Narcissist Warning Signs
The first time you admit the words out loud – you believe that you might be in a relationship or married to someone who is abusing you – it hurts almost as much as the real pain you have experienced living with it day in and day out. Arriving at the conclusion that your significant other or spouse has used gaslighting and manipulation tactics on you is hard enough to wrap your head around, but telling someone else will release tears and a new flood of emotions. For me, the realization that his actions were carefully orchestrated to trap me like a spider in a web left me feeling betrayed. The shame that I had done something wrong created doubt and spurred the “if I didn’t…” and “if only I had…” thoughts that took over my mind. Since narcissists wobble between the role of victim and tormentor, the vacillation between the two can cause cognitive dissonance (the state of having inconsistent thoughts, beliefs, or attitudes, especially as relating to behavioral decisions and attitude change) to their victims. This is the odd thing about being a victim of narcissistic abuse: even though you are the one abused, it is you who feels the guilt and shame. To most, it’s clear that the guilt should be owned by the abusive spouse, but that is not possible when someone has Narcissistic Personality Disorder.
Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) falls under the category of Cluster B Personality Disorders within the DSM-5 (The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders). To be clear, NPD is a personality disorder that typically displays on a spectrum. A narcissism spectrum means people can present with just a few traits (low) such as healthy self-love or self-centeredness to the opposite extreme with full-blown personality disorder (high) and a larger number of the more dangerous traits and malevolent behaviors. Those with NPD can appear mild, sweet, and kind until a narcissistic injury threatens the image they have been portraying, at which point they could instantly morph to straight-up devious. You will wonder how you could have possibly missed that side of their personality.
The traditional cycle of narcissistic abuse applies to a relationship as it travels from the wonderful to the crazy ugliness that defines the journey of those unfortunate enough to have been caught in the narcissistic web of deceit. The three swirling stages are idealize, devalue, and discard. These stages will continue for the life of the relationship with each looking a bit different once you are hooked.
It is common to wonder if you are a narcissist. You may ask yourself, “How do I know I’m not the narcissist?” One day, I decided to write down all the classic behaviors of a narcissist:
- Pornography use
- Cheating emotionally and physically
- Explosive anger
- Property damage – punching walls, throwing things
- Physical intimidation – yelling and spitting right in your face
- Being secretive
- Obsessing about perceived slights
Now, ask yourself, “Do I engage in these behaviors?” Answer them completely honestly; a pattern will be revealed and chances are good that it is not you. Narcissists never wonder if they are the problem. They always point the finger away from themselves. They blame everyone for their failures except themselves.
When you begin your journey to understand what the heck happened to you, it is important to look at the warning signs of abuse. Until I had a better understanding of what narcissistic abuse was, I could not admit that I was a victim. Once armed with the words and behaviors, it was all too clear. All narcissists seem to display the same general signs – the same red flags and patterns. Your first step toward healing is to learn to recognize these patterns so you will no longer be a potential victim. Stopping them in their tracks is the best solution; simply block any narcissistic activity from your life.
Just like there are many varieties of narcissists, there are also many early warning signs of narcissistic abuse. General personality is a big one. Narcissists can be male or female and they traditionally display telltale behaviors by late childhood. It is estimated that 6.2% of the United States population has Narcissistic Personality Disorder. That equates to approximately 20 million people – 62% men and 38% women (Stinson et al. 2008). If we assume that each person with NPD negatively impacts three people, 60 million victims would be accounted for in the USA alone. Many experts believe that number to be extremely low and feel a more realistic multiplier would be at least ten (or 200 million victims). These numbers are staggering: there are over 325 million people in the US and the victim count grows daily.
According to the DSM-5, a person can be professionally diagnosed with Narcissistic Personality Disorder by having at least five of the following characteristics:
- a grandiose sense of self-importance (i.e., exaggerates achievements and talents, expects to be recognized as superior without commensurate achievements)
- preoccupation with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love
- the belief that they are “special” and unique and can only be understood by, or should associate with, other special or high-status people (or institutions)
- requires excessive admiration
- a sense of entitlement (i.e., unreasonable expectations of especially favorable treatment or automatic compliance with their expectations)
- interpersonally exploitative tendencies (i.e., takes advantage of others to achieve their own ends)
- lacks empathy – unwilling to recognize or identify with the feelings and needs of others.
