Ever wonder if someone in your life might be a narcissist? They can be masters of manipulation and make you question your own sanity. The signs are often subtle, but if you know what to look for, you can spot a narcissist from a mile away.
Maybe you’ve felt something was off about someone at work or in your friend group but couldn’t quite put your finger on it. We’re here to help uncover the overlooked red flags so you can protect yourself from their toxicity.
“Half of the people lie with their lips; the other half with their tears”
― Nassim Nicholas Taleb
You deserve to surround yourself with people who treat you with compassion and respect. Keep reading to learn the 18 warning signs you should watch out for. The truth may surprise you.
1. Coercing Undesirable Behavior From Others Through Emotional Manipulation
If someone in your life repeatedly uses emotional manipulation to coerce you into doing what they want, that’s a major red flag.
• They may cry, scream, or threaten self-harm to get their way. Don’t give in. Their behavior is not your responsibility.
• They constantly play the victim. Everything is someone else’s fault. They take no responsibility for their actions and try to make you feel guilty for setting boundaries.
• They give you the silent treatment or withhold affection and intimacy to punish you for not complying with their demands. This is emotional abuse.
• They bombard you with texts, calls, and messages until you give in, then act like nothing happened. This cycle will repeat.
• They make unrealistic demands on your time and prioritize their needs over your own. Your life revolves around them.
• They betray your trust and confidence by sharing your private information with others to gain sympathy or make you look bad. They have no respect for your privacy or boundaries.
• They become enraged if you call them out on their behavior or stand up for yourself. But you deserve to be treated with dignity and respect.
Don’t ignore these red flags. Emotional manipulation is a form of abuse and the only way to stop it is through maintaining strong boundaries or leaving the relationship. You deserve so much better.
2. Coworkers And Friends Feel Used By Them But Are Unsure Why
It can be hard to put your finger on why someone makes you feel used, but with narcissists, there are a few signs.
For one, they lack empathy. They don’t seem to care how their actions impact you or consider your feelings and needs. You’re left feeling like a means to an end to fuel their ego or advance their agenda.
They also lack reciprocity. The relationship is one-sided, revolving around them and what they want. They take more than they give, sucking you dry of time, energy, and resources without giving back.
Another red flag is that they manipulate and exploit you and then gaslight you into thinking you’re the problem when you object. They play the victim to avoid taking responsibility for the hurt and betrayal their actions have caused.
If someone in your life checks these boxes, trust your instincts. Don’t let their charm or empty flattery blind you to the fact that they see you as an object to use, not a real person.
You deserve reciprocal relationships where you’re valued and respected. Don’t be afraid to set clear boundaries to protect yourself. Your time and energy are precious – don’t waste them on people who only want to take them.
3. Everything They Do Or Say Is To Get Something Out Of People Rather Than Genuine Caring
Everything the narcissist does is for their own gain. They lack empathy and genuine care for others.
Their actions are calculated.
The narcissist is meticulously strategic in their interactions with people. They do things to elicit a reaction or response that will benefit them in some way. Whether it’s compliments, gifts, or favors, there’s always an ulterior motive behind their gestures. They keep score and expect reciprocation.
4. Cognitive Empathy But Lack Of Emotional Empathy
Narcissists lack emotional empathy, and the ability to understand and share the feelings of others. While they may be adept at cognitive empathy, and intellectually understanding someone else’s perspective, they struggle with connecting emotionally.
Emotional empathy is the ability to feel what others are feeling. Narcissists have a hard time seeing things from an emotional point of view that isn’t their own. They may understand logically that you’re upset, but they don’t feel any empathy or compassion. Your feelings don’t resonate with them on an emotional level.
“Hate is the complement of fear and narcissists like being feared. It imbues them with an intoxicating sensation of omnipotence.”
― Sam Vaknin
Instead of emotionally supporting you when you’re struggling, a narcissist is more likely to invalidate your feelings or make the situation about them. They lack the ability to be fully present and share in another’s emotional experience. Your pain, sadness or joy doesn’t elicit a genuine emotional reaction in them.
While cognitive empathy can be learned and improved, emotional empathy is more innate. The lack of emotional empathy is a hallmark sign of narcissistic personality disorder.
Recognizing this red flag can help you set appropriate expectations and boundaries to protect yourself in your interactions and relationships with narcissists. Their emotional disconnect and selfishness will continue, so focus on surrounding yourself with people who can share in the full range of human emotions and experiences with you.
5. Their Emotions Are Shallow And Transient In Nature
When dealing with a narcissist, their emotions tend to be shallow and fleeting. They lack emotional depth and the ability to genuinely connect with others on an emotional level.
A narcissist’s emotions are short-lived and surface-level. One minute they seem euphoric and the next they’re raging. Their moods shift rapidly based on their needs and wants in the moment. Rather than experiencing a range of complex emotions, they tend to operate in extremes.
The emotions they express also tend to lack authenticity. They may put on exaggerated displays of emotions to manipulate a situation or gain attention and admiration. But these expressions of feeling are not deeply felt or long-lasting. Once they’ve gotten what they want, their emotions vanish as quickly as they appear.
