How to spot a narcissist

Spotting a narcissist can be trickier than you would think! In general, a narcissist will aim to get you onside in order to facilitate their own needs. But in short, they make your life difficult if not unbearable. 


They will hide under a charismatic veneer with the aim to manipulate you into believing that you can trust them, that they have your best interests at heart and are highly moral individuals. But there are things to look out for that mean you are able to see behind the mask and get out of there before you are sucked in too deeply. It is all about making an accurate first, but if not definitely a second impression of someone. 

Signs that someone may be a narcissist

So, apart from a lack of empathy, what do you need to look out for?

Firstly, we need to look at what one study describes as an ‘enduring physical appearance’. Be this stylish and impeccable dressing, or a way of carrying themselves, they will aim to make a great first impression.

Do they come across as a little bit too into themselves, have tried a bit too hard and give off the vibe of ‘look at me’ or trying to be authoritative, without trying to be too overbearing? 

Another study suggests that we can tell a lot by the eyebrows of a narcissist as they can use their eyebrows to increase likeability and potential to be recognised. When they shape their eyebrows, they are aiming to shape the impression you have of them. 

When you are in conversation with a narcissist, they may launch into descriptions of how they have achieved this and done well at that. They may even brag about getting things, that you think, ‘hang on, that isn’t right, why would they be bragging about this?’ Like taking advantage of difficult situations and getting what should probably have gone to others more in need.

They may go on about where they have suffered and that everyone else is responsible for the things that have gone wrong in their lives. ‘Virtuous Victims’ is one phrase I have heard to describe this.

A narcissist wants you to believe that they deserve good things, as much as they believe it themselves.

This can also be referred to as ‘victim signalling’.

What might a narcissist say that points you in the direction of seeing below the veil? What is their hidden intent? A narcissist has a tendency to communicate differently to others as their words are tools and weapons and are disingenuous. 

Some phrases to listen out for 

You’re just too sensitive – basically saying that I have no empathy and do not and won’t engage with how you feel. Blaming is a good form of defence.

I know you are upset, but don’t blame me – meaning, I am not accepting any responsibility for this and I am definitely not going to give you the apology that is required.

Asking how your day was and then talking about their own with little or no acknowledgement of what you have said. Or saying ‘I have heard all this before’. Their appetite is for their own things, not yours. 

You’re wrong or I have never been more certain in my life – to make you doubt yourself and to reinforce their own opinions over yours.

Don’t try and analyse me – I hear this one a lot as I think I may give off the impression that I am trying to figure people out all of the time, what you might call an occupational hazard. But with a narcissist, it is all about deflection and not wanting to do any introspection. 

That’s not what I said – although you are absolutely certain it is exactly what they said. Image is key to the narcissist and they will backtrack on something if you challenge them on it. 

You’re too demanding or stop being so selfish – saying here that my needs are the priority, not yours. Stay out of my spotlight, it’s always all about me!

Of course, you can trust me; or of course, I respect you. When you know you really can’t and they really don’t.

Look, this is who I am, I can’t change and you will just have to take me or leave me! Basically, saying, there is no way I will be changing for this relationship. If you don’t want me then someone will. 

All of these things are to stop a narcissist from feeling humiliated or being seen as flawed in any way, shape or form. Any attempt to hide their own insecurities. 

With some types of behaviour, you will see them act larger than life to avoid their own emptiness. Being perfect or the best at things, that they are beyond reproach, but will undermine what others do at the same time.

A narcissist is generally a deeply hurt individual and though you can sympathise with them, letting them in will cause you no end of pain and discomfort.

Keep an eye out for them trying to isolate you in the relationship, turning you against your family and friends, as though they are the only ones that truly care about you. They will slowly try and introduce rules and expectations around the relationship and what you can and can’t do. This can be overt or covert manipulations. 

Remember that this relationship is transactional to them. Are they just a bit self-centred or are generally mean and show no empathy. 

They may even use illnesses as a distraction to keep them on top or gain sympathy. Such as saying I have a sleeping disorder and that is why I am short tempered and irritable with you, or I have autism and that is why I struggle with socially interacting at times and see things the way I do. 

But, even doing this, they are only going to admit to mild misdemeanours and never the more serious ones.

Once you realise that you are dealing with a narcissist and not taking their words or deeds literally, will stop the confusion you are feeling and give you some much-needed energy back. 

One thing that a narcissistic person likes to do is keep items from past relationships as trophy keepsakes. They perceive them as documents of their success, something that now belongs to them, that previously belonged to the other person. They use these belongings as a way to boost their narcissistic self, especially once the relationship has ended. 

Notice that I didn’t say it boosts their self-esteem there. Studies on narcissism suggest that they are very different things. 

Self-esteem refers to a person’s subjective evaluation of their value and worth, whereas narcissism is feelings of self-centredness, self-importance, superiority, grandiosity and entitlement.

A subtle difference is in what they may say – I am special or I am the best, rather than I am good at that.

You may not be in a narcissistic romantic or family relationship. You may believe that you are working alongside one or that your boss is one. I have definitely had this displeasure in the past.

There are signs that you can look out for in the workplace to see if that is indeed the case, so that you can be mindful of what is going on there. 

A narcissistic boss is usually arrogant and self-centred who places getting ahead higher than getting along. Typically, uncollaborative, arrogant and argumentative. 

Other things to look out for are

  • they lash out at those who do not demonstrate loyalty
  • treat employees like puppets
  • discredit others and take credit for ideas that weren’t theirs
  • be the centre of attention
  • Have to be right
  • compare themselves and put themselves on the same level as other leaders, often renowned leaders
  • use the word ‘I’
  • don’t respect any boundaries
  • believe they are the smartest/best person in any room
  • don’t accept constructive feedback or criticism
  • showing two or more of these is likely to indicate to a troubling working relationship

In conclusion, there are many things to look out for when you believe that you are dealing with a narcissist. Please go back to the previous articles on what is narcissism and who dates a narcissist for a clearer picture of these, that will also help when you are trying to decide if the person you are having a relationship with, whether intimate, family or in the workplace is indeed a narcissist or just someone who has a few difficult personality traits that can be worked with. 

Be good to yourself,


The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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Waltham Cross, Hertfordshire, EN8 9SH
Written by John Kenny
Waltham Cross, Hertfordshire, EN8 9SH

John's approach is a fusion of Counselling, Coaching, Psychology & NLP and will help you to understand yourself, others and what you need to do in order to attract what you want in your life, something healthy and fulfilling, so it can be the best it can be.

John is also an Author, Speaker, Podcast Host and Documentary Maker.

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