How to recognize a toxic narcissist—and survive

According to the Mayo Clinic, narcissistic personality disorder — related to sociopathy under the umbrella term Antisocial Personality Disorders — is a mental condition in which people have an inflated sense of their own importance, a deep need for excessive attention and admiration, and a lack of empathy for others. But behind this mask of extreme confidence lies a fragile self-esteem that’s vulnerable to the slightest criticism.

Many criminals and offenders are narcissists and/or sociopaths. One excellent example is Alice Uden, half of the killer couple in my latest true crime Alice & Gerald: A Homicidal Love Story. In it, she manipulates her husband to commit horrible crimes that are personally satisfying to her, and she is all too happy to talk about her own crimes with family and friends—another trait of narcissistic criminals.

“Narcissists don’t want love. They want attention,” says counselor Kellen Von Houser. “If they can’t get positive attention, they’ll take negative attention. If they can’t have your admiration, they will accept your rage. But they must provoke some response in you. That is their goal—to provoke a response, any response. It solidifies, in their minds, their power over you, that they are calling the shots, that you are weak, or gullible, or easily manipulated, or vulnerable or whatever they have labeled you in their mind that means you are ‘less’, less than them.”

Indeed, a narcissistic personality disorder causes problems in many areas of life, such as family relationships, work, school or financial affairs, says Mayo. A narcissist can be dangerous, even though appearances can be deceptive. People with narcissistic personality disorder may be generally unhappy and disappointed when they’re not given the special favors or admiration they deeply believe they deserve. They can try to get it in nefarious or desperate ways.

Is somebody you know a narcissist? Here are 10 common characteristics (among others):

1. They like to be the center of attention

Talk, talk, talk. “Narcissists dominate conversations,” says psychotherapist Joseph Burgo, PhD, the author of The Narcissist You Know, at Health.com. “They feel compelled to talk about themselves, and they exaggerate their accomplishments.” They embellish their stories to impress their audience. They paint themselves as their church’s most valuable volunteer, the most honest person in their family, the most popular neighbor on the block. Bottom line: They lie … a lot. These fabrications are usually to get something they want right now, but they serve an equally dark purpose: they make people listen to the narcissist and shore up an idealized version of herself that distracts her from the intolerable fear that she is actually not good enough.

“Narcissists perpetually see themselves as superior, but also perpetually as victims,” says lawyer and social worker Bill Eddy in Psychology Today. “When they are exposed as not being so superior after all, they suffer what is often called ‘a narcissistic injury.’ Maybe they were turned down for an important role they wanted in favor of someone else. After such an ‘injury,’ they will become obsessed with proving how bad the other person is and how wonderful they are. They may go on a long rant: ‘It’s so unfair what they did/said/are. I will show them! They’re punishing me for being better than they will ever be!’”

2. They have a habit of giving (unsolicited) advice

Sure, they’re trying to be helpful by recommending the best restaurants in Denver, or sharing their wisdom on parenting, cooking, or decorating. But they are also seizing an opportunity to demonstrate your superior knowledge and insight, explains Burgo. They know everything. “Narcissists are always a little more in the know,” he says. “They seem to have the inside info on everything.” By acting more sophisticated than everyone in the room, they are bolstering their inflated sense of self—unfortunately at everybody else’s expense.

So, talking to a narcissist—someone who has an inflated (and immovable) self-image—is like tiptoeing through a minefield. They don’t take advice, they give it.

Photo / Engin Akyurt

3. They can’t wait

They want what they want … now. They get frustrated if someone doesn’t respond to their voicemail right away. They feel they deserve special treatment, whether from family, store clerks, contractors, or anyone not giving them the “right” answers. “Whatever a narcissist’s needs are, they need to be met now,” says marriage and family therapist Karyl McBride, PhD, at Health.com. McBride has written two books about dealing with narcissists, Will I Ever Be Good Enough? and Will I Ever Be Free of You? “They want automatic compliance because they are that important.” Whether they are conscious of it or not, they live an aristocratic life with a sense of entitlement, and for better or worse, they expect the world to revolve around them.

4. They know how to turn on the charm (and deceit)

They’ve got a knack for making other people feel liked and important … and more likely to give what the narcissist wants. It’s all an illusion. Narcissists don’t care about them at all. Narcissists try to seduce and ingratiate themselves with the people around them for their own gain, or for entertainment, according to Health.com

Narcissists’ manipulations are so highly developed that people don’t know they’re being manipulated. And if one strategy doesn’t work (being exceedingly charming, for example) they’ll try another (being verbally abusive, for example). A narcissist will do whatever it takes to get what he wants. Charm, bullying, crying, profanity … whatever works.

Their relationships probably move quickly, but all the admiration they shower on that partner is part of an unspoken deal: Narcissists expect their partners to make them feel just as attractive and intelligent. The minute partners question or criticize, the jig is up, and the partner is sent swiftly “from the pedestal to the trash heap,” as Burgo puts it.

