How to identify a narcissist, according to psychology experts

Man smiling at his reflection in mirror - stock photo
Narcissists cope with difficult feelings by portraying themselves as special to others, psychologists say. Photo credit: Getty Images

By Madeline Holcombe of CNN

Not all narcissists are CEOs, celebrities or characters in a crime show.

In fact, they may be around you more than you think.

There is narcissistic personality disorder, which is rare at 1 percent or 2 percent of the population, said Dr W. Keith Campbell, professor of psychology at the University of Georgia.

"Clinically, if it destroys your marriage, it ruins your business relationships, your overconfidence at work has you kind of falling apart … then it becomes a disorder," Campbell said, describing someone who has this disorder.

But narcissism is a personality trait, and everyone falls somewhere along the spectrum, said Dr Craig Malkin, a lecturer in psychology at Harvard Medical School and a licensed psychologist in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

The top 10 percent of people with the highest levels of the trait are defined as narcissists, meaning one in 10 people could be considered a narcissist, he added.

But how do we spot those people who, at best, may bore us with a list of their achievements at parties or, at worst, may inflict some kind of abuse? Experts share the five things you can do to spot them and protect yourself.

What type of narcissist are you dealing with?

There are three types of narcissists, and they can be distinguished by how they go about feeling special, Malkin said. Some are harder to spot than others.

Overt narcissists cope by feeling superior to others, and they might be the first you think of when you think of narcissism, Malkin said.

"It's always that feeling that somehow, no matter what you do, is never going to be enough, so it's going to pale in comparison to the other person," Malkin said. "Their achievements are better."

Covert narcissists feel special by being seen as the person suffering the greatest misfortune or misunderstanding, he added. The travails this person is going through will inevitably overshadow whatever issues with which you may be dealing.

Third, there are communal narcissists, who feel special by being seen as the most helpful person in any group.

"They want you to understand that you've never met anyone more caring or committed," Malkin said.

How do you feel around people?

How you feel around a person may be a good indicator of how they score on the narcissistic scale. People who have been in relationships with multiple narcissists will likely feel a lot of self-doubt, Malkin said.

Those involved with a narcissist will often say, "I should probably try to soften my approach, or maybe if I didn't raise my voice, maybe if I wasn't so insistent," Malkin said.

Such people often are disconnected from their own feelings, he added.

How do you know if you are dealing with a covert narcissist and not someone who just really needs some support? See if you are feeling pushed away or drawn in, Malkin said.

Covert narcissists are not sharing their vulnerability, he said. "If you're not seeing genuine tears or if you're not feeling pulled towards it, it's display, not expression."

Is there balance in your relationship? Or is it all about them?

Conversations (and relationships) should be a back-and-forth: You share a vulnerability, and the other person expresses care. Then the other person shares a vulnerability, and you return care.

Not so much with a narcissist.

"Typically… they're not comfortable with mutual, caring, connected conversations, where they're sharing genuine vulnerable feelings like sadness or feeling scared or lonely," Malkin said.

Many people might have some fear around opening up, he added, but narcissists cope with that fear by maintaining a sense of feeling special.

Not only will they avoid acknowledging feeling sad or lonely, but they might mention they don't really feel that way because they take such good care of themselves, Malkin said.

"They're not only avoiding admitting to this very common human experience and emotion," he said, but "they're kind of propping themselves up to feel better than you by comparison."

Is your relationship really close? How to evaluate it

Needing to feel special often gets in the way of narcissists nurturing close relationships, Malkin said.

"Narcissism is about being so compulsively driven to maintain that feeling that relationships don't really matter," he added.

"Narcissism, in general, means having an inflated view of oneself and a lack of closer, emotionally warm relationships with other people," Campbell said.

Instead of genuine friendships, romantic partners and family ties, narcissists' relationships may be defined by what Malkin calls the triple Es:

  • exploitation, "which is doing whatever it takes no matter the cost to others in order to feel special."
  • entitlement, which is "acting as if the world should bend to their will."
  • empathy impairments, which is "to feel special compared to others. These are people who lose sight of the (fact that) other people have feelings, needs and perspectives of their own at all."

These tendencies may lay the foundation for verbal, emotional or physical abuse, Malkin said.

Cut yourself some slack

It may be hard to spot narcissists because you may really believe they are as great and special as they would like you to believe, said Deborah Ashway, a licensed clinical mental health counsellor in New Bern, North Carolina.

"They use a lot of charm to try to get people into their world and follow them and think that they're better than other people," she added.

If you have found yourself getting caught in a narcissist's web, don't blame yourself, she said.

"It's super difficult, because they have such a good facade and each one is slightly different," Ashway said. "People can go for years without detecting it."

Think it's time to distance yourself from a narcissist? Try gray rocking, a method for dealing with narcissists in which you make yourself as uninteresting as possible.