- envious of others or believes that others are envious of them
- displays arrogant or haughty behaviors and attitudes
While these characteristics outline the DSM’s criteria, the way Narcissistic Personality Disorder presents itself is not always reflective of this list.
There are many different types of narcissists, too. Often the traits displayed will cross over into other types as more than one can be exhibited per person.
Covert (or Fragile) Narcissist
Narcissistic covert abuse often happens slowly. Most victims of covert narcissists report that they felt something was off, but it didn’t feel like abuse because it was subtle and hard to put their fingers on the changes. Once caught, the abuse gets turned up. The typical pattern of a covert narcissist is to come on fast and intense, claim their soulmate, and propose quickly. It’s the idealize phase of the relationship where the victim is placed high on a pedestal, not allowing the victim to really get to know the person or see their true self. The intensity of being the center of someone’s world sounds like a fairy tale; but then there is a noticeable change in availability and the victim is no longer the priority…the first of many confusing moments that showcase reality. At first, the narcissist will blame the change in attention on the need to get back to real life. That seems like a good excuse so the first crumb offered is accepted. Later, the blame gets pointed at you, the victim. It’s all your fault things changed and the internalized “if only you…” or “if you had just done…” taunts are released. This is the devalue stage test. You are being graded for your reaction to the withdrawn attention. If you continue to accept the justification as moving back to normal life, they know they have a low bar to meet and you are controllable.
These tactics are common from a covert narcissist. They are unoriginal, often cowardly, and exceptionally low on the emotional intelligence scale. Most victims don’t notice these methods or understand their meaning. They don’t see the person as they really are until they leave. The strategies are stealthy and designed to confuse.
Covert narcissists are exceedingly difficult to recognize and even harder to expose because they have built a fake persona with everyone they know. Most that are unaware of the covert traits see a charming, helpful, caring, compassionate, and often enlightened individual. However, this type tends to stick with the same tricks and methods, doesn’t learn from them, and is extremely persistent.
Covert traits you may have seen:
- rushes relationships with very intense love bombing to “prove” how much they cherish you
- charming yet socially awkward and less skilled than the grandiose or malignant narcissist
- introvert – withdrawn and self-centered
- lack of empathy – fake empathy (it’s an act only) can be exhibited as a technique to get something they want or in an effort to find new supply
- passive-aggressive communication and behaviors, usually behind closed doors
- subtle insults
- passive-aggressive anger
- ignoring your concerns
- silent treatment
- a sarcastic or argumentative attitude
- deliberately not doing the things they say they will do
- secretly depressed with exceptionally low self-esteem and self-worth
- plays the victim (i.e., <the world> is out to get them) in order to trap actual victims
- sullen, angry, and never content with a quiet rage simmering below the surface
- overly critical, always with the belief that they are better and smarter than everyone around them
- needy and vulnerable
- resentful and jealous
- hostile and argumentative
- not typically good in social situations – if they do go to events, they will ruin them with passive-aggressive behavior
- no genuine friends
- constantly seek validation – always bragging to convince others how great they are. In extreme cases, this manifests as a God-like mask to be the savior to those lucky enough to be in their presence
- arrogant and dismiss other’s opinions because they believe they are better
- entitled and believe that they deserve the best of everything and seek those who will give it to them, even though they are not worthy of it.
- hypersensitive to feedback or criticism – they react with rage: “How could you!”
- the constant need for control – the need for control controls them
- smug with an air of superiority: they don’t need you
- an intense need to win and prove they did nothing wrong so they point fingers at you to deflect the accusations
- no remorse – able to apologize, but the apology is not genuine. They never learn from their actions. The apology is an act to give hope. They will turn around and pull the rug of hope out from under you again at another time.
- pathological liar – if their lips are moving, they’re lying. Even when the truth would serve them better, they lie. They can’t help themselves and you will wonder how they keep all the fake facts straight.
Weapons of passive-aggressive covert behaviors:
- the silent treatment – to punish and abuse their victims. When the covert narcissist goes dark (ghosting) and refuses to engage, the victim feels rejected and wonders what they did to provoke this behavior, making them feel like they did something wrong. Ultimately, the victim will get angry causing resentment from the narcissist because they believe they are entitled to treat people this way.
