Is there someone in your life whos always eager to denigrate your efforts, remind you of your flaws, or quick to point out how he or she would have done a better job?

Is it a co-worker who, hearing about your most recent success, pipes up: Well, sure, but thats not I would handled it?

Or a neighbor who walks into your newly redone kitchen and remarks: Hmm, navy blue cabinets. That wouldnt have been my choice, for sure.

Or perhaps your sister who finds a way to needle you even when supposedly delivering a compliment: I do love that dress on you. Its so much more flattering than the pink pantsuit that made you look even heavier.

Or maybe the nit-picking friend who, when you spend time with her, makes you feel like a total flop.

Or your spouse or lover who misses no opportunity to point out how youre lacking.

If theres someone in your life who always seems to humming Anything you can do, I can do better, it may well be that he or she is a narcissist. That might not have occurred to you, especially if the person is quieter than narcissists are supposed to be, not much of a braggart, or showy the way most of us think of narcissists. But the need to put others down and, in fact, to deliberately make them feel crummy about themselves is, according to researchers, a narcissistic trait and a valuable tip-off for the rest of us.

This is especially true if the narcissist in our lives is hiding in plain sight. Its even more important if you have a relatively low opinion of yourself, thanks to your childhood experiences, or, alternatively, a high tolerance for being put-down or marginalized. The bottom line? Those little put-downs are a precursor of whats to come.

Why narcissists need to cut others down

Thats what researchers Sam W. Park and C.Randall Colvin wanted to clarify. Earlier research had focused on why narcissists lash out, sometimes with fury, and posited that it was a defensive reaction, triggered when their sense of superiority was threatened. This explanation has, at its base, the assumption that despite superficial appearancesthe braggadocio, the careful and polished presentation of self, the articulated sense of superioritythe narcissist is really armoring a fragile and wounded interior self.

But what if there were no threat to the ego, Park and Colvin wondered? Would the narcissist have to put others down anyway? In a series of experiments, thats exactly what they foundthat narcissists engage in denigrating others automatically without any provocation or threat. Parenthetically, they also showed that people who are high in self-esteem dont seem to have this need; theyre just fine with other peoples talents and skillsets.

Another finding: It didnt matter to the narcissist if the person targeted were a close friend or a total stranger. The narcissist is immune to these distinctions, and is an equal opportunity abuser.

So why is the narcissist compelled to tear others down? Well, the jury is still out on that. Perhaps they are always on the defensive or maybe they do it to bolster their sense of superiority, making them feel a little better than they otherwise might. Additionally, since narcissists get a rush from controlling other people, skewering others may fulfill that need and make them feel more powerful. And pointing out other peoples flaws and weaknesses may support their superiority in a general way.

A subtle but telling form of behavior

Many of us only realize that weve been involved with a narcissist with the clarity of 20/20 hindsight; sometimes, the persons true character is revealed in conflict, especially a divorce. Its only then that you might realize, as I did, that your formerly close person did have the habit of putting people down, if in subtle ways. Mine was a self-appointed stickler for grammar, mocking others (often those who were visibly more successful than he) for their linguistic incompetence. Sometimes, you might simply accept the persons harsh way of judging others as part of his personality, without giving it much more thought unless it ends up directed at you, or attribute it to her high standards or perfectionism.

But the reality is that these small slights add up over time and are a way of keeping you where a narcissist wants youpowerless and in place. Theyre a preview of what the narcissist in your life is truly capable of, should he or she ever lose control over you.

Be aware.

Photograph by Jens Lindner. Copyright free.

Park, Sun W. and C. Randall Colvin, Narcissism and Other-Derogation in the Absence of Ego Threat, Journal of Personality (2015), 83, 3, 334-345.