10 Red Flags of Narcissism
Narcissism can range from mild to malevolent. While most people will have some narcissistic tendencies, here's a list of red flags that can help you determine just how dangerous a narcissist might be.
This is the second in a three-part series on narcissism. Here is Part 1: Narcissism 101. In my next article, I will address how to deal with a narcissist.
In my last article, I talked about what narcissism looks like, how I know and some of the misconceptions I think there are about narcissism. Narcissists can range from mildly annoying to downright dangerous.
Because narcissists often seek positions of power and can be extremely charming or disingenuous, it’s important to know what signs to look for before you get too deeply invested in any type of relationship with a narcissist. The old saying about how if it seems to be too good to be true, it probably is, applies perfectly to narcissists. Most of these traits and qualities will not become visible until you are deeply invested with a narcissist or in a narcissistic organization and you may not even see them at all until you find yourself out in the cold.
This is why it’s very important to know the very subtle, almost undetectable habits and traits of narcissism before you get invested or involved.
Here are 10 red flags of narcissism and how to test for them.
1. They cannot tolerate disagreement
This is by far the biggest dead giveaway to narcissism. If there’s any one phrase a narcissist can’t stand, it’s “we’ll just have to agree to disagree.” Remember that leaders create culture, so while narcissists have an inability to tolerate disagreement, they will create cultures that are unwilling to tolerate it simply because they do not have to. Narcissistic leaders create environments of total control, where any disagreement or discrepancy from cultural norms is dealt with swiftly and severely, often by simply casting out anyone that refuses to comply or conform.
If you are instinctively afraid of expressing an opinion that is contrary to that which the group or leader holds, you are very likely in a highly narcissistic environment. What makes the difference between an actual narcissist and the attribute of a narcissistic culture is the degree of tolerance. Disagreement will literally cause a narcissist psychological pain. If a narcissist can’t bring you into alignment with their reality, they will cut you off completely and totally from themselves and any group you are mutually a part of.
Narcissists cannot tolerate any discrepancies with their reality. To a narcissist, disagreement is similar to a glitch in the Matrix that must be rectified. Since our reality is based on our lived experience, everyone’s “reality” is going to be slightly different. Most people can accept this, a narcissist can’t. If you simply disagree with a narcissist, they may accuse you of gaslighting; which, in a sense, you are. Any disagreement is perceived as being told their reality is not true, which is the root essence of gaslighting.
Ironically, however, narcissists can usually lie without compunction. Although their reality is very carefully and rigidly constructed, they can change it at any time. They simply can’t tolerate it being changed or even challenged by anyone else. Unlike most people, narcissists will rarely give off any of the telltale traces of lying because it’s not a moral issue to them. Lying is simply a means of maintaining their protective psychological framework. Although they can lie with ease, they cannot tolerate being lied to or feeling like they are being lied to because a lie threatens to make them question their reality.
One of the big red flags of narcissistic culture is the importance of agreement. Everyone has to agree on everything. There is no tolerance for individual beliefs or behaviors that vary from the group’s. What is crazy-making about this, however, is that each smaller group within the larger organization will also have its own leader who is responsible for determining what the beliefs or cultural norms of that group are. If you participate in multiple groups, it can make it challenging to remember which actions, behaviors and beliefs are appropriate to each group.
One great way to test for narcissism is to simply say “I disagree.” It doesn’t matter what you disagree about and you don’t have to say anything else or argue any further. Healthy people or leaders may look surprised or even a bit taken aback but will generally simply shrug off your behavior as a strange anomaly and move on. Some people may probe further, at which point you can simply say “I don’t really want to discuss it, I would simply like to voice that I disagree.” The more easily someone simply accepts your right to disagree, the lower their level of narcissism. The harder someone tries to force you to agree with them, the more likely you are to be dealing with a narcissist or strongly narcissistic culture.
