Narcissistic personality disorder isn’t the same as self-confidence or being self-absorbed.
When someone posts one too many selfies or flex pics on their dating profile or talks about themselves constantly during a first date, we might call them a narcissist.
But a true narcissist is someone with narcissistic personality disorder (NPD). It’s a mental health condition characterized by:
- an inflated sense of importance
- a deep need for excessive attention and admiration
- lack of empathy for others
- often having troubled relationships
What it boils down to, says licensed therapist Rebecca Weiler, LMHC, is selfishness at the (usually extreme) expense of others, plus the inability to consider others’ feelings at all.
NPD, like most mental health or personality disorders, isn’t black and white. “Narcissism falls on a spectrum,” explains Beverly Hills family and relationship psychotherapist Dr. Fran Walfish, author of “The Self-Aware Parent.”
The most recent edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders lists nine criteria for NPD, but it specifies that someone only needs to meet five of them to clinically qualify as a narcissist.
9 official criteria for NPD
- grandiose sense of self-importance
- preoccupation with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love
- belief they’re special and unique and can only be understood by, or should associate with, other special or high-status people or institutions
- need for excessive admiration
- sense of entitlement
- interpersonally exploitative behavior
- lack of empathy
- envy of others or a belief that others are envious of them
- demonstration of arrogant and haughty behaviors or attitudes
That said, knowing the “official” diagnostic criteria doesn’t usually make it easier to spot a narcissist, especially when you’re romantically involved with one. It’s usually not possible to determine if someone has NPD without the diagnosis of a qualified expert.
Plus, when someone is wondering if they’re dating a narcissist, they generally aren’t thinking, “Do they have NPD?” They’re wondering if how they’re being treated is healthy and sustainable in the long-run. Please avoid diagnosing your partner in conversation. Rather, read on to gain some insight into the health of your relationship.
You’re here because you’re concerned, and that concern is valid if your health is at stake. If you think these signs fit, we’ll also give you tips on how to handle the situation.
It started as a fairy tale. Maybe they texted you constantly, or told you they loved you within the first month — something experts refer to as “love bombing.”
Maybe they tell you how smart you are or emphasize how compatible you are, even if you’ve just started seeing each other.
“Narcissists think that they deserve to be with other people who are special, and that special people are the only ones who can appreciate them fully,” says Nedra Glover Tawwab, LCSW, founder of Kaleidoscope Counseling in Charlotte, North Carolina.
But as soon as you do something that disappoints them, they could turn on you.
And usually you’ll have no idea of exactly what you did, says Tawwab. “How narcissists treat you, or when they turn on you, actually has nothing to do with you and everything to do with their own [beliefs].”
Weiler’s advice: If someone came on too strong at the beginning, be wary. Sure, we all love to feel lusted for. But real love has to be nurtured and grown.
“If you think it’s too early for them to really love you, it probably is. Or if you feel like they don’t know enough about you to actually love you, they probably don’t,” Weiler says. People with NPD will try to manufacture superficial connections early on in a relationship.
“Narcissists love to constantly talk about their own accomplishments and achievements with grandiose,” says psychotherapist Jacklyn Krol, LCSW, of Mind Rejuvenation Therapy. “They do this because they feel better and smarter than everyone else, and also because it helps them create an appearance of being self-assured.”
Clinical psychologist Dr. Angela Grace, PhD, MEd, BFA, BEd, adds that narcissists will often exaggerate their accomplishments and embellish their talents in these stories in order to gain adoration from others.
They’re also too busy talking about themselves to listen to you. The warning is two-part here, says Grace. First, your partner won’t stop talking about themselves, and second, your partner won’t engage in conversation about you.
Ask yourself: What happens when you do talk about yourself? Do they ask follow-up questions and express interest to learn more about you? Or do they make it about them?
Narcissists may seem like they’re super self-confident. But according to Tawwab, most people with NPD actually lack self-esteem.
“They need a lot of praise, and if you’re not giving it to them, they’ll fish for it,” she says. That’s why they’re constantly looking at you to tell them how great they are.
