The Narcissist - What is a narcissist?

There are few lives untouched by narcissists. These relationships infect those who are in them with self-doubt, despair, confusion, anxiety, depression, and the chronic feeling of being “not enough,” all of which make it so difficult to step away and set boundaries.

Telltale Traits of a Narcissist, but know that it's a spectrum.

·      Narcissists share certain key behaviours.

·      One of the most common traits associated with narcissists is a lack of empathy, as well as an inability to relate to the emotions of others.

·      While narcissists may appear to have an inflated sense of self-importance, this often stems from low self-esteem and insecurity.

“Narcissist” has become a buzzword we love to toss around—inspiring a frenzy of articles, blog posts, online quizzes, and memes. Also a swarm of accusations. Nearly everybody thinks they know one. There is the image-obsessed friend who is in love with their own reflection, the arrogant boss who gloats over their own ideas, and the two-timing ex. But, do you really know a narcissist or have you been using it as a catchall phrase for someone has a moderate dose of these tendencies?

A personality disorder that exists on a spectrum, extreme narcissism hosts a maze of trickery that transcends your run-of-the-mill self-absorption. If you lean in too closely, a narcissist becomes an energy vampire, making a circus of your life—the kind that causes you to perform acrobatics in order to please them.

The most common traits that narcissists possess are dismissiveness, entitlement, and grandiosity—including blatant defiance of your boundaries, jealousy and resentment when someone else captures the spotlight, and outrageous expectations for how their needs should be met—while grasping for anyone to cloak them in validation, of course.

If you suspect you have a narcissist in your circle, or might be in a one-sided relationship with one—whether or not the dynamic feels toxic—read on. Experts help to unbox what narcissism really is—the charm, the gaslighting, the seduction, the injury, and the twisted truth, as well as how to deal with a narcissistic person.

So, common misconceptions aside, what is a narcissist really?

Defined by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders as “a pervasive pattern of grandiosity, need for admiration and lack of empathy,” a hallmark of narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) is an extreme religiosity to an individual’s sense of entitlement, self-importance and uniqueness.

It’s their needs that matter. They take self-absorption to a high altitude, convinced that they are so rare that few are capable of understanding them. In other words, their feet are seldom on the ground. The disorder can manifest in the form of wild ambition, coupled with success, or swing the other direction, in which they may become melodramatic or believe they're always the victim.

“When you’re talking about a true narcissist, this is someone who exaggerates their self-perception and deems themselves as being superior in some way. And while it can appear quite alluring at first, you won’t find the kind of consideration and regard for other people that you might expect from the average individual. They may come across as charming, kind and extremely likable initially, but behind it is someone who is seeking to get their needs met,” says Dr. Judy Ho, PhD, clinical and forensic neuropsychologist, and author of Stop Self Sabotage. “And you will see that darker part of them the minute you are unwilling to meet their needs.”

With narcissism, there is a spectrum, and everyone falls somewhere.

One of the most common misconceptions about narcissism, aside from the assumption that it’s primarily identifiable by instances of extreme self-absorption, is that a person either is or isn’t. Psychologically speaking, narcissism is a personality trait that every human being occupies to some extent. Everyone you know lands somewhere along the narcissism spectrum, and interestingly, research shows that a moderate amount of self-centeredness and confidence is healthy—lending an engine of ambition and resilience to one’s functionality and goals.

But nearly any personality trait, when driven to the extreme, can become pathological and sick. This is when the behaviour is so egregious that it becomes diagnosable as NPD, which only makes up about 1 percent of the population. This deeply ingrained, inescapable pattern pervades extreme delusions of grandeur, jealousy, and power struggle, particularly in the realm of relationships. Incidents of cruelty and violence are often involved.

So let’s say you have a character in your life who breezes (or torpedoes) through their days—both good and bad—with a haughty air about them, and a chronic dismissal of your feelings. You could be fraternizing with a person who has NPD, but it is much more likely that the accused is someone who is simply positioned on the higher end on the narcissism spectrum. This is typically referred to by mental health professionals as a person with “strong narcissistic traits,” and though it isn’t necessarily someone whose personality is entirely void of empathy, their persistent narcissistic habits and patterns can still wreak havoc on their life—and yours.

