The signs of a narcissist are summarised through the DSM-5 diagnostic criteria, which include ‘self-importance’, ‘requires excessive admiration’, and ‘lacks empathy’. However, what the DSM-5 does not cover are the covert, insidious signs of a narcissist which many people are unaware of, and which over time do the most damage. These signs include what the narcissist says, what the narcissist means, and how the narcissist acts.
Spot Signs Of A Narcissist Through Common Phrases
- “I like you“: Usually said very soon after they meet you. What this means is that they feel they can draw narcissistic supply from you.
- “I never…“: This is followed by any kind of action which might raise their perceived worth in the eyes of others. Examples are: ‘I never have to line up’, ‘I never fail a test’ or ‘I never get rejected’. Everyone lines up for things and occasionally fails tests and gets rejected, so such statements only act as ways to put dents in your self-esteem.
- “Why do you…?“: ‘Why do you dress like that?’ ‘Why did you pick that colour?’ and so on. These phrases are intended to destabilise your sense of Self and make you question your decision making.
- “He/She doesn’t do that“: By comparing what you do with another person, usually an ex, the narcissist makes you feel like you don’t measure up to the other person who ‘clearly’ has their act together. This is triangulation verbalised.
- “You’re cute”: 5-year-olds are cute. This phrase only acts to remind you that you are submissive to the narcissist.
- “You’re hilarious”: A fitting reaction to a hilarious person is laughter. When it is said so overtly, without any obvious amusement, it only acts to tell you that the narcissist does not need to take you seriously.
Spot The Narcissist’s Fiction
The smallest signs of a narcissistic personality are the fictional elements you find in the relationship. Like an author, a narcissist tells you a complex story to draw you in and, just like in a story, they add in elements of conflict to keep you engaged.
This fiction the narcissist creates contains the following story elements:
- The hero: When you first meet them, they will raise you up on a pedestal and make you the centre of your shared world. You have their undivided attention. In this fantasy tale you are the hero and protagonist — at least at first.
- Antagonists: Each story has villains. The narcissist, to reinforce a world where you and they are the ‘good guys’, will judge and attack other people who are not playing along. This creates conflicts that give life to your shared story.
- The helper/ally: Each story has good people who support the protagonist and help them move forward. At first, you are the hero and the narcissist is the ‘helper’. Once you are sucked into the story and totally invested, the role switches. You are now responsible for helping the plot move forward.
- Conflict: Without conflict, the story falls flat. The narcissist will either target a specific person on their radar, people who do not/did not play along in the past, or an ethnic minority. When all of those are lacking, the narcissist will target you, growing more demanding and expecting you to measure up in some way to feed their story. They will ridicule you for being slow or stupid, shame you, will be short-tempered as you go about your day with them, will complain and create drama, and so on. All of these are intended to keep you emotionally invested in the story, the same as in a novel — with one key difference.
- Story arc: The key difference between a good piece of fiction and the narcissist’s fiction is that none of the characters in the narcissist’s story ever undergo a process of evolution and transformation. In a good piece of fiction, the conflicts are stepping stones for growth; they are challenges that lead to the character becoming a better person. In the narcissist’s story, their use of conflict has only one goal: to keep you sucked in. The narrative includes a helper/ally who must do whatever is required to maintain the hero’s position as the ‘special’ one.
Every good story has an underlying moral argument, a profound answer to one of life’s most important questions. Should love be unconditional? What responsibility does one have when they are given unlimited power? Is cold-blooded revenge ever justified? Answering such philosophical questions is the core purpose of fiction. One could argue that the narcissist’s story has no moral argument. It lacks any kind of meaning. In one way, this is true. A relationship with a narcissist is empty, destructive and counter-productive. However, when you look closely, a relationship with a narcissist can help you answer the above questions in a unique way.
There is also one moral argument which can finally be answered when the relationship ends, and that is: What is the True Self? Those who successfully navigate their way out of a narcissistic relationship are always led to this same question. Their journey with the narcissist sucked them in and spat them out, leaving them at rock bottom. The one good outcome of the relationship is that you finally have a chance to answer this question. It was your refusal to answer it in the first place which led you to believe the narcissist’s fiction.
