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How to Tell If Your Friend Is a Narcissist

A guide for evaluating and handling relationships when narcissism interferes

Christina Hope
Nov 15, 2018 · 8 min read
Photo: Rishabh Butola/Unsplash

Humans are naturally interested in the darker idiosyncrasies of human nature, such as sociopathy and psychopathy. In fact, understanding these disordered traits and tendencies isn’t just some sick fascination, but can be a useful tool for having healthier relationships.

Narcissism might seem to be the least scary of the disorder types, as it is often confused with other social behaviors. Many people even assume it’s a natural repercussion of the social media age. However, the Royal College of Psychiatrists identifies a person with a narcissism disorder as having the following traits:

  • Having a strong sense of self-importance
  • Dreaming of unlimited success, power, and intellectual brilliance
  • Craving attention from other people but showing few warm feelings in return
  • Taking advantage of other people
  • Asking for favors that are not returned

Communications specialist Preston Ni explains in Psychology Today that narcissism goes beyond being self-obsessed: “It is more accurate to characterize the pathological narcissist as someone who’s in love with an idealized self-image, which they project in order to avoid feeling (and being seen as) the real, disenfranchised, wounded self.”

Even if a person who seems to be narcissistic doesn’t have an official diagnosis of a personality disorder, there are degrees of narcissism that are still quite destructive to be around. Any time we feel manipulated by or insecure around someone we know, we may soon question why we feel that way and whether it’s us or them. Obviously, not everyone with narcissistic qualities is diagnosable with a narcissism personality disorder, and there’s no substitution for advice from a health professional. But it can be helpful to recognize toxic aspects of relationships.

Dissecting a relationship you’re in is tricky. After all, you’re in it. But if you suspect a friend, family member, or loved one has out-of-control narcissist traits—and not just a bit of vanity—you can ask yourself some key questions like the ones below. It’s not an exhaustive list, but it is a starting point for weighing how narcissistic someone is and how, or whether, they fit into your life.

Do They Have or Show Any Empathy?

Real self-awareness is what demonstrates a capacity for empathy. If a narcissist is someone who has a totally false self-image, then they generally aren’t very self-aware. They might think they are and that they understand themselves perfectly, but the delusion that fuels them is an inevitable barrier against any true understanding of the self.

Without self-awareness, the narcissist is living in a dream, and those around them are often treated as mere objects rather than real people with real feelings. This makes it easy for the narcissist to take advantage of other people, to exploit them or ask things of them without any demonstration of returning the assistance.

Do They Believe They Deserve Special Treatment?

Entitlement is a pretty insidious trait. It might not show itself so obviously as a person saying “I deserve the best” or “I should get what I want.” But when there’s an expectation that you should never have anything to argue with them about, that you should comply with their wishes, or that you should always know, understand, and even preempt their needs really gets into what entitlement means for a narcissist.

Narcissists usually think they deserve the best because they believe they’re special. They feel they are better than most people and can only be appreciated by others they’ve deemed special too. They also expect they deserve more; they might assert they’ve “tried so hard” and “done so much.” That time they disregarded your needs, your opinions, or your feelings wasn’t important; it was just a blip in the ocean of perfection they are happy to remind you they represent. They think others should acknowledge just how good they are regardless of whether they’ve ever done anything wrong—which, even if they did, they likely wouldn’t admit unless you “trap” them into admitting it, which can feel pretty confrontational. (That’s the thing about a narcissist, though; they can bring out desperate behavior in people who try to defend against them or have them recognize their wrongdoing. That, too, is a sign.)

Do Their Actions Reflect Their Words?

Narcissists tend to have a wildly unrealistic idea of themselves. It can be hard to pinpoint this quality. If they tell you, for example, how they are really dedicated to or are amazing at a particular hobby, but every time you ask them about that hobby, they say the exact same thing about it (like a rehearsed line), you get the idea that something is amiss. You might wonder if they even do that thing or if they are actually any good at it.

What’s vital to a narcissist is almost never the thing at the heart of a claim but the image of themselves they want to present. A painfully curated social media profile is sometimes a sign, but this trait can be tricky to identify, particularly in a casual friend. It’s easier to determine a narcissist’s reality if you live with them or see them often. Obviously, if a partner or housemate is telling you they’re amazing at basketball, but you usually find them watching TV all day, the discrepancy will be plain. In general, look to real-life actions and how they match up with what the person says about themselves to be your guide.

How Often Do They Demand Your Approval?

Not all narcissists do this—it can be more common with what are called “vulnerable narcissists”—but some will demand that you acknowledge their good deeds regularly. If you aren’t willing to give them this ego fuel, you may notice them turn pretty quickly. Narcissists often only want to be around those who recognize them for the amazing priceless jewel they seem to believe they are.