Let’s zoom in on the personality traits of someone with high narcissism.

A narcissist charges through life as though everything they embody—from their ideas to their problems—is a higher priority than yours. Your life just isn’t as relevant or interesting to them, and you’ll know this by how they constantly steer the conversation right back to their own narratives.

They love bathing in themselves—their accolades, dramas, ideas, and even victimhood. In fact, you may know every detail of their life—from the glory to the gore, but they may barely know your highlights. “You might hear the language of, ‘Nobody does it like I can…’ or, in cases where the narcissist is wallowing in their troubles, it could be, ‘Nobody understands what I’m dealing with…’ or they may remind you over and over of how strong they are,” says Dr. Ho.

They don't believe in boundaries.

Boundaries? You won’t be needing those. “Narcissists see other people as pawns to get to where they want to go. They may never admit it, but they are the most important person in the room and everyone else is just an object to manipulate or a place to dump their problems. So your boundaries mean nothing to them,” says Dr. Ho.

When they want something, they expect automatic concession—whatever the day, the hour, or the circumstances. And if you deny them what they want? That’s like stomping on an ant pile—because another person’s connections, empathy, resources and time are their right to dominate.

If you assert yourself, prepare to encounter their wrath. In fact, it may blow up in a puff of smoke, leaving you confused as to how you suddenly became the bad guy. “When you give a narcissist any kind of critical feedback whatsoever, even in the gentlest way, they bite back extremely hard, acting as though you attacked them or wronged them,” says Dr. Ho.

The type to launch smear campaigns or call upon humiliation tactics, Dr. Ho says narcissists who are the highest on the spectrum can be downright cruel when challenged—growing violently insulted and offended, easily and often. “A narcissist will often imagine that other people are belittling them or trying to harm them, even if the person is simply trying to set a small boundary or give constructive criticism during a business meeting. They often react with rage or a defiant counterattack. And it can get ugly,” she says.

Dr. Derhally adds that ‘perceived’ is the key word within this dynamic. “Oftentimes what they think is an attack isn’t even an insult whatsoever, but an accidental challenge to their ego. This extremely angry overreaction is called narcissistic rage.”

Admiration, praise and validation—those make up a concoction that is their literal lifeblood. “The minute you compliment them, it intoxicates them so much that they will almost pry for more validation," says Dr. Ho. “So if you say to them, ‘Oh, you’re so funny!’ they will keep working on that, wanting more and more of the praise. But the same sort of applies to when they get comfortable with you and bring all of their negativity to you. They love for you to validate or enable whatever brings them attention and confirms their uniqueness, even if negative.”

Another trait is that a narcissist has a hard time letting others shine.

Another hallmark of a narcissist is that, though they reek of bravado, they can’t let anyone else be awesome. For example, let’s say one of their acquaintances from high school is recognized for building a successful start-up. The narcissist will ruminate on why that person deserves the notoriety, and will be sure to tell observers of all of the skeletons that person has stowed away in their closet. “Extreme narcissists live in a pattern of jealousy and the refusal to just accept that another person is thriving. There is this constant irritation when it comes to sharing the limelight, and a need to take this person or that person down a peg,” says Dr. Ho.

The signs will take different shapes depending upon the circumstances, but the common thread is entitlement, a sense of self-importance and a blatant disregard for the boundaries, feelings, needs, priorities and schedules of others.

One sign your friend might be a narcissist is that they never seem happy for you.

Narcissists may bombard you with calls and texts to unload all of their dramatic tales—even during your most inconvenient hours—because it’s always their hour. You may respectfully ask that they pause the communication, because you need to rest up for an important meeting the following day, but that's seldom received well. “Some kinds of narcissists will come across as extremely needy. If there is always a huge problem or drama, everyone has to focus on them—pitying them, running to their rescue, and helping them clean up their messes,” says Dr. Ho.

“A narcissist’s sense of entitlement is extreme, with unreasonable expectations of favourable treatment. They will always find a way to be the centre of everyone’s universe—good or bad,” says Dr. Ho.

If you're in a narcissistic relationship, their patterns are predictable...

There are three phases within the narcissist’s relational maze: love bombing, devaluation, and discard.

