- Narcissism is a personality disorder defined by a lack of empathy.
- True narcissism is rare, and mental health experts told Insider the term is likely overused.
- But many people may have narcissistic traits that still make them toxic partners.
Many people have dated a selfish or emotionally immature person at some point in their lives. But that is worlds away from falling for a narcissist, which can lead to being stuck in a pattern of abuse.
True narcissism is a personality disorder defined by a lack of empathy, Leah Aguirre, a licensed clinical social worker in San Diego, told Insider. Brain scans even show that narcissists have less gray matter in the area of the brain tied to compassion.
Aguirre also said that true narcissistic personality disorder is statistically rare — affecting about 0.5-5% of the US population — and that the label is “being overused and we’re overgeneralizing it.” TikTok hashtags like #NarcTok generate billions of views as users list traits or warning signs that someone might be a narcissist.
That being said, even if someone doesn’t clinically meet the definition of a narcissist, they can still have narcissistic traits. And Aguirre still thinks it’s worth looking out for these traits, which should be seen as big red flags.
It’s important to spot these traits early, which “helps people get out of these toxic relationships,” she said.
We spoke to Aguirre and Darlene Lancer, a licensed marriage and family therapist specializing in codependency, about the biggest warning signs that you could be on a date with a narcissist or someone with narcissistic traits.
1. At first, they seem perfect for you
A trademark narcissist move is love bombing, where they shower a potential partner with attention, compliments, and gifts.
Aguirre said that narcissists also often try to embody the qualities they think you want, instead of just being themselves. For example, if you mentioned traveling one time, they might start to talk about every international trip they’ve ever been on.
“It can often feel too coincidental,” she said. Suddenly, you’ve found someone who loves all the exact same things you do, possibly even more than you do.
What makes the narcissist seem attractive in all this is their confidence, Aguirre said. They’re not just creating a curated image based on what you like; they’re painting a beautiful future together where they include you in all their plans.
2. They always need to have the best of everything
Another reason why a date with a narcissist might be dazzling is that they probably went all out.
Lancer said narcissists generally feel entitled to “go to the best restaurant, want the best table, have to drive the best car.” Naturally, your dates might be exciting because you’re getting a luxury experience.
3. They bring every conversation back to themselves
Another big red flag is if they talk about themselves and never ask you any questions. But since that’s something many people won’t put up with for long, many narcissists can fake interest in you — kind of.
Aguirre said they may ask generic date questions like where you’re from or what you do for work. “But they don’t really seem truly invested in knowing the depth of who you are,” she said. More often than not, they’ll just flip the conversation back to themselves.
4. They’re horrible to people they see as beneath them
Because narcissists lack empathy and are inherently status-seeking, Lancer said to “notice how they treat service employees” or anyone who can’t help them get ahead.
Beyond being rude to waitstaff, she said this behavior can also show up in how they talk about exes or other people. Typically, narcissists are highly critical of others in a very black-or-white way.
5. Details about their lives don’t add up
Since narcissists love to brag and puff themselves up, you might soon realize there are inconsistencies in their stories or even a lack of proof of their accomplishments, Aguirre said.
They’re disciplined enough to be the best in their field, but also have infinite friends and plans, but also work out for three hours every day.
“There’s really no true coherency in their explanation of what they do, who they are,” she said. “It feels just very grandiose, and it’s usually too good to be true.”
6. They treat you like a status symbol, not a person
Lancer said that narcissists are typically attracted to someone who’s successful, talented, and good-looking — “someone who stands out because they want to look good.”
Once they start dating you, she said, they work on maintaining power in every situation and managing their image. So while they might start off as seeing you as a prize, the goal is to keep you beneath them.
7. They’re never flexible or compromising
Things with a narcissist might go very smoothly — until you ask for more.
Lancer said narcissists can have difficulty agreeing to something they don’t want to do or something outside of their schedule. They might also start to pull away as you make more of your needs known.
“They don’t want you to see their real self, and they’re not good at that,” she said.
This dynamic can be prolonged if you eventually cave in to their wishes each time.
“Usually, victims of narcissists don’t set boundaries and don’t speak up, which is how they get involved with them,” Lancer said.
8. They always deflect blame to you
One of the biggest telltale signs of a narcissist is unfortunately one that might not pop up until after the honeymoon period: How they handle conflict.
Aguirre said narcissists never take accountability. If they do, it’s always in a way that transfers the blame to you by gaslighting. For example, if you catch them flirting with someone else, it was your fault because you weren’t giving them enough attention.
You can identify this pattern by the acronym DARVO, according to Lancer. “DARVO” stands for Deny, Attack, and Reverse the roles of Victim and Offender. Before you know it, “you caused the problem and you’re the offender and you end up apologizing,” Lancer said.
9. If they apologize, it rings hollow
If you refuse to budge and they really don’t want to lose the status and resources they see you providing, they might concede and apologize, Aguirre said.
However, “it’s really to shut you up and it’ll be a blanket apology, so it won’t be very specific and it won’t be really authentic or genuine,” she said.
Something like “I’m sorry if you’re offended” is common, she said.
10. They have no close friends
A narcissist’s emotional abuse can leave you thinking that you’re always the problem. But if you need further proof that you aren’t, just look at their inner circle.
Because narcissists don’t feel empathy and can’t admit to their own flaws, they either don’t really have friends, or only have a collection of superficial acquaintances, Aguirre said. They might have drinking buddies, but they won’t have any true friends who can be honest with them.
11. They have zero interest in changing
Aguirre said you don’t have to be a textbook narcissist to struggle with admitting fault or desperately wanting to impress people.
The key difference is that true narcissists rarely, if ever, want to change. Because they don’t have empathy, they simply can’t see why they’re the problem. In fact, she said that if someone is really concerned that they might be a narcissist, she’s “99.99% sure” they aren’t.
It’s not impossible for narcissists to go to therapy, but Lancer said it’s rare and usually only happens after a major setback like a divorce or business failing.
It’s for this reason that Aguirre said you should always leave a relationship with a narcissist, because they’ll never truly change.
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