From the obnoxious person at a social gathering, to meeting a narcissist while dating, to the manipulative ex who leaves you with lifetime scars, the term ‘narcissist’ is an umbrella term which can leave you asking: How can you spot a narcissist before it’s too late?
As many targets of narcissistic abuse can attest, this question often leads down a rabbit hole which challenges everything you thought you knew about people. Yet learning to spot a narcissist early is a crucial skill in avoiding narcissistic abuse.
Spot A Narcissist By The Things They Say
What the narcissist says can reveal their agenda, even when it seems like what they are saying is mundane or even nice.
Some phrases the narcissist uses and their hidden meanings are:
- I like you: Usually said very soon after they meet you. This only means that they feel they can draw narcissistic supply from you.
- I never…: This is followed by something which raises 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, 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.
- You’re cute: 2-year-olds are cute. This phrase only acts to remind you that you are submissive to the narcissist.
How The Narcissist Makes You Feel
Of all the narcissist’s traits, it is crucial to consider how they make you feel. Signs you are dealing with a narcissist include the following:
A Burning Feeling Of Shame
Shame is an unpleasant emotion. At its mildest, it is a slight ache in the chest and a loss of vigour. At its most potent, it physically deflates you – your head sinks into your shoulders, your shoulders slump, and your body crumples.
Shame emotionally stunts you – your brain feels foggy and sluggish, you question yourself, you lose heart and you hold back your feelings and opinions. It’s an emotion that reduces your mental capacity – you draw a blank and can’t think or come up with any ideas.
If you spot this happening to you when in the presence of a certain person, it could very well be a sign that they are a narcissist who has been slowly wearing down your self-esteem.
The narcissist’s strategy around shame is two-fold. Firstly, they act shameless by avoiding accountability, talking themselves up, and denying any fault or wrong doing. By constantly framing themselves this way, the narcissist sets themselves apart from the other ‘flawed’ person.
Secondly, the narcissist shames their target by ridiculing them, pointing out their flaws and questioning their choices. This puts them on the back foot and causes them to feel inferior.
A Dull Sense Of Despair
One of the signs that you have a narcissist in your life is the ‘endless treadmill’ dream. In this nightmare, you are trying to catch someone or obtain something, but you never quite catch it.
A relationship with a narcissist is just like chasing a unicorn. You fight and scramble to connect authentically, yet you never quite get it.
You always have a feeling that something is missing, but you’re not sure what. You hope against hope, and are always disappointed, as the spectre of despair hovers over you.
Spot A Narcissist Via Their Many Forms
Another characteristic of a narcissist is the tendency to adapt their behaviour depending on who they deal with.
To endear themselves to others, the narcissist needs to behave in a way which appeals to their target. The narcissist is an opportunist, and their role is spontaneous, coming about as required.
Examples of the narcissist’s guises are:
The Supportive Friend
The narcissist will listen attentively and agree wholeheartedly with what the target is saying. Regardless of what the target shares, the narcissist will be unconditional in their support and hearty in their praise. If the target complains about another person, the narcissist will be fierce in their mutual condemnation.
The Fun Friend
The narcissist will joke and laugh with their target, generally at the expense of someone else. Because it is all in the name of fun, the target will usually not object. This dynamic creates a feeling of being ‘buddies’ who have a great friendship.
The Wise Orator
The narcissist will speak passionately and confidently, exhibiting their alleged strength and knowledge, which gives them an air of authority and compels their target to pay attention, hoping to be enlightened by this alleged high-status figure.
The narcissist will express how difficult things are for them or how life has dealt them terrible misfortune. The target then feels compelled to empathise and invest in the narcissist’s ‘problem.’
Many people like to problem-solve because it feels good to have a challenge, or because problem-solving helps distract them from the difficulties of their own life.
When the narcissist plays the victim, the target will not only empathise, but also propose solutions for the problem. The narcissist usually brushes off these suggestions and instead keeps the focus on their alleged misfortune.
