What do you think of when you think of a narcissist? Someone with a big ego? Someone totally in love with themselves? Someone who’s really controlling? Well, there’s a little more to it.
Because while narcissism is one of those words you’ll hear often enough (hey, MAFS), the traits and inherent behaviours that make up a narcissistic personality are actually pretty complex – it’s a lot deeper and more layered than simple vanity.
What’s more, narcissism may not be as easy to spot as you might think.
To find out more, we spoke to psychologist Lissy Abrahams and asked her everything we need to know about narcissistic behaviours – including the different characteristics and how to spot them.
What is narcissism?
First of all, what exactly is narcissism? While we often hear the term floating around, is it more than just being incredibly self-centred? Is it really something that is essentially bad?
Abrahams explains it like this: “Narcissism is a personality trait, where people are extremely self-focused, have an inflated sense of self, and have a huge need for praise and recognition. They lack awareness of how their behaviour and self-absorption impact others.”
“They can also disregard the rights and needs of others. Most of us have some periods where we are more self-preoccupied than others, however, for narcissists, their excessive self-involvement isn’t a fleeting state.”
While there is research out there that has revealed benefits associated with high narcissism (apparently mental toughness is one of them), it’s obviously a personality trait that can also be deeply damaging to others, sometimes resulting in a serious impact on mental health.
However, it’s important to remember that narcissist traits can also be quite subtle – you might not even recognise you’re dealing with a highly narcissistic individual.
That’s why it’s important to look at some of the core differences of narcissism and how to spot them.
What are the different types of narcissists?
Yep. There’s more than one type of narcissism. Experts say it’s best viewed on a spectrum to see where people sit. If you’re wondering how it works, the Narcissistic Personality Inventory (NPI), is the most commonly used measure of the trait.
“It’s useful to think about narcissism as occurring along a spectrum from adaptive to maladaptive. Narcissism is adaptive and productive to our lives when we have high self-confidence and a high level of self-reliance,” explains Abrahams.
“However, at the other end, when it’s maladaptive, the traits will negatively impact you and others.”
Abrahams said these traits include being entitled and displaying behaviours of superiority, using people, and arrogance.
“Narcissistic personality disorder is well and truly at the malignant end of the spectrum,” she said.
Below, we look at the five main kinds of narcissism and the common signs to look out for.
1. Overt or grandiose narcissism.
An overt narcissist is more upfront with their methods of manipulation and generally won’t try to hide their ability to control others.
“They can be charming and enjoy the limelight on themselves. It can be easy to spot in others because being around them is somewhat uncomfortable – these are the people who regularly and shamelessly blow their own trumpet,” said Abrahams.
“They want others to recognise and admire them and have an inflated sense of self, even overstating their achievements. They’re often entitled and feel superior.”
Overt narcissists lack a sense of empathy, meaning they can be exploitative of others and their vulnerabilities, and excessively competitive, adds Abrahams.
“They lack the ability to reflect on how their excessive self-focus may be perceived by others.”
2. Covert or vulnerable narcissism.
Covert narcissists are a little different. They tend to be more insidious and subtle with the methods they use to get what they want.
“This type of narcissism can be harder to detect than overt. They are still very self-focused but it’s quieter; more hidden in their introversion.”
“They are regularly preoccupied and express their low self-worth, their vulnerability, and how insecure they are. They are more likely to struggle with depression, shame and anxiety. They can feel victim-like.”
For example, while an overt narcissist might post a selfie on Instagram to assert how beautiful they are and remain the centre of everyone’s attention, a covert narcissist might post a selfie showing how sad or down they are, seeking emotional validation and pity from others.
“There’s still an absorption with themselves, about their deep sense of inadequacy and unworthiness. They have often experienced childhood abuse/neglect,” said Abrahams.
“They can be defensive when they’re not viewed as special because they’re preoccupied with this fear.”
