- Isabelle Morley, PsyD
"Is My Ex a Narcissist?"
If you've wondered if your ex (or even current partner) is a narcissist, keep reading to find out if they check off the criteria.
If you read my post on sociopathic exes, you know that despite what we hope, not all of our exes are certifiably insane. This is a great disappointment to all of us, because we really wish we could explain away their behaviors with a clinical disorder.
Most of the time, our exes are just humans who are navigating relationships in the error-prone way that humans operate. They may have been unkind, unclear, or even mean, but that doesn't make them a sociopath or a narcissist.
However, sometimes our exes do meet criteria for a personality disorder (a diagnostic category that includes both sociopaths and narcissists) and it really helps to know when that's the case because it provides clarity on the upsetting things that happen both during and after the relationship.
So let's dive into what narcissists act like, the telltale signs and patterns that you're dealing with one, and what to do about it.
Narcissistic Personality Disorder
Just like with someone who has Antisocial Personality Disorder, to be labeled a narcissist your ex needs to meet certain clinical criteria. According to the DSM-5 (the manual that lists all the clinical disorders) these criteria are:
Significant impairments in personality functioning manifest by:
1. Impairments in self functioning (a or b):
a. Identity: Excessive reference to others for self-definition and self-esteem regulation; exaggerated self-appraisal may be inflated or deflated, or vacillate between extremes; emotional regulation mirrors fluctuations in self-esteem.
b. Self-direction: Goal-setting is based on gaining approval from others; personal standards are unreasonably high in order to see oneself as exceptional, or too low based on a sense of entitlement; often unaware of own motivations.
2. Impairments in interpersonal functioning (a or b):
a. Empathy: Impaired ability to recognize or identify with the feelings and needs of others; excessively attuned to reactions of others, but only if perceived as relevant to self; over- or underestimate of own effect on others.
b. Intimacy: Relationships largely superficial and exist to serve self-esteem regulation; mutuality constrained by little genuine interest in others' experiences and predominance of a need for personal gain.
In addition to these 2 main criteria, the behaviors and traits need to be consistent and stable across time (you can't be a narcissist to only one person), not due to some sociocultural norms or developmental stage (otherwise teenagers would all be narcissists), and not a result of taking a substance (narcissists are this way, sober or not).
How Do I Spot a Narcissist?
The above criteria are a lot to unpack and sound very clinical, because they are. So what does a narcissist actually look like/act like? Luckily there are some telltale signs and patterns that make it relatively easy to spot a narcissist.
They have an Unstable Identity- narcissists do not have a consistent sense of self. They
are constantly trying to understand and define who they are, and usually look to
feedback from others for this. Their self-esteem is incredibly fragile, despite how
arrogant they often appear, making it vulnerable to plummet or shoot sky high
depending on what others think of them.
They Show a Lack of Empathy- this is a very important trait of a narcissist, and what makes it so difficult (nearly impossible) for them to change. Perhaps because they're so consumed with their own self-directed feelings, be it excessive self-love or toxic self-hate, narcissists do not have empathy for others. They use people and they hurt people without feeling badly about it. Narcissists have a gift for rationalizing their actions and convincing themselves why the other person has no right to be upset.
They Are Always the Victim- narcissists think they never do anything wrong (thus their lack of empathy) and they also see themselves as always being the victim. Any feedback or complaint is perceived as a personal attack on their characters. Any questioning of their decisions is viewed as an attack. Their self-esteem is so fragile, they cannot tolerate others doubting, questioning, or god forbid outright challenging them. No matter what happens, or even if they were the actual cause of the problem, narcissist find a way to blame someone else and never take responsibility.
When I say never, I mean never. They never hold themselves accountable, in a healthy and honest way, for their actions. Now, most people can be defensive and try to explain why they did something, but narcissists are more destructive than that. They will gaslight, turn the blame on you, and make no attempt (not even a disingenuous one) to apologize or repair.
They Have to Be the Best- without their own source of self-esteem, narcissists strive for others to view them as the best. Their personal or professional goals are only to gain approval and acclaim from others. They will do whatever gets them this attention. They need to buoy their unstable being with accomplishments, power, money, or fame. These things never give a narcissist true self-esteem though, and they are always working on the next goal for another little boost. They need a constant stream of admiration and validation.
They See People as All Good or All Bad- because narcissists are excessively self-focused, they do not view other people in a healthy way. If you're associated with a narcissist, like a friend or partner, they will hold you to the same absurd standards that they hold themselves to, and they will expect complete compliance and loyalty. When you're in good standing with a narcissist, they see you as an extension of themselves, which is why you must look good and fall in line.
If you show even a shred of disagreement or fail to meet their expectations for what they wanted from you, you're out. And once you're out, you're really out. They see "enemies" everywhere, and if you fall into that category, they won't feel bad taking revenge on you, withholding resources from you, isolating you, and more.