The most charismatic and easy-to-spot characters are usually narcissists, their seamless persona impressing and disarming the people with whom they come into contact. Their eye contact is magnetic, and their zeal and lack of hesitation make for intriguing interactions.
The narcissist will mix and match these roles, shifting shape depending on the person. All of these guises are intended to disarm the target by giving them an ego boost.
Traits Of A Narcissist
Narcissists are known to triangulate, gaslight and scapegoat. Another classic trait of the narcissist is their tendency to idealize, devalue and discard their target. However, some surface-level signs of a narcissist to look for are:
Intense, Unflinching Eye Contact
The narcissist’s pupils contract and dilate in unnatural ways, almost hypnotising you. There is just something off about them.
At first, the narcissist pays you total attention (pupil dilates), which makes you feel valued. They then ‘zone out’ at a random time (pupil contracts), often when you are the most engaged and open to them. This forces you to become self-conscious and more desperate to regain their favour.
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 exhiliration, shame, doubt and everything in between.
The narcissist pays attention to your interests, and will randomly mention without proof that they too are into such things. You are a vegan? One day they slip in that they had a vegan dinner. Do 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 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 to bring enough momentum and value to it.
A narcissist will begin a conversation with you, and just as your enthusiasm for a topic grows, will suddenly disengage.
They will use uninterested eye contact, will become engrossed by something in the distance, 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 a sign of you being stupid or annoying, which over the long term can damage your self-esteem. Learning to spot a narcissist’s use of the cliff drop can save you a lot of pain.
Invitation bombing is another sign of a narcissist. Invitation after invitation to do something, even if you have no interest in the activity.
If you say no, the 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 that you do things together, or rather, could potentially do things.
The narcissist is also testing your boundary-setting with their invitation bombing. 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?
To Spot A Narcissist, Instinct Is King
Above all, it is important to spot the narcissist’s manipulations in the flow of the relationship.
Because we naturally expect that others will treat us as they want to be treated (the golden rule), we brush away our doubt, hoping to maintain the relationship momentum.
We all want to believe in the best of people, and to give our budding union the best chance of succeeding. In doing so, however, we risk allowing the narcissist to a) gradually wear down our self-esteem, while b) gradually grooming us to behave how they want.
Being an empathic human being with healthy shame, you try not to judge people too soon. Meanwhile, the damage is being done, and it is not until you are spat out that the full weight of what happened hits you.
In every relationship, you should trust the other person but verify their intentions. We all make mistakes in how we treat others, but usually these slip-ups are accompanied by obvious reasons (a bad mood, fatigue, a blind spot in a person’s social intelligence, etc..).
Judge based on your inner radar. If things feel off, that’s because they probably are, and there is a reason for it.
The Darkness Behind The Light
Many targets of narcissistic abuse look back on their relationship with a narcissist, and realise they had noticed all the red flags — but ignored them. Herein lies the core reason why a narcissist can be so difficult to spot: You don’t want to see it.
Life can be ambiguous, complex, depressing, frustrating and painful. Many of us come from dysfunctional households, others grew up with little external support or confidence. We have unlived dreams, broken relationships, as well as losses and failures which we have yet to grieve.
The perfect relationship or the happy family. The exciting adventure or sky-high success. They make us believe all of this is possible.
In reality, however, the narcissist is living in a fantasy. They see the world through this lens. Most importantly, they see you through this lens. They invite you to jump on board the fantasy train and leave your worries behind.
The narcissist lathers you with attention, and it feels good. You get addicted to their world because you need to believe that it is real. The more invested you become, the more difficult it is to leave their world behind. Seeing the narcissist for what they are means seeing ourselves for who we are.
So we choose illusion.
The narcissist’s charm is your hunger. Their light is your shadow. So how do you really spot a narcissist? The answer, as it is with all important questions, is to look within yourself.