3. Antagonistic narcissism.
When it comes to antagonistic narcissists, these types of people always have an enemy and are often focused on ‘winning’.
“This type of narcissism is focused on rivalry and competition. At its heart, there’s a ‘them versus me’ mentality and a battle to win,” said Abrahams.
Think of the people who shout at other drivers, criticise shop attendants or waiters and are relatively unpleasant to be around. Sound familiar?
“They perpetually compete with others. They tend to argue and disagree with people, proving the ‘them versus me’ mindset. They can take advantage of people. They’re arrogant. It’s hard to connect with them.”
4. Communal narcissism.
Communal narcissism is a specific type of narcissism that involves an individual seeking attention and praise from others by doing good deeds or acts of service for the community.
According to Abrahams, “This is seen in contrast to antagonistic narcissism, as people with communal narcissism receive a sense of self-importance and social power from being altruistic and fair to others.”
“They can see themselves as generous and caring yet their behaviour may reveal they are not as empathic as they believe – such as being easily morally outraged or having excessive reactions when they perceive unfairness. It’s not genuine concern for the welfare of others.”
5. Malignant narcissism.
Welcome to the most exploitative type of narcissism: Malignant narcissism.
“Malignant narcissism is the nastiest type as they lack empathy. Even though they have a high self-regard and an excessive need for recognition, they can also be cruel and sadistic, even deriving enjoyment from this,” said Abrahams.
Often considered sociopaths, malignant narcissists lack a conscience and are highly abusive, enjoying seeing others hurt and suffering.
“They can be aggressive and vindictive. They can worry excessively about others being a potential threat, even to the point of paranoia.”
“This has links with psychopathic and/or antisocial personality disorder. They are harmful to be in a relationship with and will exploit you sexually, physically, emotionally, or financially. Run! Run fast!”
How to spot a narcissist.
“It’s important to know the signs of narcissism, or its extreme form of narcissistic personality disorder, so you know what you are up against,” said Abrahams.
When it comes to spotting a narcissist, Abrahams said there are a few core behaviours you need to look out for.
“The signs below are all of someone with the disorder. Think of Donald Trump – he appears to tick all of these signs,” said Abrahams.
Look out for the below traits:
- An exaggerated sense of self-importance
- A need for excessive admiration, praise, or perceived as superior (without the achievement)
- A sense of entitlement – expects compliance with their expectations
- Inflating achievements and talents
- Preoccupation with fantasies about success, power, brilliance, beauty or the perfect mate
- Elitism and concerned with “the best” of everything
- Monopolise conversations, belittling and demeaning people they perceive as inferior
- Exploitative of others – uses and misuses them
- Lacks empathy
- Consumed with envy and believes others envy them
- Arrogance, boastful and pretentious
If any of these behaviours sound familiar, you might be dealing with a highly narcissistic individual.
“Narcissists can’t tolerate criticism at all. They’re easily offended. They can be emotionally dysregulated, becoming angry, rageful, and impatient if they don’t get their way or receive special treatment. When criticised they’ll be defensive and even cruel.”
Can narcissists be helped?
If you’re wondering how to help navigate a relationship with someone who is a narcissist – know that it’s not exactly simple.
Narcissists can be extremely problematic and damaging on multiple levels – physically, emotionally and financially – so cutting ties may often be the best solution.
“People with this personality trait or narcissistic personality disorder rarely seek treatment. They see nothing wrong with how self-focused they are or how they exploit and use others,” said Abrahams.
“They don’t come to therapy for help. In fact, the only time I see them in therapy is when their partner has dragged them in because they can’t stand the way they’ve been treated in the relationship. They don’t last long in the process – a session or two at most.”
“This is because they are seeking admiration and praise and can’t tolerate that they won’t be getting that in therapy. In fact, their partner may be displeased with them, or I may comment on their behaviour or way of operating which will always be perceived as a criticism. They never return.”
If you’d like to learn more from Lissy, check out how our ego can harm our relationships.
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