Dahan Remy narcissistNew research confirms that it’s not how a narcissist acts when things are going his way that’s revelatory but when things aren’t. It’s at that moment—when the hidden vulnerability of the narcissistic wound is under threat—that both grandiose and covert narcissists reveal themselves in fullness. So, if you think there’s a narcissist in your life, you need to stop focusing on the external traits—the grandstanding, the self-grooming, the need to be center-stage at a cocktail party or the office, the “Aren’t I wonderful” stance of the grandiose narcissist or the more self-effacing but always self-absorbed and smug, never listening and subtly controlling posture of the covert narcissist—and just hone in on what happens when he finds himself in conflict. It’s at that moment that the leopard reveals his spots

The threat to feeling good

Whether covert or grandiose, the narcissist relies on feeling good about himself and to be happy, he has to sustain it. That’s exactly what a 2016 study conducted by Miranda Giacomin and Christian H. Jordan revealed. So, if you’re wondering whether the person in your life is a narcissist, you need to pay attention to his mood swings when there’s a perceived or real threat in the air. Again, contrary to what appears on the surface—the outward reflection of “Aren’t I great?” on the grandiose narcissist’s exterior and the quiet superiority of the covert one—inside there’s a very thin-skinned individual who can’t brook any volatility. The sensitivity of the narcissist’s internal thermostat is the real tip-off along with his inability to roll with the punches. As the researchers write, “Narcissists, however, did experience greater fluctuations in positive and negative affect on days when they experienced more interpersonal hassles.”

Why you’re fooled to begin with

Not everyone is equally vulnerable to a narcissist; securely attached people are much likely to figure out what the narcissist is up to because of their own internal models of how healthy relationships and people work. They’re likely to notice both the self-absorption and emotional distancing and the mood shifts. It’s the insecurely attached woman, especially one with an anxious/preoccupied style of attachment and low self-esteem, who’s particularly vulnerable to the narcissist’s initial charm, on the one hand, and more likely to forgive how and when he flies off the handle, on the other.

As I’ve written before, she’s more likely to mistake either his braggadocio or quiet superiority for grounded confidence, his overt or covert control as strength, his armored lack of empathy for stability, and—here’s the important part—be relatively quick to ignore how reactive he is because she is too, if for different reasons, and she may well misread his volatility for passion and involvement.

That said, once you’ve honed in on his moods and anger, all will be clear.

4  behaviors that reveal the narcissist

These are all defenses against having his vulnerability be revealed and efforts to maintain that sense of superiority that the narcissist needs to thrive.

1.Denies his anger

Anything that interrupts his feeling good about himself is a threat and denying his emotion—even when you can see the physical signs such as clenched jaws or fists—is typical of the narcissist. The narcissist in my life always said that “anger was a wasted emotion”—I will admit that I never really understood what that meant—and he would deny being angry even when he was red in the face and stuttering with rage. Dr. Craig Malkin, author of Rethinking Narcissism, points out that playing emotional “hot potato”—ascribing and projecting his feelings onto you—is typical as well. Does the person in your life deny or project anger when there’s conflict?

2.Sudden shifts in mood

Any threat to the stream of self-esteem on which he relies—real or imagined—is enough for the narcissist to strike back in order to regain that equilibrium. Does your partner’s mood suddenly go dark because of petty annoyances beyond his control, like getting stuck in traffic or when a driver cuts him off? Or when someone baits him, even jokingly, or says something vaguely critical? Do you frequently find yourself asking “What’s bothering you?” only to hear “Nothing” in answer?

3. Over-reacts  and blames

In his book, The Narcissist You Know, Dr. Joseph Burgo singles out the narcissist’s habit of ascribing whatever pain he’s feeling to the actions of others and wanting payback. When the rest of us fall into a dark mood, we might wrongly ascribe our grouchiness and irritability to others who are beyond annoying in the moment and might lash out. But that’s usually followed by clarity and, hopefully, an apology.  Not so the narcissist: he’s blaming you or someone for how lousy he feels (oh, that feeling of being special is under threat!) and he’ll make someone pay. And, yes, the first accusatory words out of his mouth are “You always…”

4.Vindictive to the max

The vindictive narcissist is actually one of Joseph Burgo’s types but all narcissists have a take-no-prisoners approach to anyone who’s threatened their feeling good about themselves. Their impaired empathy makes them oblivious to emotional consequences so they’ll punch and counter-punch to protect themselves and their vision of things. This is why divorcing a narcissist is often hell on earth; there’s never a negotiation or a meet-in-the-middle possibility. Nope, the narcissist indulges in what I call a “scorched earth” policy.

It’s in conflict or in the wake of a perceived threat that the narcissist is easy to spot. Pay attention to his anger and moods and you’ll be better prepared to protect yourself because you’ll absolutely know whom you’re dealing with.

Photograph by Dahan Remy. Copyright free. Unsplash.com

Giacomin, Miranda and Christian H. Jordan,” Self-focused and feeling good: Assessing state narcissism and its relation to well-being,” Journal of Research in Personality 63 (2016),12-21.

Malkin, Craig. Rethinking Narcissism: The Secret to Recognizing and Coping with Narcissists.  New York: Harper Perennial, 2016.

Burgo, Joseph. The Narcissist You Know.  New York: Touchstone, 201