Do They Get Jealous or Test Loyalty?

Narcissists may pressure you to spend more time with them or constantly listen to their problems. They can become extremely needy, which follows from their demand for approval. It may feel like you have to give them all your attention or they become jealous.

Starting a romantic relationship can be a quick way to tell if a friend has this narcissistic trait. People in a new romance sometimes have less time for others, and even though that phase doesn’t normally last long for people who value their friendships and find ways to make time for them, a narcissist will often immediately challenge the change in status quo. It can be complicated: You may have to weigh whether you are really not giving the person the time they deserve or whether they are demanding undue attention out of jealousy.

Another way to tell if a friend treads the line into narcissism can be if they test your loyalty. They will often want to be assured that you are dedicated to them but won’t offer the same in return. A new, interesting person may come along and become the new “status object” in the narcissist’s life. They may forget their other friends in favor of the new person, and as long as that person provides enough attention, the narcissist will deem them their most loyal and important relationship. They may even pit their friends against each other to see who can offer them the most value, the most attention, or the most approval.

How Often Do They Put You Down?

They may not actively put you down, but think about how often they say things that hurt you. I had a friend who I didn’t talk about my writing with who used to slip in comments about my abilities, such as “I guess it’s not that good, right?” even though they couldn’t possibly know, having never read anything I’d written. Ultimately, a narcissist not only wants to make sure you know they are amazing but also that you are beneath them (but not too far beneath because then they wouldn’t associate with you—go figure).

How Do They Deal With Criticism?

Narcissists tend to be quite bad at regulating what they are feeling and may be prone to having tantrums. Instead of dealing with a situation where they were disappointed or didn’t get what they thought they deserved, they may lash out, become aggressive, ignore or ghost you, or react in some other inappropriate and emotionally immature way. Similarly, if you criticize them, they might fly off the handle and doubt your authority, belittle you, or suggest they are more expert, capable, and ultimately superior to you—all to support their claim that you have no right to criticize them rather than truly processing their emotions.

Have They Ever Gaslit You?

As clinical psychologist Ramani Durvasula has said about narcissists and their relationships: “You start to feel the need to voice-record your conversations with them.” If you feel that way, you might be getting gaslit. Gaslighting happens when someone denies your reality. A person might tell you, “I never said that” when you know they did. Or they might respond, “You don’t have any right to feel that way” when you explain your feelings to them. I’ve had toxic friendships featuring narcissistic traits like these, and it’s particularly horrendous. It’s the ugly behavioral result of entitlement and delusion working together.

Dealing With a Narcissist

Handling someone with narcissistic qualities is pretty tricky, but you’re not powerless. Here are a few steps for dealing with them:

Manage Expectations of Change

The first thing is to get your own expectations in order. Don’t expect that they will realize, notice, or want to change; they probably will not. Generally, narcissists are pretty convinced they do no wrong and that they should be rewarded for how hard they try, even if things don’t come off as planned.

Also be prepared, if you try to say something to them, they may attack back. They will want to protect their fantasy image of themselves. Start with questions for yourself: What do you need to make the situation better or at least tenable? How much work are you willing to do to manage the situation? Are you better off without this person, or are there other ways of limiting the potential damage they might cause you? Get to grips with your own feelings and needs first because, rest assured, a narcissist isn’t taking them into consideration.

Determine Your Boundaries

It’s important to plan. Consider what you will and won’t accept and what behavior you can actually limit. Is there anything you’ve tried before that seemed to help or didn’t? Weigh the balance of power between you and this person and how it will affect your boundaries. That definitely applies in a family context but can also apply to a friendship, where you may realize you’ve sacrificed your values for the narcissist to enact their self-belief of superiority.

Once you’ve determined your boundaries and what needs to happen to feel safe, it’s also important to stick to it. This can be hard to do if you’re clawing back from trespassed boundaries in the past, but chances are a narcissist will test you, so keep those boundaries strong.

Go in Gently, But Be Ready for Some Fallout

It may be difficult to address a narcissist’s behavior directly to their face knowing they are probably going to work hard to defend themselves. Consider a gentle approach. Realize it is going to take time to show them anything is wrong; it’s going to be slow. You also have to be prepared for any fallout: Ghosting, anger, and whatnot are the norm in response to challenges.

Remember Who You Are

Don’t accept their view or interpretation of you. Remember what you value and what you stand for, and don’t let them skew it or the situation. Look for support from people who get you, are genuine, and can remind you what a good friendship or relationship feels like. Use this contrast as your guiding light.

Written by

Trying to live better. Writing on Mental Health, Relationships, and Living Ethically. Editor/Podcaster.

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