Those high in narcissistic traits often exhibit a self-absorption and grandiosity thats pretty easy to see, unless, of course, youve temporarily been blinded by his or her charms. Narcissists and I use the term loosely to refer to those who are high in narcissistic traits, though not necessarily diagnosable as having NPDare well-known to curate their outward appearances and that, too, is pretty easy to spot. But there are more subtle ways a narcissist curates his or her image, and that is how she or he tells the story of the past. (For simplicity and because there are more men high in narcissistic traits, I will be using the male pronoun but feel free to switch up genders. Women do it too.)

But with any narcissist, stories of friendships and romances can be very telling.

Why the past gets reshaped and seeing the patterns

Wooing and wowing will get you to admire the narcissist but they wont garner your empathy and thats what the narcissist knows is necessary to get you on his team. Armored to the max under that slick exterior, the narcissist sees the world in black-and-white terms with people who are for or against him, helpful or harmful; there are no shades of gray. While hell own his accomplishmentsno team player, he! he is quick to redistribute failures and setbacks onto the shoulders of others.

And heres where the pity party comes inthe ultimate test for those who have empathy.

Its my party (and Ill cry if I want to)

Perhaps the most tell-tale sign that youre dealing with a narcissist is how he talks about past relationships. Is his ex-wife a bitch whos just money-hungry and took him to court when he offered her a really fair settlement? Is she whining to everyone who will listen that he treated her badly when he tended to her for years and years? Or has he just been so unbelievably unlucky in love, with one ungrateful or dismissive woman after another? Or maybe he’s just a magnet for the needy, neurotic ones?

Its not hard to be taken in, alas, when it seems as though someone is pouring out his heart, as one woman confided:

He was quite circumspect about his past for the first few months. Id been more open, telling him about the failure of my last long-term relationship and how itd happened. Then he opened up about the last two hair-raising relationships hed been in, and I was totally sucked in. The poor guy had been used and abused, or so I thought, by women who wanted nothing but an upgrade in life. His stories made me protective of him and when my friends starting complaining about how he monopolized my time and was controlling, I felt I had to protect him. Mistake, big mistake. But I didnt see it for the longest while. Now, I highly doubt that a single story he told me was true.

Gaming empathy and other games

The pity party puts you solidly in the bleachers, cheering him on. It is also, as one woman noted, incredibly flattering, because you get to be the girl version of the Knight-in-Shining-Armor hes already shown himself to be:

Part of the love bombing involved his great luck in finding methe woman of his dreams, the one who really got him and appreciated him. I was so flattered, and it was all so like the movie Pretty Woman at the end and the way we each got to rescue each other from all of those thoughtless creeps. Of course, it was a game on his part because all the flattery masked the not-so-subtle ways he tried to change me. I would look better as a blonde. I should go on a diet so I could wear clingy dresses. Did I see it? Nope. I loved the story of us too much, with me as the star. Of course, I didnt keep the starring role, you know, once I stopped saying yes. Then I became just another woman who didnt get him.

People high in narcissistic traits use relationships for self-regulation, as a paper by W. Keith Campbell and others points out; they seek status and self-esteem, rather than intimacy or caring. Even more to the point, while they may be attracted to a partner, they always feel superior and game-playing is one way of maintaining superiority, on the one hand, and maintaining control, on the other. Curating their romantic history basically kills two birds with one stone.

Unmasking the narcissist

If a story sounds too black-and-white to be true, the chances are good that it isnt; life tends to get messy and its really rare that one person alone behaves badly and torpedoes a relationship. Most people telling the story of a failed connection will mention mistakes made by both parties, and own the ones that are theirs. 95% of all divorces get settled out of court which makes the point another way.

Of course, rare doesnt mean never, especially when youre dealing with a narcissist, something I learned the hard way. I bought my own husbands story of his divorce hook, line, and sinker; hed been married more than twenty-five years and I believed him when he said hed made his wife a fair offer and that suddenly, out of nowhere, she took him to court. Their marriage ended before he and I began our relationship and, frankly, there wasnt any reason to doubt him. His divorce proceedings dragged on and onwhich he attributed to her greed and recalcitrance and which, I am sorry to say, I believed too.

Of course, in hindsight, none of that was probably true. I learned that during our divorce, one that should have been settled in a nanosecond and reasonably. His narcissism was in full viewwith lies and game-playing and, yes, the need to win at all costs.

So, listen up when someone fills you in on their past. How the storys told may tell you more than the story itself.

Photograph by Gregory Hays. Copyright free.

Malkin, Craig. Rethinking Narcissism: The Secret to Recognizing and Coping with Narcissists. New York: Harper Perennial, 2016.

Campbell, W. Keith, Craig A. Fogler, and Eli J. Finkel. Does Self-Love Lead to Love for Others? A Story of Narcissistic Game Playing, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (2002), vol. 83, no. 2, 340-354.