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4 Traits That Make Identifying Narcissism a Guessing Game

clearing the fog photo

Let’s clear the fog. At least four traits often associated with narcissism, wittingly or unwittingly, cause confusion instead. That’s because these four traits have nothing to do with narcissism on their own or either indicators of codependency rather than narcissism, or only

They lead to costly errors that mask the real narcissists, perhaps also fall into their schemes, for example, to hide by blame-shifting the label to a partner they are smearing. Many therapists are at risk of being bamboozled, unprepared by their many years of training to identify a narcissist in counseling contexts.

Even worse, victims of narcissistic abuse are prone to blame themselves for a narcissist’s wrongs, and narcissists are skilled at instilling self-blame thought patterns in their targets. It’s common for codependents to worry, thinking they may be narcissists when reading an article on the internet, or being accused by an abusive partner! These patterns can keep them stuck in prison-like mindsets, spinning their wheels, looking to change a list of faults the narcissist identified — or avoiding actions that would support them to heal and break free.

The traits below make identifying the “real” narcissist in a couple relationship a guessing game, not unlike the popular game show, To Tell the Truth, where panelists had to guess which contestant was telling the truth, and which were imposters.

The fact is, narcissists put a lot of energy into muddling the truth, more specifically, the truth regarding who and what is really ‘normal’ for humans in relationships, and who and what behaviors are most reflective of serious mental disturbances, hands down, persons and actions seeking to demoralize and dehumanize their own and others’ lives and relationships.

The narcissist works hard, for example, to hide the real ‘craziness’ of the lies they tell — to prop up illusions of false-self that is all-powerful, entitled to act with impunity — and to pin “emotional craziness” on their partner.

Convoluting the truth is part of their game plan. It helps them hide and work under the radar.

For these reasons, clearing the fog is critical.

The terms narcissist or sociopath are best reserved for those that meet the DSM criteria for narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) — or its more extreme manifestation, antisocial personality disorder (APD) also known a psychopathology or sociopathology.

These lie on a continuum based on the threat or risk of harm to others. On one end, the NPD poses risks for violence that is subtle, albeit traumatizing, in the form of emotional and mental abuse and harassment; on the other, the APD is a criminal mind, again in varying degrees, feels no remorse for acts of domestic violence, sexual assault, rape, in extreme cases, death, that are physical in nature.

The real narcissist is a character disordered person. They do not feel or act human — indeed, they feel disgust for those that do! That’s what makes narcissism is a love deficit. A narcissist is willfully divorced from his true-self, or human core drives to form meaningful empathy-based, social relationships, out of disgust for them as weakness, scorn. In his thought-disordered worldview, he associates empathy with those who are inferior, stupid, crazy — and potentially dangerous competitors, “deserving” to be hurt, exploited, enslaved. He is proud of the lies and illusions he spins, his con-artistry skills in general, and lusts to rob his partner of a sense of worth, sanity, dignity, agency, peace of mind — believing this makes his superiority dazzle.

So what are the four traits that make identifying narcissism a guessing game?

1. Seeking attention or admiration of others. 

First, it must be said that seeking attention is a normal human striving, as is wanting to be admired or successful. When narcissists seek attention and admiration, they do so in distinct ways aligned with their hidden, or open motive to make others feel bad, ashamed, small, invisible, irrelevant and the like.

How absurd to label high achievers, or spotlight seekers as narcissists. How convenient that, more often than not, it is women who are nonconforming to gender roles that are labeled narcissists because they are “too” independent, financially successful, loud, outspoken, obsessed with their looks or clothes, and so on.

Just because we do not like a person, or we find them annoying, upsetting, needy, or over the top flashy in what they wear or the emotions they express, does not make them a narcissist.

To want attention, to feel esteem, and the like, in and of themselves are universal emotion-drives. They’re connected to our overarching human drive to matter and meaningfully connect and contribute. In early childhood, these needs are as critical to our survival as physical needs for oxygen or water; they continue to be essential to our health and well being throughout life.

