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Spotting Narcissistic Traits and Dealing with Narcissists

Dr. Ramani Durvasula talks about narcissistic traits and how to deal with narcissists in your life.

Many of us have used the term “narcissist” or “narcissistic” to describe someone who’s irritatingly proud or full of themselves. But narcissism isn’t just being stuck up. It’s a specific combination of traits and behaviors, and unless you’ve dealt with one yourself, you probably don’t realize how destructive they can be. Narcissistic people can do a lot of damage to our workplaces, our home lives, and even our self-esteem and self-image. In order to reduce how much havoc narcissists can wreak on our lives, it’s essential to be able to identify narcissistic traits and learn tools to protect yourself.


See Narcissists, Psychopaths, and Sociopaths with Dr. Ramani Durvasula for a complete transcript of the Easy Prey podcast episode. Prefer to listen on YouTube? Click here.

Dr. Ramani Durvasula is one of the world’s leading experts on narcissism. She is a clinical psychologist, professor, bestselling author, and speaker on the topic. Her mission is to demystify and dismantle the toxic influence of narcissism on all of our lives.

An Interest in Human Nature

Dr. Ramani came upon this interest through her fascination with human nature. As a clinical psychologist, she has to be equal parts researcher, scholar, and scientist. But there is something almost shamanistic about trying to understand how people work. The science is in its relative infancy, but people have been trying to understand human nature for thousands of years.

As long as there have been two human beings in the world, one of them was trying to understand the other.

Dr. Ramani Durvasula

Narcissism, though, is an even more recent science. Dr. Ramani herself has only been studying it for around fifteen years. It started when she began exploring what made people make less than optimal health choices and how they treated healthcare personnel. Anecdotally, she found that some people come into a clinic and abuse receptionists, nurses, and physicians. Nobody liked being with them and they would cringe when they saw that patient’s name on the schedule.

Dr. Ramani understood why they were cringing, but she also knew that meant they probably weren’t getting the best quality medical care. The same was probably true in other areas of life. She found that a difficult patient in a clinic is often a difficult partner, sibling, child, or parent.

Studying “Difficult” People

This idea of difficult people aligned with what she saw in her clinical practice. She saw people in marriages with people who invalidated or devalued them, didn’t listen, and showed no empathy, and the pattern never changed. They would suffer for years or decades, hoping that maybe he’ll change when he gets a promotion or she’ll change when she gets the house she wants. They keep saying “maybe,” but it never changes. Dr. Ramini saw the fallout for those who stayed, and it was bad.

Psychology wasn’t talking about this. It wasn’t a traditionally violent relationship. The victims weren’t necessarily getting physically beaten or sexually assaulted. It was a chronically invalidating, unempathetic situation where the victim existed to serve the narcissist. It really does a number on people. Understanding narcissism and helping people deal with it is as much a vision and mission for Dr. Ramani as an area of scientific interest.

Narcissists, Psychopaths, and Sociopaths

The terms “narcissist,” “psychopath,” and “sociopath” are often used interchangeably and incorrectly. But narcissism, psychopathy, and sociopathy have very big differences.

Narcissists lack empathy, are deeply entitled, are grandiose and arrogant, are very superficial, and need validation and admiration. They are also very sensitive, react badly to criticism or feedback, and feel like victims a lot. Their self-esteem is variable. When they’re having a good day, they’re king of the world. When they’re having a bad day, their entire world shatters and they lash out. At their core, they lack self-esteem.

Psychopaths are similar to narcissists on the surface. They also have no empathy and are arrogant and entitled. But while narcissists do feel remorse and shame, psychopaths do not. Research on their nervous system shows that they are very stress-tolerant and not prone to anxiety. They are surprised that there are rules – if a person did them wrong and they murdered that person, they don’t understand why that’s a problem. Psychopaths can be charming, clever, charismatic, and confident. On the surface, they are always calm and collected. People are drawn to them because we think cool is confident and confident is good.