“Narcissists use other people — people who are typically highly empathic — to supply their sense of self-worth, and make them feel powerful. But because of their low self-esteem, their egos can be slighted very easily, which increases their need for compliments,” adds Shirin Peykar, LMFT.
People-reading tip: Folks who are actually self-confident won’t solely rely on you, or anyone else, to feel good about themselves.
“The main difference between folks who are confident and those with NPD is that narcissists need others to lift them up, and lift themselves up only by putting others down. Two things people with high self-confidence do not do,” Peykar says.
As Weiler explains it, “Narcissists punish everyone around them for their lack of self-confidence.”
Lack of empathy, or the ability to feel how another person is feeling, is one of the hallmark characteristics of a narcissist, Walfish says.
“Narcissists lack the skill to make you feel seen, validating, understood, or accepted because they don’t grasp the concept of feelings,” she says.
Translation: They don’t do emotion that belongs to others.
Does your partner care when you’ve had a bad day at work, fight with your best friend, or scuffle with your parents? Or do they get bored when you express the things making you mad and sad?
Walfish says that this inability to empathize, or even sympathize, is often the reason why many, if not all, narcissists’ relationships eventually collapse, whether they’re romantic or not.
Most narcissists won’t have any long-term, real friends. Dig deeper into their connections and you may notice that they only have casual acquaintances, buddies they trash-talk, and nemeses.
As a result, they might lash out when you want to hang out with yours. They might claim that you don’t spend enough time with them, make you feel guilty for spending time with your friends, or berate you for the types of friends you have.
Questions to ask yourself
- How does your partner treat someone they don’t want anything from?
- Does your partner have any long-term friends?
- Do they have or talk about wanting a nemesis?
Maybe at first it felt like teasing…. but then it got mean or became constant.
Suddenly, everything you do, from what you wear and eat to who you hang out with and what you watch on TV, is a problem for them.
“They’ll put you down, call you names, hit you with hurtful one-liners, and make jokes that aren’t quite funny,” Peykar says. “Their goal is to lower other’s self-esteem so that they can increase their own, because it makes them feel powerful.”
What’s more, reacting to what they say only reinforces their behavior. “A narcissist loves a reaction,” Peykar says. That’s because it shows them that they have the power to affect another’s emotional state.
A warning sign: If they knock you down with insults when you do something worth celebrating, get away. “A narcissist might say ‘You were able to do that because I didn’t sleep well’ or some excuse to make it seem like you have an advantage that they didn’t have,” Tawwab says.
They want you to know that you’re not better than them. Because, to them, nobody is.
Gaslighting is a form of manipulation and emotional abuse, and it’s a hallmark of narcissism. Narcissists may spew blatant lies, falsely accuse others, spin the truth, and ultimately distort your reality.
Signs of gaslighting include the following:
- You no longer feel like the person you used to be.
- You feel more anxious and less confident than you used to be.
- You often wonder if you’re being too sensitive.
- You feel like everything you do is wrong.
- You always think it’s your fault when things go wrong.
- You’re apologizing often.
- You have a sense that something’s wrong, but aren’t able to identify what it is.
- You often question whether your response to your partner is appropriate.
- You make excuses for your partner’s behavior.
“They do this to cause others to doubt themselves as a way to gain superiority. Narcissists thrive off of being worshipped, so they use manipulation tactics to get you to do just that,” Peykar says.
There are thousands of reasons someone might not want to label your relationship. Maybe they’re polyamorous, you’ve both agreed to a friends-with-benefits situation, or you’re simply keeping it casual.
But if your partner is exhibiting some of the other symptoms on this list and won’t commit, it’s likely a red flag.
Some narcissists will expect you to treat them like they’re your partner so they can reap the intimate, emotional, and sexual benefits while also keeping an eye out for prospects who they deem superior.
In fact, you may notice that your partner flirts with or looks at others in front of you, your family, or your friends, says therapist April Kirkwood, LPC, author of “Working My Way Back to Me: A Frank Memoir of Self-Discovery.”
“If you speak up and own your feelings about their disrespect, they will blame you for causing a fuss, call you crazy, and use it as further reason not to commit fully to you. If you don’t say a word, [that also gives a] non-spoken message that you don’t deserve to be respected,” she says.
