How to Recognise a Narcissist


How to recognise a narcissist before it is "too late"?


Many of my correspondents complain of the incredible deceptive powers of the narcissist. They found themselves involved with narcissists (emotionally, in business, or otherwise) before they had a chance to discover his true character. Shocked by the later revelation, they mourn their inabilities: their current inability to separate from him and their past inability to see through him. Narcissists are perceived as such only post facto and when it is too late.

There is no need to rehash the classic symptoms of the narcissistic personality.

These are enumerated in the DSM-IV-TR and are studied at length in this book. We are interested in for the more subtle, almost subliminal, signals that a narcissist emits. The psychotherapist would be looking for the "presenting symptoms".

Both should look for the following:

"Haughty" body language - A physical posture implying and exuding an air of superiority, seniority, hidden powers, mysteriousness, amused indifference, etc. The narcissist engages in sustained and piercing eye contact and normally refrains from bodily contact, physical proximity, or from entering in a discussion unless from a state of condescension, superiority and faked "magnanimity and largesse". He rarely mingles socially and prefers to adopt the stance of the "observer" or the "lone wolf".

Entitlement markers - The narcissist immediately asks for "special treatment" of some kind. Not to wait his turn, to have a longer or a shorter therapeutic session, to talk directly to authority figures (and not to their assistants or secretaries), to have special payment terms, custom tailored arrangements, inorddinate attention by the head waiter in a restaurant and so on. He reacts with rage and indignantly if denied his wishes.

Idealisation or devaluation - The narcissist instantly idealises or devalues, depending on his appraisal of the potential one has as a Narcissistic Supply Source. He IMMEDIATELY flatters, adores, admires and applauds the "target" in an embarrassingly exaggerated and profuse manner - or sulk, abuse and humiliate. In the second case (devaluation) he may force himself to be polite (because of the presence of a potential Supply Source). But this is bound to be a barbed sort of politeness, which rapidly deteriorates and degenerates into verbal or other violent displays of abuse, rage attacks, or cold detachment, totally out of the control of the narcissist.

The "membership" posture - The narcissist always tries to "belong". Yet, at the very same time, he maintains his stance as an outsider. The narcissist seeks to be admired for his ability to integrate and ingratiate himself without the efforts commensurate with such an undertaking. For instance: if he talks to a psychologist, the narcissist makes clear that he never studied psychology and then proceeds to use the most obscure professional jargon, in an effort to prove that he mastered the discipline all the same and thus that he is exceptionally intelligent or introspective. In general, the narcissist always prefers show-off to substance. One of the most effective methods of exposing a narcissist is by trying to go deeper and discuss matters substantially. The narcissist is shallow, a pond pretending to be an ocean. He likes to think of himself as a Renaissance man, a Jack of all trades. A narcissist never admits to ignorance IN ANY FIELD!

Bragging and false autobiography - The narcissist brags. His speech is peppered with "I", "my", "myself", "mine" and other appropriating linguistic structures. He describes himself as intelligent, or rich, or modest, or intuitive, or creative - but always excessively and extraordinarily so. One is almost tempted to say, inhumanly so. His biography sounds implausibly rich and complex. His achievements - incommensurate with his age, education, or renown. His actual state always appears evidently and demonstrably incompatible with his claims. Very often, the narcissist lies or fantasises in a manner very easy to discern. He always name-drops.

Emotion-free language - The narcissist likes to talk about himself and only about himself. He is not interested in what others have to tell him about themselves. He might pretend to be interested - but this is only with a potential Source of Supply and in order to obtain said supply. He acts bored, disdainful, even angry, if he feels an intrusion and abuse of his precious time. In general, the narcissist is a very impatient person, easily bored, with strong attention deficits - unless and until he is the topic of discussion. One can discuss all aspects of the intimate life of a narcissist, providing the discourse is not "emotionally tinted". If asked to relate directly to his emotions, he intellectualises, rationalises, speaks about himself in the third person and in a detached "scientific" tone or writes a short story with a fictitious character in it, suspiciously autobiographical.

Seriousness and sense of intrusion and coercion - The narcissist is dead serious about himself. He may possess a fabulous sense of humour, scathing and cynical. But he never appreciates it when this weapon is directed at him. The narcissist regards himself as being on a constant mission, whose importance is cosmic and whose consequences are global. If a scientist - he is always in the throes of revolutionising science. If a journalist - he is in the middle of the greatest story ever. This self-misperception is not amenable to light-headedness or self-deprecation. The narcissist is easily hurt and insulted (narcissistic injury). Even the most innocuous remarks or acts are interpreted by him as belittling, intruding, or coercive. His time is more valuable than others' - therefore, it cannot be wasted on unimportant matters such as social intercourse. Any suggestion to help, any advice or concerned inquiry are immediately interpreted as coercion and humiliation, implying that the narcissist is in need of help and advice and, thus, imperfect. Any attempt to set an agenda - as an intimidating act of enslavement. In this sense, the narcissist is both schizoid and paranoid.

These - the lack of empathy, the aloofness, the disdain and sense of entitlement, the restricted application of his sense of humour, the unequal treatment and the paranoia - make the narcissist a social misfit. The narcissist is able to provoke in his social milieu, in his casual acquaintances, even in his psychotherapist, the strongest, most avid and furious hatred and revulsion. He provokes violence, often not knowing why. He is perceived to be asocial at best (often - antisocial). This, perhaps, is the strongest presenting symptom. One feels ill at ease in the presence of a narcissist - and rarely knows why. No matter how charming, intelligent, thought provoking, outgoing, easy going and social the narcissist is - he forever fails to secure the sympathy of his fellow humans, a sympathy he is never ready, willing, or able to grant them in the first place.

next: The Narcissistic Pendulum And the Pathological Narcissistic Space

APA Reference
Staff, H. (2008, November 24). How to Recognise a Narcissist, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2024, July 19 from

Last Updated: July 8, 2016

Medically reviewed by Harry Croft, MD

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