Unlike psychopaths, sociopaths know there are rules. They just choose to break them anyway. Sociopaths tend to be more combative, the kind of person who gets angry in a bar and beats someone up. They are not calm, cool, and collected, but are much more blustery. Sociopathy can come from a difficult backstory, as well, which is not always the case with psychopathy.

At he end of the day, the narcissist is insecure and feels anxiety and remorse. The psychopath doesn’t feel any of those things.

Are you Dealing with a Narcissist or a Psychopath?

The most obvious difference between narcissists and psychopaths are that narcissists are sensitive to criticism. Even the tiniest slight can set them off – it’s one of the most obvious narcissistic traits. It could be you didn’t give them the right seat at the table. It could be an off-handed comment about a restaurant they chose. You might even say something like, “Wow, I like that tie you’re wearing. I saw you wore it last week too and I meant to compliment you on it,” and a narcissist might blow up and accuse you of thinking they only have one tie. They have an extreme sensitivity to criticism, whether it’s real or perceived.

You don’t see that sensitivity in psychopaths. There is a definite coldness in psychopathy. If you don’t know to look for that coldness, though, you may not see it. Many people see it as confidence, or even as masculine strength. If you don’t recognize the coldness and almost surgical precision of their actions for what it is, you could easy miss the warning signs that you’re dealing with a psychopath. Psychopaths also lie a lot more. If you pay attention, contradicting lies can be one giveaway. It may be easier to spot narcissistic traits, but psychopaths are the ultimate con men, so it’s important to watch for those signs as well.

Narcissistic Traits Have Advantages

Narcissists generally make more money and are more likely to end up in leadership positions than people without narcissistic traits. They are over-represented in positions of power. That’s because they want to be in power. It’s important for their fragile egos to have power. They also like the validation of being in charge.

Narcissists want to be the leaders. They like being the center of attention. They like power.

Dr. Ramani Durvasula

Lots of the rest of us are content to be competent in our positions but not be in charge. It could be because we like what we do or we just don’t want the headache of being in charge. We don’t need the attention. But narcissists are drawn to fight for power because they do want that attention and validation. And because they’re good at presenting themselves as amazing people, they often get that power they desire.

The Charitable Narcissist

Here’s the bottom line: Narcissists are motivated to get validation. That validation can come through anything.

Dr. Ramani Durvasula

Narcissists need validation, and they don’t care where it comes from. It could come from how much power they hold, or how they look, or how much money they have. But some choose to seek validation through charity. They give their time or money not because they are generous people, find meaning from it, or believe in a particular organization’s mission. They just want attention. These are the people who insist on the big galas and getting their name on the building.

One of the foundational narcissistic traits is that they constantly need validation.

They may go to the soup kitchen, but they’re going to make sure the lighting is perfect so everyone can see them giving meals to those in need. And they only do that charity work as long as the lights are on and the camera is rolling. In the type of narcissism called “communal narcissism,” they get their validation by giving to others. But it doesn’t eliminate their other narcissistic traits. People looking at them will be impressed that they’re such a humanitarian, but behind the scenes they’re cruel to their staff and abusing their partners. They’re mean people, but when they have that ladle at the soup kitchen they’re putting on an excellent performance.

Making Excuses for Narcissists

Narcissists are great at self-promotion. Most of us are bad at promoting ourselves. So when someone comes along who’s good at it, we tend to believe it. If we know our skills and still aren’t good at promoting them, we assume, this person who can promote their skills must be incredibly competent. And as a whole, the world enables that. We make excuses and rationalizations for their behavior. Their confidence makes us assume that they must really know what they’re talking about, even if it doesn’t seem like it. We don’t question them.

We absolutely make excuses for people on the basis of what we believe to be their good work.

Dr. Ramani Durvasula

It’s especially easy for us to make excuses for charitable narcissists. Sure, he may be abusing his wife, but that two million dollars he donated helped a lot of kids – it must balance out in the end, right? We make a lot of excuses for them, which is a big part of society at large enabling narcissists.

If you never give a child a bedtime, eventually your seven-year-old will be watching TV at one o’clock in the morning. We have to give people boundaries. But we’ve turned narcissists into the spoiled children of our world. And now those spoiled children are running countries, companies, and institutions, and the world is a mess. We’ve mad excuses for narcissistic traits and we’ve enabled this.

