To be clear, psychologists differentiate between narcissism and narcissistic personality disorder, with the former showing up in varying degrees and frequencies in a person who likely can understand some of the consequences of their self-absorbed actions, and the latter showing up consistently and severely in a person who cannot recognize or take accountability for the harm they’re leaving in their wake. While there’s only one clinical diagnosis for narcissistic personality disorder in the DSM-5, there are various shades of narcissism, all of which can be super problematic to encounter in a relationship.
Why should you look out for narcissists?
Narcissists are generally grandiose people with an unending need for admiration and a lack of empathy, says psychologist Danielle Forshee, PsyD. And in any kind of relationship setting—platonic, romantic, or otherwise—is where these core qualities can be the most harmful.
“Relationships with narcissists often involve significant difficulty with managing conflict and disagreements, and arriving at joint decisions or solutions.” —Danielle Forshee, PsyD, psychologist
“Relationships with narcissists often involve significant difficulty with managing conflict and disagreements, and arriving at joint decisions or solutions, since narcissists are unreasonable and require compliance with what they believe is correct,” says Dr. Forshee. As a result, any conversation that doesn’t align with their preexisting opinion is bound to go south—and fast. “I like to think of narcissists as doing the ‘D’s’,” says psychologist Rachel Hoffman, PhD, LCSW, chief clinical offer at mental wellness platform Real. “They deny, devalue, and get defensive.”
That also means that a relationship with a narcissist can leave you feeling insecure and unworthy. “Their defensiveness and inability to take criticism can quickly turn into gaslighting behavior that leave you doubting yourself,” says Dr. Hoffman. And that’s precisely the goal of the narcissist—to be recognized consistently as “superior,” regardless of their actual achievements or behaviors in the relationship, says Dr. Forshee.
Over time, having your wants and needs repeatedly sidelined by a narcissist can convince you that they just aren’t as important as your partner’s wants and needs. “Your whole relationship can become centered around pleasing this person, as opposed to addressing your needs and the needs of the relationship itself,” says Dr. Hoffman.
And by the same token, your constant need to stroke their ego or confirm their worth can make it really tough to get to know the person on a deeper level, says Dr. Forshee, restricting the relationship from ever reaching the kind of intimacy necessary for long-term success.
Why is it often so difficult to identify a narcissist?
“Many times, people can’t believe a person is that self-centered and lacking in empathy,” says therapist Lesli Doares, LMFT. “They are given the benefit of the doubt because the narcissist can act in ways that seem generous, but it’s only a ploy to keep someone connected to them or to get something specific in return.” It's easy to latch on to those moments as “proof” that the narcissist actually cares, she adds, but cautions that this earnestness is not only false and manipulative but also unlikely to last.
Particularly in the beginning of a relationship with a narcissist, there’s typically a lot of love-bombing, says Dr. Hoffman: “They’ll give you compliments and inflate your ego, so you take it and internalize that they’re making you feel good or loved, but really it’s just a manipulation tactic to ensure that you choose to date them.”
Narcissistic habits can also be cloaked by the narcissist’s preoccupation with ideal love, says Dr. Forshee. And in service of that ultimate goal, “they’ll usually be very adept at showing you only the parts of themselves they want you to see—like success, power, brilliance, or beauty.”
And even if you catch on to the narcissistic pattern, it can be tough to escape it. “When a narcissist feels like they might be losing you, they’ll revert to their earlier ways and try to make you feel really good about yourself again through love-bombing,” says Dr. Hoffman. “But again, it’s always all about them in the end, making this nothing more than an emotional roller coaster.”
What are the different types of narcissists?
While, again, the DSM-5 does not distinguish between types of narcissistic personality disorder, narcissism can certainly present in different ways. Dr. Hoffman sees these types of narcissists as fitting into two overarching categories, the overt and the covert.
“Overt narcissists are the people whom you can tell are narcissists from a mile away,” she says. “They’re super into themselves, super competitive, and super arrogant, and when you talk to them, the conversation only moves forward if it’s about them.” These are the same folks who don’t ever think to ask you a question about yourself.
By contrast, the covert type of narcissists are less easily identifiable. “These people typically have very low self-esteem or a deep fear of never being ‘enough,’ which ends up manifesting as narcissism because they refuse to accept any criticism about themselves,” says Dr. Hoffman. “Essentially, they already have such low self-esteem, they don’t know where to place any new criticism, so they’d rather walk away from a situation where they may be at fault, rather than be seen as having messed up.”
Each of these two categories of narcissism can be divided into a few types, outlined below.
Overt types of narcissists
1. The toxic narcissist
There’s a range of toxic narcissism, and none of it is good. A toxic narcissist “continually causes drama in others’ lives at the very least and causes pain and destruction at the very worst,” says clinical psychologist John Mayer, PhD.
So, if you happen to have a friend who constantly demands all of your time and attention—and doesn’t respond well when you don’t meet those demands—you may be dealing with a toxic narcissist. Likewise, if someone in your life has caused more extreme issues, like gotten you fired from your job, physically abused you, or led to the end of a relationship, they may be a toxic narcissist as well.
One particular kind of toxic narcissist is the psychopathic narcissist, who will embody some of the unstable, aggressive qualities of psychopathy. This person will often be violent and show no remorse for their behavior. “Serial killers largely make up this type of narcissist,” says Dr. Mayer.
2. The exhibitionist narcissist
The exhibitionist narcissist is very obvious about their self-interest. “This is the narcissist who lets everyone around them know that they are narcissistic,” says Dr. Mayer, adding that this person takes advantage of other people and is often haughty and arrogant.