2. They are never wrong
A narcissist cannot tolerate being questioned or challenged about anything. If they tell you something that doesn’t sound right and you Google it and think you’ve proved them wrong, be ready to face their wrath. It doesn’t mean they will acknowledge they are wrong or even believe it; what they will be angry about is that you had the audacity to question them. Do not expect them to admit they are wrong, no matter how much evidence you can provide to support that fact. While no one likes being wrong, telling a narcissist they are wrong will often spark an exceptionally intense reaction.
One great way to test for narcissism is to ask them about the last time they were wrong. A narcissist will usually be able to answer this question very readily, but it is important to listen carefully to their answer. What they will actually talk about was something that went wrong, not how they were wrong, but even more importantly, how it was someone else’s fault.
3. They do not accept responsibility for anything
People often expect that if a superior tells them to do something and they do it and it goes wrong, their superior will take responsibility. This will not happen with a narcissist. In addition, if your narcissistic boss tells you to do something that costs money, such as renting a car, taking a toll road or picking up coffee, do not expect reimbursement from them. If the company is paying, they might authorize reimbursement, but even that is not a given.
This is again why it is so important to determine if a person you are working with or for is a narcissist. If so, it is always important to discuss responsibilities, outcomes and reimbursement before agreeing to anything a narcissist tells or asks you to do. If possible, it is better to get money up front or get directives in writing because their verbal word means nothing. Needless to say, they will never want to pay up front or put directives in writing, but your options are literally to stand firm and get it or be ready to pay the consequences if anything goes wrong. Or eat any costs yourself.
4. They will shamelessly scapegoat
Not only will a narcissist blame you for anything they legitimately or reasonably can, they may also blame you for things you literally had nothing to do with or may not even know about. They are also more than willing to considerably twist facts or reach far back in the past to find a way to blame others. For instance, if you going to an event with a narcissist and they cause you to be late, they may walk in and immediately blame their tardiness on you to the host.
Because they don’t accept responsibility for their mistakes, they also never learn from them. They have little understanding of the consequences of their actions because they don’t pay them - they shift them off to someone else. Narcissists will often drive around with their gas tanks on empty, but if they run out of gas, they will always find a way to blame it on someone else. Since they don’t learn, they will continue to drive around with their gas tank on empty. If you are in a relationship with a narcissist, expect to get blamed for a lot.
Anyone can quickly become the scapegoat for almost anything, including their personal relationships. For instance, a narcissist who is confronted by a suspicious spouse may lie and say they were with a coworker and will never even think to tell the coworker about it. Even more importantly, the narcissist will simply expect the coworker to back them up 100% or even fall on their sword for them, even if the coworker is completely blindsided by the spouse.
5. They are relentless scorekeepers - and they cheat
The phrase “pissing contest” refers to men being pretty infamous for turning everything into a competition, but no one beats a narcissist. Literally no one, because not only do narcissists keep score of everything, they use some pretty shady accounting tactics. Just like never being wrong, a narcissist always has to win or be ahead. A narcissist will never owe you anything, but will almost aways consider you to owe them for something. If they actually do lose at anything, you can expect a meltdown of epic proportions and/ or even some type of revenge.
If you are friends with or in a relationship with a narcissist, you can also expect to almost always pick up the tab for everything. If they are wealthier than you, they will almost always forget their wallet or have some reason they can’t pay. If they are less well off than you, they will consider that reason enough that you should pay.
Conversely, however, a narcissist can also love appearing to be very generous. They may also pick up every tab no matter what, even if they can’t actually afford it. In many cases, they will also make a very big show of leaving an extravagantly large tip. It is actions like this that can make it very difficult to spot a narcissist because they enjoy looking extravagantly generous. The truth, however, is that they will often be using someone else’s money or embezzling from a company so they can appear wealthy or generous.
Most people are generally hesitant to ask people for big favors like helping them move or taking them to the airport in the middle of the night. Not a narcissist. They will not hesitate to ask for literally anything they need and will generally not take no for an answer. They will bully or harass you shamelessly to get what they want. If you help them, however, don’t expect them to return the favor. When you need help, they will always have a previous appointment, other plans or suddenly just not be reachable.
