It's important to note that there's a distinction between people with narcissistic tendencies and those who have narcissistic personality disorder. Unlike people in the former camp, who might just suffer from an inflated sense of self-esteem, people with NPD often struggle with a less stable sense of identity. "Underneath this tough, boastful exterior is often a very fragile individual who cannot handle criticism or judgment,” she says.
Narcissistic personality disorder also tends to manifest itself at an early age. “Narcissism can stem from childhood if the person was either overly pampered or overly criticized. They may be struggling with insecurity, low self-esteem or jealousy. And so in order to combat these feelings they may try and put themselves on a pedestal in an attempt to make themselves feel better,” explains NYC-based therapist Kimberly Hershenson, LMSW.
It's crucial to note that NPD is a clinical diagnosis, so if you recognize many of the following traits in yourself, it's worth speaking to a therapist and seeking treatment. But if you suspect you might be a narcissist (or that you might be dating one), here are 7 common early warning signs.
People with narcissistic personality disorder like to lead the conversation at all times. For instance, if someone is talking to you about a health scare they had, you might let the conversation drift back to your own stressors at work, says Hershenson.
If you find yourself changing topics to revert back to something you were saying, or if you aren’t listening attentively to other people’s problems and are more focused on sharing your own, it could mean you have narcissist tendencies. (Either way, it's extremely off-putting.)
If you believe you make a powerful first impression where people literally flock to you, you could have underlying narcissistic qualities. Sure, you could just be a likable person, but people with narcissistic personality disorder go out of their way to make over-the-top, charming impressions on those they meet.
“They are very likeable...at first. If people seem to gravitate towards them and they are well liked on first impression, but over time their interaction with others becomes a negative experience. they may be a narcissist,” says Hershenson.
People with narcissistic personality disorder don’t know how to to take responsibility for their actions. So if someone gets mad at you, you might point the finger at others defensively, or you might lie and make up excuses to avoid being blamed or judged. “They tend to victimize themselves. If nothing is ever their fault, and they tend to feel like they are misunderstood or not valued, this may be a sign of narcissism,” says Hershenson.
To a degree, the above is a no-brainer — I mean, who doesn’t love nice things, right? But if you're constantly spending money outside your means, it could mean trouble, particularly if you do so as a way of showing off your status to others. For instance, if you’re with a group of people and you're ordering a bottle of wine at dinner, you might feel compelled to buy the most expensive one on the list — even if it's not a special occasion.
“They are materialistic and like to display a high status and emphasize their prestige. If they flash new purchases or brag constantly, they may be a narcissist,” says Hershenson.
If you’re unable to tolerate even the most gentle constructive criticism, that's a problem. Sure, most people don’t like criticism, says Hershenson, but narcissists are “hyper-sensitive” to it. So if you “throw tantrums or cry when criticized,” or retaliate by “intimidating and bullying others,” that's a red flag.
It's not just a healthy dose of confidence. “Someone with NPD will exhibit grandiosity and high sense of self importance. They believe they are unique and superior,” says Hawkins."They may live in a fantasy world that supports their delusions of grandeur by ignoring key facts or reality that negates their ‘uniqueness.’" These fantasies might be related to “success, power, beauty, intelligence or ideal romance,” says Hawkins.
Often, people with narcissism or NPD might hold deep-rooted jealousy towards others and assume that others are jealous of them as well. So “they might exploit those around them without guilt and shame,” she says, and “disregard the feelings of others, lacking empathy.”
If you think you have these tendencies, it’s worth seeking help from a therapist. While it’s challenging to commit to treatment and you might never get rid of your narcissistic tendencies completely, you can work on becoming more self-aware as to how you affect others.
And if you think you know someone who’s a narcissist, it's important to set boundaries, says Hershenson. Speak to them calmly and don’t engage in arguments or attacks, as narcissists don’t really listen or hear you when you speak negatively about them. Be firm, and remember it’s OK to disengage and end the conversation.