All human beings are hardwired with a drive for happiness, and ideally, we learn healthy rather than addictive ways to feel pleasure.

Apart from moments when we are in triggered states of mind and body, most healthy human beings feel happy when giving others attention, and want to make loved ones feel admired. In fact, we may feel as much pleasure, or more, when making others feel loved and valued, recognized and appreciated.

The “mirror neuron” feature of the human brain works to reflect back the same molecules of emotion we feel for others to ourselves, and vise versa. Studies show, for example, the body releases the same feel-good hormones, regardless whether we receive or give attention or act of kindness, and also when we observe these acts taking place between others!

To the extent persons feel scorn and hatred for others, their bodies release the same mix of bad-feeling hormones in their bloodstream. (It’s why forgiving and letting go is something we do for our own health!)

The problem with narcissists or sociopaths is that their pleasure-inducing pathways are cross-wired! For them, hating, feeling scorn, dominating others to make them feel small, is a primary pleasure. Based on the associations they’ve formed in their brain, they love to hate, and love to be hated, and keeps them in states of misery and self-loathing, their false-self egos extremely fragile. It’s not only impossible to please them, but the more others work hard to please them, the more punitive and abusive they get, craving more and more of the drug that keeps them sick.

They derive pleasure from making others feel bad. That’s their drug. It makes sense that they’d feel no remorse for hurting others. To them, it’s evidence of their superiority, it’s what entitles them to hoard pleasure, and to treat others as they please, to act with impunity.

Thus narcissists don’t just seek admiration, they do so in ways that seek to attack and take down another’s sense of worth, to smear or ruin their reputation, to turn others against them, to isolate or set them up to look bad or crazy in public, and so on.

And they don’t just seek attention; they do so as part of long term plan to block another from their sources of attention or value, i.e., texting incessantly, with intent to “ruin” a partner’s plans, or their reputation at work, or time with family or friends. Or, they may have a pattern of accusing their partner, i.e., of infidelity, just to steal the focus of attention, to watch them squirm, to spin their wheels, getting worked up, desperately trying to defend themselves or pro fess their loyalty and admiration!

For a narcissist, getting away with making a partner feel bad, and then blaming them for it … is success, proving their prowess and superiority.

In other words, for them, it’s not about admiration or attention in human terms! It’s a pattern of behaviors, and an underlying strategy, to drain the life energy from another, to steal their sources of pleasure, and make them as miserable and bitter and feel like “nothing” inside (which mirrors self-inflicted inner world of a narcissist).

These distinctions need to be made. Otherwise, it’s not narcissism.

Trying to understand narcissism from a human vantage point is what keeps all of us in a fog. It’s what narcissist aim to do. Let’s stay smart, awake, not fall into their traps.

Narcissists and psychopaths are skilled at lies and illusions. They are good at blame-shifting their wrongs onto others, and this is how they hide … in plain sight! Let’s remain aware of this to not collude inadvertently with narcissists and sociopaths.

2. Selfish demands and angry outbursts.

Angry outbursts are unhealthy ways of expressing anger, to be sure. They harm us as individuals and our relationships. If outbursts include disparaging labels and put downs, it’s abusive. In many cases, it requires treatment.

Anger however is also critical human emotion. At healthy levels, a low level of release of cortisol in the bloodstream, moves us to take action, makes it possible to stand up for ourselves, to advocate for what we most value or another person. It’s an emotion that lets us know when something we want or need feels blocked. It’s a signal for us to take action, to realize what we want, our goals, big and small, our dreams, aspirations (and ideally to do so in healthy ways).

On the other hand, angry outbursts are learned defenses. They occur when we get triggered, and the body’s survival system automatically activates habitual defense strategies to express our pain, hurt and disappointment, in ways that make us feel less vulnerable. They are often ways we learned to cope with stress, suppress anger, or other ineffective ways, i.e., depression, to regulate fear and other painful emotions, such as hurt and disappointment, in formative years.