Narcissistic Traits and Social Media

Social media has not helped our enabling of narcissists. Who wins the most on social media? Narcissists. They love attention, and social media is great for getting attention. They’re happy to make taking and editing selfies a full-time job and arrange their life so there’s always great photo opportunities. Maybe they’re even going to the soup kitchen just to get that photos. Who are the social media influencers? People drawing attention to themselves for their own profit.

Social media can get narcissists the attention they crave, but it backfires all the time. The old adage says that all publicity is good publicity, but that’s not true to a narcissist. One of the deepest truths about narcissistic traits is that narcissists are terrified of being found out. They are afraid someone will realize that they’re not the real deal. If anyone hints that they might not be perfect, they become enraged.

What’s very interesting is that one of the biggest crises for the narcissist is shame.

Dr. Ramani Durvasula

You’ll see narcissists get into Twitter smackdowns. They’ll attack people’s kids and grandmothers. They’ll say something regrettable. It may get so extreme that their accounts get shut down. They want the attention, but on social media it can easily become negative attention, and they can’t handle that.

Narcissism and Hypocrisy

One of the universal narcissistic traits is entitlement, and that leads to the core issue of hypocrisy. Narcissists want one set of rules for you and a different set for them. They want to be able to say whatever they want with impunity but they don’t want you to be allowed to say anything critical. They feel like they should be above the rules. In order to protect their fragile ego, they have to believe they’re special.

You’ll even see them celebrating that the rules don’t apply to them. This shows up a lot today – people claim they shouldn’t have to wear this and shouldn’t have to do that. When made to follow a rule, they become defiant little children. They often organize themselves around breaking rules and getting away with it. Many will even file lawsuits if they don’t get their way.

Narcissists believe themselves too special for the rules, even though they still think the rules should apply to everyone else. They will use whatever systems they feel like they need to in order to win. If the rules do apply to them or they don’t win, they feel victimized. They get lost in their victimhood and become angry and sullen.

How Narcissistic Traits Develop

There are some inborn elements to narcissism – what are called temperamental factors. Some people are just born with a temperament that is hypersensitive and oppositional. But just because someone is born with a particular temperament doesn’t mean they’re guaranteed to develop narcissistic traits. It’s a vulnerability, yes, but narcissistic traits are also shaped by the environment.

There are multiple pathways that can lead to adult narcissism. One is trauma. This can come from obvious trauma, such as growing up with abuse or neglect or in an unsafe environment. It could also come from inconsistency and growing up in a chaotic space. And this is not always something that can be helped. It could be related to something happening in their world, like a war.

Another pathway is what’s called being over- and under-indulged. The child is over-indulged in terms of resources – a beautiful home, lots of gifts, plenty of money – but under-indulged in their emotional world. There might be absolutely no discussion of emotions, as is especially common with boys. If they try to talk about their emotions, nobody listens or they are shamed for sharing. That’s a fast-track to developing narcissistic traits.

Another potential pathway is conditional love while growing up. A child who is loved when they win but only when they win understands that love only comes when they please the parent or give them something. A final potential pathway is having a narcissistic parent. Not only is it an impoverished way to grow up, the child may imitate the parent’s entitled, dismissive behavior.

It is likely a combination of pathways that take a person from a vulnerable child to a narcissistic adult. There are no guarantees that a particular childhood will result in narcissistic traits.

The Risks of Dealing with Narcissists

Whether it’s your boss, the owner of your company, or someone you’re in a relationship with, being around someone with narcissistic traits on a regular basis is horrible for your health. Narcissists are incredibly toxic. You may find yourself feeling chronically confused, full of self-doubt, anxious, depressed, helpless, hopeless, or powerless. You may have difficulty sleeping and a hard time performing adequate levels of self-care. These are all very bad states of mental health. Some people cope in maladaptive ways, such as drinking, doing drugs, or isolating themselves. There may also be a sense of shame, wondering how you got into this and why you’re in such a situation.

