If you’re reading this, the chances are good that you’re trying not to repeat history and go down that path which looked like it was strewn with flowers on the very first date and ended up being a total nightmare which may well have broken your heart and spirit. Recovering from a run-in with a narcissist is hard because, in hindsight, it turns out that nothing was what it seemed and you feel like an idiot because you were totally played. Yes, played. I’ll be referring to the narcissist as a male because there are more men on the far end of the narcissistic spectrum but make no mistake: women too can be high in narcissistic traits. So switch up the genders if you like.
Counterintuitively, the very first step in honing your ability to understand these guys from the get-go has nothing to do with them but with you. Yes, you.
Men high in narcissistic traits aren’t attracted to just anyone; they’re in search of an attentive audience, someone willing to be devoted and who can feel comfortable being a moon circling a planet. They need someone who confuses being controlled with being taken care of and who thinks that being swept off her feet and putting her own needs aside are part of what love looks like. They want someone who looks good on the outside but, in fact, is deeply insecure and worried about being lovable; the narcissist knows that those traits will make it much easier for him to run the show unchallenged. This type of woman is much more likely to take the bait and, moreover, much more likely to blame herself for her own shortcomings when there’s a disagreement or fight. The narcissist never apologizes so he needs a partner who’s eager to please and quick to kiss and make up.
A woman whose emotional needs weren’t met in childhood—who felt unloved or unheard, was made to feel less than, or was criticized to the max—displays many, if not all, of these behaviors. She’s vulnerable because she wants a soulmate but has no idea what one looks like.
Is this you? If it is, you need to be consciously aware of how your own unconscious behaviors and assumptions put you at risk for being in a relationship with someone high in narcissistic traits. (For more on this, see my newest book Daughter Detox: Recovering from an Unloving Mother and Reclaiming Your Life.)
A Spotter’s Guide: 5 Things to Look For
Yes, it’s true that the narcissist can be a braggart and full of himself—showing off his trophies, using a bullhorn to tout his successes—but he can also be quiet and relatively unassuming. At a glance, he may not seem as though he fits the bill and you let down your guard, reassuring yourself that this time, it’ll be different. Following are some more nuanced and subtle signs that, alas, you’re back in the same place.
Has life on speed dial
To echo the Simon and Garfunkel song, the narcissist moves too fast, which may seem thrilling to you and flattering as all-get-out but it’s really a sign that he’s in it to win it, and you’re “it.” You’re a prize he wants, not a person. Whether it’s love bombing in the form of gifts and flowers, text messages day and night, or a declaration of love when you hardly know each other, these are all signs that you are in deep waters. Getting to know someone is supposed to take time, and real connections develop from the ground up.
If you’re paying attention, you’ll see that much of that feeling of closeness is tied up in actions and a fast pace, not long conversations and the sharing of experience. Being swept off your feet is not a good thing.
Exerts stealth control
Dr. Craig Malkin, author of Rethinking Narcissism, makes this point brilliantly because how the narcissist controls you may not be as obvious as telling you what to do or issuing directives or ultimatums. Instead, the narcissist switches up plans you’ve already made—whisking you off for a weekend alone when you’ve made plans with friends, for example, or deciding that a French restaurant would be so much more glamorous than ordering in—always under the guise of making things nicer or better. This allows him to run your life without your even noticing; in time, you’ll forget that you had your own wants and needs which is the point.
Mind you, when you confront him about feeling isolated from your friends or being managed, he’ll tell you he did it all for you. If you’re insecure about your perceptions, the net has been dropped over you once again. And, maybe, just maybe, you’ll confuse his wanting you all to himself with love.
How he tells a story
The obvious part is that, yes, he’s usually the hero of the stories he tells but the less obvious point is that when the story doesn’t have a happy or successful endings, it’s always someone else’s fault. When he tells the story of his last relationship or two, you’ll probably feel sorry for him because the way he tells it, he did everything for her but nothing was enough. Your heart aches for him in the moment because he was so badly treated and, yes, “victimized.” The story need not be about romance, either; if you listen carefully, you’ll notice that all of his stories follow the same plot lines.
His vision of the world has no gray areas—just black and white, winners and losers. Once you pick up on that, you’ll see how easily and quickly he judges people and puts them in one box or the other.
What he shares and doesn’t
It’s in hindsight—especially after a relatively long relationship or even a marriage—that the degree to which a narcissist curates the story of his life becomes obvious. Current thinking about narcissism focuses on the deep shame the narcissist is hiding, a wounded self he keeps out of public view, and curation of his history is part and parcel of that. Often, the stories will be wildly inconsistent with the facts—a recounting of an idyllic childhood on the shores of Long Island with the freedom to explore and be himself bumping up against the facts of binge-drinking father who disappeared, leaving his wife and two sons wondering whether he was dead or alive. Or perhaps it’s what he’s told you about his close relationship to his brother which belies what you see when you see them interact.
While the rest of us struggle to make sense of our experiences, the narcissist doesn’t. He has his black and white boxes at the ready.
His social circle
He may have told you that he’s just too busy and focused to have close friendships but you do notice that the people he’s connected to are either of use to him in one way or another—business acquaintances, guys he can play golf with—or people he only sees once a year or two like old college buddies. He doesn’t seem to have any confidants but, maybe, that’s just a guy thing? He may explain that he “lost” all of his friends when his last marriage or relationship ended because his spouse or lover insisted people take sides. Maybe he’s told you that people at his company or law firm don’t socialize but when you go to the company dinner or picnic, you notice that lots of people seem to know each other well.
He’s depending on you to buy into his story and you do so at your own peril. These are all red flags.
20/20 hindsight isn’t the only way to spot a narcissist. Prepare yourself and become a good spotter, starting with you.
READ: Malkin, Craig. Rethinking Narcissism: The Secret to Recognizing and Coping with Narcissists. New York: Harper Perennial, 2016.
Photograph by Brooke Cagle. Copyright free. Unsplash.com