How to spot a narcissist

How to navigate a narcissistic relationship with a partner, friend, boss or family member.

You may have had a difficult relationship where you felt like you were walking on eggshells in the past or maybe you’re in one now. If it’s a partner, did they initially sweep you off your feet when you met and give you scripted Mills and Boon-type lines that you completely fell for? Is a colleague or boss taking credit for your work at the office? And how are you feeling at home, in the office or generally?

If you’re feeling isolated, second-guessing yourself and doubting your own sanity you may be dealing with someone with narcissistic traits.

Perhaps this has been going on for a while and over this time parts of yourself have been gradually stripped away. This was the experience for Karen Haig, who was in a narcissistic relationship for five years in her 30s. Working with a counsellor/coach has helped her come out the other side. Now in her 50s, she’s begun to talk more openly about narcissistic abuse and has discovered many others are suffering from the effects of it. “Most people don’t find out they’ve been with a narcissist until it’s too late,” she says. “It can have such a devastating impact on people’s lives.”

Five per cent of the population in New Zealand are affected by narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) and there are different sub-types of narcissism so it can look different person to person. Someone also has to meet a certain threshold of severity to be clinically diagnosed, explains registered clinical psychologist Gaynor Parkin from Umbrella Wellbeing.

“Narcissistic personality disorder is at the extreme end of the continuum and then there will be people… who are on that continuum with many traits of narcissism, like being very focused on themselves and not being very good at being empathetic.”

Personality types

It’s helpful to know where the concept of narcissism comes from says Rob Paramo, registered psychologist. “In Greek mythology Narcissus was a male nymph famous around town for his good looks. He had a strong propensity to reject everybody that gave him any attention and when he caught a glimpse of himself in a pool of water, he fell in love with himself and developed this pure obsession, was unable to pull himself away and fawned over himself until he died,” he says. “The concept of narcissism in modern psychology is that sort of unhealthy self-obsession and inflated self-worth… A person with NPD has a pattern of grandiosity, need for admiration and lack of empathy for those around them.”

There are two types of NPD – grandiose and vulnerable. Narcissus no doubt suffered from grandiose, also known as overt, narcissism – he was the type who fantasise about success and power, aspiring to greatness. They’re prone to anger when not getting praised, but not prone to depression or anxiety.

Vulnerable narcissism is an emotionally unstable, negative-affect-laden, and introverted variant, and vulnerable narcissists are prone to depression and anxiety when not getting praised. Self-absorbed, jealous of high-flying others and easily humiliated, the vulnerable narcissist avoids challenge if there’s a chance of failure or not looking good.

While a grandiose narcissist is open about their behaviour and doesn’t really care what others think, a vulnerable narcissist hides these traits because they want to be liked. They can remain undetected for years and may appear shy or modest. Still, the two types have more in common than not. “Whether you are a vulnerable or grandiose/overt narcissist, both want their self-esteem propped up,” explains Good’s Headcase columnist and author of The Anxiety Toolkit, Dr Alice Boyes.

Warning signs

A narcissist is usually someone who’s superficially charismatic, until you realise that charm comes with an ulterior motive. “When you first meet them, they’re super charismatic and you don’t see the angry disagreeable side of them,” says Boyes.

Haig describes herself as being “love-bombed” by her narcissistic former partner, examples of which are being showered with excessive compliments, constant gifts, texting, emailing or calling many times a day, asking you to spend time with them rather than friends and mirroring all your interests.

“Love-bombing is how these individuals bring you into their world and once they have you under their spell, over time they will devalue you and make you doubt your own sanity,” she says.

For Haig it started innocently, with suggestions like downsizing to one car (his, of course) and moving to a joint bank account and shared email account. “Then he started trying to distance me from my friends, saying negative things and not wanting to mix with them,” she says. “Once I’d become a stay-at-home mum it was like all my rights had been taken away because I wasn’t earning, and I suddenly realised that the relationship had become all about him.”

