Chaucer and Shakespeare were right when they said: “love is blind.” In a research study conducted in 2004 by University College London, researchers discovered that feelings of love suppressed the activity of the areas of the brain that control critical thought. While it can be so tempting to want to get swept away by “love” or what one perceives to be “love,” it is important to try one’s best to enter into relationships with “eyes wide open.” In the past few years, there have been several studies published by psychologists, particularly Dr. Craig Malkin, clinical psychologist and lecturer at Harvard Medical School, regarding narcissism and how to spot it early on in a relationship.
In order to understand and be on the lookout for potential narcissists in your life, you must first know the history of the term as well as the appropriate application of the term. The term narcissism derives from the Greek myth where young Narcissus fell in love with his own image reflected back to him in a pool of water. Broadly, narcissism is defined as extreme selfishness, with a grandiose view of one's own talents and a craving for admiration. That said, narcissism is a highly complex personality disorder with both covert and overt expressions.
Recently, there have been many blog posts and articles about narcissism that make it sound like narcissism is on the rise, especially within the “millennial” generation. In an article published in Psychology Today, the author wrote that there is “a growing consensus among psychologists says no, it isn't. True pathological narcissism has always been rare and remains so: It affects an estimated 1 percent of the population, and that prevalence hasn't changed demonstrably since clinicians started measuring it.”
The reason why narcissism appears to be “on the rise” is because of people’s misunderstanding and misuse of the term. The purpose of this article is to help shed light on what traits a person with Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) exhibits and how to spot it. Narcissists can come in a wide variety, ranging from the preeners, to grandiosely altruistic martyrs, to people who are highly introverted and vulnerable. The fact of the matter is that NPD can truly only be diagnosed by a healthcare professional. Nevertheless, here are some overt and covert traits that narcissists tend to have:
Overt expressions of narcissism include :
Absence of empathy
Grandiose plans and posturing
- "Narcissists feel superior to others," Brummelman says, "but they are not necessarily satisfied with themselves as a person." Narcissists thoughts, behaviors, and statements set them apart from others, and this feeling of distinction soothes them, because they're otherwise struggling with an unstable sense of self. They may set themselves apart in different ways, but ultimately, the point that connects all narcissists is that they feel extremely distinct from others.
Rage at being called out on the slightest imperfections or normal human missteps
Covert Expressions of Narcissism include:
Projected Feelings of Insecurity
Narcissists say and do things, subtle or obvious, that make you feel less smart, less accomplished, less competent. Rather than allowing themselves to feel insignificant, insecure or small, they do things to try and make you feel that way instead. Some examples of this could be: a “friend” who always gives you a back-handed compliment, a boss who questions your methods after his or her own decision derails an important project, or a date who claims not to understand what you’ve said. Have you ever heard the idiom: “Don’t knock your neighbor’s porch light out to make yours shine brighter.” Narcissists love to knock out other’s lights to appear brighter by comparison.
Narcissists cannot stand feeling influenced in any way because it challenges their sense of autonomy and forces them to come to terms with the fact that they can be affected by a person or situation outside of themselves. Therefore, when the subject of feelings come up, especially their own feelings come up, they tend to change the subject matter and shut down any opportunity to discuss feelings.
A Fragmented Family Story
Narcissist people tend to have personal histories of neglect and/or abuse. Such issues lead to insecure attachment styles. Narcissists tend to not be able to talk about their childhood or family in a coherent way. Generally their stories from childhood tend to be confusing and filled with gaps. The most common myth they tend to carry around is the idea that they came from the perfect family.
A common narcissistic tendency you might be less familiar with is their habit of putting people on pedestals. In doing so, narcissists think “If I find someone perfect to be close to, maybe some of their perfection will rub off on me, and I’ll become perfect by association.” They tend to not understand that no one can be perfect, and beware of when the narcissist discovers that their idol may not be the perfect person as he/she originally thought. Beware of any requests to conform to any images of beauty or perfection coming from your potential mate, as this could be a sign of narcissism.
A High Need for Control
Narcissists cannot stand to be at the mercy of other people’s preferences because it reminds them that they are not completely independent or invulnerable. Rather than express their needs or preferences, narcissists arrange events (and maneuver people) to orchestrate the outcomes they desire. In the extreme case, narcissist's’ actions can manifest as abusive, controlling behaviors. For example, think of the husband who lashes out against his wife if his dinner's not ready as soon as he comes home. In acting out, the husband is angry because he has to acknowledge that he depends on his wife for something, which is a feeling that he’d rather avoid. Narcissist's actions are not always so clear as the husband example, so be wary of any instances where you might feel nervous to talk about a certain topic or voice your opinion about something.
It’s important to take note that none of these signs, in isolation, proves that you’re with a narcissist. That said, if you see that your partner exhibits several of the traits mentioned above, it’s best to sit up and take notice. All of the traits listed in this article are ways of dodging vulnerability, and that’s a narcissist’s favorite tactic. So protect yourself, protect your heart, and if you’re just entering into a relationship with someone who exhibits a combination of the traits mentioned in this article, whether it’s a friendship or romantic relationship, it might be best to reconsider whether that’s really a road you want to go down.
Depending on where people fall on the narcissism spectrum, it can be difficult to course correct or improve their personality and habits. That’s why in some cases it is best to walk away from the situation.
Luckily, there is hope. Dr. Craig Malkin, clinical psychologist and lecturer at Harvard Medical School, has written extensively on this topic and believes that it is possible for narcissists to change their behavior. If you do find that you are already in a committed relationship with a narcissist, here is an article you can read about strategies for dealing with the narcissist you love:
Through concerted, right effort, it is possible to create a healthy relationship with someone who has been diagnosed with NPD. It won’t be easy, but real change is possible.
For further reading on this topic, check out Dr. Malkin’s book: “Rethinking Narcissism”.