We often use the term narcissist to mean someone who’s a bit self-obsessed. But narcissism has a specific meaning that goes way beyond just talking about yourself a bit too much.
A real narcissist will crave attention from others but will be unable to form real connections with them.
They need other people to feed off, and they might seem as if they’re giving a lot back, but they’re really just the ultimate users.
Narcissists are often superficially charming, so it’s easy to get into a relationship with one without realising what’s happening.
Then, things start getting a little bit weird. You find that they never seem to think they’ve done anything wrong, and they always expect you to admire and compliment them..without ever returning the favor.
It’s not as if you get hit by it in one go. It’s more that, over time, things begin to change. You begin to notice that you just don’t feel quite right about their reactions to things.
Your friends, one-by-one, start to say they don’t like him or they don’t want to hang out with him. And you end up isolated.
You’re ever-more uncomfortable about your life with them, but you’ve somehow got to a place where you can’t imagine it being any different.
Breaking up with a narcissist can be risky. Narcissists hate being found out and they don’t cope well with being left. If you think you’re in a relationship with a narcissist, be careful.
You will need to leave them, but before you do it, read on and learn what you need to know before you do.
Symptoms of narcissistic personality disorder
Narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) is the official name for narcissism. Some people might have narcissistic traits, but not have NPD.
For someone to be diagnosed with narcissistic personality disorder they must have at least five of these symptoms.
These are set out in the DSM-5 – the diagnostic manual of the American Psychiatric Association.
Someone with NPD:
- Has a sense of their own self-importance, including exaggerating their achievements and abilities.
- Constantly fantasises about something they want – such as power, or success at work.
- Believes they are special, unique and only deserve to spend time with other people who have high-status.
- Demands to be adored and admired by others.
- Expects special treatment from others.
- Exploits others to achieve their goals.
- Lacks empathy and easily disregards others’ needs.
- Is envious of others.
- Is often arrogant or haughty.
Narcissists can be either sex, but they’re more likely to be men. 7.7% of men and 4.8% of women will develop narcissistic personality disorder at some point in their lifetime.
As with any personality disorder, it’s rarely diagnosed in teenagers as their personalities are usually still changing.
It is also something that can reduce with age, so some people who had NPD in their 20s and 30s might have grown out of it by their 50s.
People who have narcissistic traits but who don’t have NPD can often be considered narcissists. Some of them will be severely affected enough that they are difficult to distinguish from someone with NPD.
Narcissists’ symptoms tend to lead to them:
- Being seen as controlling
- Being thin-skinned and unable to take any criticism, even the most constructive.
- Often losing their temper with others.
- Blaming others for their problems.
- Physically and sexually abusing others.
- Abusing alcohol and drugs.
Narcissists are sometimes (though not always) high achievers at work.
They can be the classic egomaniac boss who seems to control their whole office by being rude and ungrateful.
They can also be low-achievers, drifting through careers because they keep falling out with others and don’t knuckle down and work.
Other types of personality disorder
Narcissism is one of four personality disorders in what is known as ‘cluster B’ – the erratic and dramatic personality disorders. These disorders have lots of things in common.
Histrionic personality disorder
People with histrionic personality disorder tend, like narcissists, to have superficial relationships and seek lots of attention from others. They need approval and validation from their relationships, and will behave in increasingly extreme ways to get it if it’s not there.
Borderline personality disorder
People with borderline personality disorder appear generally unstable and struggle to form normal relationships. Like narcissists, they struggle to deal with criticism and are thin-skinned.
Antisocial personality disorder
Like narcissists, those with an antisocial personality disorder often appear charming and find it easy to form relationships, but don’t really care very much about the people they form relationships with.
If you’re not sure which personality disorder someone you know has, don’t worry.
If you think the person you’re with has a personality disorder, it’s useful to work out which one, but it’s enough to understand that there is something wrong that needs to be treated. Leave diagnosis up to the professionals.