They Engage in Abuse- listen, as is no surprise at this point, people with NPD are abusive. They are manipulative, they gaslight, they use verbal or physical abuse to get their way, they bully and intimidate, they refuse to apologize or repair, they're dismissive and condescending, and they don't care about any of it. They don't feel bad the next day, because by the next day they've convinced themselves that you deserved it and that they were the victim. They show no remorse because they have no remorse.
Example- if someone at works tells you that they liked your powerpoint but want to make a few changes to content and design, you would probably not be destroyed. Maybe this would stir up some feelings, such as insecurity or frustration, but your identity would not be in question. For a narcissist, however, this interaction would first make them self-esteem plunge to to the depths of self-hatred. They already think very little of themselves and any feedback perceived to confirm this will hit very hard. But, they don't stay in this place for long, because their defense mechanism of grandiosity will protect them feeling this awful. Suddenly they will decide that their powerpoint was actually the best they've ever seen, and that their coworker is an incompetent idiot but also a scheming devil trying to undermine and surpass them at work.
Narcissist Personality Disorder is more common than Antisocial Personality Disorder (APD, or what we usually refer to as sociopathy). Whereas only 1-4% of the US population meet criteria for APD, 5% or more of the population meet criteria for NPD.
Studies have shows that it's more common in men than in women, and that it's difficult to treat people with NPD because of the nature of their disorder; their lack of empathy, poor insight, and difficulty establishing healthy relationships (including with therapists) makes it challenging to engage them in treatment.
Romance with a Narcissist
If you're reading this, you're probably more interested in what it's like to date, marry, and/or divorce someone who meets criteria for NPD. When you first meet someone, it can be hard to tell if they have a stable identity or empathy (because narcissists can be good at faking empathy when it benefits them, such as when trying to secure a partner). But, there is a pattern to a romantic relationship with a narcissist, which will be a sure giveaway that you're dealing with one.
Here are the 3 stages: idealization, devaluation, and discard.
Each of these stages could have it's own separate blog post so I'll go through them pretty quickly.
1. Idealization stage: the most dangerous stage, because the narcissist is hiding their true nature and drawing you in. They have determined that you are worthy to be chosen by them. Because you're great, they want to be associated with you so that they will feel great too (because your greatness would be a reflection on them, in their eyes). They shower you with praise, affection, and gifts. They make you feel like the most amazing, accomplished, beautiful, and worthy person in the entire world. You're on cloud 9 and can't believe you've found a partner who cherishes you this much.
2. Devaluation stage: things have slowly changed and you don't know why. Just as you were getting more comfortable in the relationship, they seem to always be annoyed with you. Whereas they used to fawn all over you, now they try to change you. Suddenly you don't feel like the most amazing person anymore, now you never feel good enough. They continuously point out your flaws, correct your behaviors, and seem exasperated as they tolerate all of your faults. Maybe you try to get back into their good graces by doing everything "right," or you shower them with love and praise to make them happy again. But your efforts inevitably fall short and you feel them becoming more and more distant.
3. Discard stage: the most painful stage because suddenly you're thrown off the rollercoaster. Somehow you have disappointed them and now they are completely done with you. They will withdraw their affection, stop speaking to you, act cold and passive aggressive, get angry at everything you say or do, or will cut you out of their life completely and mercilessly. It doesn't matter how hard you try to fix things, if a person with NPD has decided you aren't good enough, they will discard you.
The Pattern is Recurring
Another clue that you're dealing with a narcissist is that you can see this pattern across all of their relationships, not just with you. If you look back at their previous friendships or partnerships, you can see how they were at first obsessed and in love with the person, then annoyed with them, and then done with them.
There is a recurring theme in their lives of people disappointing them, not appreciating their greatness enough, and eventually being discarded.
Now , they might maintain relationships with family with slightly more stability (family is harder to shake, after all), and they might even have long-term friends (who are probably not as close to them as you may think), but romantic partners in particular will come and go. Anyone who gets truly close to a narcissist will find themselves entangled in their grandiose yet fragile ego, and will find it impossible to create a deep and healthy relationship with this person. And you'll notice that the narcissist always see themselves as the victim of their past romances, never accepting any responsibility or engaging in any self-reflection as to why they keep losing important people.
The narcissist will also frame those people in an entirely negative way:
"Oh him? He was absolutely crazy! He was always upset and sitting me down for these long relationship talks, it was too much."
"My ex was so needy and always took me for granted. I did everything for her, I even bought her this amazing necklace and all she said was how she thought I didn't give her enough attention. She wasn't good enough for me anyway."
You get the idea.
"What Should I Do?"
If you've realized you're dealing with a narcissist, it's time to change your approach to the relationship or breakup. You can't engage with them in a vulnerable, emotionally honest way. They'll just take advantage of you if you do.
My next post will provide some strategies for how to navigate a relationship or breakup with a narcissist, but I would also recommending educating yourself as much as possible. Read books and articles, find podcast episodes, watch Succession for a great (and alarming) depiction of how narcissists behave in relationships, and talk to people you trust about the situation. You need to arm yourself with knowledge and social support.