Signs of a narcissist: No-bullsh*t guide to identifying a narcissist

Image credit: Shutterstock - By Iakov Filimonov

Did you know that World Narcissistic Abuse Awareness Day is June 1?

The fact that society is raising awareness about a mental disorder shows just how much it affects us all.

In the U.S., the data indicates that 10% of people have a ‘no conscience’ mental disorder or lack empathy.

The current Diagnostic Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5: the official book used to diagnose mental conditions) estimates that the occurrence of “narcissistic personality disorder is as high as 6% percent”.

At Hack Spirit we believe that in order to protect yourself, you need to recognize the signs of a narcissist. So, read on.

A (very long) time ago…

About 3000 years to be more precise, the Greek gods wanted to punish a young man for his bad behavior.

Here’s what they did: They caused the young man, Narcissus to fall in love with his reflection in the water of a lake (or perhaps a river). 

Narcissus could not bear to tear himself away from his ‘love’. 

End result? He died on the shore of the lake (or perhaps the banks of the river).

So, the idea of narcissism is not new at all. What is new is the view of narcissism as a personality disorder.

A (very short) history of narcissism as we know it

At the beginning of the 1900s, several people in the field of psychology started publishing articles on narcissism.

Two of the top articles were by Otto Rank and Sigmund Freud. 

In the 1950s-1960s, two psychoanalysts named Otto Kernberg and Heinz Kohut developed and expanded earlier ideas. 

You can read more about the early days here.

Official recognition of narcissism

Narcissism was included in the third edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) in 1980

This meant that now, psychologists had specific criteria to help them make a definitive diagnosis.

What is narcissistic abuse? (Or what’s the big deal?)

Narcissistic abuse is sneaky.

It often looks like attentive love and care. However, that is just its disguise.

The trouble is that narcissistic abuse is not a one-time thing like a huge fight or a beating.

Rather, it is a step-by-step, gradual, carefully thought out plan for controlling another person—you.


Narcissists are emotional vampires. Your power, self-esteem and mental strength are their nourishment…and they will do almost anything to get fed.

Narcissists will dominate and manipulate you. They will gaslight you (make you think that what you know is real, is not).

They will give lots of their affection and love freely, then withhold it, forcing you to beg for emotional crumbs.

Narcissistic people are selfish and only out for personal gain.

Dishonesty, financial abuse, possessiveness, making you feel guilty, and acting with extreme jealousy are part of their ‘tools of the trade’.

Can we, as non-psychologists, recognize a narcissist?

Absolutely. There are clear signs that someone is behaving in a narcissistic way.

But just to be clear…

All of us are narcissistic to some degree. Kept to reasonable levels, many narcissistic traits can help us succeed in life.

It is when these traits are abused or taken to extreme levels that problems occur.

This article focuses on recognizing the signs of problematic narcissistic behavior under the following conditions:

  • The person is a young adult or older.
  • Their behavior is unchanged over time and across situations.
  • Neither substance abuse (drugs, medications, alcohol, etc.) nor a general medical condition (severe brain injury, etc.) is the only reason for this person’s behavior.

The world—according to an overt (obvious) narcissist

Knowing how they think will help you identify clear and obvious signs of narcissistic behavior.

Here is a window into the mind of a typical narcissist…

1) I am more important and better than you are.

I have an extremely exaggerated sense of self-importance.

Also, I believe I am special, even unique, and should only hang out with the same kind of people and organizations. In other words, those who are equally special and unique.

Unfortunately, my feeling of narcissistic self-importance is often empty and inflated. Why?  Narcissists, like myself, don’t have the achievements and talents to back it up.

As a result, we may make too much of (or even lie about) what we have achieved in order to justify our feelings.

Obviously, such ‘superior’ beings, like myself, deserve special treatment. If I don’t get it, I can become impatient or angry. 

What about ‘regular’ people you ask? These ‘lowly’ beings can be treated with disrespect and contempt. 

We are allowed to make fun of them, disregard their wishes, and treat them with neglect. 

You see, to a narcissist, this is a good and necessary thing because putting others down increases our sense of self-importance and uniqueness.

Sometimes, though, reality peeks in, and we narcissists get into bad moods or depression as our self-images do not measure up to the facts. 

