He or she is charming, dresses impeccably, talks about their success — but not enough to bore you — and gives you adequate attention. They’re almost too perfect. Could there be a downside to his or her polished behavior?
There may be more to his or her inner life than meets the eye.
NBC anchor Brian Williams’ recent exposure as an exaggerator par excellence surprised many people. Bill O’Reilly is also getting heat for inflating his image. Are these just celebrities enhancing their brand or something more pathological? Seems there’s a fine line between brand management and true narcissism.
So how can you tell if your man or woman is just behaving badly, boasting and bragging inappropriately, or is harboring or more deep-seeded psychological problem like Narcissistic Personality Disorder?
A narcissist’s outer qualities can make him or her appear alpha and even more attractive — at first. It’s not until you take a closer look at their personal life do you see red flags.
Here are 10 subtle signs you may be dating a closet narcissist:
1. He/She has a pervasive need for admiration. He or she wants the topic of conversation to be about them. If you talk about yourself, they’ll slowly and subtly change the conversation to something flattering about themselves.
2. He/She is envious of others’ success. If you tell him or her about your promotion at work, they won’t express tremendous emotion for you. Your promotion triggers insecurity about their own perceived lack of success, sending him into a place of self-doubt and self-loathing. Clearly, from this emotionally negative place, there is little room for you and your successes.
3. He/She reacts with “enhanced anger” (a.k.a. rage) when his or her ego is threatened. Any little mistake you point out can provoke their shame, which almost immediately triggers anger. They don’t like to look bad or be wrong.
4. He/She doesn’t discuss his inner life, mainly because he feels such private shame about himself. They won’t share his dreams, reflections, or memories. If he or she does talk about the past, it’s probably to enhance their image. When the past does come up, you should seriously question its validity.
5. He/She will project his or her negative qualities onto others. They’re afraid of being seen as “less than” and refuse to face their weaknesses. If he or she feels weak or threatened, they’ll accuse another of that same negative quality.
6. He/She doesn’t take blame for situations. They blames others for making them late or making them do something, rather than admit fault. He or she can never be wrong, even in the face of overwhelming contrary evidence.
7. He/She needs to be right, and doesn’t respect others’ opinions. This refers to political opinions or otherwise. It can also manifest as conflict at work. He or she may frequently butt heads with coworkers and bosses. They often doesn’t respect the unwritten protocols of the workplace. Again, he or she will blame and shame the other when they’re called to task for their errors.
8. He/She lacks empathy. He or she can’t imagine themselves in another person’s shoes. He or she doesn’t understand why someone would do something they wouldn’t, and doesn’t try to understand others’ feelings. This may leave you confused, angry and feeling misunderstood.
9. His/Her romantic relationships are shallow, and he maintains them with difficulty. They’ve never had deep, intimate relationships. It’s hard to know this for sure since he or she likely won’t disclose much. But looking at his or her past dating patterns can be an indicator.
10. He or She is a perfectionist. They’re very conscious of appearance. His or her clothing, choices — everything about their outer life must appear flawless to onlookers. He or she will go to great lengths to cover up imperfections.
What’s the underlying feeling behind these symptoms?
This outward behavior is just a mask. Underneath, there is real pain, insecurity and a fragile ego. Most importantly, there’s chronic shame: a painful emotion caused by a feeling that he or she is “not enough.”
This shame, often unconscious, is so uncomfortable that they will avoid it at all cost. That’s why they try so hard to appear put together and worthy on the outside.
Where does the shame originate from?
Narcissists often grew up with very strict or even narcissistic parents. These parents held him or her to high or even impossible standards. They learned not to say the wrong thing for fear of his parents’ disapproval or wrath. This taught them to wear a mask and put on a show to look good for others.
He or she learned other coping mechanisms to stay sane. Another one involves lying to themself, or exaggerating achievements. He or she gives themselves praise to justify their self-worth, because he or she received so little positive external feedback growing up.
So the next time you hear the Carly Simon song “You probably think this song is about you, don’t you” and it reminds you of your partner’s negative traits, remember compassion.
How can you help them?
It’s difficult for narcissists to admit they have a problem. They often don’t seek professional help themselves, because they don’t realize they need it. It’s normally friends and family who bring them in to see a therapist. That’s one option.
Another simple way to help is to be vulnerable yourself. This will likely throw him or her off, since they’re used to putting on a front for fear of criticism. It may surprise them, and they may begin to trust you. He or she may eventually respond by opening up as well.
When he or she behaves insensitively towards you, tell him why it hurts your feelings. If he begins to respond in a caring way, you probably positively influenced him. Hopefully he’ll change his behavior towards you.
There’s a chance these attempts to empathize with him and bring him out of his shell won’t work. If he continues to behave badly, it can negatively impact your own self esteem. If he’s unable or unwilling to change, it may be time to stop seeing him.
With hard work, therapy and emotional support, however, your partner can hopefully come out of the narcissist’s closet, claim their true imperfect self and be the best partner he or she can be.
For more on Narcissistic Personality Disorder, visit Psychology Today.