Dealing with a narcissist is confusing and disorienting. As a pastor (and just a person), I’ve encountered a few people that, in retrospect, I think manifested narcissistic tendencies.
Being able to see the patterns has been helpful for me, so I can know better how to manage my own anxiety about the relationship, and relate to these kinds of people in a better way.
A few caveats
Articles like this are fraught with the danger of over-simplification, so first of all, a few caveats:
- I’m not a psychologist, so this article isn’t meant to help you diagnose anyone with narcissistic personality disorder. But as I’ve experienced and learned about how narcissism manifests itself in relationships, I’ve noticed a few overlapping patterns that have been helpful for me to manage the anxiety and confusion of trying to relate to a narcissist.
- Please remember that narcissism exists on a spectrum, so if someone seems to be manifesting these tendencies, it doesn’t mean you should make them wear a scarlet ‘N’ and shame them. Please don’t use “narcissism” as a way of dismissing or sidelining people.
- Just because someone does some of these things sometimes doesn’t necessarily mean they’re a narcissist. There may be other explanations for some of the behaviors on this list. This isn’t a fool-proof narcissism test, just a few observations I’ve made from my own life that, when taken all together, have helped me notice when I might be dealing with a narcissist.
Okay! With those caveats very much in mind, here are the 6 signs you might be dealing with a narcissist.
1) They tend to forget what they said in previous conversations
Obviously nobody perfectly remembers every conversation, and many of us are quite forgetful. Again, this in and of itself doesn’t prove anything, but I think the reason a narcissist forgets what they’ve said previously is that they don’t use words to represent reality.
They don’t use words to tell the truth, they use words to “do a job in a room.” They use words to bring about a desired outcome (that makes them look good or come out on top).
Sometimes it will seem like they’re lying when they say they don’t remember saying something, but my hunch is that they probably really don’t remember what they said, because there’s no need to (for them). The “job” the words did in the room has been done, and so there’s no need to remember them. There are just new rooms in which to do new “jobs” with words.
2) They resist mutuality in relationships
Narcissists tend to resist vulnerability and mutuality in relationships. They prefer a patron/benefactor role in your life, where they’re offering their expertise, wisdom, or competence, and you simply receive from them.
It’s very difficult to actually develop a friendship with a narcissist, because any time vulnerability or mutuality is called for, they’ll demur and try to maintain control over how they participate in the relationship.
3) They prefer to deal with people one-on-one
I’ve noticed that the narcissists I’ve known prefer having one-on-one relationships and conversations. There seems to be something threatening about being part of an open-ended, mutual conversation with a group.
I think it has to do with a desire to control and nuance narratives in a way that presents the narcissist in the best possible light. In each individual conversation, the narcissist can “customize” their approach to each person in their attempt to get a specific outcome.
Having one-on-one conversations also creates more plausible deniability. In a one-on-one meeting, it’s easy to simply deny that they said something, but if they said it in front of a group, there’s more accountability.
4) They tend to repeat stories they’ve already told you
I’ve noticed that narcissists tend to tell me the same stories every time I meet with them. While they’re telling me the story (again), they seem completely unaware that they’ve already shared this story with me.
Narcissists don’t use words to commune with others. The reason they’re telling the story is not to share their life with you, it’s to impress you, to bolster their ego self, to get you to accept the image they have of themselves as a powerful, impressive person.
5) They often name-drop and/or talk about their accomplishments
A narcissist is not someone who has fallen in love with themselves, it’s someone who has fallen in love with an image of themselves, and that image-self is what they relentlessly project into the world.
One way they do this is through name-dropping impressive people they know, or making sure you know about their accomplishments. The narcissists I’ve known usually find a way to bring up some kind of impressive fact about themselves in every conversation.
6) They are always triangulating
One final observation is that narcissists are constantly triangulating (bringing a third person into a situation that only really involves two people). They are constantly talking about other people to you (always couched in some kind of concern or “prayer request”) in an attempt to rally you to their point of view about that person.
Again, this is one way they try to control narratives. And because they’re often very charming, and because they’ll pick up on pieces of truth, the story they’re telling often seems plausible.
This is how narcissists create a “reality distortion field” around themselves, and why trying to be in a relationship with them feels so crazy-making.
What if you are dealing with a narcissist?
The main point of this article is to simply highlight some patterns of narcissists so that, if you know someone like this, you can feel a little less crazy. So I hope that’s true for you, but that relief quickly leads to a further question: If someone in your life does a lot of these things, what should you do about it?
And this is where I’ll likely disappoint you, because it really depends almost entirely on context. Is this person your boss? Your spouse? Your child? Your pastor? A friend? An employee? A parishoner? A relative you only see once a year? What are the power dynamics at play (both overt and covert)? Is any past trauma bring triggered for you in this relationship? What are the current affects of this relationship in your life right now? What would the consequences be of changing the way you relate to this person? Etc.
There’s no one-size-fits-all solution to dealing with a narcissist, but as you ask the context questions above, and seek out godly counsel, and pray for wisdom (trusting that God is always present and at work), I trust that God will be leading you into health and wholeness.
(By the way, this post is based on a podcast episode we did awhile back for our Membership Community on Patreon. Join us if you’d like access to our members-only Practitioner Podcast.)