We’ve all tossed around the word "narcissist" to describe a self-absorbed person, especially when it comes to relationships of all kinds—romantic, familial, workplace, even friendships. Maybe it’s an ex who constantly put his own needs and desires above yours, or maybe it’s a boss who continually cuts you off in meetings and takes credit for your accomplishments.
But what does a true narcissist (someone with narcissistic personality disorder, or NPD) actually look like? Research suggests that anywhere between 1 and 6 per cent of the population may have this personality disorder, and about 50 to 75 per cent of those are men.
What is a narcissist?
Not every self-centred jerk in your life is a true narcissist. But there is a tipping point you can try to spot: “A narcissist, by definition, is someone with a pervasive pattern of grandiosity, need for admiration, and lack of empathy, whose symptoms begin in early adulthood,” says Cory Newman, PhD, a professor of psychology at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania who has written on narcissistic personality disorder. “These traits can present in a number of ways.”
It’s hard to say exactly, but both genetics and upbringing likely play a role. “To quite a degree, personalities are inherited,” says Newman. “But if someone was super indulged, always told that he or she was special or better than other kids, and never given limits, that would likely contribute.” At the other end of the spectrum, some researchers think that parental neglect can also contribute to narcissism.
How to deal with a narcissist
It's best to stay below a narcissist's radar. “If you work with them or know them as an acquaintance, you just quietly steer clear without making it obvious that you’re avoiding them,” says Newman. “In conversations, let the NPD person have the last word, because if you don’t, it could escalate into a fight.”
If it’s a family member you suspect has NPD, avoidance probably won’t work, but you should still establish clear boundaries. “If they’re always taking advantage of you for money and never pay you back, you need to make it clear that those days are done,” says Newman. “It’s hard when you have someone who’s skilled at manipulating you, but you have to set limits.”
Signs someone's a narcissist
If the broad definition of narcissistic personality disorder sounds frighteningly familiar, don’t jump to conclusions about someone you know (or even yourself) just yet. A true narcissist, according to the American Psychiatric Association’s diagnostic manual (DSM-5), will display five or more of the following characteristics.
1. A narcissist has an exaggerated sense of self-importance
“People with NPD want to be recognized as being superior without the necessary achievements that go along with that,” says Newman. A narcissist will routinely overestimate their abilities while simultaneously devaluing the contributions of other people, and they may act surprised when they don’t get the praise they feel they deserve. Often, if they aren’t achieving success, they find a way to blame other people or society, but never themselves.
2. A narcissist believes they’re special or unique
It’s okay to think you’re a little special. But narcissistic people take it to an extreme, believing they’re so special that they can only be understood by other special people. Kind of disgusting, right? That’s why they seek to surround themselves with only the best. This even extends to the doctors they see. “When they come in for some type of therapy, they’re very specific about only being seen by the best person,” says Newman. “They don’t want just any therapist, they do not want a student, they want the best person. And they’re adamant about it.”
3. A narcissist requires excessive admiration
Despite the fact that people with NPD often act boastful and overconfident, their self-esteem can actually be pretty fragile. They have a tendency to be preoccupied with what people think of them and feel pretty shocked when people don’t dole out the praise. This can be particularly true in relationships. “It’s like narcissists love you as long as you’re idolising them,” says Newman. “They seem lovely and wonderful and shower you with attention until you assert yourself. Then you might see a mean streak you didn’t see before. And it’s scary.”
4. A narcissist has a sense of entitlement
“A big sense of entitlement,” says Newman. Narcissists often don’t believe the rules apply to them. This can present itself as being disrespectful to people who warrant a lot of respect, like authority figures or national heroes. They’re also the type of people who will make you bend over backwards to accommodate them and then act totally unappreciative. “You could plan an entire event around this one person’s schedule and then they might not even show up,” says Newman. “It doesn’t even occur to them that they just pissed everyone off.”
5. A narcissist lacks empathy
Narcissists are notorious for being unable to empathize with the struggles or pain of others. “Sometimes a person with NPD can seem totally reasonable until they say something that’s just outrageously insensitive,” says Newman. “They’d be the person that complains about how annoying their father is to someone who’s father just died.” On the flip side, people with NPD will often talk at length about their own troubles and believe that people genuinely care.
6. A narcissist is envious of others and believe others are envious of them
Narcissists are constantly comparing themselves to others, especially very successful people, which can trigger feelings of envy. And if they achieve success in their lives, they often (happily) think others are jealous or envious of them, says Newman.
7. A narcissist behaves in an arrogant or haughty manner
Ever go on a date with someone who ordered the most expensive bottle of wine on the menu, was super sweet and charming to you, and was totally condescending and rude to the server? Acting like an arrogant snob and while complaining about the stupidity of others is another red flag for narcissism.
8. A narcissist is preoccupied with fantasies of success and the perfect mate
Narcissists may ruminate excessively on achieving power, success, and respect from other powerful people. This even plays a role in how they pick a romantic partner: Research shows that narcissists place more more importance on physical attractiveness and status than traits like being kind or caring. This is, in part, because when their partner looks good, it elevates their own self-image.
9. A narcissist takes advantage of others
A narcissist’s sense of entitlement combined with their lack of empathy makes them ripe for taking advantage of people for their own benefit. This is one reason people with NPD can be terrible to work for, says Newman. If you have a narcissistic boss, they may work you into the ground without giving you the respect or compensation you deserve. It can be true with friendships, too. Remember that fairweather pal who was always too busy with her fabulous life to spend time with you? That is, until you had those extra Justin Timberlake tickets.
This article originally appeared on Prevention US.