They’re also blatant about their self-centered behavior. “They need to be in the spotlight and get uncomfortable when they’re not,” says Dr. Bash.
3. The bullying narcissist
This person combines two terrible traits: bullying and self-absorption. Bullying narcissists build themselves up by trashing other people, Dr. Mayer says. They’re often fixated on winning and will mock or threaten others to get their way. They ultimately get joy from making other people feel bad, small, or unworthy. This is different from a “regular” bully who tends to put people down for social gain, where a bullying narcissist does it for personal motivation.
Covert types of narcissists
1. The closet narcissist
Often trickier to spot than other types of narcissists, “a closet narcissist is one who doesn’t inflict their personality upon others or society but firmly believes in the characteristics of narcissism,” says Dr. Mayer. That can mean a host of things, including feeling entitled, constantly needing other people to admire them, being preoccupied with success, being jealous of other people, and lacking empathy for others.
“They’re a bit more codependent,” says psychotherapist Alisa Ruby Bash, PsyD, LMFT. “They often try to pretend that they’re really selfless, but like to associate themselves with someone that they admire and ride their coattails.”
2. The seducer narcissist
This is the kind of narcissist who relies most heavily on love-bombing to get the attention that they so desperately crave from others: The seducer will “make you feel great about yourself just to ‘win’ you over as a sexual or love conquest,” says Dr. Mayer. They will often seem to admire or fawn over you, only to write you off once they no longer have a use for you.
3. The vulnerable narcissist
This type of narcissist's obsession with self manifests more directly as an assumption that everyone is always out to get them. Like a classic narcissist of any kind, they can't accept criticism, but in this case, it's because their warped sense of reality makes them feel as if they're always being victimized and life has always been uniquely unfair to them. "But no matter how much empathy they might receive from a partner, it's never enough," clinical psychologist Ramani Durvasula, PhD, previously told Well+Good.
What is the most dangerous type of narcissist?
Ultimately, it's not good to have any kind of narcissist in your life, if you can help it, says Doares. But among the types of narcissists, the toxic ones may be the most dangerous to engage with. "Other kinds of narcissists aren’t going to go out of their way to hurt somebody—they’re just obsessed with themselves," says Dr. Bash. "But a toxic narcissist may actually set out to hurt someone.” This element of bad intention can make a relationship with a toxic narcissist particularly damaging to your psyche and sense of self.
If, for any reason, you feel the desire or have a need to stay in a relationship with any type of narcissist—perhaps they are a family member or the parent of your child—Dr. Hoffman has an important word of caution: Do not forget who you are outside of the relationship. "What so often happens with people in relationships with narcissists is that they become a corpse of themselves, as they become laser-focused on constantly pleasing their partner," she says. "The best thing you could possibly do for yourself in this situation is to create a life for yourself outside of your partner." That means consciously engaging in hobbies you love and seeing friends and family members who lift you up, she adds. "This way, you can grow and maintain your sense of confidence and identity."
Should you tell a narcissist they are a narcissist?
Short answer? Probably not. While there’s a chance that someone with narcissistic tendencies can acknowledge the gravity of their actions and perhaps even commit to acting differently in the future, a true narcissist is not going to accept feedback that is a reflection of anything other than their greatness, says Dr. Forshee.
In this way, telling a narcissist that they’re a narcissist is almost always futile. “Even as a therapist, to be transparent, I find it very hard to work with narcissists, so it’s tough for me to see how someone untrained would get a narcissist to change their ways by alerting them to the fact that they’re a narcissist,” says Dr. Hoffman.
Not to mention, doing so could create some serious backlash, in some cases. “Be prepared for some type of war in response to criticism, whether it be the silent manipulative and coercive-control type of war, or outright disdain wrought with counterattacks, and possibly rage,” says Dr. Forshee.
Does narcissism run in families?
In the case of narcissistic personality disorder, as with any personality disorder, there could certainly be a genetic component. “It also might not be the case that a parent has narcissistic personality disorder, but it’s possible that they have a different personality disorder, which could still make it more likely that a kid has narcissistic personality disorder,” says Dr. Hoffman.
In the case of narcissism and narcissistic tendencies, it’s also possible for someone to learn or pick up these behaviors in response to childhood trauma. “Someone who never felt like they got enough attention or affirmation or praise when they were younger can develop a need for excessive praise when they get older,” says Dr. Hoffman. And in other family dynamics, it’s possible that a person grew up witnessing narcissistic behavior in a caretaker or sibling and saw this behavior rewarded with additional praise, leading them to pick up this narcissistic streak themselves, she adds.
Can a narcissist be a good person?
Psychologists often identify something called “healthy narcissism” in the context of early childhood development—largely referring to the process of “individuation,” in children around two to three years old, says Dr. Hoffman. “Kids this age start to learn that what they do has an impact on the people around them, and they begin to test this out,” she says. “So, you’ll tell them not to touch something, and they do it anyway on purpose. And honestly, what they’re doing is developing their own perception of self and self-esteem, which therapists sometimes say is a healthy dose of narcissism.”
But when we’re talking about narcissism in adults, and particularly narcissistic personality disorder, it’s not typically healthy or good. “This happens when, again, there’s such an inflated view of the self that you’re not able to process and respect the needs, wants, and feelings of others,” says Dr. Hoffman.
This lack of empathy in narcissists is what makes their behaviors so inherently hurtful, whether they’re “trying” to be hurtful or not. “Narcissists are wounded individuals,” says Dr. Forshee, “and they can be very treatment-resistant, too, because of the superiority complex and lack of insight into the areas where they could stand to grow.”
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