How to spot a narcissist

My father is a narcissist.

Most people who know him, don’t believe me. They all tell me what a great guy he is and are convinced I am mistaken. And maybe I am, but it’s highly unlikely. Because I know how to read, and there is this little book (it’s not little at all) called the DSM V (the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders version 5). This book describes the criteria needed to diagnose a person with Narcissistic Personality Disorder, and my dad meets every single one of them.

How to spot a Narcissist

The thing about narcissists is that they are charming. Most people don’t know that they have a relationship with one. Which is why I decided to write this post. Not because I want you to feel sorry for me. But because I am a survivor of narcissistic abuse and I spent a lot of money on therapy in order to come to term with it. Over the years, I have learned how to deal with this kind of person and I wanted to pass on some of my knowledge and experience to others who may be in a similar situation to my own.

Photo by Sydney Sims

Full disclosure: I am NOT a psychiatrist and I am NOT an expert. I am simply sharing my own understanding and offering advice from my own lived experience. That’s all this is. If you want the facts, speak to a professional. I’m a pop psychologist at best.

So here goes. Part one: How to spot a narcissist.

Self-comparison

Narcissists will often be found comparing themselves to other people. Whilst everyone does this from time to time, you will notice that they do it more often than most. Every time they do, they will almost certainly tell you how much better they are than the other person because they genuinely believe that to be the case.

Have you ever been in a conversation with someone who doesn’t seem to be interested in anything you have to say? They never ask questions or take an interest in your life. It almost feels like they are waiting for you to finish your sentence just so they can have their turn to talk. In fact, in an ideal world you get the feeling they would prefer it if you didn’t talk at all?

Narcissists are not a fan of conversations. In an ideal world, they would do all the talking and you would do all the listening. Most have adapted to the rules of society and have learned how to fake it. But you will often find that they monopolise the conversation and very rarely ask about you (unless they want something from you). Most of us are so delighted that they trust us enough to want to share with us, that we don’t notice how one-sided the conversation is.

Photo by Priscilla Du Preez
Insecurity

Narcissists have a very exaggerated sense of self-belief. It’s more than confidence, it’s downright arrogance. That being said, they are often quite insecure because reality doesn’t usually match their perception of reality. In those situations, they have the tendency to suddenly turn quite mean. For example, the man who tells you he is a god on the gold course but then ends up with a rubbish handicap. In a situation like that, its the golf clubs I feel sorry for.

Self-comparison doesn’t mean they have to be full of themselves all the time. Quite often they will paint themselves out to be the victim, which can be quite confusing. One second they are telling you how awesome they are and the next minute they are telling you how unfair life is and how they are are always being treated badly. Their ability to flit between one and the other often mirrors fluctuations in their own self-esteem and clues you into how difficult they find it to regulate their emotions.

Now remember, not everyone who compares themselves to others and exaggerates their achievements is a narcissist. But every narcissist compares themselves to others and exaggerates their achievements.

The Fat Doctor

Desire for approval

Narcissists are desperate for the approval of others. They need it like the rest of us need air to breathe. Anyone who speaks out against a narcissist becomes public enemy number one. They tend to surround themselves with people who worship and adore them. That’s because they can be very charming and will flatter you and shower you with attention whenever they want or need something from you.

Once you are under their spell and they know they have your loyalty, the charm and flattery tends to die down leaving your wondering what you did wrong. However, the moment they realise that you are growing weary and disenchanted, they’ll be back with more praise and affection.

For this reason you’ll often find that narcissists have a serious following and a lot of loyal fans. I’m particularly conscious of this on social media. Anyone who commands such a loyal following that will attack anyone that steps out of line and poses a threat to their idol, is not to be trusted. Especially if they do not do anything to stop them. Think Trump and his insurrectionists. Many refer to them as flying monkeys.

The flying monkey

The term “flying monkey” refers to anyone who believes in the narcissist’s fake persona and serve to do their bidding. They will often be the ones that inflict abuse on a target (rather than the narcissist themselves) by spying, spreading gossip, threatening, painting the narcissist as the victim, and painting the target as the perpetrator. The latter two are known as victim playing and victim blaming, and are rife on social media.

Photo by Jamie Haughton 

The sad thing is that flying monkeys are not necessarily the friends or family members of the narcissist themselves. They are often close associates of the victim, or people in positions of authority (such as police officers, teachers and healthcare professionals). The other thing to bear in mind is that narcissists have no problems throwing their flying monkeys under the bus when it suits them.

