Narcissists are rife in the dating world, and a lot more common than you might think. Ever had an uneasy feeling about someone you're dating? Like they're not being totally genuine, or it's all a bit 'too much too soon'? They could actually be a narcissist. And this could be concerning as narcissistic abuse is a form of emotional abuse.
Life for a narcissist really is all about them. While most of us have some narcissistic traits, we all try to get our own needs met and lots of people are selfish, the true narcissist can’t see things from anyone else’s perspective but their own.
So, how can you know if the person you're dating a narcissist? These are narcissist traits and behaviours to look out for.
What is a narcissist?
Integrative counsellor Katharina Wolf explains that narcissism is a personality disorder (NPD) that is often misunderstood. "Unlike the common belief that a narcissist is someone who is egotistical and loves themselves most (Narcissus who fell in love with himself comes to mind), it takes more to be diagnosed as a narcissist; a person would need to have five of the nine identifying characteristics according to the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5)."
This includes: the need for excessive admiration, lacking empathy, being exploitative of others, a great sense of entitlement, the belief that they are special/chosen, is envious of others and believes others are envious of them, is arrogant, shows grandiose self-importance, and a preoccupation with fantasies of beauty, success, etc.
"The behaviour begins to show in the early teens and begins to establish a pattern. A combination of how the brain is wired, the family environment and learnt behaviour can lead to narcissistic patterning," explains Yasmin Ibrahim, sex therapist at EKHO Wellbeing.
Yasmin says approximately 1% of the population has NPD, with around 50-75% of them being men.
Why are narcissistic traits so hard to spot?
Narcissists often tend to be well-liked and popular people, Katharina says. "[This] can easily lead to the assumption that they are very nice, kind and loving people (but wait until you get on the wrong side of them!) Narcissists have a tendency to not assume responsibility for their actions, making them the eternal victim – if you get sucked in, you too might believe that nothing is their fault, and everyone is just out to get them."
Gaslighting is another emotional abuse technique narcissists commonly use to "destabilise someone’s self-esteem, making them question their own sanity and perception of events", she adds. "For example, they might meet up with their ex-partner, and when questioned deny that it happened, accusing you of being jealous, not trusting them and cheating on them yourself, because why would you be suspicious otherwise? Often, after an argument, you will be the one who has to apologise even though you are the injured party."
Psychotherapist Gérard Chevalier, from Chevalier Delapalme, says narcissistic behaviour in a relationship can be mistaken for true unconditional love "when the victim gets trapped in the narcissistic process". He adds, "Overtime, the victim becomes progressively aware of the toxic narcissistic traits in the partner."
Narcissistic traits and behaviours to look out for in a relationship
Narcissistic trait: It's all too much too soon
Wendy Gregory, a counselling psychologist and author, says, "When you're dating a narcissist, the relationship is likely to be very intense very early on, They may take you to expensive places, shower you with gifts and attention, make extravagant promises about what they can do to help you, and generally make you feel like a queen. But beware: it is not what it seems, and is in fact a carefully staged performance designed to woo you.
"Don't be under any illusion that this is about you, and that they're just really into you. The narcissist is fond of making grand gestures because they love the idea of being seen to be generous. A little further down the line they'll remind you saying, "I’ve done so much for you, you’re so ungrateful!"
Sarah Berry, a psychosexual and relationship therapist, says although it might be hard to tell, there is a marked difference between the hopeful, excited way of being at the start of a relationship and narcissistic love bombing. "The latter can feel intense, excessive and claustrophobic. It’s a shortcut to wooing you without really looking at building a relationship based on chemistry, support, mutual vulnerability and interests. It’s less about who you are and more about what you can do for them - maybe providing sex and affection as well as someone to boost their ego," she explains.
Narcissistic trait: There's so much chemistry
"The narcissist is, without fail, extremely charming and charismatic. You will feel irresistibly drawn to them - you might even think you've met your soulmate. They'll shower you with compliments and might say they're in love with you very soon. But it isn’t what it seems," Wendy explains."
"When they say, ''I love you',' they mean that they love the way they feel when they see themselves through your admiring eyes. They love the power they have to manipulate your feelings."
Narcissistic trait: You're getting too-good-to-be-true vibes
A narcissist will convince you that they're wealthy and have an amazing job, Wendy says, "They'll tell you about their famous, or powerful contacts. Quite often though, these things just don’t add up.
"You may find that, in spite of their affluence, they're living in a shabby one bedroomed flat in a run-down area. If you question them about it though, they'll come up with a convincing reason. The narcissist suffers from delusions of grandeur and is usually a pathological liar. Sometimes, they even start to believe their own lies."