2) My superiority, therefore, allows me to behave in certain ways.

As a rule, narcissists are arrogant

Since we are better than almost everyone else, we feel justified in acting in haughty or snobbish ways.

In other words, vain, full of hot air, boastful, and pompous. Basically, we are the stars of the show who are always right.

I have little patience for inferior people. If they waste my time, I am allowed to look down on, belittle or even bully them.

If they anger me, I will get enraged, screaming and swearing as I like. 

And speaking of language, I like to spice up my communication with sexual language—talking dirty both in and out of the bedroom.

Naturally, my superiority gives me lots of entitlement. 

I am entitled to having all my wishes, needs, and desires met. This includes filling in for me if I don’t feel like doing a task I am responsible for.

Others need to award me special favors. They need to fulfill my expectations and give me the best of everything.

You may feel that my sense of entitlement is unreasonable, but since you are a lowly person, what do you know?

And since I am entitled, it is logical that I can take advantage of others for my personal gain.

Unfortunately, people don’t always behave towards me the way that they should.

This causes major problems and stress. I cannot handle this at all. (Why should I?)

I also don’t like being flexible or adapting to change. (Again, why should I?)

3) I will not show you my weaknesses, even though they drive me.

I will keep my excessive need for constant admiration a secret.

Empathy? Don’t have it, don’t need it, but since people expect it, I will try my best to mask my lack.

After all, the only person’s feelings I should pay attention to are my own. You get that, right?

You will never see how envious I am of others. Why should they have what I don’t—and am entitled to?

Of course, others will be envious of me. Who wouldn’t want to be the superior person I am?

I will never reveal that my self-esteem depends on the opinions of others. 

This is problematic as I am either totally satisfied with myself or totally in the dumps.

To get the approval that I need so much, I will set specific goals. Unfortunately, I don’t always achieve them which puts me in a horrible mood.

Despite my seemingly calm and superior outside, inside I am insecure and vulnerable. 

I often feel shame and humiliation—although I will not let these escape through any cracks in my exterior mask.

4) So the bottom line is, I have a rather twisted view of interpersonal relationships.

My mind is occupied with fantasies. I dream of unlimited success and power. 

I imagine that I am brilliant and the perfect mate.

Naturally, I am looking for the perfect partner—a superficial relationship with someone who is going to serve my self-esteem and increase my personal gain.

That means I tend to have lots of interpersonal issues and troubled relationships, including easily feeling slighted.

Keeping control of my emotions and behavior is a challenge.

Of course, it’s not my fault. It’s the fault of those inferior people I have to deal with.

That’s why my relationships are unfulfilling, and people don’t enjoy being around me. 

(main sources for the above section: DSM, Mayo Clinic, Psychology Today)

The world—according to a covert (sneaky) narcissist

Some narcissists are more difficult to spot because they keep their narcissistic behavior more hidden. These are what we call covert narcissists

They also use ‘game playing’ tactics to get what they want.

If you pay close attention though, they will not be able to fool you.

1) Seeking admiration

Covert narcissists will often pay back-handed compliments. Things such as “That dinner was surprisingly good.” or “I didn’t expect you to get that promotion—congratulations!”

They will purposely minimize their skills or accomplishments so people feel the need to reassure them.

2) The blame and shame game

An introverted or covert narcissist will never blame you directly. They will make you feel small and guilty in much softer ways.

For example, they make you believe that they are the victims of something you did.

Instead of getting angry at their lies, you end up feeling sorry for your horrible behavior.

3) Are you sure?

The covert narcissist is an expert at making others second-guess themselves. 

When you are not sure of what you saw, did, believe, and feel, you are more likely to accept the covert narcissist’s self-serving version.

4) Hidden in plain sight

Overt narcissists bulldoze past you to do what they want or need—and let you know about it loudly.

Covert ones just ignore you.

They pull ‘tricks’ such as canceling last minute, standing you up for a date or appointment and never confirming plans.

5) Goal-oriented generosity

The covert narcissist gives…when it benefits him or her.

Is the server at the table? The covert narcissist will leave a tip so that everyone can see how wonderful they are.