Remember, not everyone who is desperate for the approval of others and surrounds themselves with loyal fans is a narcissist. But every narcissist is desperate for the approval of others and surrounds themselves with loyal fans.

The Fat Doctor

Lack of empathy

I’m always very wary when someone compares a person to an inanimate object. I mean, there are certain sayings that have become ingrained in our culture. Dumb as a rock. As thick as two short planks. Not the sharpest tool in the shed. And as offensive as these sayings are, that’s not what I am talking about here.

Narcissist struggle to view other people as human beings with feelings and emotions. Whilst they are quick to react in anger, they struggle to feel other emotions themselves, so it is not surprising that they struggle to recognise them in other people.

Inappropriate reactions

As a result, narcissists will often have wholly inappropriate reactions to situations. In my second year of university, I was out in London with some friends and accepted a drink from a stranger. I woke up 24 hours later in my mother’s bed. My dad was away on business at the time, and I have absolutely no recollection of events so I can only rely on the accounts of my sister and my mother. What I do remember was how little my dad cared on his return. I think he found it amusing. He never once checked if I was OK.

My dad never showed any concern towards me growing up. I mean, he made sure I was clothed and fed but he never once responded to my emotional needs. I look back and realise that he didn’t understand them. He didn’t responded to my cries or my tears because they meant nothing to him. He was either indifferent towards them because they didn’t impact him, or angry because they did.

Photo by Gift Habeshaw
Emotions are ‘bad’

Narcissists will often make the people around them feel guilty for expressing emotions. The intelligent ones will have also figured out how to use your emotions against you and manipulate them for their own advantage. For example, they may notice that you are getting frustrated and so they will wind you up until you explode and then use that against you. That’s part of gaslighting and I describe that in more detail later.

It is really important to point out that there are plenty of people in the world who struggle with empathy. Anyone who is neurodivergent may struggle to pick up on social cues or understand the complexity of the human psyche. But lack of empathy in isolation does not make a person a narcissist.

Remember, not everyone who lacks empathy is a narcissist. But every narcissist lacks empathy.

The Fat Doctor

Lack of intimacy

I once heard someone describe their relationship with their narcissistic husband as a perpetually cloudy day. Every so often the sun would come out and shine down on them, and at those times they would feel warm inside and overwhelmingly happy. But most of the time the sun was hiding and they felt cold and alone.

I also heard another person describe a childhood with a narcissistic parent like being in a theatre production. The parent was the actor and everyone else around them was the props. As long as the props behaved and did what they were supposed to do, the play could go on and they would be ignored for the most part. But if a prop ever became human and dared to step out of line, then they would either be forced back in to their place or thrown out.

Photo by Kilyan Sockalingum 

Narcissists really struggle to form intimate relationships. They can charm you and convince you that you are the most important person in their life. But it’s just an act. When all is said and done, you will always feel like something is lacking, and if you’re anything like me you will struggle to put your finger on it.

Your needs are immaterial

When you find yourself getting upset about this lack of intimacy, the narcissist in your life will try to convince you that you are the one with the problem. They will use a lot of different tactics to confuse and confound you until you start to question your own sanity. This is called gaslighting, and is a commonly used tactic that can have quite profound consequences on those that have been subjected to it for long periods of time. But remember, it is just a distraction tactic.

You have to remember that a narcissist does not care about the feelings of others. In fact, they don’t care about others at all. They only care about themselves. Intimacy requires effort. It requires you to give and take, and narcissists only want to take. They never want to give unless it suits their purpose.

Distant and uninterested

I remember my dad very rarely played with us when we were children. He spent most of his time in his study “working”. At the time I figured he was a very important man with very important things to do. Now I realise he just wasn’t interested (because he wasn’t actually important at all). Don’t get me wrong, there are times when I shut myself off from my kids too. I love them but I also need some me-time. But when they come to me and ask me for something, I either stop what I am doing or I agree to do it later.

Photo by Jude Beck 

The older my children get, the more desperate I am to spend time with them. I’m the one asking them for a cuddle, not the other way round! My father had no interest in cuddling us. He liked it when we came up behind him whilst he was sitting in his chair and showered him with praise and affection. He often told us how happy he was to have two daughters who would take care of him for the rest of our lives. But it’s only now that I look back and realise he never cuddled us. He only ever allowed us to cuddle him. And when he did, it was always on his terms.