Narcissistic traits are incredibly toxic to be around and can be detrimental to your own mental and even physical health.

Part of what keeps people in these situations is they do not understand that the most basic precept of narcissism is it doesn’t change. What you see is what you get.

Dr. Ramani Durvasula

As a therapist who works with narcissistic clients, there’s a big gap between where she can get them and where a healthy person is. Even when they do get help, narcissists are often unwilling to implement it. It’s too threatening for their ego. Every once in a while there’s a unicorn who makes a complete turnaround, but they are extraordinarily rare. If you don’t understand that the narcissist in your life won’t change, you can easily destroy yourself trying to change them.

Spotting Narcissistic Traits in Everyday Interactions

On the surface, narcissists are often charming, engaging, charismatic, and confident. People are drawn to them. But they are often dismissive, especially when the topic being discussed is emotions or has nothing to do with them. Many narcissists claim they have ADHD. They expect full attention when they’re speaking, but when someone else is speaking they’re on their phone or something. If someone asks why they’re not paying attention to the other person, they will claim ADHD.

Narcissists can also be very superficial. They are concerned with the cars people drive, the houses they live in, where they vacation, and how they look. They often make comments about others’ appearances. It’s one of the ways they come up with excuses for why they feel superior.

Narcissists are also very entitled. They don’t want to wait in line. They’re a VIP by default, and the rules don’t apply. They make their own rules that work for them. If they walk into a post office with twenty people in line, they’ll walk right to the front. When people tell them to get in line, they will be genuinely shocked and upset.

One of the biggest giveaways, though, is the narcissistic trait of fragile ego. They are very sensitive. When you give feedback, even constructive or well-thought-out feedback, they will lash out. You can’t work with them or communicate with them because if you try to give them anything but good news, they lose it.

How to Protect Yourself from a Narcissist

Not everyone can get out of every relationship. Whether the narcissist in your life is your parent, partner, sibling, or boss, sometimes you just can’t leave the situation. Dr. Ramani has worked with a number of people who have completely cut off their parents. But if you can’t leave, the key to dealing with narcissists is pretty simple.

Step 1: Realistic Expectations

When dealing with a narcissist, it’s essential to start with realistic expectations. Narcissistic traits don’t tend to change. This is who that person is, and that won’t change for you or anyone else. And what you see is what you get. There’s no nice person hiding underneath that you just have to get to. It’s radical acceptance that this person is a jerk and there is nothing you can do about it.

Step 2: Don’t Personalize

Once you’ve accepted the reality of their narcissism, this is the key element: Don’t personalize it. They may have blown up at you, but it’s not about you. They would have blown up at anyone who made that comment. You just happened to be in the blast radius this time. A bomb isn’t personal – when it goes off, it blows up whatever is nearby. It’s the same with a narcissist.

Step 3: Don’t Believe Their Promises

Narcissists do a lot of what’s called “future faking.” They claim that they will do something and they will change, just sometime in the future. Maybe they’re going to go to therapy, or they’re going to do this or that, but they’ve just been under so much pressure lately – just give them six more months. This future faking keeps you buying six months, and then another six months, and then another. Going back to point one, don’t believe their promises to change, because they won’t.

Staying with a Narcissist

One of Dr. Ramani’s books is titled, Should I Stay or Should I Go?: How to Survive a Relationship with a Narcissist. She titled it that because half of people choose to stay. And for those people, she gives them ways to stay. Much of it is workarounds and cultivating other sources of friendship, support, and empathy because they won’t be able to get those from a narcissist.

If your boss or company owner is the one with the narcissistic traits, you have to figure out what you can get out of the job. Document everything you can to protect yourself, because if anything does happen, you won’t get anywhere with HR if you don’t have documentation. And also be aware that more often than not, the narcissist outlasts other people in the workplace. Most people decide life’s too short to put up with it and they leave. Eventually there’s a critical mass of narcissist enablers in the workforce. And usually, that’s the point when companies start to crumble.

Don’t Engage

If you’re dealing with someone showing narcissistic traits, Dr. Ramani’s advice is to avoid engaging as much as possible. There’s nothing you can really say to that person without them getting angry. Stick to impersonal things like the weather or that the city’s repaving the road. Only talk about them if it’s completely positive.