“Narcissists are consumed with maintaining a shallow false self to others. They’re emotionally crippled souls that are addicted to attention. Because of this they use a multitude of games, in order to receive adoration. Sadly, they are the most ungodly of God’s creations because they don’t show remorse for their actions, take steps to make amends or have empathy for others. They are morally bankrupt.”
― Shannon L. Alder
Real emotional connections require empathy, vulnerability, and compromise—all of which are lacking in the narcissistic personality. So don’t expect to bond with a narcissist on an emotional or intellectual level.
Their emotions are fleeting and their interests are primarily self-serving. Recognize these shallow emotions as a red flag, and be cautious about sharing your own feelings with someone who is incapable of emotional reciprocity or depth.
6. Emotions Serve To Control And Manipulate Others
Emotional manipulation is one of the sneakiest red flags of narcissism to spot. Narcissists are skilled at using emotions to control people and get what they want.
Narcissists are master manipulators and know exactly which emotional buttons to push to make you feel guilty. They will make you feel like you owe them something or that you’re responsible for their happiness and well-being. Don’t fall for the sob stories and tales of woe – set clear boundaries instead.
Shaming and Blaming
Narcissists never take responsibility for their actions and will always find a way to blame you. They will frequently shame, insult, and criticize you to make you feel worthless so you are easier to control. Don’t engage or argue – remain calm and detached from their manipulations.
Narcissists know that emotions are a powerful way to keep you under their thumb. They may withhold affection, intimacy, or compliments to keep you insecure and seeking their approval. Don’t let them have power over you – give yourself the love and validation you need.
Staying aware of these emotional manipulation tactics can help you identify narcissistic behavior. Remember that you deserve to be in healthy, mutually caring relationships where your emotions are respected.
“Narcissists will never tell you the truth. They live with the fear of abandonment and can’t deal with facing their own shame. Therefore, they will twist the truth, downplay their behavior, blame others and say what ever it takes to remain the victim. They are master manipulators and conartists that don’t believe you are smart enough to figure out the depth of their disloyalty. Their needs will always be more important than telling you any truth that isn’t in their favor..”
― Shannon L. Alder
Don’t let narcissists use emotions as a weapon to make you feel bad about yourself or force you into doing what they want. Set boundaries, stay detached from their drama, and put your own emotional health first.
7. Use Emotional Displays To Appear Empathetic Or Committed For Their Own Gain
Narcissists are skilled at using emotional displays to manipulate situations to their advantage. For example:
- Tearing up or getting choked up when confronted about their behavior. This pulls at your heartstrings and makes you feel bad for them, allowing them to dodge accountability.
- Grand gestures like an extravagant gift or surprise visit seem heartfelt but are really just for show and to keep you on the hook. Once they get what they want, things go back to the status quo.
- Excessive praise and affection, especially in public. While it may feel good in the moment, be wary of those who lavish you with adulation and proclamations of love and commitment very early on. They’re likely loving the thrill of the chase and conquest more than you as a person.
- Using emotional outbursts like crying, yelling, or threatening self-harm to avoid discussing issues or to get their way. This manipulation relies on your desire to soothe them and give in to their demands to avoid further histrionics.
In the end, narcissists lack empathy and are primarily focused on themselves. Any emotional displays on their part are designed to elicit a reaction or concession from you, not because they genuinely care about your feelings or needs.
Learn to spot the difference to avoid being taken in by their theatrics. Stay calm and remember that you don’t deserve to be treated this way.
8. Prone To Fits Of Boredom, Restlessness And Feeling Unfulfilled
Do you find yourself constantly seeking excitement and stimulation? Do you struggle with restlessness or feelings of emptiness that you try to escape through impulsive behavior, excessive spending, thrill-seeking, or risky activities? If so, these could be signs of unhealthy narcissism.
Narcissists tend to have a very low tolerance for boredom and lack of stimulation. They need constant entertainment, excitement, drama, and sources of attention or adulation. Without these fixes, they start to feel empty, restless, and unfulfilled, as they rely far too much on external sources to regulate their mood and self-esteem.
“Often the narcissist believes that other people are “faking it”, leveraging emotional displays to achieve a goal. He is convinced that their ostensible “feelings” are grounded in ulterior, non-emotional motives. Faced with other people’s genuine emotions, the narcissist becomes suspicious and embarrassed. He feels compelled to avoid emotion-tinged situations, or worse, experiences surges of almost uncontrollable aggression in the presence of expressed sentiments. They remind him how imperfect he is and how poorly equipped.”
― Sam Vaknin
To combat these unpleasant feelings, narcissists may engage in impulsive behavior like gambling, reckless spending, unsafe sex, drug or alcohol abuse, or criminal behavior. They may also create drama or conflict in their relationships just to get an emotional reaction and feel alive.
The root cause of these tendencies is the narcissist’s inability to self-soothe or draw a sense of purpose and meaning from within. They lack a strong sense of self and identity apart from the admiration and attention of others. So when the spotlight fades or excitement wanes, they start grasping at straws to fill the void and lift their mood.
