Understanding narcissism & narcissists

When we see someone spend a little too much time in front of the mirror or obsess over taking the perfect selfie, we may casually throw out the term “narcissist.” Everyone can become self-occupied on occasion but true narcissism is different. Narcissists often show disregard for the feelings and general well-being of those around them. 

Instead, they often believe they’re supernaturally gifted, talented, or worthy of praise. However, these individuals typically have little self-esteem and may lash out toward those closest when their fantasy doesn’t align with reality. Being able to control others is also a way for narcissists to improve their self-esteem.  

Understand how and why narcissists manipulate others, how narcissistic personality traits form, and what it may look or feel like to be controlled by a narcissist. It’s important to remain cognizant of the signs and symptoms of narcissistic behavior, especially if you think you or a loved one is being manipulated by a narcissist.

What Is a Narcissist?

A narcissist is a self-centered individual with a lack of regard for the feelings of others. Narcissists consistently ignore the emotional needs of others in favor of self-obsession. However, those with narcissistic traits can sometimes display genuine expressions of love, admiration, or loyalty. But for those around them, these expressions are sometimes part of a larger scheme to control and manipulate, or to gain revenge against those they think have wronged them. 

Narcissistic personalities are focused primarily on themselves, and whether it’s purposeful or not, can leave those who care deeply for them hanging on to every word or misleading action.

What Is a Covert Narcissist?

A covert narcissist, also known as an introverted narcissist, is someone with narcissistic personality traits that are subtle or well-hidden. These types of narcissistic personalities have introverted tendencies that make them harder to spot—their manipulation tactics may not stand out as readily as the stereotypical “center of attention” narcissistic individual might. 

Covert narcissists are more likely than ordinary narcissists to: 

  • Use sarcasm or other forms of passive-aggressive behavior to control others
  • Pull romantic partners unknowingly into codependent relationships 
  • Downplay their skills or abilities—but only so that others will praise them in an effort to “lift their spirits”

What Are the Traits of a Narcissist?

Narcissists can be hard to spot initially because they often use forms of flattery including gifts, compliments, or over-the-top displays of affection that cause the receiver to overlook the signs of their manipulative behavior. Several narcissistic traits include: 

  • An inability to take responsibility for their actions, even if they cause great emotional damage
  • Difficulty handling criticism, even if it’s constructive
  • Passing scathing judgment onto other individuals, even if they themselves are guilty of the same actions or behaviors
  • Being oblivious to the impact of their actions or words

How Can You Tell If Someone Is Narcissistic?

The best way to determine whether someone is narcissistic is to examine the relationship that you share with the person in question, as well your interactions with other people. Watch out for the following narcissistic tendencies: 

  • An inability to empathize with others while placing themselves on a pedestal 
  • Remaining oblivious to or justifying arrogance
  • Low self-esteem, which causes the individual to lash out when vulnerable or embarrassed 
  • Being self-obsessed, focused on gaining power, physical beauty, or gaining control over others 
  • A long string of broken relationships and neglected social connections that are tossed aside when they no longer serve a purpose

How Do Narcissists Make You Feel?

Narcissists are masters at making those around them feel like everything is their fault. When someone becomes close to a narcissist, it’s common to experience an emotional whirlwind, something that can be at once intoxicating and yet incredibly painful. It’s no wonder that many people who interact with them feel: 

  • Frustrated by their lack of emotional depth 
  • Angered by their insensitivity towards the well-being of others
  • Confused due to mixed signals
  • Guilty because the narcissist puts the blame on them

How Do Narcissists Manipulate?

Narcissists are often crafty about the ways that they’ll work to gain control. They may attempt to manipulate others by: 

  • Love-bombing: Watch out for the over-the-top displays of affection (which should serve as warning signs) that narcissistic individuals direct at those in their social circle. 
  • Gaslighting: This form of manipulation involves convincing others that they aren’t being mistreated by the narcissist. It’s all in an effort to confuse the person they have their sights on, in order to gain complete control.
  • Guilt-tripping: This type of manipulative behavior entails the narcissist expressing passive-aggressive tendencies, refusing to say what they really want. They may say that they’re okay with a friend or partner spending time with other people, enjoying personal activities or hobbies, but when the individual does so, they act hurt and betrayed in order to become the center of attention.

How Does Someone Become Narcissistic?

Many individuals with narcissistic traits may have endured painful experiences that cause them to fixate on themselves. These individuals may have become selfish in order to cope with early life difficulties, such as absentee parents or bullying in school. Yet still, some people may never have experienced trauma in this form—they may remain oblivious to their behavior, and genuinely believe themselves to be the main character in many of their interactions with other people. 

Emotional abuse from caretakers, though, seems to be one of the key factors in the formation of narcissistic personality traits—the child grows up striving to “prove” their neglectful parent wrong, through overly ambitious and self-destructive means. The tell-tale quick temper in response to even the most constructive criticism may be a vestige of a parent or family member’s cruel comments or actions towards that individual. In most cases, narcissistic traits are formed in childhood. 