Are they giving awards for charity work? That’s just the motivation a covert narcissist might need to pitch in.

(source for the above section: VeryWellMind)

Narcissists and social media

Like many people, narcissists post on social networking sites (SNSs). 

Are there any signs which can help you avoid them on SNSs?

One study found that college student narcissists tend to tweet on Twitter while the general adult narcissist favors posting on Facebook.

Other studies appeared to show that both frequency of posting and number of followers had a positive correlation to narcissism. 

In other words, the more frequently someone posted and the larger the number of followers they had, the more likely that person was a narcissist.

However, recent research questions all these conclusions as it found that social media use and narcissism were not significantly related. 

So, pretty much a situation of ‘caveat emptor’ (buyer beware).

Want a little more information?

Get your potential friend or partner to take the Narcissistic Personality Inventory.

Is a little narcissism ok?

They say you can’t have too much of a good thing, but the reality is you can.

Lottery winners show us the problems of having too much money.

Overweight people give us examples of eating too much food.

Exercise, sleep, people-pleasing, handwashing, smartphone time, and vitamins are all examples of good things which can go bad in excess.

Strange as it may sound, narcissism in the right amount can be a really good thing.

Here’s the logic…

In early childhood

Parents do not give too much or too little praise. This correct amount of praise helps the child to develop a healthy personality, including high (but not excessive) self-love.

The end result is a positive self-image with high self-esteem—a little bit of narcissism.

These children have an excellent amount of self-worth. They know their value in society.

During the teen years

Adolescence is a challenging time. Bodies are growing and developing. Lots of mental and emotional changes are happening.

Teens are trying to figure out how and where they fit into the big picture.

Youngsters who can continually adapt in positive ways to the challenges of life will be more successful.

Adolescents who have developed a little bit of narcissism will handle things better.

Even if a teen is very narcissistic it is most likely ok. Research shows that this narcissism usually fades by the time he or she is a young adult.

As an adult

Adaptive narcissism is beneficial for life

It helps us keep healthy habits because we care about ourselves. This includes good nutrition, the right amount of exercise, enough sleep, good grooming, and not abusing our bodies with drugs or alcohol.

When we are a little bit narcissistic, we can be independent and self-sufficient. 

We are confident and can lead when asked to do so.

What do you think? Are you going to be able to spot a narcissist when you meet one?

Just to be sure, let’s review.

Narcissists tend to be in the spotlight, the stars of the show.

They dominate conversations and have an exaggerated sense of their own importance.

The narcissistic personality has low or little empathy.

Other people’s feelings? They don’t/can’t notice and don’t care.

They act as if they are entitled to it all.

Narcissists deserve everything they want and the best of everything there is.

Narcissists get angry when criticized.

Makes sense since they are so superior, right?

They behave in socially unacceptable ways.

Narcissistic people are arrogant bullies who like to use dirty language even in public. 

The narcissist lives in a fantasy world.

No substance, just dreams of grandeur, with them in the leading roles.

Narcissists feed off the admiration and praise of others.

They are weak people with low-self esteem who need others to constantly cheer them on.

Lastly, less obvious, covert narcissists are just as bad as their more obvious, overt colleagues.

While done in a gentler, seemingly kinder way, this type of narcissistic behavior is just as abusive.

To read more about narcissists, check out these articles:

How to deal with a narcissist: 5 smart tactics (backed by research)

Covert narcissist: 5 things they do and how to handle them

Love bombing: 10 ways narcissists use it to control you

Breaking up with a narcissist: 12 things you need to know

Raised by narcissists: 6 consequences and what you can do about it

Did you like my article? Like me on Facebook to see more articles like this in your feed.

Lachlan Brown

I’m Lachlan Brown, the founder, and editor of Hack Spirit. I love writing practical articles that help others live a mindful and better life. I have a graduate degree in Psychology and I’ve spent the last 15 years reading and studying all I can about human psychology and practical ways to hack our mindsets. Check out my latest book on the Hidden Secrets of Buddhism and How it Saved My Life. If you want to get in touch with me, hit me up on Facebook or Twitter.

10 ways to practice self-love and believe in yourself again

what to say when you talk to yourself

What to say when you talk to yourself: Self-talk and why it matters