One great way to spot a narcissist early on is simply to ask them to pick up the tab, pay for something, or do something for you. Although they may legitimately not be able to do so at the time, just pay attention to how often they offer to pay or do something for you. Chances are good it will be never, or if they do, they will make a very big deal out of it and draw a lot of attention to it so it seems like they are doing a lot more than they actually are.
6. They can be ruthless when crossed
Most people have someone or possibly even a few people they don’t get along with and even a few they might consider to be “enemies,” Narcissists can hate with the passion of a thousand burning suns and may have a very, very long list of enemies. They may even keep a literal list of their enemies and purposefully look for opportunities to punish them for wrongdoing. Many of these people may literally have no idea they are even in a narcissist’s crosshairs because they may not even be aware they did something to offend.
Narcissists are also chronic image managers, however, so they are highly adept at keeping their hate hidden. They can look you in the eye and smile cheerfully while they stab you in the back and move on like nothing happened. This is also why, when someone is being targeted by a narcissist, others might not believe them, nor may they even believe it themselves. A narcissist can speak of someone they hate in glowing terms and are even more likely to do so when they are actively plotting their downfall.
If a narcissist even hears that you said something about them behind their back, you may end up on their list, regardless of whether you even said anything or not. A narcissist doesn’t need proof or evidence, because if they think it’s true, it’s true. Very helpfully correcting a narcissist in public or looking just a bit too interested when they introduce you to their partner can also put a target on your back that you are unlikely to ever be aware of.
The most malevolent narcissists won’t just punish, they will not rest until they have destroyed someone and even that does not mean they are done. They may spend years waiting for that person to achieve some kind of success again just so they can have the satisfaction of taking them down all over again.
7. They are always the victim
Narcissists are master manipulators that thrive on attention, so their goal is to always to silence and isolate their victims while painting themselves as the victim with “their group” so as to maintain the good favor of the group. One of the big keys to understanding whether you are dealing with a narcissist or not is to understand the differences between how narcissists play the victim versus how legitimate victims behave.
Most people are ashamed of being victimized because it makes them feel helpless and weak. Not a narcisssist. A narcissist loves being the victim and will never hesitate to tell you exactly when and how they have been victimized, which will often be a very long list. That being said, they are big on emotions, short on facts. When you press a narcissist for specific ways in which they have been victimized or violated, they will generally be unable to provide them and the more you press, the angrier they will get.
In addition, unlike a real victim, they will also generally have a very specific way in which they want you to react, which they will generally achieve through emotional manipulation. They may not specifically tell you what they want you to do, but they have ways of making sure you reach the right conclusion.
Remember, narcissists are never at fault for anything, they are always the victim. One good test for determining if they are the actual victim is to ask them if there was any way in which they might have been responsible for what happened. This is not victim blaming, this is asking a question which is actually an important one. Most legitimate victims will, in fact, consider themselves at least partially responsible, if not fully responsible, for situations in which they were actually victimized. Asking them how they feel they might have contributed or created the situation gives you an opportunity to reassure a legitimate victim that they are not to blame in many ways they might think they are.
A narcissist, on the other hand, will be unable to come up with any ways in which they might bear any responsibility, because in their mind, they never do. In fact, they will usually become quite furious that you should even question if they might have been responsible in any way, shape or form for their own victimization.
8. They can easily disconnect completely
Narcissists are incredibly easy to fall in love with, because they are capable of literally blocking out the entire world and giving you their complete and undivided attention. This is because they don’t actually care deeply about almost anyone or anything. The one exception to this might be children, but that’s not always a given. Narcissists live completely and totally in the moment and the only reality that matters is theirs.
They can drop everything and spontaneously take off on a trip because they don’t care what balls they might be dropping or who they might be leaving in the lurch by doing so. They can turn off their cell phone without compunction because they literally don’t care if someone might need to reach them in an emergency. Being the focus of such undivided attention can be heady stuff, which is why we are so drawn to narcissists.
That also means, however, that they can just drop a long-term relationship on a dime if they perceive that something better has come along. Usually, when that happens, the other person finds out they were the only ones truly invested in the relationship in the first place. Their undivided attention makes you feel so special, you will give them anything. Unfortunately, it never seems to occur to us to question who or what else they might be shutting out to give us their undivided attention.
