Is someone in your life a true narcissist, or simply self-obsessed? Watch for these initial signs of narcissism to tell the difference.
Everything is about them — what they want, how great they are, how jealous others are of them. A narcissist is at the center of their own world and tries to be the center of yours, too.
This behavior can be off-putting, making it difficult to be around or maintain a relationship with a narcissist.
But true narcissists — not just self-obsessed folks — have a real, diagnosable condition called narcissistic personality disorder (NPD).
People with NPD aren’t necessarily just “bad” or “manipulative” people. Many with this condition can sense that their behavior is repelling others but truly don’t know what they’re doing to garner that reaction.
Consider bringing compassion to the table, but also know that you don’t have to stay in a relationship that’s toxic, abusive, or just plain unfulfilling.
If you have an inkling that someone in your life is a narcissist, watching for these early signs of NPD can inform your next steps.
People with NPD have a grandiose sense of self. They typically feel like they’re important — and often more important than others. They commonly seek out attention and aim to be the center of everyone’s attention, often putting themselves before others.
But at its core, NPD is defined by a lack of empathy for others.
“A narcissist’s behavior can run the gamut between excessive self-importance and arrogance and entitlement, to an almost childish need for praise and accolades,” says psychotherapist Gina Moffa, LCSW.
This behavior can make it difficult to maintain healthy relationships. Narcissism is often thought of as simply a “character flaw,” adding to the stigma around the condition.
It’s actually a diagnosable personality disorder — not reflective of the person’s values or choices.
A lot of people exhibit a few of the symptoms of narcissism but wouldn’t necessarily qualify for a diagnosis of NPD.
Someone needs to meet five of the nine criteria in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition (DSM-5) to be clinically diagnosed with NPD. These criteria include:
- overblown sense of self-importance
- fantasies of unlimited success, brilliance, and more
- belief that they’re special and should only associate with high status people
- need for excessive admiration
- sense of entitlement
- exploitation of others for their own benefit
- lack empathy
- envy of others or belief that others are envious of them
- arrogant and haughty behavior
Diagnosis criteria require these symptoms to remain consistent over time and show up in most domains of life. These symptoms impair a person’s ability to function in society.
Only mental health professionals are suited to diagnose a person with NPD. While it can be tricky to diagnose at first, Moffa says that NPD becomes more clear during therapy.
- believed that their child was better than others
- were abusive
- neglected them
How can you distinguish between someone who’s self-centered and someone with NPD? Many adults might exhibit a few of these signs, but a narcissist who lives with NPD will exhibit many.
They talk about themselves — a lot
If a person constantly talks about themselves — their life, their accomplishments, how superior they are to others — and never asks about you or even lets you get a word in, take note.
They constantly seek praise
While a narcissist likes to tell everyone how great and important they are, they truly crave constant praise and may seek it out.
“At their core, narcissists are insecure, fragile humans who do truly just need to be loved and adored. They just need it more than the average person, but the need itself is real, pervasive, and damaging,” Moffa says.
They make you feel like gold (at first)
If you start dating a narcissist, they might make you feel like the admired and desired person in the world. But eventually, their attention will fall away from you, making you feel confused and rejected.
Called love bombing, this behavior often stems from a narcissist’s inability to form healthy attachments and the need to maintain the upper hand in relationships. People with NPD are often terrified of being abandoned.
“When you’re in good graces with a narcissist (i.e., meeting their endless need for attention and importance), a narcissist can make you feel like you are a part of their world, and shower you with attention. When you fall out of good graces with a narcissist, they will make you feel powerless, weak, and their anger can feel like a weapon,” says Moffa.
They only give if it means they’ll get
Your needs are always second fiddle to the needs of a narcissist.
Because everything revolves around them, they’ll find ways to make your needs seem less important than theirs. They can be masters at manipulation by giving in to one of your requests, only so that they can use it against you later.
They’re jealous of you and others
Many participants identified the narcissist in their life as having jealous behaviors toward others, as well as beliefs that others were jealous of them. One participant even reported that her husband, who was living with NPD, was jealous of the bond she had with their new baby.
If someone’s constantly talking about their good looks and money — and seem convinced that others are jealous of them — they might be a narcissist. This often is the result of deep insecurities and reliance on praise for self-worth that come with NPD.
They’re charming in public, but can have a short fuse
Aside from the negative traits, participants in the same study described their relatives and partners living with narcissism as being:
- attentive to others in social situations
While a narcissist can be charming to get the attention they deeply need, Moffa says, “these behavioral traits can be manipulative and even abusive at times.”
This deep vulnerability and suspicion of possible abandonment that drives narcissists to charm in public also lead to them lashing out in anger, according to a
Narcissism can be a strong risk factor for aggression and violent behavior, according to a 2021 literature review.
You may be wondering whether a person with this condition can change. The answer is yes, there’s hope of change with therapy.
“Although it can be very hard to admit that you have a personality disorder that is looked upon negatively, with the right therapeutic relationship, which must consist of a stable, consistent alliance, there can be healing of some self-sabotaging and self-destructive patterns of a narcissist,” she says.
Through therapy, Moffa says that a person with NPD can:
- heal old wounds related to family dynamics
- cope with distressing emotions
- find ways to create more effective communication patterns
With consistent therapy over time, symptoms of NPD can improve. People living with NPD and those around them can look forward to more satisfying, balanced relationships.
If you think that you have a narcissist in your life, it can be difficult to know how to maintain a relationship with them.
“In their essence, narcissists suffer from extreme self-consciousness, so it makes it hard to deliver constructive feedback of any kind without being attacked in return. This makes it very tricky to navigate the personality of a narcissist, especially since many times, they are unable (or unwilling) to see their own behavior as negative,” says Moffa.
If you need help in coming to terms with ending a relationship, talking to a therapist can help. Check out Psych Central’s guide to seeking mental health care for help.