Narcissism and other mental health problems
Narcissists also often suffer from mental health problems. These might be caused by their narcissism and the behaviors that go with it.
We don’t really understand enough about how NPD interacts with other disorders to know how they affect each other.
Although narcissists feel that they are superior to others, underneath that feeling is an unshakeable belief that they are worthless.
This can cause severe mental health problems in anyone, not just narcissists, including depression and bipolar disorder.
It’s also not unusual for a narcissist to feel suicidal (though don’t panic – that doesn’t mean they’ll act on it).
Causes of narcissism
We don’t know what causes people to have NPD. Like most mental and personality disorders, there are several possible causes.
It might be that narcissism has more than one cause and it’s tough to figure out what causes might be due to nurture, and what are down to nature.
We know that NPD sometimes runs in families, which might be because there is a genetic link. Or it might be that people with NPD influence their children with their behavior.
Narcissists breed narcissists, in other words. If you’re not sure if the person you’re with has NPD, looking at his parents could be a pretty big clue.
It’s likely that growing up in an abusive or neglectful home makes it more likely for someone to get NPD.
This might seem counter-intuitive. If someone with NPD has an inflated sense of their own self-worth, why would being neglected as a child cause that? It seems as if it should be the opposite.
But narcissists’ belief in their own importance hides an important and fundamental secret: deep down, they feel worthless and empty.
While one person might react to a neglectful childhood by withdrawing from the world and staying away from relationships, narcissists do the opposite. They crave attention to make them feel better.
It might also be that people who are given too much attention as children are more likely to become narcissists.
It’s thought that children who are praised constantly, even when they haven’t done anything to deserve it, are prone to narcissism.
Very small children are naturally narcissistic and self-centred. For whatever reason, some kids never grow up and gain emotional maturity.
Being in a relationship with a narcissist
Having a relationship with a narcissist is risky. Narcissists are very often, if not always, emotional abusers.
In fact, narcissistic abuse is a recognised term and set of behaviors. Narcissists are usually highly manipulative, able to use others – and particularly their romantic partners – for their own gain.
They can control, or at least attempt to control others’ thoughts, feelings and actions. Narcissists feel justified in doing this because they genuinely believe that they are superior to others.
This means that people in a relationship with a narcissist are likely to feel completely powerless.
Narcissists don’t really value others as people and are unlikely to care about their partner’s needs and wants.
If you feel like you’re only there to keep your partner happy, and they don’t really care what you want, they might well be a narcissist.
But relationships with narcissists usually start off as a classic fairytale. No-one knowingly ends up with a narcissist, but many loving, capable people end up doing so because at the beginning of a relationship, narcissists are all about love.
They will often sweep someone off their feet, being very quick to commit and to issue grand romantic gestures.
It’s hard not to get sucked into the narcissist’s love-bombing. But it’s not sustainable, and they will quickly begin to change when they see that the person they believe they’ve fallen so madly in love with is just an ordinary person who sometimes makes mistakes, just like anyone.
Narcissists put their partners on a pedestal in the beginning. Then, when they inevitably can’t live up to the hype (because no-one possibly could), they begin to abuse and control them.
What can you do to help a narcissist?
If you’re in a relationship with a narcissist, you’re not the person who can help them.
That doesn’t mean that no-one can, though it depends on the narcissist. Some of the most extreme narcissists are also psychopaths.
They’re exceptionally dangerous people who you should never try and help or change. You’ll be putting yourself at risk if you do.
But some narcissists aren’t quite so beyond reach. Numerous studies have found that narcissists are able to change, if they are given consistent encouragement to be more caring and compassionate.
That might seem surprising, but remember that underneath that huge superiority complex is an equally huge (if not even huger) inferiority complex.
Many (non-psychopathic) narcissists are capable of feeling empathy, they just don’t feel much of it right now.
