Spotting a narcissist


A lot of people assume narcissists are easy to spot, that they talk obsessively about themselves, for example, or never seem to care what you have to say.  Those are the obvious narcissists.  This post is about the charming narcissists who can fly under the radar until you feel like you’re in too deep to get out.

I’ve written before about how to know you’re involved with a narcissist, and on strategies for handling the narcissist in your life.  This post, hopefully, will help you avoid entanglements with people who could cause you a lot of pain down the line.

It’s the kind of post my characters Rachel and Marley might have benefited from, in my novel “Don’t Try to Find Me”, and it might be particularly useful for those of you who are currently dating and trying to find a partner.  Maybe you’re on the fence about someone, and this could help you make a decision one way or the other.

When it comes to narcissists, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.  Getting out early might be your best move.

1)  TRUST YOUR GUT! I can’t stress this one enough.  If your gut is telling you that something is off, if another person inspires some sort of anxiety that you can’t quite comprehend–then look deeper.  You might feel like, “Hey, there’s no reason for me to be uneasy, it’s all going great, he/she is such a good catch!”  But ask yourself why no one has caught them.

When you’re talking to a bright, witty, charming, interesting narcissist, you will feel swept up.  You might feel a certain exhilaration, a loss of control, even.  Temporarily, this can be a positive feeling.

Long-term, though, what it means is that YOU ARE NOT PARTICULARLY RELEVANT.  The narcissist is merely looking for an audience.  The reason you don’t feel entirely present is because you don’t have to be.  You’re a prop, a way for the narcissist to feel temporarily good about himself/herself.  Essentially, you’re being used.

2)  You don’t feel truly listened to or empathized with.  It all feels somehow…surface.That’s because narcissists often learn over time that in order to get the approval they seek, they need to give the other person something.  But it’s almost like the expression: His smile didn’t reach his eyes.  There’s a sense that something else is going on, or being withheld.  Again, this is largely something instinctive.

And the reason you are questioning yourself is because it is on this subterranean level.  On the surface, you’re not being disrespected.  But you’re not being valued either.

3)  Consider whether self-involved people often seem drawn to you. If this is the case, then think about whether this is another person in a long line.  You might want to think back to your family relationships while you were growing up.  Did one or both of your parents train you, on some level, to be appreciative of others to the exclusion of your own needs?  Was an important person in your early life a narcissist as well?  Might be time to recognize (and break ) a pattern.

4)  You notice that somehow, you’re always ending up doing it the other person’s way. This might mean that you’re always at the restaurant of their choice, or doing the activity they like.  You might find you drive to his/her house much more than the reverse occurs.  And you might not even know why this has happened, because the (suspected) narcissist seems nice enough, and willing enough, to do it your way.

But not really.  Essentially, they are saying they are open to your ideas, suggestions, and preferences, but then there’s always some reason why that doesn’t exactly work, or why the (suspected) narcissist’s way is actually better.  It might be that there’s a subtle pressure to go along in order to please the narcissist–perhaps he/she radiated very subtle disapproval through a variety of cues, and you’re picking up on these and it’s activating some anxiety, and so in order to relieve that anxiety, it’s just better to give in.  Which leads to….

5)  You tend to want to please people, and this new person in your life seems to feed on that. While he/she may seem to be validating you (for example, giving you affection and compliments), there’s always something held back, perhaps the suggestion that the relationship can be damaged or lost.

A narcissist can often recognize a people-pleaser, almost like a homing pigeon.  A people-pleaser and a narcissist fit together like a lock and a key, often forging a very dysfunctional but enduring bond.

That’s why it’s key to examine your own motivations, reactions, impulses, intentions, and self-esteem. Because narcissists can spot you, so make sure you can spot them back. Then you can get out before the bond solidifies.

Holly Brown, LMFT



About Jennifer Shay, LCSW, ACSW

Licensed Clinical Social Worker in Portland, Oregon.
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