5. Their ambition knows no bounds

Grandiose self-image is a classic symptom of narcissists. It’s one thing to shoot for the stars … and then work your butt off to get there. It’s quite another to believe deeply you are destined for greatness. Narcissists tend to believe they are naturally special, part of an elite class that deserves only the best. They amass “things” to show their affluence. They might pretend to know complexities of the law or medicine, even employ the specialized language when it suits them.  “They fantasize about how much more powerful they will be, how much more beautiful, how much richer,” explains McBride.

They may obsess over status symbols (from the coolest cars to the right house) and even belittle anyone who they don’t perceive to be part of the same exclusive club. In reality, narcissists really have few genuine friends. Nobody can meet their needs indefinitely except insecure people who are willing to put their own needs last. Every time.

6. They are unduly competitive

In a narcissist’s worldview, there are winners and losers, says Burgo at Health.com, and the narcissist needs to win in virtually every domain—Christmas gifts, every argument, first baby, spouses, cash, cars. It exasperates them if they don’t. “They have to make themselves out to be superior to somebody else,” he explains, in a relentless quest to prove their dominance. The opponent could be a stranger or someone you love. That compulsive drive to come out on top (no matter who ends up on bottom) makes it difficult to celebrate other people’s successes, like, say, your college pal’s beautiful new house—because in that moment, someone else is the “winner.”

7. They’re famous for pressing grudges

To everyone else a narcissist probably seems highly confident—the kind of person who doesn’t give a crap what other people think (and they say that often). But for narcissists, that couldn’t be farther from the truth. They care deeply about maintaining their idealized image of themselves, and have trouble tolerating any sort of disapproval or insult, explains Burgo at Health.com. No matter how small a criticism, “it feels like a huge assault, a personal attack,” and one they’re unlikely to forget. “If they feel slighted, or abandoned, they don’t get over it,” adds McBride. Even petty childhood conflicts can turn into lifelong grudges. Rather than deal with their hurt feelings, they get angry and seek revenge, in one form or another. Ironically, one tactic they employ: Calling their targets “grudge holders.”

Photo/Ehimetalor Akhere Unuabona

8. It’s never their fault

Ask yourself: Do you admit when you’re wrong? Do you own your screw-ups? Do you apologize for them, and try to fix them? Or do you immediately flip the script and say things like, “It’s because of how you were treating me that I did it” or “You drove me to break the rules/norms/expectations” or “I did it because you once did it.” Narcissists refuse to be held accountable for their mistakes and bad behavior, and instead shift the blame to someone else, says McBride. Even within their personal relationships, narcissists believe there is always a winner and a loser, and she’ll do what it takes to win.

9. They take advantage of people

Narcissists tend to view any situation in terms of what it means for them. Only them. The reason? A lack of empathy and a surplus of deceitfulness, explains McBride. The “inability to tune into the emotional world of others” is a cornerstone of narcissism, she says—and what makes it so dangerous. A narcissist will often identify weaknesses in their targets and exploit them. “Narcissists expect others to revolve around their needs, but they refuse to do the same for anyone else.” That means to get what they want, they aren’t afraid to manipulate or bully whoever is in their way. Because in the end, it’s always all about them.

10. They have an addiction

It’s not necessarily drugs or alcohol. But think about how people feel when they are high: untouchable, bulletproof, on top of the world. In essence, it’s that same sense of grandiosity that narcissists crave. Their high might come from obsessive hoarding of “things,” more cars than you can drive, shopping, even endless talking—it doesn’t matter. “The addicted narcissist keeps turning to the drug again and again to get that incredible on-top-of-the-world feeling. When the drug wears off, they are often filled with shame. And when the shame becomes unbearable, they turn to the drug again.”

And a word about projection

Sigmund Freud first came up with the idea of “projection.” According to Psychology Today, it can be summarized as a psychological condition in which a person accuses other people of having the same thoughts, feelings, or behaviors that they themselves have or would do. Example: A cheating woman vehemently accuses her husband of having an affair. So, a narcissistic “projector” might be convinced that she is being treated unfairly and dishonestly because that’s precisely the same unfair, dishonest way she would do it.

So how should you deal with a narcissist?

“Narcissists rarely change,” says Ramani Durvasula, PhD, a licensed clinical psychologist and author of Should I Stay or Should I Go: Surviving a Relationship with a Narcissist. “Narcissism is a lifelong personality trait and generally gets worse with age.”

For your own sanity, Durvasula told Health.com, distance yourself and manage your expectations. In other words, “stop waiting for empathy that will never come, for respect they will never offer, for consideration and compromise they will never bring,” Durvasula says. “We break our hearts and spirits in these relationships because we keep holding out hope for a ‘someday better.’ It’s not coming and you can waste your life, mental health, and career waiting for it to happen. “

No matter how lightly you tread, keep in mind that it won’t make a difference.

If cutting ties with a narcissist in your life isn’t possible, be clear in your communication, put things in writing to protect yourself down the road, and “expect that things will still be used against you,” warns Durvasula.

Then foster other healthy relationships with friends, family, and co-workers who can support you. Sideline the narcissist.

**Much of this essay is drawn directly from the various experts’ and professional journals’ articles. Credit might be overstressed because no plagiarism is intended but the less journalistic interpretation of a complex mental condition, the better.

COVER IMAGE: Kelsey Dody

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