Some research even indicates that the brain chemistry of narcissistic individuals may be different, causing irregular thought patterns that fixate on the self. Whatever the cause, it’s not quite yet understood. Narcissists are a classic example of the “nature vs nurture” debate in psychology. A narcissist’s behavior may be influenced by past experiences, and their braggadocious tendencies aim to conceal emotional wounds and insecurities. Or they may not have self-esteem issues at all, and are truly that full of themselves. In either case, their behavior is difficult to tolerate, and detrimentally affects everyone the narcissist interacts with, including themselves. 

How Do I Know If I’m Narcissistic?

Those with narcissistic tendencies often leave a long string of broken relationships behind them and may have few, if any, long-term friends. What might seem like meaningful connections on the surface may turn out to be superficial placeholders—people who simply help the narcissist avoid being alone. You might be narcissistic if: 

  • You tend to ditch friends or family for selfish reasons, including improving your own image
  • You demand perfection from those around you, without realizing that you yourself fall short of your own expectations
  • You experience a disconnect between your behavior and how it seems to be harming those around you
  • Your past romantic relationships or friendships have typically been rocky, and are always “the other person’s fault” when they end 
  • You hyper-fixate on superficial qualities such as your appearance, money, status symbol items (cars, expensive clothing, social media-worthy vacations), never appearing or feeling “perfect” enough to be satisfied with yourself

How Does a Narcissist React When They Can’t Control You?

When all other attempts to control fail, a narcissist might start making threats. Whether verbally or physically, this is a red flag and the relationship should end, or the proper space should be taken in order for both individuals to identify the toxic aspects of their relationship, whether it’s a familial, platonic, or romantic relationship.

How Do You Deal with a Narcissist?

If their behavior is continually causing pain and emotional distress, it could be best for individuals who care for a narcissist to do so from a distance. This might prove difficult; although narcissists can be unpleasant to be around, like everyone else, they have redeemable qualities. They’re only human, and they do have the ability to change. 

However, protecting yourself from their manipulation and abuse comes first. Try to: 

  • Be honest about how they’ve hurt you: If you truly care for someone with narcissistic traits, t’s not a bad idea to talk to them about how their narcissistic tendencies have harmed you. If you never speak up, you may continue to condone their behavior, without even realizing it. 
  • Offer to help them improve their behavior: If your talk with them goes well, offer to help your brother, sister, mother, significant other (or whoever) make some beneficial changes. Just remember that it’s not your job to be their therapist. If they’re willing (and their reactions aren’t explosive) you could start pointing by gently pointing out their selfish actions, demeaning words when they’ve crossed the line. 
  • Hold clear boundaries: Creating boundaries doesn’t matter if they’re not maintained. Tell the narcissistic individual that you won’t put up with their ridicule, their insults, their lies, or their criticism. You may need to give the narcissist in your life an ultimatum if you need to. This might show them that their actions have real consequences. 
  • Don’t take their behavior personally: It’s especially difficult not to take a loved one’s harmful actions or words to heart. Do your best to remember that the next time they do or say something that really hits you hard. And if it’s too much, past a certain point, you aren’t obligated to tolerate hurtful words or behaviors.

Where Can a Narcissist Get Help?

Narcissists can benefit from seeking guidance from a therapist or counselor. Dialectal behavioral therapy, known as DBT, is especially helpful for those who display narcissistic and manipulative habits. By talking through experiences, encounters, and potential situations with their therapist or counselor, those with narcissistic personalities can begin to change their behavior and habits.

Being narcissistic and being diagnosed with narcissistic personality disorder are entirely different things. People with NPD exhibit the following: 

  • A traumatic or tumultuous early childhood experience
  • Extravagant shopping habits, choosing luxury items that superficially make them appear important
  • Overbearing parental figures that inflated or destroyed their sense of self 
  • A genuine lack of understanding for the feelings of others
  • Exaggerating their talents and achievements in order to hide low self-esteem 

Both people with NPD and those with narcissistic traits will benefit best from DBT, which helps them become cognizant of their self-obsessive tendencies. Interacting verbally with a counselor or therapist’s watchful guidance can help reveal the destructive patterns that are undermining their personal growth and relationships. 

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Table of contents

What Is a Narcissist?

What Is a Covert Narcissist?

What Are the Traits of a Narcissist?

How Can You Tell If Someone Is Narcissistic?

How Do Narcissists Make You Feel?

How Do Narcissists Manipulate?

How Does Someone Become Narcissistic?

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Jason Crosby

Jason Crosby is a Senior Copywriter at Thriveworks. He received his BA in English Writing from Montana State University with a minor in English Literature. Previously, Jason was a freelance writer for publications based in Seattle, WA, and Austin, TX.

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