What A Narcissist Says (And What They Really Mean)
Narcissists are expert manipulators, and they’ll do just about anything to avoid a bruised ego. Here’s what to know (and where to draw the line).
Narcissism is, by most estimations, a rare disorder. According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, about 0.5 to 1 percent of people are diagnosed with narcissistic personality disorder (NPD).
However, many psychologists believe narcissism is on the rise; the American Psychological Association notes that one major 2008 study found that 9.4 percent of Americans in their 20s had experienced NPD at some point in their lives (compared to a relatively paltry 3.2 percent of people over 65).
Regardless, if you’ve ever dealt with a narcissist, you know one experience is more than enough.
“People with NPD tend to belittle others in a way that positions themselves as the greater or more important person in their relationships,” says clinical psychologist Sal Raichbach, PsyD, a licensed clinical social worker and chief of clinical compliance at Ambrosia Treatment Center. “In doing this, they can take advantage of those who have more passive personalities and exercise control over that person. Being able to control and manipulate others reinforces the narcissist’s perception that they are all-important.”
To be clear, nobody should try to diagnose narcissism without proper training, and because NPD is a spectrum, some people might display narcissistic behaviors without actually having the disorder.
With that said, narcissists often communicate in similar ways, and by recognizing certain behaviors, you may be able to curb their influence (or better yet, avoid them entirely).
What they say: “You’re absolutely perfect. I don’t deserve you.”
In romantic relationships, narcissists typically go to great lengths to make their partners feel special. That sounds wonderful—and in many cases, it feels pretty great.
“When I first met my partner, I was swept off my feet, as cliché as that sounds,” says Amber, a 28-year-old woman who says she dated a man with narcissistic tendencies for several years. “Everything was about me. The compliments were glowing, and I didn’t notice anything unpleasant or unusual.”
Unfortunately, that stage of the relationship doesn’t typically last long.
“In a new relationship, a narcissist can appear like an incredibly charming, kind, and intelligent person,” Raichbach says. “These personality traits, whether they are real or manufactured, are a part of their manipulation strategy. Once they have established a relationship, they begin to show their true selves and adjust their manipulating tactics to bullying and belittling others.”
What they say: “Here, I got you something…”
“He gave me gifts throughout the relationship,” Amber says. “That’s something I miss! But in all seriousness, some of [the gifts] seemed overwhelming. We’d only been dating for a few weeks when he got me this tablet that easily cost $500. I chalked it up to his generosity. Looking back, it was a warning sign.”
While narcissists might employ a variety of behaviors to woo potential mates, gift-giving seems particularly common—and particularly problematic.
A 2016 study found three primary motivations for gift-giving in romantic relationships: intrinsic (in other words, simply showing that a partner is appreciated), maintenance (keeping the relationship going), and power (gaining an advantage over the partner). Narcissists were more likely to give gifts for maintenance or power.
“Our results suggest that narcissistic individuals critically differ from those with high self-esteem in their tendency to consider gift giving an instrumental act,” the study’s authors wrote.
In other words, because narcissists typically have low self-esteem, they’re more likely to see gift-giving as a necessary activity. Obviously, that’s not a great basis for a healthy relationship.
“Narcissists will go to any lengths to get ‘in’ with a person before they begin to show their true colors,” Raichbach explains. “Excessive flattery, gift-giving, and over-the-top kindness are common at the beginning stages of a relationship with a narcissist. However, this isn’t always the case, and sometimes other people are attracted to narcissists because of their intelligence or personality.”
In any case, the good times don’t last.
What they say: “I’m the victim here.”
In a conflict, a narcissist will often try to flip the discussion. The other person might hear something like:
“Yeah, but what about the time you….”
“You do it, too.”
“I only did that because you….”
In each case, the takeaway is the same: The narcissist’s bad behavior isn’t really their fault. How could it be? They’re nearly perfect.
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