9. They are masters of emotional manipulation
Regardless of what they look like physically, Narcissists are incredibly attractive. They are master flatterers who have the ability to make us feel powerful and intense emotions. We like narcissists for the same reasons we love going to the movies. No matter how much we try to deny it, we are emotional beings who love to feel. The more powerful and intense our emotions are, the more alive we feel. Narcissists make us feel totally and completely alive in a way we may have never felt before.
One of the biggest reasons narcissists get away with so much is because of our own ego. We confuse someone making us feel good with them being a “good person,” so we always think of narcissists as “good people” because they make us feel fantastic about ourselves. The truth is, a person who is actually good for you will frequently tell you things that hurt or “pinch” just a bit. They are not cruel, they are just honest, but even the most loving correction or painful observation will still cause some discomfort. Narcissists never cause you discomfort - until you cross them and then they will cause you agonizing pain.
One of the many reasons narcissists are often highly successful pastors is because they can hold an audience spellbound for a full hour or more, which is exactly why churches love them. Conversely, narcissists feed off the energy of the audience as well as lapping up all the praise afterwards for how amazing their sermon was. They can also become successful actors and comedians quite easily, because they are simply monetizing their everyday life. Narcissists already live in a completely fabricated reality, which they can change at will, which makes them highly adept at acting. Their life is literally already a stage. They are also great at being the life of the party and amusing and entertaining everyone, so the leap to comedian is also a very short one.
The same way a narcissist can quickly recognize what makes you bloom, however, they are also highly adept at knowing exactly where to cut you to make you bleed the most. It doesn’t take much to transform a narcissist from a fawning admirer who adores you to a shark looking for blood. Just a casual word perceived as criticism can turn a narcissist from hot to cold in an instant and no one can cut you quite as deep as a narcissist.
10. They are chronic image managers, which comes at a cost
One of the biggest red flags of narcissism is that everyone loves them. Literally everyone. They don’t have any enemies or detractors in their immediate or closest circles. This is largely because they quietly get rid of anyone that isn’t 100% on their side or in their corner. Then they play the victim whenever anyone outside their circle criticizes them, which will often be someone they have banished.
Narcissists are like a drug. Even the people that they hurt and harm still love them and only want the best for them. They remember how wonderful the narcissist made them feel, so even when the narcissist abuses them, they still remember the “wonderful person” they know them to be and just want them to be more of that.
What people don’t understand is that it is all a show. They are NOT a “wonderful person” they are just very, very good actors. People who are not narcissists have their good days and bad days, their fans and their detractors. Their detractors will often flat out hate, dislike or despise them and will rarely be conflicted about it. This is not true of narcissists. Usually the only person that hates or dislikes a narcissist is someone they have harmed and even many of the people they have harmed will still protect them.
We want to believe that whatever friendship or relationship we had with a narcissist was real. To us, it was and we can’t wrap our head around the idea that to them it literally meant nothing. It is very easy to develop deep feelings for a narcissist because they make us feel so good. Their ability to make us feel good causes a deep sense of goodwill towards them as well and that goodwill does not go away quickly or easily, even when they harm us!
Constantly maintaining a positive image takes a great deal of emotional energy. Every time we give someone a compliment, it costs us something. Narcissists might naturally be introverts but they have to constantly act like extroverts. Since they have to give a lot of energy, they have to get it from somewhere, which means they will often become emotional vampires and essentially cannibalize someone to refill their tanks. They may have sexual or emotional affairs, but those affairs will not be an even exchange, but rather they will drain the emotional resources of the other person.
The children or spouse of a narcissist may be the only people to see the other side of a narcissist and may be expected to feed them emotionally. In some cases, narcissists may actually “feed off of themselves” rather than others, in which case they will frequently commit self-harm, engage in extreme risk taking behaviors, experience crippling depression or spiral deeper and deeper into some kind of chronic addiction. Over time, narcissists will often become bipolar as the demand to keep up their public image becomes too great.