Inflated sense of self. Demanding the best of everything. Wildly effusive and harshly critical. Does this sound familiar? No, I'm not describing a certain world leader (or many world leaders, for that matter). These characteristics belong to the average Joe or Jane narcissist, someone most of us will encounter some point, because they account for more than six percent of the population.
The DSM-5 (The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) explains that narcissism isn't just vanity or self-absorption; it's not posting too many selfies or being extra needy after a breakup or lay off. Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) is a diagnosable condition with serious implications for both the person who has it and those around them. The defining traits are:
1. An outsized need for the approval, praise, and admiration of others.
2. A sense of entitlement and grandiosity based on the belief one is exceptional and deserves special treatment. This can manifest in setting the bar too high with unrealistic fantasies of wild success and power, or too low since the "normal rules don't apply" — or fluctuating between extremes.
3. Lack of empathy. Mainly exhibiting concern (or a simulation of such) about others in order to feed one's own ego or gain something.
4. Lack of intimacy. Relationships are based on gaining something from or taking advantage of another person instead of mutual love and caring.
5. Behaving in a manner that is condescending due to an innate sense of superiority. Wanting only to be surrounded by people they deem "special" or gifted.
6. Being highly antagonistic or defensive when criticized. When the narcissist doesn't get they want, they feel victimized and injured and may lash out.
7. Needing to be the center of attention at all times.
The DSM-5 also notes that for someone with NPD, these attributes remain consistent over a long period of time. They aren't event-based or related to drug use or brain trauma.
Narcissists can be magnetic and exciting to be around. They make for galvanizing leaders or hot first dates. That is, until you realize you are being used as an enthralled audience or stepping stone only to be dumped when you are no longer of value. If that's a new friend or a co-worker, it's easy enough to let go of the relationship and keep your distance. You might even consider yourself lucky—most experts say the best way to deal with a narcissist is to avoid them in the first place. But what if that person is already your romantic partner, a family member, or boss?
The first step is coming to grips with the fact you can't change a person with NPD. You may have a hundred examples of how and why something didn't work out for them (or those around them) and want to reason or negotiate, but their behavior is on a loop. Think of it as a form of amnesia, every day is a new opportunity to try to get what they want and forget about yesterday's wrongs or slights. Therapist and lawyer Bill Eddy puts it this way, "Don't bother trying to give them insight into their past behavior, they won't get it and it creates a power struggle."
The true narcissist has a never-ending appetite for loveCristi Tohatan for Unsplash
Reframe the conversation: Instead, Eddy recommends expressing your expectations based on what you want going forward. Thus, "Why didn't you text me when you knew you couldn't make it to the movie?" becomes, "I'd appreciate if you would text me if you think you are going to be super late."
Demand a quid pro quo: If you are owed something or have an agreement, emotional or otherwise, demand it be resolved now, don't accept vague promises or trust the situation will turn out to be fair. According to author and psychologist Albert Bernstein, "With other people, this mercenary approach might seem insulting. Narcissists will respect you for it….They will rarely be offended by people looking out for themselves."
Create boundaries and stick with them: Limit your expectations to what you have already observed about this person, not for their potential. Forget arguing, the narcissist will feel attacked, not contrite. If you have outlined consequences for a specific action, carry through—or risk being seen as weak and taken advantage of.