"Narcissism is a pattern characterized by a lack of empathy, entitlement, grandiosity, superficiality, vanity, arrogance, and controlling behaviour," says Ramani Durvasula, PhD, clinical psychologist, professor of Psychology at California State University in Los Angeles, and author of "Don’t You Know Who I Am?": How to Stay Sane in an Era of Narcissism, Entitlement, and Incivility.
Whew, that was a long list. But there’s more: Narcissists also have difficulty reining in strong emotions like anger and rage—they let these fly when frustrated or stressed, she says.
Okay, that sounds…awful. Why are narcissists the way they are?
On the surface, a narcissist might come off as someone who’s supremely confident and self-obsessed, but that’s not really the reason they are who they are. "At their core is a deep insecurity," says Durvasula. "We think of narcissists as people who are in love with themselves. That’s not the case. There’s a lot of self-loathing there."
The reason they don’t really care about others? It’s a protective mechanism. She likens it to a cast for a broken bone. "Everything they do is to protect their fragile sense of self," she says.
Tell me how to spot a narcissist out in the wild, please.
Okay, so where to begin... Let’s start with the most obvious: your dating life.
1. You feel like you're on an episode of The Bachelor.
Imagine being swept away in rom-com worthy bliss. The person you’re dating is working hard to earn your affections. "In the beginning, they can be charming. They’re skilled at courtship and will bring out external things to win you over, like fancy dinners and vacations," says Durvasula. Oh, and while they're doing all this, they're probably wearing super nice clothes and driving a great car.
2. But it's not all roses and champagne.
A huge red flag? "Things happen too fast....It’s your second week together, and you’re going on a trip to Africa. Or you’re moving in together right away," she says.
That sounds kinda…fun? Sure, but here’s the BS part of it: Just as quickly as they win you over, they discard you. Harsh.
It’s all about how they view themselves. Remember their low sense of self? "Their thought is if they can win you over, you can’t be all that," explains Durvasula.
3. They want you...until you want them back.
You’ll wise up to their shenanigans soon enough, but the second you walk away, they’ll put on a big love-bombing campaign to win you back, she says. Don’t fall for it!
4. They seem perfect on paper (too perfect).
Of course, it’s way easier to prevent that from happening if you don’t get sucked in in the first place. When you first meet a narcissist, they’ll sound like a resume. "They have this performative feel, which can draw people in," says Durvasula.
5. They don't give you the time of day.
They may yammer on about themselves, but watch out if their eyes dart around the restaurant when you start to talk about your job, or how many siblings you have, or the trip you took to Thailand last year. They're too busy caring about how they're perceived and/or looking for the next best thing to pay actual attention to the person sitting right in front of them.
6. They're dangerous drivers.
Think screeching into parking lots and tailgating up to someone’s bumper. This reckless behavior stems from them lacking empathy (one of the narcissist's hallmark traits)—they just don't care about putting others in danger."If you get in a car with someone in the first five dates, and they drive like this, get out of the relationship," Durvasula says.
It’s better to hit the eject button before you’re in a serious 'ship, or worse, get married to and have kids with this person. "Things won’t change, get better, or become a healthy relationship. It’s a soul-sapping life with a narcissist," says Durvasula. Yiiiiiikes.
So...should I even be friends with a narcissist?
Tbh, it’s up to you, but you should definitely check your expectations for what you’ll get out of that kind of friendship. It’s unlikely that a narcissist will respond to you when you need them the most, like during a breakup, a family illness, or crisis at work. "It can be very hurtful when you realize that they’re not there for you," notes Durvasula.
However, the bright spot is that a narcissist can be fun to be surface-level friends with. So, feel free to head to a party or club together, but she won’t be your ride-or-die.
Bottom line: Narcissism is having a moment RN, but Durvasula would tell you not to obsess over labelling someone as one. What is most important, at the end of the day, is how someone treats you—narcissist or not. If they’re not empathetic, won’t listen to you, invalidates your experiences—these are all makings of a toxic relationship either way.
"We live in a strange time where we reward people like this. They tend to be more successful, make more money, and are well put together," she says. Worse, people—especially women—often receive the message that they should want to be with them, because of those qualities. But "it will be a long, lonely life with a narcissist," Durvasula says.
Consider that your warning, and maybe put yourself first here, since you know, ultimately, they're going to do the same.
This article originally appeared on Women's Health US.