A great strategy for dealing with narcissistic traits in the workplace, and even sometimes in families, is what Dr. Ramani calls “narcissistic fluffing.” If you really need something from them, flatter them as much as possible. Flatter them, “fluff” their ego, and then get what you need and get out.

How to Get Away from a Narcissist Safely

If you’re in a relationship with a narcissist, getting out is a nightmare. In the best-case scenario, they leave. Even if you take some hits, it’s still the best. Some people feel abandoned and hurt by this, but in reality, you won the toxic people lottery.

Extricating from a narcissistic relationship is a nightmare … it’s going to be a campaign of vindictiveness.

Dr. Ramani Durvasula

If you try to extricate yourself, there will be vindictiveness, a smear campaign, and most likely they will pursue legal action. Narcissists are obsessed with winning. They have to win to protect their fragile ego. That might mean they spend more in lawyers’ fees I the divorce to avoid giving you anything. In the workplace, it might mean running the business into the ground before you can leave.

When leaving the clutches of a narcissist, there’s no easy or graceful way out. You’ll likely end up limping out, lucky to have the shirt on your back. Leaving a business partner who has narcissistic traits can sometimes be even more damaging than leaving a marriage partner because they really can take anything you’ve earned and destroy it. Everyone is relieved after they get away, but with everything they put you through to get out, it can almost feel like post-traumatic stress.

Think Like a Poker Player

When leaving a narcissist, it helps to think like a poker player. Narcissists care about leverage. They figure out what you care about and use it as leverage to hurt you. Are you going through a divorce and make it clear they’ll never take the kids? Now they’re going to spend every cent they have trying to get more custody than they want just to spite you. If they’re going to hurt, they want you to feel as bad as they do, and they want to win.

What matters most to them is winning and hurting you. Don’t ever let the find out what matters to you. We think if we express what we want to another human, they’ll be willing to meet halfway. Normal, rational people would. But narcissists aren’t normal and rational. They will use that knowledge to hurt you, even if it hurts them in the process.

Act like you don’t want whatever you really want so they are more willing to give it to you. Dr. Ramani once worked with a woman going through a divorce and coached her to tell her soon-to-be-ex that she was looking forward to him having the kids every other weekend because of all the free time she would have. He gave her custody every weekend, which is what she wanted in the first place. Also be prepared to cry crocodile tears when they take something else. They will think it’s what you wanted and feel gratified by hurting you. It’s dark, but it’s absolutely true.

Narcissism and Gender

At a population level, there are more men with narcissistic traits than women. That doesn’t mean there’s no female narcissists. Dr. Ramani has had more people tell her about narcissistic moms than dads. Part of it is the way narcissism presents differently and how we make excuses for it. It’s not so much that there are more or less narcissists of either gender, but how those roles are affected by societal factors.

Women are more likely to express narcissism through victimhood. They feel like the world is out to get them and nobody cares for them. It can seem very passive-aggressive. In men, though, the coldness, dismissiveness, and incapability of dealing with emotions that is a core narcissistic trait can be viewed as confidence and even masculinity.

The way we socialize boys makes them much more vulnerable to developing narcissistic traits. Men are taught to silence their emotions and mocked for expressing them. A big part of narcissism is an inability to engage with their own emotions or communicate about emotions. That’s where society does men a huge disservice. Dr. Ramini wishes we could let boys and men cry.

I wish we let boys cry and encouraged men to cry. It will be the most profound revolution of our time if we could do that.

Dr. Ramani Durvasula

To learn more, start with Dr. Ramani’s YouTube channel. She puts out new content every day on everything you can imagine about narcissism. You can also follow her on Instagram @doctorramani. Her website, doctor-ramani.com has articles, information, and virtual speaking events. You can also check out her books, Should I Stay Or Should I Go?: Surviving a Relationship with a Narcissist and Don’t You Know Who I Am?: How to Stay Sane in an Era of Narcissism, Entitlement, and Instability.

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