There are several reasons why associating anger outbursts with narcissism is problematic.

First and foremost, anger is the emotion that narcissists most attack the expression of in their partner, more often, through the use of gaslighting.

That is because it is connected to our universal, emotion-drive for agency. Absent a connection to our emotion of anger, it’s easier to take over the thoughts, feelings, wants and sense of purpose of another human being!

It’s no coincidence that anger is (still!) socially taboo for women. Both men and women are socialized from childhood, for example, to believe that “good” women should not express anger, and should only want to please others, be selfless, and not have wants of their own. This is still a widespread belief, as is the belief that, in contrast, it’s natural for men to express anger, but socially taboo for them to express pain and hurt.

This gender role socialization explains why narcissism occurs far more frequently in men than women.

Anger outbursts should not be used to identify narcissism. This plays right into the game plan of narcissists and psychopaths to hide and blame-shift the label to someone their victimizing.

Second, a narcissist’s anger outbursts are distinct in that they serve a specific intent to terrorize another into a state of silence and submission. The narcissist displays the outbursts at random, not just when they are triggered. Step by step, the outbursts serve to instill fear, to get a partner to give up complaints, certain wants or plans, and to tremble at the thought of saying or doing what may trigger another angry outburst.

Narcissists and psychopaths see it as their “job” to train a partner, as one would a pet, to silence themselves, never question or complain, to feel voiceless, invisible, to be seen and not heard, talk only when asked, and so on.

Third, narcissists may or may not be outwardly demanding — and may or may not display angry outbursts!

Overt narcissists are more easy to spot in this regard as they dramatize their demands, disappointments, anger, and may even proudly display in public, along with no remorse for hurting or humiliating a partner.

In contrast, covert narcissists can be difficult to detect. Though both use tactics to set a partner up to do things, say things, etc., that make her look “crazy,” or that she’ll later hate herself for, in contrast, a covert narcissist likes to be seen as a laid back, fun-loving, easy to get along with, and selfless good-guy.

Covert narcissists takes pride in keeping the power they wield hidden, rarely if ever displaying outbursts of anger or rage, and set up his partner instead to look like the “selfish,” “controlling” and demanding one.

Having studied his partner carefully, a covert narcissist uses passive aggressive tactics, for example, to resist her every attempt to influence by stonewalling her. Literally, this means to act like an immovable wall; and that’s how it feels to try to get a covert narcissist to collaborate with one of her request, especially in public when others are around.

The truth is, we live in a society where there is a lot of trauma, conceivably, much a result of these dehumanizing might-makes-right norms that hide narcissism, and romanticize or eroticize dominance. For generations most all parents have been expected to use fear, shame, guilt and other punitive tactics to socialize children. Some of them were narcissists; others innocent colluders who went along out of fear. Most were duped into thinking these punitive norms for men and women, and human relationships, are biological imperatives (or god ordained).

It’s vital to understand that behaviors traumatizes and dehumanize the capacity of human beings to connect with self and other … can be regarded as biological norms! There is nothing normal about the inhumane practices of dominance as a practice to obtain unquestioned obedience.

Anger is a critical emotion, one that moves us to stand up for themselves, to correct injustices and, or to create a better for all, one in which all are treated with dignity. To silence a human being’s anger at any age — in this case half the population — is perhaps the most cruel things one can do. It’s a form of hate propaganda, and thought control, now perfected by scientific studies. Narcissists and psychopaths know this.

While the architects of harsh social norms are likely narcissists, the majority are bystanders that are duped, traumatized and ensnared to go along with the lies, traps and illusions. The problem does not lie with one gender or another. The problem lies with social norms that stifle the expression of the full range of human emotions, and do so using punitive, traumatizing tactics, known for thousands of years. Most of us have or have had difficulty with emotions of anger and fear. Not because there is something wrong with us, rather because we learned to express our pain by instilling other’s with shame, guilt and fear. We came by these honestly, however, these tactics are still regarded as valuable in socializing children!