Narcissists at work

In the workplace, a narcissist could be someone who passes off your work as their own and takes all the limelight and air time in meetings. Toxic leadership at work is particularly dangerous, as it can result in agitation, withdrawal and loss of self-worth for affected employees.

In situations like these it is important to enlist support and look after yourself, says clinical psychologist Parkin, who in the past has been brought in by companies to work with teams in an office environment, rather than the narcissist leader/manager alone.

“It’s often simpler to do that than to try and get the narcissist to therapy and work with the team to understand how that person works and help them have coping strategies to buffer themselves from it,” she says. “It’s incredibly difficult in workplaces where the manager or leader is a narcissist. In those situations ask yourself, ‘is this a good job for me to be in, or a good team for me to be in?’. That’s the really unfortunate part of narcissism. You often see the trail. I can think of places where I’ve worked as a consultant and a narcissistic manager has gone through and been moved around but no one’s directly tackled the problem because it’s easier to just move someone along.”

In relationships where we have some control, whether that’s a friendship, partnership or a colleague at work, step one is to bring an issue to their attention. “Try asking them, ‘Are you aware of X, Y, Z? I would prefer A, B, C,’” suggests Parkin. “Depending on where they are on the continuum, they may be able to hear that feedback. If the person reacts badly or aggressively, or if that person is in a position of authority – boss or parent – we need to tread more carefully and enlist some support. The strategy then becomes around, how do we buffer ourselves from it, rather than trying to manage it directly.”

Spotting a narcissist

A grandiose narcissist is likely to be charismatic, self-assured, attractive, flirty, charming and well-dressed. Narcissists tend to be more polarised in their thinking, and not able to see grey (though this is typical of many personality disorders). They are also quite rigid and like to take charge which can be controlling or aggressive, and they’re prone to cheating and feel they’re entitled to cheat, because charming people they’re sexually attracted to is very important to them, says Boyes.

Narcissists also have a flip switch if they feel threatened or feel people are not admiring them enough. In customer service situations at a hotel or restaurant they expect to be treated with a certain level of status, and when they are not, they become rude, disagreeable and angry.

They’re also pros at gaslighting, a form of abuse where they’ll deny your reality that will have you questioning your own beliefs or experiences – e.g., by shifting blame, denying the truth, constant criticism, trivialising your needs and pretending to have forgotten what took place or denying it ever happened.  

If there are warning signs, pay close attention to them, says registered clinical psychologist Dianne Farrell of Mind & More Psychology.

Are they entitled and always looking to trade up to elevate their own status? Does the person speak respectfully about others? A narcissist has no qualms lying about their qualifications and talking up their abilities. Is there genuine, respectful, reciprocal engagement? Is the person really listening to you and understanding? Or are they dismissive of your thoughts and feelings? Do they display the types of emotional responses you might expect when sharing about something difficult or hurtful, or about something you are proud of? Do they lack empathy? Can you engage with that person and share your feelings? Can they understand what you’re talking about and make changes or want to make change? If they don’t, then you have to really consider walking away, says Farrell.

She stresses that it requires specialist diagnosis to be accurate, so amateur diagnosis can be wrong and unhelpful: “It is rare perhaps, but a partner’s behaviour could be altered by a mental or physical illness such as a brain tumour for example.”

Avoid isolation

Toxic relationships will flourish in isolation and the recipient will start to lose perspective and lose a sense of what’s normal and what’s okay, explains Paramo.

“Make sure you’ve got some good personal and professional supports because having a narcissist in your life can be draining and upsetting, and dealing with the consequences of their behaviour can leave you quite isolated because they’re very good at turning the scales back on you in terms of the issues or problems that are arising from their behaviour,” he says. “Often the perpetrator of a toxic relationship works hard to isolate somebody as a means to control, so a strong bit of advice is to ensure that you’re not isolated – that you are connecting and having healthy relationships so that you are able to gain perspective. In doing that you’re able to start to notice what’s okay and what’s not in that particular relationship.”