The cycle typically starts out with vivid, fragrant bouquets of flattery and praise. How appreciated, brilliant, incredible, and gorgeous you are, and how much your presence in their life means to them. This is called love bombing, and it can be intoxicating to a victim of narcissistic abuse. It may feel euphoric, but it lands with a dark intention. Because, if you stay close to a narcissistic, it tends to lead to whiplash-inducing moments where the charming, gracious, romantic person who sees so much beauty in you suddenly has another face—an enraged, entitled, accusatory one. And you meet it the minute they don’t get their way in the slightest. This is the devaluation phase.

The love bombing and devaluation phases may loop and repeat for the duration of the relationship.

“The love bombing act is how they keep people around. It’s a rather abusive dynamic. The more you get involved with them, the more the dark side manifests in situations, so you’ll start to get more of the devaluation. But if they lose you and it scares them, you’ll get the love bombing all over again,” says Dr. Derhally. She adds. “It’s confusing because you think, ‘Oh, there is this truly nice, loving person in there who cares about me so much.’ But you’re always walking on eggshells and feeling extremely anxious because you never know if you’re going to get Jekyll or Hyde.”

Finally, there is the discard phase, which is not something everyone who is in a relationship with a narcissist will experience. “You don’t always get to the discard phase because some narcissists might remain in a relationship with someone for a lifetime, going back and forth between the cycle of love bombing and devaluation. It’s when they have no use for you anymore that you see it."

If you're "discarded," it's likely because they've invited someone else into their parade of self-importance—someone who has a brand new way of making them feel like a ringleader. "It can be very shocking for some people because they may have gone around and around with a narcissist for years, trying to make it work,” says Dr. Derhally.

Behind a narcissist’s grandiose sense of confidence is insecurity.

There is a desperate, grasping energy among narcissists, and it most often derives from pain and instability. Think of a narcissist like a house of cards—one small nudge to their self-esteem and the whole structure falls apart into a messy pile, leaving you wondering, “What in the world just happened? Why did that one comment upset them so much?”

Believe it or not, narcissists do not love themselves the way they want you to believe they do. They aren’t really that fearless person you see. Sure, they love bathing in all forms of self-adoration, but it’s only because they are starving for it—specifically because it’s the opposite of how they genuinely feel inside. “The overconfidence and charm is likely all an act. They are probably deeply suffering from low self-esteem, which is why they have to work so hard to overcompensate,” says Dr. Ho.

So, what causes a high spectrum of narcissism?

Dr. Ramani Durvasula, licensed clinical psychologist and author Should I Stay or Should I Go: Surviving a Narcissistic Relationship, says the disorder is multi-determined, and while family and relational factors “ultimately explain the lion's share of narcissistic patterns,” including overindulging, under-nourishing and super authoritarian parenting styles, there is also the possibility of biological predisposition, as well as the narcissistic individual having been jolted by a deeply negative experience. “A history of trauma can be a contributor in some situations, as that can impact development of empathy and regulation. Society also doesn't help with its focus on materialism, consumerism, competition and validation seeking.”

She adds, “At its core, narcissism is simply pathological insecurity that manifests as validation seeking and antagonism, so any early environmental conditions—such as neglect from parents—that foster pathological insecurity place a person at risk for later narcissism."

The ultimate curveball?
They often don’t know they are narcissists—because they think everyone else is.

The resounding theme is: “This is not about me; it’s about you.” Your fault, your problem to fix, your lack of attention to something. A lot of times, a narcissist will glance around them and accuse numerous people within their social circle or family as being narcissists. They are masters of projection, often oblivious to the ways they abuse, entangle, manipulate, and poison others.

“Because of the way narcissistic people operate and think, they have a tough time connecting with people in a deeper way—without inviting chaos and conflict in at some point. Because of this, it’s hard for them to sustain relationships over time. They may be the person who wants lasting romantic love so badly, but they don’t realize that what they are seeking is someone to worship them in an unreasonable way,” says Dr. Ho.

She adds, “You basically have to worship the ground they walk on, validate them, and coddle them. And if you are way too successful, they are always going to have issues with you. They may even act like they are supportive of you if they know doing so will make them look good or help them with a connection. But, secretly, another person’s greatness infuriates them.” 

Dr Ramani
Jamie Friedlander