As a result, there are a lot of persons who are hurting; and hurt people hurt people. They trigger and upset us. Decades of research indicates most every family is impacted by dysfunctional dynamics and communication patterns.

3. Saying you are a narcissist. 

This one is easy. If you worry or have doubts about whether you’re the narcissist in your relationship, you are not a contender! This disqualifies you. In fact, to the extent you question whether you’re the narcissist, the opposite is true; you likely need healing from codependency, perhaps also narcissistic abuse syndrome.

So why the confusion on who is or isn’t?

In large part, the confusion is related to the Narcissistic Personality Inventory, or NPI. According to the authors, Robert Raskin and Calvin Hall, this inventory was developed in 1979 solely to measure “subclinical” or “normal expressions of narcissism”; more specifically the inventory sought to measure “personality” traits of how assertive, confident, daring, adventurous, and achievement- or success-oriented one is — aiding social psychological research on the personality trait of narcissism as “excessive self love.”

The authors themselves note that the inventory is not an assessment of NPD. But even a glance at the items on the inventory itself speaks for itself. Based on the inventory, one is a narcissist to the extent they are assertive, confident, and, or achievement-oriented person.

According to one Handbook on Narcissism, for example, the NPI confounds narcissism with simple self-esteem and contains numerous items that are not narcissistic qualities.

This inventory has made it easier for NPD and APD partners to hide, and to blame-shift the label of “narcissism” onto their victims, act as trolls on the internet, etc.

Researchers continue to study this inventory though a casual glance at the list of items on the inventory speaks for itself. One study, by researchers at Ohio State University, claimed it just takes one question to identify a narcissist, and that was just to ask them, on a scale of 1 to 7, how much they agree with the statement, “I am a narcissist”!

Essentially, there is no measure for narcissism! Practitioners must rely on the criteria provided in the DSM to diagnose disorders, as they do with most other disorders.

Even if a self-inventory were developed, considering the traits of a narcissist or sociopath, and their skill in lies and illusions, it would be a futile effort.

4. Using the oxymoron term of “healthy narcissism.”

It is incorrect, and misleading to refer to core human strivings as “healthy narcissism.” It’s an oxymoron, a figure of speech in which two contradictory terms are put together. It’s well meaning at best to use this terminology, and several well intended authors and researchers do so.

The NPI itself may be responsible for some or most of this confusion. By using vague language, such as “normal expressions of narcissism,” and labeling itself as a “Narcissistic Personality Inventory,” the NPI has wittingly or unwittingly done a disservice.

Witting or unwitting, the effects of this terminology are not helpful, in that it:

  • Enables narcissists to hide and orchestrate confusion and blame-shifting the label.
  • Dilutes the seriousness narcissism, and its impact on family members.
  • Makes narcissism appear “normal” — rather than the serious pathology it is.
  • Allows narcissists to define abuse as love in the form of eroticized and romanticzed dominance, thus to snare prey by “love bombing” them.

To clear the fog, it’s important to see this term as an oxymoron. It’s like saying heaven is hell, or war is peace. Let’s keep the terms healthy and narcissism separate.

Healthy persons are not narcissists; they may have problems, mental health issues, but they are human because they want seek to feel human!

Narcissists and psychopaths are unhealthy because they hate and pretend they are above feeling “human”!

Whereas all human beings are wired with healthy, universal core emotion-drives, narcissism is serious pathology in which a once normal human being in early childhood experienced, and witnessed, dehumanizing trauma and shaming, to the point where he learned to hate, suppress, and regard his core human “true self” as inferior, disgusting weakness — and to prop up his fragile, wounded ego with a false-self instead.