Paramo also recommends setting some safe boundaries for yourself and to also know that the narcissist will challenge those boundaries. For example, if you have to interact with the narcissist make sure you have someone else with you so that you are not left second-guessing yourself.

When you are forced to engage, such as at family court counselling with an ex-partner who continues a harmful pattern of behaviour even in semi-public and formal settings, the grey rock technique is recommended. ‘Grey rocking’ is engaging in a minimal way with flat emotion – such a shrugging or nodding, avoiding eye contact, using noncommittal phrases or responses like ‘uh-huh’ and responding briefly, and without elaboration, to direct questions – thereby cutting off the narcissistic supply that they crave. When this works, the narcissist will gradually move onto someone else.

Keeping yourself safe

Whether or not a person is a narcissist is not in your control, so it is important to do what is in your control and look after yourself.

Take feelings of anxiety or fear seriously. Stay connected with whānau and friends and talk with them about your situation. Research suggests that when coping with stressful events out of your control, social support is related to psychological wellbeing. Remaining silent or minimising how bad things are will make you feel it’s your fault and reduce the options you can consider.

When dealing with uncontrollable stressors at work, meanwhile, acceptance can act as a buffer to the negative effects. ‘Acceptance coping’ is exactly what it sounds like – finding a way to accept the situation as it is. It means becoming OK with the reality that we cannot change the situation as much as we may like to. Importantly, acceptance isn’t a passive process, it’s not simply giving up. Rather, it’s reminding ourselves, ‘this is how this is right now’. Psychologists call this helpful, active acceptance, versus resigned acceptance.

To practise active acceptance coping daily, we need to recognise and allow our thoughts and feelings about a situation, even if they may be difficult. First, acknowledge those feelings and don’t feel guilty for having that emotion. Understand your reactions are reasonable and appropriate. (e.g., ‘I’m seriously mad about this, I would like to shout and stamp my feet’), then focus on what is important to you as you face this situation (e.g., ‘Maintaining my professionalism is important to me, I’m going to let this situation go today and I’ll raise it in our next meeting’).

A more direct way manage a narcissist who is causing disruption in your life is to not engage. Instead, focus on ensuring that your boundaries are appropriate to your situation. This is where grey rocking works well.

It’s not about you

If a narcissist is causing disruption to your life, it may be best to distance yourself, and remember, it’s not about you. 

“The healthiest way to be is to not judge things in people but to be able to analyse in a non-judgemental way. Don’t get wrapped up in the emotion of it because that enables you to make a reasoned decision about what to do,” says Farrell. “One of the only advantages of knowing, or possibly even thinking that someone has a personality disorder is that if you’ve been abused or manipulated and thinking ‘what’s wrong with me?’ It can be incredibly helpful to come to a point where you realise that actually it’s not something you have done. It is the other person, which is not to say that you might not have behaved badly or made mistakes, but to overall realise that it’s actually about that person, not about you, and that can be incredibly powerful.”

Narcissists are attracted to empaths who are compassionate and forgiving. So don’t blame yourself for being ensnared by a narcissist and know they were most likely attracted by the light in you because you represent all the things that they are not.

What not to do

Don’t try to heal the narcissist because that can only be attempted by a qualified professional. Some would say that it’s not even possible because the narcissist will never admit that anything is wrong with them.

“Don’t ever tell a narcissist that you think they have NPD because they will make you their target of blame and use all sorts of tactics to mess with your life,” says Haig.


It’s extremely rare for a narcissist to seek help and for treatment to be successful. In order to change, you have to be aware you’ve got a problem, be motivated to change it, and have the environmental conditions to change, says Farrell.

Those who end up in the counsellor’s chair are usually the people around a narcissist, because the narcissist themselves thinks everything is fine, says Paramo: “Often we hope that someone with narcissistic problems would seek some help, but they have a major blind spot and that causes a problem.”