If it sounds like a lose-lose situation, that’s because it is. But remember that you deserve someone who is as committed to you as you are to them.
Fighting with a narcissist feels impossible.
“There is no debating or compromising with a narcissist, because they are always right,” Tawwab says. “They won’t necessarily see a disagreement as a disagreement. They’ll just see it as them teaching you some truth.”
According to Peykar, you may be dating a narcissist if you feel like your partner:
- doesn’t hear you
- won’t understand you
- doesn’t take responsibility for their part in the issue
- doesn’t ever try to compromise
While ending the relationship is the best game plan with a narcissist, Weiler advises on avoiding negotiation and arguments. “It will make you feel crazy. The thing that drives a narcissist crazy is the lack of control and the lack of a fight. The less you fight back, the less power you can give them over you, the better,” she says.
And because they never think they’re wrong, they never apologize. About anything.
This inability to apologize could reveal itself in situations where your partner is obviously at fault, like:
- showing up for a dinner reservation late
- not calling when they said they would
- canceling important plans last minute, like meeting your parents or friends
Good partners are able to recognize when they’ve done something wrong and apologize for it.
As soon as you back away, a narcissist will try that much harder to keep you in their lives.
“At first, they may love-bomb you. They’ll say all the right things to make you think they have changed,” Peykar says.
But soon enough, they’ll show you they never actually changed. And because of this, many narcissists find themselves in on-again, off-again romantic relationships until they find someone else to date.
If you insist that you’re done with the relationship, they’ll make it their goal to hurt you for abandoning them, Peykar says.
“Their ego is so severely bruised that it causes them to feel rage and hatred for anyone who ‘wronged’ them. That’s because everything is everyone else’s fault. Including the breakup,” she says.
The result? They might bad-mouth you to save face. Or they might start immediately dating someone else to make you feel jealous and help heal their ego. Or they’ll try to steal your friends.
The reason, says Tawwab, is because a good reputation means everything to them, and they won’t let anyone or anything interfere with it.
If you’re in a relationship with someone with NPD, chances are you’ve already experienced quite a bit.
Being in a relationship with someone who’s always criticizing, belittling, gaslighting, and not committing to you is emotionally exhausting. That’s why, for your own sanity, experts recommend to GTFO.
How to prepare for a breakup with a narcissist
- Constantly remind yourself that you deserve better.
- Strengthen your relationships with your empathetic friends.
- Build a support network with friends and family who can help remind you what is reality.
- Urge your partner to go to therapy.
- Get a therapist yourself.
“You cannot change a person with narcissistic personality disorder or make them happy by loving them enough or by changing yourself to meet their whims and desires. They will never be in tune with you, never empathic to your experiences, and you will always feel empty after an interaction with them,” Grace says.
“Narcissists can’t feel fulfilled in relationships, or in any area of their lives, because nothing is ever special enough for them,” she adds.
Essentially, you’ll never be enough for them, because they’re never enough for themselves.
“The best thing you can do is cut ties. Offer them no explanation. Offer no second chance. Break up with them and offer no second, third, or fourth chance,” Grace says.
Because a narcissist will most likely make attempts at contacting you and harassing you with calls or texts once they’ve fully processed the rejection, Krol recommends blocking them to help you stick with your decision.
Remember: This article isn’t meant to diagnose your partner. It’s meant to outline unacceptable behaviors and reactions in the context of a loving, equitable partnership. None of these signs point to a healthy relationship, NPD or not.
And having one or six of these signs doesn’t make your partner a narcissist. Rather, it’s good cause for reevaluating whether or not you’re thriving in your relationship. You’re not responsible for their behavior, but you are responsible for taking care of yourself.
Gabrielle Kassel is a rugby-playing, mud-running, protein-smoothie-blending, meal-prepping, CrossFitting, New York–based wellness writer. She’s become a morning person, tried the Whole30 challenge, and eaten, drunk, brushed with, scrubbed with, and bathed with charcoal, all in the name of journalism. In her free time, she can be found reading self-help books, bench-pressing, or practicing hygge. Follow her on Instagram.