Once you can spot these signs of the narcissist’s fiction and become aware of your True Self, you are ready to write your own story. You are free to move forward with your character arc, to take on conflict as a stepping stone to improvement and transcendence, and to create a story worth living.
Spot Signs Of A Narcissist Through Their Behaviour
Because covert narcissists cannot publicly claim greatness like overt narcissists, they resort to string-pulling and manipulation in order to enforce their ‘superiority’. Overt narcissists aim for big shots of narcissistic supply by obtaining recognition and affirmation, whereas covert narcissists get tiny jolts with each successful manipulation of another person. Overt narcissists go big, covert narcissists play the long game. Some classic covert behavioural signs of a narcissist are:
- Intense, unflinching eye contact: Their pupil contracts and dilates in unnatural ways, almost hypnotising you. What’s happening beneath the surface is that the covert narcissist pays you absolute attention (pupil dilates), which makes you feel valued. They then ‘zone out’ at a random time (pupil contracts), often when you’re the most engaged and open to them, from which you subconsciously pick up their loss of interest. This forces you to become self-conscious and more desperate to regain their attention. This power play is subtle but extremely powerful, allowing the narcissist to keep you on a string, and lays the foundation for the entire ‘relationship’. With just a look, they can take you on a ride between shame, doubt, certainty, affirmation, and everything in between.
- Verbal information dropping: The covert narcissist pays attention to what interests you and what you value, and they will randomly mention that they too are into such things, and they do so without proof. You are a vegan? One day they mention they had a vegan dinner. You like to go jogging in the evenings? They went for a jog last night. And so on. These bits of information are simply peppered into the conversation without any further detail or show of enthusiasm. The goal is to get deep inside you, to the place where you care about and value life, the place where you can most be influenced and manipulated.
- The cliff drop: Whenever we converse with people, we inject a decent amount of energy into the interaction so that it can have enough momentum and bring value to the other person. A narcissist will begin a conversation with you, and just as your enthusiasm for a topic grows, they will suddenly disengage. They will use uninterested eye contact, will look away briefly, or they might snicker and just wait with eyebrows raised. Once you sense they have checked out, you get extremely self-conscious and walk away with a burning sense of shame. If you are not careful, you might internalise this as you being stupid or annoying to be around, and over the long term it can damage your self-esteem.
- Invitation bombing: Invitation after invitation to do something, even if you have no interest in the activity. If you say no, the covert narcissist remains unfazed, presenting another option later on. Most of these things never come to fruition. They just create the illusion that you are close and who do things together, or rather, could potentially do things. They also test your boundary setting. Do you seriously entertain every invitation? Do you politely say no? Do you outright say no? Or do you say yes every time because you desperately need company? The covert narcissist can gauge all these things.
Above all, it is important to pick up such signs of a narcissist in the flow of the relationship. If you assume the person you are connecting with is on the same page as you, you learn to brush away these subtle signs, hoping to maintain the momentum. In doing so, you risk allowing the covert narcissist to a) gradually destroy your self-esteem, and b) gradually groom you to behave how they want.
The term ‘covert’ exists for a reason; the narcissist wants to dominate you without you even realising it. You, being the empathic human being with healthy shame that you are, try not to judge people too soon. Meanwhile, the damage is being done, and it is not until you are horrifically abused do you begin to ask questions. In every relationship, you should trust the other person but verify their intentions. We all make mistakes in how we treat people, but usually these slip-ups are accompanied by obvious reasons (a bad mood, fatigue, a blind spot in a person’s social map).
Judge based on your inner radar. If things feel off, that’s because they probably are, and there is a reason for it.
To better understand the dynamics of narcissism and begin healing from a narcissistic relationship, check out my book, How To Kill A Narcissist. In the follow-up, How To Bury A Narcissist, I delve deeper into the narcissistic family and Self-actualising after narcissistic abuse. If you need support in cultivating healthy, empowered relationships, then Transformational Life Coaching might also be helpful.