- ignoring you – pretending not to hear you or understand your request, completely aware that this is aggravating behavior.
- reactive abuse – pushing the victim to react with anger and then placing blame regarding their anger issues
- playing the victim – a control tool to garner emotions and evoke sympathy by always having a sad story about past mistreatment or making others believe they are team players by consistently accepting the short end of the stick.
- the joke is on you – off-handed jokes are designed to make the victim feel bad. Humor to tease and belittle someone is followed by a “just kidding” in an insincere attempt to ease the pain, but the objective is achieved.
- name calling and constant verbal abuse – typically done in private but sometimes the line is crossed and it’s done in front of family or friends.
- pretending to forget the things they promised to do – intentionally not doing something after they said they would and expressing anger or exasperation if it is mentioned.
The grandiose narcissist is the poster child of what is characteristically described in the DSM-5 – charming, charismatic, confident, attractive, and entitled. This is how most imagine narcissists to present themselves as the “constant mirror gazing” or “let’s take a selfie” type. They tend to hold jobs that put them in a place of power and marry easy-to-control people who will also boost their image and careers. In order to be in a relationship with them, they require someone who appears worthy of being on their arm. Status is necessary but even that cannot outshine them. Usually, soon after marriage, the devalue stage will begin to knock their partner down a peg or two from the status that originally attracted them. It is important that the victim have insecurities so that they need the narcissist.
Grandiose traits you may have seen:
- never plays the victim
- rages quickly if don’t get their way
- hypersensitive to feedback
- unable to accept that they are not perfect so they deny criticism and put anyone down that does not get fully on board idealizing them
Malignant narcissists are on the higher end of the narcissistic spectrum because they usually exhibit an evil side, possibly with sadistic traits. They share the lack of empathy and the poor sense of self-worth with their lesser narcissistic comrades but because of this darkness, they tend to be the ones who derive joy from taking down their enemies. In a divorce, they make false allegations of criminal behavior in order to have their spouses arrested. They will never stop litigation and will prolong everything in the legal arena simply to ramp up the torture factor.
Where a narcissistic injury often launches other types of narcissists into black-and-white thinking, a malignant narcissist always sees people as friend or foe. Anyone they determine as lesser than them automatically falls into the enemy camp and they are not shy about voicing their opinions. Their amplified lack of empathy will be evident in everything they do.
Malignant traits you may have seen:
- limited capacity to show empathy
- pathological liars
- motivated by the greed of power and social influence – tend to surround themselves with successful people, have great jobs (i.e., lead companies), and throw their weight around against their victims
- demands validation
- evil tendencies – straddle the line that other types of narcissists only touch
- dangerous – more so than other types as they are more calculated in planning attacks
- manipulative – in their minds they are entitled because they are smarter
- more likely to have criminal charges brought up against their victim(s)
- takes pleasure in humiliating and causing pain
- master of all skills – unlike the other types of narcissists, they learn from their efforts. They test a strategy, evaluate its success, and then look for additional ways to serve up endless abuse.
Narcissists can be broken into subgroups as well such as Rich or Poor along with various masks that they don based on the person/victim/situation. These are all temporary and are typically only displayed outside the home:
- The Charmer
- The Privileged
- The Arrogant Intellectual
- The Rescuer
- The Victim
- The Spiritual/Religious
- The Great Team Parent
- The Dedicated Parent
- The Good Neighbor
- The Martyr
- The Lover
- The Workaholic
- The Fake Self-Improvement
- The Playful
- The Self-Sacrificing
- The Romantic
- The Fun-Loving
- The Charismatic
… the list is endless! I have only scratched the surface.
You may recognize several of these from your own narcissist – and the crazy thing is, they can double or triple these masks up. You think you have found the perfect person and, in fact, they are perfect because they have manufactured themselves to be so. They have studied you and know exactly what you are looking for. Scary stuff.
Remain vigilant to protect yourself from harm! Remember the old adage: “If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.” I don’t want to insinuate that the perfect person doesn’t exist or isn’t out there looking for you but do yourself a favor: before you get too consumed, compare the perfectness you see with the narc traits above. You might find exactly what you are not looking for!
I hope anyone who listens to my story can mine something valuable from it – maybe it will help you to pick out something in your narcissist’s pattern that can guide you to heal. Study the red flags of narcissist abuse so it never happens to you again.