There are occasions, depending on where a person sits on the continuum, where they will seek help after a relationship break-up, though they usually blame the other person.

And while it is extremely rare, Parkin has worked with people on the continuum and though it took them a long time and hard work to make a shift, they have learnt to do things differently.

How to heal

If your eyes have been opened to the narcissist in your life, then well done, your healing process is already well underway. Be kind to yourself while this realisation sinks in, because it can be quite devastating.

Practise healthy boundaries, self-reflection and improvement as required and assertive behaviour when safe (direct, honest and appropriate, not aggressive, passive or passive aggressive).

It’s okay to feel bitter while you process the situation and helpful to find someone to help you navigate through the distress that you’ve experienced. Know that in time that bitterness will be replaced with peace and contentment.

Don’t be surprised if a well-meaning friend has been swept up in the drama and approaches you on the narcissist’s behalf. Just see it for what it is. There’s even a term for it – flying monkeys – people who carry out much of the narcissist’s dirty work. The best way to get rid of a flying monkey is to run their comments through a filter of truth, educate them if you can and refuse to play their games.

Don’t write people off

In friendship situations it’s easy to talk about ditching friends who are not meeting all your emotional needs, but Boyes believes that is an over-simplified approach.

“There are lots of friends that have a real mixture of qualities, and even with parent relationships, it’s okay to not get everything that you need from everybody. If the advantages of somebody outweigh the disadvantages, you can be aware of what those disadvantages are and get those needs met through other relationships,” she says. “There’s aspects of the narcissist being charming and sometimes they’re super intelligent and interesting. So you can enjoy all of those aspects of a partner or a friend.”

Depending on where they are on the continuum, you may be able to attempt to communicate and give your friend, partner or colleague the opportunity to respond or change. If they are willing to go to relationship counselling that is a positive. Then you will have to decide whether you are willing to persevere or whether it is in your best interest to end the relationship. In the case of parent or child, when it is impossible to detach, this is where setting healthy boundaries comes into play.

If it is not safe to communicate, make an exit plan. “The best way forward is to live well and be happy,” says Farrell. “What other people do is entirely up to them so long as it’s not illegal. You need to get yourself out of there and find a healthy, safe life.”

Warning signs to watch out for:

Overt/grandiose narcissist

• Love-bombing, devaluing and discarding phases

• Boast unashamedly

• Obsession with power, beauty and success

• See themselves as special and deserving of special treatment

• Judge others on their financial success

• Gaslight you

• Project their own issues onto you

• You may feel like you’re walking on eggshells

• Get offended by imagined slights and can’t hear constructive feedback

• Rarely apologise

• Lie and cheat for their own gain

• Stonewall (ignore you) then hoover (draw you back in)

• Don’t have a great moral compass

• Lack empathy

• Exploitative, transactional

Covert/vulnerable narcissist

• Care about what others think

• Appear to be self-sacrificing and martyr-like

• Target people who are empathetic or have weak boundaries

• Can groom their targets for years and feed off their energy

• See themselves as a victim and don’t accept responsibility for their actions

• Crave admiration and appreciation

• When confronted, they deny or say they don’t remember

• Can recruit other people to act against you

• Pit people against each other with negative comments or lies

• Use passive-aggressive tactics to get their way

• Play innocent and portray themselves as peacemakers

• Entitled

• Don’t have a strong sense of self under their mask

• Capable of apologising but it’s not sincere

• Lack empathy

What to do if you have a narcissist in your life

• Avoid isolation

• Stay connected with others

• Set boundaries

• Practise grey rocking

• Watch out for flying monkeys – unwitting friends enlisted by the narcissist to manipulate you

• If you need to interact with the narcissist, take a support person along

• Don’t blame yourself

• Understand your emotions are valid

• Don’t allow their exploitation of you to be dangerous to you or let them drag you into things that are criminal

• Educate yourself with books and resources provided by psychologists online or seek professional help

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