Remember, not everyone who is incapable of intimacy is a narcissist. But every narcissist is incapable of intimacy.

The Fat Doctor

Entitlement

As far as a narcissist is concerned, if they want it then they are entitled to have it. Narcissists have no problems taking the last biscuit without checking if anyone else fancied it first. They have no problem stepping over people to get that promotion, or sabotaging someone so that they can have their way.

They are incapable or empathy or intimacy, so they do not have to worry about sparing other people’s feelings. As far as they are concerned, they are entitled to take whatever makes them happy so they can often be found blurring the lines of what is moral, ethical or even legal.

They very rarely get caught though, because they are usually far too smart for that. They will do whatever it takes to get what they want, and that usually means staying out of trouble. On the off chance that someone does catch them doing something unethical or illegal, they will usually charm their way out of it and you may find yourself feeling resentful that they seem to get away with things that you could never get away with.

Photo by Bill Oxford
Possessive and possession

You’ll notice that narcissists use a lot of possessive pronouns like “my” or “mine”. For example, it’s perfectly normal for a man to introduce his spouse to a group of strangers for the first time as “my wife Claire”. It’s not normal for a man to refer them as “my wife” among close personal friends. They all know her name is Claire, but as far as he is concerned she belongs to him.

As a result, narcissists are extremely jealous and generally will not tolerate sharing what they consider to be theirs with others. This is classic abuser mentality. My dad ensured that I had virtually no outside influences in my life aside from people he could easily control (like his own mother). He made sure to move us away from anyone we were particularly close to so I did not have anyone but my sister to turn to when I was growing up.

Remember, not everyone who is self-entitled is a narcissist. But every narcissist is self-entitled.

The Fat Doctor

Arrogance

Narcissists genuinely believe that they are better than everyone else. This isn’t a belief that they have come to based on ability or experience. It’s just a firmly held belief that has no basis in reality. As a result they are extremely antagonistic. I remember watching my dad pick fights with people who were so much bigger and stronger than him. At the time I thought he was a badass, but now I realise that he genuinely thought he would have come out on top.

There’s a difference between confidence and arrogance. A confident person believes in themselves and their own abilities. An arrogant person believes they are better than everyone else. They are often really condescending, but they do it it in a way that is often difficult to pinpoint. I believe it is perfectly possible to know your own strengths and to be able to talk about them when the need arises without having to compare yourself to others.

Photo by Steve Harvey 

For example, I might believe that I am a good doctor, but that doesn’t mean I need to be better than my colleagues. I can be good at my job without making others feel like they aren’t as good at me. Sure there are times when I need to sell myself and my achievements, but the vast majority of the time I am happy being middle of the road!

Narcissists often list their achievements and successes, but never their failings or mistakes. They also tend to exaggerate their experience. For example, they’ll tell you that they have done something “thousands” of times when in fact it has only been a couple of hundred. Again, we all tend to exaggerate from time-to-time but there is usually a reason. A narcissist always exaggerates things, and it can be really annoying when you are privy to the truth.

Remember, not everyone who is arrogant is a narcissist. But every narcissist is arrogant.

The Fat Doctor

Attention Seeking Behaviour

Narcissists are only happy when all eyes are on them. They will never allow the focus of attention to stray for any length of time. This can cause them to act in quite outlandish ways on occasion. Even if it ends up being self-sabotage, the narcissist will do whatever it takes to be the centre of attention.

Watch out for the singular pronouns. I, me, my, mine. It’s subtle, but once you start paying attention, it becomes frustratingly obvious. I’ll give you an example. Last summer my family and I drove to Cornwall. We went on a road trip. It was our summer holiday. We went to the beach and swam in the freezing cold ocean. We had an amazing time.

If I were a narcissist this would be framed very differently in my head and it would be obvious to anyone paying attention to my words. I went to Cornwall and took my family with me. I drove my family there in my car. That’s right, I took my family on their summer holiday. I took them to beach and I watched them swim in the ocean. They had an amazing time (the thanks to me is often implied).

Photo by Steve Harvey 
Incapable of sharing the spotlight

You will know that you are in a relationship with a narcissist if you never get to celebrate a birthday or special occasion without feeling like they have taken over. And it sucks. I remember feeling completely exhausted after every school play or award ceremony or birthday party. You should have seen my father at my wedding day! Or the day of my mother’s funeral. He even referred to it as “my wife’s funeral” whenever he spoke about it with my and my sister.

