert narcissist may even try to pretend to be the victim, while they are trying to convince you that everything is your fault and nothing is their fault.

In the field of psychology, narcissists can be split into two similar groups–”grandiose” and “vulnerable” (also known as “hypersensitive”). Scientific studies on narcissists have shown that whether an individual is an extrovert or introvert will determine if their behavior is overt or covert, but, regardless, the root cause and emotions motivating the narcissist remain the same.

Signs You’re Dealing with a Narcissist

You can usually tell if someone has narcissistic traits–though it might take longer if you are dealing with a covert narcissist.

One scientific study has actually suggested that the best way to identify a narcissist is to ask them how much they agree with the sentence “I am a narcissist” on a scale of 1 to 7. Strangely, narcissists do seem to be good at knowing they are narcissistic.

However, it’s rarely appropriate to ask someone this.

Instead, look out for these key signs to know if you are dealing with a narcissist. 

  • They often exaggerate their abilities–particularly their intelligence, power, or physical attractiveness.
  • They take advantage of people and then show no remorse.
  • They crave admiration and / or attention.
  • They become very jealous over minor things.
  • They are less likely to support democracy (according to this study).
  • They’re ultra-sensitive to criticism or anything they may consider as undermining them.
  • They demonstrate a short temper (particularly, they lash out if they feel criticized).
  • Narcissists also may lash out when they feel like they’re not getting special treatment.

Weird Things Narcissists Do

You won’t ever truly be able to get into someone’s head to understand the ins and outs of their brain and why it works the way it works.

However, in addition to the above signs, you might be able to spot a narcissist–or someone with strong narcissistic traits–by being aware of some of the weird things narcissists do. 

Immediately Appears to Trust and Confide in You

Whether he’s telling you about his messy divorce or the abusive relationship he had with his parents, the narcissist will give the impression that he deeply trusts you, and you are the only person he can talk to like this. 

These types of stories are designed to gain sympathy, force a feeling of intimacy, reel you into their lives.

(In relationships, this is known as love-bombing and should be seen immediately as a red flag.)

Repeat ‘Secrets’ They Have Already Told You

Similar to the stories above but often more outlandish, and, unbelievably, a narcissist will also try to convince you they are telling you a top secret. Maybe they will say they used to be part of MI5, or something more subtle like saying they know two colleagues had an affair–or other over-inflated office gossip stories.

They tend to repeat these “secrets” (which are often–if not always–lies) because they are part of their canned stories designed to impress people by making themselves look great, or to divide people by making others look bad.

How To Deal with a Narcissist

The chances are that you are reading this article because you are already dealing with a narcissist. I’ve put together some advice for how to keep healthy boundaries with people who have these traits.

Don’t Take it Personally

Whether it’s a partner, an ex-partner, friend, colleague, or family member, having to deal with a narcissist–or somebody with narcissistic traits–can be challenging and hurtful. The first thing to remember is that this isn’t your fault.

A narcissist’s problem is within themselves–not a problem within you.

When you’re being berated and criticized, it can be difficult to not take this personally, but try to view the situation as if you were an outsider. Is this really all your fault? Is this person trying to manipulate you?

It takes some skill and perseverance to stop taking the attacks of a narcissist personally, but is one of the most vital skills in emotional intelligence, since as you will encounter people with these traits throughout your life.

Set Boundaries

It’s okay to have friendships, even relationships with narcissists (remember, they are battling a mental health problem and we all have our flaws, yet still deserve to be loved). However, you need to be strong in setting your boundaries. Consider your own feelings and what you need to stay happy and healthy, and communicate your needs.

Perhaps this means limiting the time you can spend helping them or reassuring them, or maybe it means that the narcissistic colleague you have at work stays a friend only at work.

Establish these boundaries, and communicate them clearly: “Please, do not contact me after 6 p.m.; I have a family I need to spend time with after work” or “I am not comfortable with you swearing at me like that; you need to stop.”

Having your boundaries so clearly laid out and in writing, if possible, shows the narcissist that their tactics to control you are not working, and it also means that you can keep track of how many times they have disrespected you and overstepped a line.

In the workplace this can be an important step in recording unhealthy or damaging behavior toward you, since you have clear examples of when someone has overstepped your boundaries.

Is Your Boss a Narcissist?

Working for a narcissistic boss can be particularly challenging.

While you’re likely to be able to control your friendships and relationships, it’s unlikely you get to choose who you have for a boss.

If your boss consistently takes credit for the work of others, constantly brags about how he is great at closing sales, and focuses conversations around himself and his own work, then it might be that you are in fact working with a narcissistic boss. If you’re not sure, scroll up to the list of symptoms and see if they sound like your manager.

Narcissistic bosses tend to be unpopular and rarely considered  good leaders, as their teams will often be demoralized and frustrated at having to deal with such a character. Unfortunately, there is little you can do other than keep up the spirits of the team when you have the emotional strength to do so, and keep asserting your boundaries with your boss.

Here are a couple of pointers to get you started

Be the change you want to see

In the absence of healthy management, teams have to stick together and work even harder on team morale to foster a happier atmosphere. This means defending your colleagues when they are unfairly under attack from your narcissist boss, being kind to your team members and encouraging them, and continue trying to be your best self.

Take time out when you need it

Excuse yourself for a few minutes when tensions have started to rise, and head outside for some fresh air and a walk around the block. You can’t control the emotions of your boss, but you can control your own emotions. If your boss has started to lose his temper with you, or is trying to guilt-trip you, firmly explain that you’re not comfortable with this.

Keep your distance

It can be tempting to get your narcissistic boss on “your side,” but the chances this will happen are slim.

It’s usually better to keep people with strong narcissistic traits at arm’s length.

Instead of saying yes every time your boss invites you for lunch or for a drink after work because you have a sense of obligation, keep this type of socializing infrequent. Allowing yourself to get too close to someone who you know is manipulative only opens you up to manipulation yourself.

Can narcissists change?

The short answer is yes, narcissists can change. However, there are many barriers that prevent them from seeking effective treatment. Since narcissists care so much about being seen as powerful, admitting they have a problem and actually wanting to change their behavior is usually the biggest obstacle in the way of a healthy future.

Additionally, since they tend to show little or no remorse or empathy towards other people, they are unlikely to want to be a better person for the sake of their loved ones and those close to them.

Instead, narcissists have to come to the understanding that their behavior is hurting themselves.

For change to occur, the narcissist must understand and accept these four key points…

  1. It is their own actions that are creating their own negative feelings.
  2. They must have reached a point where their behavior is making them so unhappy that they are motivated to change themselves.
  3. They have to accept that their behavior is a choice and they can choose to change (this is probably the hardest point here for narcissists to overcome).
  4. They must learn to recognize when they are making a damaging narcissistic choice and have the willpower to make a different decision (even when they are upset, angry, or feel like lashing out).

If someone can recognize these traits in themselves and actively seek help with their behavior, there is no reason a narcissist can’t change.

Now that you have this better understanding of narcissism, it’s time to take the tools and techniques from this article and keep them with you for the next time you face a narcissist.

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