Genuine love and valuing oneself and life is inseparable from loving others. To the extent we esteem others, we esteem ourselves.

A narcissist does not love themselves. They live with self-loathing, which is self-inflicted. The mirror neurons of the human brain make it impossible to regard others with hatred, scorn, to want to make them suffer and feel bad, without producing the same psycho-emotional states of mind and body in orders. Period.

To matter is a core need, one that is as critical to human health and well being as physical needs for water and oxygen! To want attention and to be esteemed, to believe in yourself and stay determined to realize your dreams, to meaningfully connect and contribute, all of these are core emotion-drives, part of the overarching drive to matter.

I began to write on the topic of narcissism a few years back, hoping to add some clarity, when it became apparent that this confusion made it easier for both well-meaning authors on the internet, and narcissistic trolls alike, to mislabel women as narcissists.

After all, women were likely to be the ones stereotyped as “selfish” and “demanding” if they were confident, assertive or success-oriented; and stereotyped as “in love with themselves” for looking into mirrors, being anxious about how they look, obsessed with clothes, and so on. The new wave of women starting with the 1960s into the 1970s were now thinking about setting goals, playing leadership roles, aspiring to be financial independent, and so on.

Narcissists and psychopaths know how effective it is to use shaming labels, such as controlling, selfish, demanding, emasculating, etc., to get women to do what they want. Even today, most women go out of their way to avoid being tagged with one of these, and overcompensate by working hard to be seen as nice instead. For women, the labels are the equivalent to labels used to shame men to conform to masculinity norms, such as girly, weak, gay, and the like. In either case, it’s inhumane to shame men or women to conform to inhumane and arbitrary standards.

In sum, NPDs and APDs are adept at projecting, accusing, shifting blame (for what they do!) onto their partners! And the same applies to narcissist trolls on the internet!

Some are suffering from mental health issues. Most of them, however, are not narcissists. And it is incorrect, totally, to refer to traits that are universal emotion-drives as “healthy narcissism”! This adds confusion and wittingly or unwittingly aid narcissists in blame-shifting the label of narcissism onto a partner, more often women.

This labels of narcissist or sociopath, in other words, should not be taken lightly! Conceivably the traumatizing effects of living with an NPD or APD may spawn many or most of the other mental health and personality disorders listed in the DSM. Hurt people hurt people. And to be sure, the same dysfunctional family dynamics that breed narcissism also breed codependency. In the words of family therapist Virginia Satir (1916 – 1988) who called for a “new way” of viewing the world apart from dominance and submission:

 Feelings of worth can flourish only in an atmosphere where individual differences are appreciated, mistakes are tolerated, communication is open, and rules are flexible – the kind of atmosphere that is found in a nurturing family.” ~ VIRGINIA SATIR

Notably, Satir’s working model for healing couple and family relationships was so remarkably effective in promoting rapid change at her live trainings, that her use of language as a healing tool (along with another giant, psychiatrist and clinical hypnotherapist Milton Erickson’s), were focus of extensive studies that led to the development of NLP, or neurolinguistic programming.

Photo by The Knowles Gallery

4 Traits That Make Identifying Narcissism a Guessing Game

Athena Staik, Ph.D.

Relationship consultant, author, licensed marriage and family therapist, Dr. Athena Staik motivates clients to break free of anxiety, emotion reactivity, and other addictive patterns, to awaken wholehearted relating to self and other. She is currently in private practice in Northern VA, and writing her book, What a Narcissist Means When He Says 'I Love You'": Breaking Free of Addictive Love in Couple Relationships. To contact Dr. Staik for information, an appointment or workshop, visit, or visit on her two Facebook fan pages DrAthenaStaik and DrStaik

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APA Reference
Staik, A. (2019). 4 Traits That Make Identifying Narcissism a Guessing Game. Psych Central. Retrieved on August 14, 2020, from


Last updated: 13 Apr 2019
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