Remember, not everyone who engages in attention seeking behaviour is a narcissist. But every narcissist engages in attention seeking behaviour.

The Fat Doctor

What is the difference between a narcissist and an a***hole?

If you know someone that displays a lot of the traits above, then they are definitely an a***hole. But that does not necessarily make them a narcissist. To be diagnosed with Narcissistic Personality Disorder, you need to demonstrate that the above impaired personality function and pathological personality traits are “relatively stable across time and consistent across situations”.

It’s common for people to develop a lot of these traits during times of crisis or personal loss. In some cases, it is completely normal. After I lost my mother, I became quite introverted and self-absorbed. I suffered from compassion fatigue, struggled to empathise with others and was almost incapable of real intimacy. I was grieving and hurting and there were times when I was quite selfish. Nothing wrong with that. Not only is it human nature, but I would argue that it was necessary to heal.

There are a few other things to take in to consideration as well. Age and social development for a start. My teenage son may be an a***hole sometimes but he is NOT a narcissist! There’s also cultural norms. We Brits are generally taught not to boast, but that doesn’t mean there is anything wrong with people who come from cultures where boasting is par for the course.

Photo by Jesús Rodríguez

And finally substance abuse. Drugs and alcohol impair personality and it is very common to be able to recognise a lot of the traits that I have listed above in people with a history of addictions. In this case it is the substance that is at fault, as opposed to an impairment in personality function. The same goes for organic causes such as head trauma.

Are you sure?

Finally it is important to note that a diagnosis of Narcissistic Personality disorder can only be made by a psychiatrist. The problem is that most narcissists are intelligent and cunning enough to avoid ever having to deal with one. By definition, they are unwilling to admit that they have a problem so they will never seek help.

So it’s a catch 22. I will never be sure, because I will never be able to get my dad to admit that he is the way he is. He will use every tactic in his arsenal to deny my accusations, and if you’ve grown up with a lifetime of gaslighting like I have, it is all too easy to doubt yourself.

Photo by Philippe Mignot

He’s also got a lot of people around him under his spell. Very few sided with me over the years, and the moment they did he cut them out of his life so swiftly and efficiently that they never saw it coming. Now that they see what he is capable of, they believe me but they no longer have access to anyone else in his inner circle because they did the same to them as they did to me.

Moving on

I guess that is why I am writing this blog post today. Because I will never be able to heal my relationship with my dad or gain any closure. I have, however, allowed a psychologist to poke around inside my brain and reassure me that I am not the one with NPD (because narcissists will often try and convince you that you are the one with the problem).

And now all that is left for me to do is share my experiences of how I survived narcissistic abuse in the hope that it can help others out there who are in a similar situation to mine. Step one is spotting the narcissist. Tune in next week for part 2 – how to survive, heal, and move on.

If you’ve been affected by and of the issues that I touched on today, then feel free to leave a comment below. I am not able to give any specific advice, but would love to hear from you. If you’d like to get in touch, subscribe or be part of what I am doing, then click here.

6 thoughts on “How to spot a narcissist”

  1. Thank you for this! I suffered with compassion fatigue after loss and was worried that I would never be empathetic again. Thank you for normalising it.
    I also worked for a narcissist, he was an absolute nightmare. Xx

  2. I also had to piece together that my mother was a narcissist in a therapist’s office. And what that meant for me both as a child with her and as an adult away from her. Every bit of your experience rings true to mine. It’s amazing that different people from different parts of the world, have this disfunction and yet seem to be playing from an unwritten rule book that you can spot the pattern if you know what to look for.

    A couple of things in your post really gripped me: the entitlement, the feeling of ownership, and what you said at the end about closure. We can find a sense of closure within ourselves but can never have closure with the person who is a narcissist.

    Thanks for sharing your experience.

  3. Liz Marqueiro

    I can relate 100% to this. I was 30 before I realised I couldn’t allow the level of my father’s toxicity to be a part of my life any longer.
    I’m 50 now and twenty years without him in my life have been the best. I no longer feel guilt. The scars and inner demon voice are still with me but don’t control me any more.

  4. WOW. This is so accurate. I have talked to my kids many times about these same sort of things they see in their fractured relationship with their dad. I tried to protect them for so long and it quite literally made me sick. I know that my chronic illnesses are a direct result of the stress I’ve been under. I’ve sent shut down my emotions over the years towards him or of protection. I look forward to part 2.

  5. Pingback: How diet culture destroyed a family - The Fat Doctor

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