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It feels like narcissists are popping up everywhere lately. They’re the best, know all the awesome people, and attend the coolest parties.
“People who are narcissistic, they have a pretty big footprint. They have a lot of friends, they tend to date more,” said W. Keith Campbell, professor of psychology at the University of Georgia. “It’s not that there are more out there. But people who are narcissistic are extroverted and have big social networks. You just run into them a lot.”
But not every narcissist displays the bombastic, extroverted traits. And certainly some extroverts could look a bit like a narcissist.
“Most of us have some narcissistic qualities,” said Ann Kearney-Cooke, a psychologist at the Cincinnati Psychotherapy Institute. “Most are not full blown narcissists. But if you have a lot of certain qualities you might be.”
While, only about 2 percent of the population struggles with pathological narcissism there are people with loads of narcissistic traits driving us bananas at work, on dates, or in friendships. But, how can you tell?
Experts share some lesser known behaviors that might indicate whether that super fun, self-involved friend, loved one or coworker is really narcissistic.
1. Oh yeah, I totally know this
At a party someone brings up the Battle of the Shivering Sea. That sea exists in Westeros and that battle never happened, even fictionally. While most people would ask what the heck the person is talking about, a narcissist would know all about it.
“One of the most interesting findings you see is something called the over-claiming effect,” said Campbell. “You give them things that aren’t real and they will claim to know what they are.”
Narcissists think that knowing an obscure reference makes them look good, causing the over-claim. And, they certainly wouldn’t want to admit to not knowing something.
2. Making mountains out of molehills
Let's say a boss offers up constructive criticism to her employees. That narcissist employee hears that feedback and blows up.
“Someone with narcissism gets enraged,” Kearney-Cooke said. “They’re very sensitive to anybody in anyway in dissing them or putting them down.”
The problem with this anger? Narcissists act on it. They can’t let it go.
3. 'Emotional hot potato'
When narcissists feel vulnerable, they don’t want to process those feelings. Instead, they put others down to bolster their self-esteem, what Craig Malkin calls playing “emotional hot potato.”
“They find ways to avoid being vulnerable,” said the author of Rethinking Narcissism. “‘I don’t want to feel small so here, you take these feelings.’”
4. Having a string of broken hearts
Narcissists value fame, beauty, and success more than relationships. Sure, they date and have friends and often these relationships start out exciting — but fizzle quickly.
“People who are narcissistic should have a trail of bad relationships behind them,” Campbell said.
It’s not easy to see a history of terrible relationships but Campbell said that a little digging can uncover a pattern. He also advises people to watch how others treat wait staff, taxi drivers, or cleaning people — anyone that narcissists might think are below them. If people act haughty with service people, it could be a sign of narcissism.
5. Changing plans at the last minute
At the last minute, your friend skipped happy hour, leaving you alone at the bar. The week before, he weaseled out of movie plans. It seems like he wants to hang out but he always cancels immediately before plans.
“They feel at the mercy of your schedule if they have to keep an appoint with you and it makes them feel very uncomfortable,” said Malkin.
So they cancel.
“It is another way of avoiding feeling vulnerable," he said.
6. Throwing someone under the bus
Missed deadline? Someone else is to blame.
Husband shows up for date night but wife is missing? His texts are incomprehensible.
“People who are narcissistic are more likely to blame their colleagues, blame their friends,” said Campbell. “If you blame other people you can still feel good about yourself.”
At the last minute, your boyfriend shows up with a surprise date night—tickets to a concert. It seems so romantic.
But now that you think about it, every date is a last-minute surprise. Or he always picks the restaurant, movie, or concert. When you suggested trying the new Ethiopian place, he couldn’t go because he doesn’t like Ethiopian food. He also said that about the new Italian place.
“They’re exerting stealth control. They don’t trust people … to meet their needs,” said Malkin.
Coping with a narcissist
If you have a narcissistic coworker, friend, or family member, there are a few ways to keep the relationship fun and on an equal footing.
- Keep records — When it comes to work, keeping emails remains important. It's hard to blame others if lengthy paper trail exists.
- "Catch good" — "The more somebody feels rewarded, the more frequently they engage in the behavior,” said Malkin. “Catch someone who is narcissistic in a moment, show them they can be caring and understanding.”
- Make a connection contract — Spell out what behaviors you will tolerate. Saying something like “When you bring up my weight, I’ll need to leave” or “If you start blaming others we'll have to stop working” can keep narcissists in line.
- Gather a group — “You need support. You need someone to see that and corroborate your story," said Malkin. "Confronting narcissistic people is only going to make it worse."
- Keep your distance — “You can have friends who are narcissistic. I wouldn’t place a lot of trust or emotional energy in them and I would focus more on the entertainment value,” said Campbell.