How to spot and deal with a narcissist

It is hard to identify a narcissist at first glance. But we have all surely met one, whether it is a partner, a friend, or a co-worker

The narcissist is everywhere, although not always visible or detectable at first glance.Vera Atchou (Getty Images/PhotoAlto)

The term narcissist comes from the Greek myth in which the young and beautiful Narcissus fell deeply in love with his own reflection in a pool of water and ended up so entranced by it his body eventually fades away and all that is left is a flower. Today, though, “it is a personality disorder characterized by excessively high self-esteem, a lack of empathy, and a constant search for admiration,” psychologist Rebeca Gómez from the European Institute of Positive Psychology explains.

Spotting a narcissist is not difficult, according to the expert: “They usually conform to the following behavioral patterns: egocentric behavior, an exaggerated belief in their own importance, and they have fantasies of success, such as inventing credentials that they do not have or achievements that they have never attained.” It is also common for them to lack empathy, the psychologist adds, “and they exploit and take advantage of others to achieve their goals.”

Narcissism can affect men and women, although some studies show that there are differences in how their narcissistic traits are expressed. “For example, men can show more aggression and often seek power, while women can focus more on physical appearance and social manipulation,” says the psychologist, referring to the research by José Luis Trechera, Genoveva Millán Vásquez de la Torre, and Emilio Fernández Morales.

Joanaina Barceló is an expert in non-formal education, self-esteem, relationships, and emotional dependency. She provides more examples of narcissistic personality characteristics to those mentioned above, including: “The excessive need to be admired. They are very good at exploiting interpersonal relationships and are excellent manipulators.” She also adds: “They are envious and believe that others envy them for their great virtues, which means they display arrogant attitudes and behaviors.”

The moment a person discovers that another is a narcissist and lets him know, “they will bad-mouth you. They will highlight all your defects to humiliate you. They will criticize you and threaten you, since they feel contempt for those they consider inferior, and, of course, they are incapable of taking the tiniest sliver of responsibility for a problem or of blaming themselves for something and saying sorry,” says Barceló.

Of course, she adds, “a person with narcissistic personality disorder will never recognize that they are narcissistic, therefore, it is another trait to take into account when faced with someone who presents a narcissistic nature.” Deep down, she continues, all these characteristics come “from a lack of self-esteem and internal problems with which they fight daily. They also struggle with crises of confidence within themselves, although they manage to keep it from showing. Therefore, how you recognize a narcissist is through their attitude and behavior, their words, and their lack of empathy or their inability to recognize the emotions of others.”

Dealing with a narcissist

Barceló maintains that it is difficult to have a relationship with a narcissist: “They will always try to intimidate you, so the important thing is not to fear them, or fall under their spell, because they are like snake charmers. Fighting narcissism, especially in close relationships, requires many attitudes, but among them are establishing clear limits, maintaining assertive communication, not feeding their need for admiration or attention and, above all, not responding to calls, messages, or attempts at communication. Also, avoid personal encounters, seek support from friends, family, or professionals and, in cases of harassment, consider taking legal action.”

On a romantic level, “if we talk about a narcissistic ex-partner, a case of what we call ‘hoovering’ can happen. That is, after a breakup — and when you least expect it — you receive a message or a call from your ex saying that they can’t live without you, or that they need you, and they will act as if nothing had happened,” Barceló concludes.

The narcissist in the work environment

At work, the narcissist does not vary much. “In the workplace, they can exhibit very obvious distinctive traits such as dominant behaviors, an obsession with seeking admiration from others, a lack of empathy, and a tendency to exploit other people in their environment to achieve their goals,” says Ana Hernández, an expert in managing stress in the workplace. Furthermore, she continues, “the constant need for attention, exaggeration of achievements, and a lack of recognition towards others are telltale signs that point directly to someone who has a narcissistic profile. It is common for them not to take responsibility for their mistakes and they show an obvious tendency to manipulate situations for their own benefit. Observing repetitive patterns of contempt towards colleagues or people under their charge is another unmistakable sign that we have a textbook narcissist before us.”

Constant need for attention, exaggeration of achievements, and a lack of appreciation for others are telltale signs that you may have encountered a narcissist at work.
Constant need for attention, exaggeration of achievements, and a lack of appreciation for others are telltale signs that you may have encountered a narcissist at work.Paul Bradbury (Getty Images)

If that narcissistic person is a superior at work, “it is essential to adopt a focused strategy and stay emotionally balanced,” explains Hernández. “The ideal situation is to maintain clear and direct communication, based on facts and not on opinions or interpretable arguments, because they will take advantage of them to find sufficient reasons for unnecessary confrontations,” she advises. “Observing these people without preconceived judgments helps a lot when it comes to putting filters on that person. Another advantage when it comes to safeguarding yourself from their degree of influence is knowing in advance that they need recognition and admiration for their achievements. Focusing on tangible and demonstrable results is a way to safeguard those limits. The ideal is to look for a support network with colleagues to create a healthy work environment,” Hernández recommends.

“Exercising caution, without losing your authentic self, staying true to your values, and managing expectations are key when interacting with people with narcissistic traits,” she sums up. First of all, the expert in stress recalls, “the first point is to stay emotionally balanced and not allow our amygdala to activate, because when that happens, the only response is fight, flight, or freezing. And none of these options will help us.”

Sign up for our weekly newsletter to get more English-language news coverage from EL PAÍS USA Edition

More information

Recomendaciones EL PAÍS
Recomendaciones EL PAÍS