Narcissistic trait: They have an extraordinary back story
Despite all outward appearances, it turns out narcissists don’t actually like themselves, she says. "When they look in the mirror, or more accurately look inside themselves, they don’t like what they see. In fact they find it so unacceptable that they invent a different self, a false persona who is the person they wish they were. They reinvent their past and will ply you with stories of tragedy, or tales of a perfect, fairy tale upbringing."
Narcissistic trait: They cannot accept any form of criticism
Wendy explains, "While the narcissist has no problem dishing out complaints and in fact seems to find fault with most people, they are hypersensitive to criticism themselves. Even the mildest of suggestions that they've made a mistake, or have flaws is likely to result in a range of adverse reactions.
"They may explode in fury, or alternatively withdraw and become sulky and silent. Most narcissists are very adept at turning the criticism around and blaming you. This can be so subtle that you don’t realise it's happening, and you may well find yourself apologising. It is only afterwards that you wonder to yourself how that came about."
Narcissistic trait: You get shut down if you disagree with them
The narcissist will take disagreement very personally, and as a form of criticism, she continues. "They may become angry, or simply refuse to engage in the discussion saying something like, 'Well we’ll just have to agree to disagree!'' This leaves you feeling increasingly frustrated as you can never drive a point home, or even get your view heard."
Narcissistic trait: They never apologise
"The narcissist rarely, if ever, apologises for their behaviour because they never feel they are wrong," says mental health therapist Miyume McKinley, LCSW. "In relationships, narcissists do not take accountability, they often blame others for any hurtful behaviours (i.e. 'if you weren’t so needy, I would not act this way')."
Narcissistic trait: You always end up doing what they want
"Beware, for this happens subtly," Wendy warns. "You probably won’t notice straight away, but after a month or two together you may start to wonder why you always go to their choice of restaurant, never yours. Even on your birthday they’ll take you somewhere that they have always wanted to go to."
Narcissistic trait: You start to feel bad about yourself
Wendy says that it won’t be long before this person starts to find fault with you. "They'll blame you for everything that goes wrong, big or small. You will find yourself apologising more and more for things that aren’t your fault."
Narcissistic trait: They have no long-term friends
Katharina says you can also spot a narcissist by their lack of long-term friends. "Someone who is SO wonderful should have lots of them, or at least some, no? But on closer examination, all there is, is casual acquaintances, people they love to trash talk about and nemeses they like to keep close."
Narcissistic trait: The conversation is all about them
Yasmin says the biggest giveaway is if the conversation and focus is all about them. "They are not necessarily as brash and loud as they have become to be known, narcissists can also be quiet and reserved with an inner feeling of resentment that everyone else has it better than them," she explains.
Narcissistic trait: They try to isolate you from your friends and family
You also might end up being isolated from your friends and family. Katharina explains that "as people will either not understand what your ‘problem’ is with this wonderful and charismatic person, or the narcissist will have slowly isolated you from them under the pretence that they hate the narcissist for no reason, requesting full loyalty from you (them or me), or that your family/friends are not good enough and only holding you back."
Narcissistic trait: They cheat on you
A narcissist tends to become bored in relationships and will pick someone up and drop them quickly, says Yasmin. "And [they] are more likely to cheat in a relationship as their need for attention and validation may not be enough from one person."
What to do if you are dating a narcissist
Being in a relationship with a narcissist creates a paradoxical double bind, Gerard explains: "Powerlessness to leave and inability to stay in the short-term". He says that in the long-term, "you lose track of your identity bouncing back and forth, spending all your time thinking about leaving and trying at the same time to avoid being abandoned." This is why he says the first step is to "exercise self-reflection or introspection to focus on yourself and the reality of your situation". He says that "if you don’t face your abandonment fears, you’ll never be free."
Sarah says that whether they qualify for the label or not, any of the traits associated with narcissistic personality disorder are not good for relationships. "What you may want to ascertain is what is their potential for change and, at this point in their life, how willing are they to make those changes? Do note that if you are doing all the work to try and change the relationship then that is also a red flag."
Keep a diary, Yasmin suggests. "Record any abusive behaviour in case you need evidence."
Assert your boundaries. Learn to express what is and is not acceptable and stay consistent. Your boundaries protect you and help you feel safe. Start with small simple things articulated in a calm, simple and firm manner.
Miyume says she would encourage those in relationship with a person with NPD to seek professional help or therapy to help assess the impact the relationship has had on their mental and emotional health. "There are also many books available for those in a relationship with a narcissist. Setting and maintaining boundaries is important to ensure your needs are met and that your feelings are recognised. Narcissists often invalidate and minimise their partners' experiences and feelings in the relationship ('you are making a big deal out of something that doesn’t matter'). Build a support system so that your emotional needs can be met," she suggests.
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