It may be that if someone has diagnosed NPD that they aren’t someone that you can help. That doesn’t mean they can’t be helped by anyone, but it’s a job for the professionals.
If you know someone who you think has narcissistic traits, like a friend or a parent, it might be worth testing the waters to see if you can help them change.
In his book Rethinking Narcissism, Craig Malkin suggests using ‘empathy prompts’ to see how the narcissist you know responds. Tell them what it is they do to that hurts you, and why, consistently. If, over time, they soften, then there is hope that they can be helped.
That said, if you don’t want to help them, you don’t have to. While they do have a diagnosable problem, narcissists can make choices about their behavior, just like we all can.
If they are abusive to you, then you should never try to help them. You’re not the right person.
How to break up with a narcissist
Breaking up with a narcissist is usually a difficult, hurtful and stressful experience. Narcissists will discard someone once they feel they’re done with them and they have no more use for them.
This means that if you’re the one who chooses to leave, you’ll probably need to deal with a narcissist fighting to keep you. If they’re ready to let you go, they already will have.
Narcissists rely on other people to feed their grandiose ideas and self-admiration, none more so than the people they’re in relationships with. They will do everything – begging, promising to change. This isn’t an easy thing for anyone to go through.
Don’t listen to them. The only way to break up with a narcissist is to break off all contact with them, completely and totally. Go blank on them. Ghost them as hard as you possibly can. Don’t respond to their messages or calls. Block their number and delete them from all social media.
Remember that the narcissist’s ego depends on you being able and willing to stay with them and provide them with the adoration their fragile self-esteem needs.
How to recover from a relationship with a narcissist
It’s really difficult to recover from a relationship with a narcissist. As well as dealing with the usual sadness of a breakup, you have to deal with the feeling that you were somehow ‘taken in’ by the narcissist.
You’ll probably be torn between feeling relieved that they are out of your life, missing them, and scared of what they might do.
You might also be worried that you will somehow return to them, as many narcissists are very good at getting people they’ve broken up with to go back.
A narcissist’s behavior is not normal behavior. That means that trying to analyse or understand it is a thankless task. But it’s natural to want to understand.
People who have been in relationships with narcissists often ask themselves ‘how could I not see what he was sooner?’ You might feel as if the whole relationship was a sham.
It’s really important to keep telling yourself that it was the narcissist who caused the breakup and the relationship’s problems, not you.
Psychologists suggest using a technique called cool processing. This means that you not look back at the relationship thinking about what your feelings were, but why you felt them.
You loved the narcissist, and that’s OK, because there were good reasons why you did. Distance yourself from the intensity of your feelings.
More than anything, forgive yourself.
Narcissism is much more than just talking about yourself a lot.
Real narcissism is a psychiatric disorder. A narcissist is shallow, self-centred and unable to develop any kind of real connection with another person. But they often seem as if they’re doing exactly that.
Narcissists are intense. If you’re in a relationship with one, you’ve probably gone through these stages:
- Being totally love-bombed and swept off your feet, with flowers, weekends away and extravagant nights out.
- You’ve moved really fast and moved in with them, maybe you even moved cities to be with them.
- Gradually, you started doing things ‘wrong’. They started criticising you, your friends, your job and your life until you started to feel worthless.
- You might have tried to leave. But they begged you to stay.
- They became more and more abusive, and scary, but they’ve somehow managed to cut you off from your old life and you don’t know how to get back to where you were before.
If that sounds familiar, there’s no doubt you need to get out. Don’t try and change a narcissist. The way they are now has come from a complicated set of circumstances.
They probably can change, but you’re not the one who can help them. By leaving, you’re doing the only thing you can do to help them progress.
If you’re in a relationship with a narcissist, you need to leave. Don’t tell them about your plans and then totally cut them out. Get someone you trust to help you, because an angry narcissist can be dangerous.
Once you’re out, you’ll be able to move on, even if it doesn’t feel like it now.