Learning self-care strategies like mindfulness, meditation, journaling or pursuing hobbies and creative interests can help address feelings of restlessness and boredom in healthy ways.
But for narcissists, real change requires addressing the underlying lack of self-worth and self-identity that feeds their constant need for stimulation and validation from external sources. With insight and effort, it is possible to develop a healthier and more stable sense of self.
9. Emotional Coldness, Detachment, Or Flattened Affectivity
A narcissist typically shows little emotion or empathy towards others. They may seem detached or unmoved by emotional situations that would affect most people. Their emotional reactions can seem shallow, insincere, or disproportionate to the situation.
Narcissists often lack emotional depth and the ability to genuinely connect with others on an emotional level. They can be cold and aloof, showing little warmth, care, or empathy. Conversations tend to focus on themselves, with little interest in others’ feelings or experiences.
Any emotion they do show may feel like an act to manipulate others or draw attention to themselves. Their emotions seem to revolve around themselves and their own needs, rather than arising from empathy or compassion for others.
At times, a narcissist’s emotional reactions may seem exaggerated or over the top, as if “performing” the expected emotional response to a situation. But these dramatic displays of emotion lack depth and pass quickly.
Detachment from emotional situations that would normally evoke feelings in others is common. A narcissist may brush off or ignore emotionally painful events that do not directly impact them. They lack the ability to share in the emotional experiences of others or show sensitivity to emotional nuance in relationships.
“You will never get the truth out of a Narcissist. The closest you will ever come is a story that either makes them the victim or the hero, but never the villain.”
― shannon l. alder
Overall, the emotional life of a narcissist tends to seem somewhat flattened or stunted. While charming and engaging on the surface, deeper emotional connections are challenging for narcissists, and their relationships are ultimately unfulfilling as a result.
Looking for these signs of emotional detachment or coldness can help in identifying narcissistic behavior and avoiding unhealthy relationships.
10. Hot And Cold Behavior That Leaves Others Confused
Narcissists are skilled at manipulating emotions and behavior. One of the ways they exert control is through inconsistent behavior that keeps you guessing and seeking their approval.
Hot and Cold
One day they shower you with affection and compliments, the next they give you the cold shoulder without explanation. This unpredictable behavior is a way to keep you on edge and seek their validation. You find yourself constantly trying to please them in hopes of earning their praise and affection again.
This rollercoaster of emotions is exhausting and damaging to your self-esteem. Don’t get caught up in their manipulative actions. Recognize that their behavior says more about them than you. You deserve relationships where you feel consistently valued and respected.
The next time they try to pull you in with flattery after withdrawing affection, stand up for yourself. Calmly tell them their behavior is unacceptable and that you won’t engage until they can treat you with courtesy and respect. Be prepared for them to get defensive or play the victim. Stay firm in your boundaries while also remaining composed and empathetic.
With consistency, you can train them to change their behavior, but narcissists rarely do. You may need to limit contact with them as much as possible to protect your own well-being. Surround yourself with people who treat you well and boost your confidence so you’re less vulnerable to their manipulation.
11. Impatient, Easily Bored, Low Frustration Tolerance
Impatience and a low tolerance for frustration are common red flags of narcissism to watch out for.
Narcissists have a hard time dealing with anything that interferes with their need for constant praise, admiration, and entitlement. They expect instant gratification and become irritable when they have to wait for something or don’t get their way.
- They lack empathy for others and become annoyed when people don’t meet their unrealistic expectations or timelines.
- Minor inconveniences or imperfections can set them off and ruin their mood. Their impatience and temper often come out in subtle digs, sarcasm, or passive aggression.
- Boredom is another trigger. Narcissists crave excitement and drama. Ordinary life events or routines fail to stimulate them. They may stir up problems just to relieve their boredom or frustration.
- Compromise and accountability are hard for narcissists. They believe rules don’t apply to them and that their needs should come before others. Having to follow the rules or accept consequences leads to impatience, annoyance, and entitlement.
Recognizing these red flags can help in setting boundaries and not taking the narcissist’s impatience or criticism personally. Their tendency for impatience, entitlement, and low frustration tolerance says much more about them than it does about you. Staying calm and not giving in to their unrealistic demands and timelines is key.
12. Frequent Shifts In Goals, Careers, Relationships, And Residences
Narcissists tend to lack stability and commitment in many areas of their lives. They frequently change jobs, careers, friends, partners, hobbies, and even where they live. Their interests and goals are often shifting as they chase unrealistic dreams and fantasies.
One day they want to be an artist, the next a CEO. They fall in and out of love quickly, as they are always searching for a perfect partner to worship them. Their friend groups are unstable too, as people often tire of the narcissist’s selfishness and lack of reciprocity.
“pathological narcissists can lose touch with reality in subtle ways that become extremely dangerous over time. When they can’t let go of their need to be admired or recognized, they have to bend or invent a reality in which they remain special despite all messages to the contrary.”
― Bandy X Lee
When things don’t go according to their grandiose plans or they feel bored, the narcissist will just move on to something or someone new rather than putting in the effort to improve the situation.
They are constantly looking for the next thrill, the next source to make them feel admired and special. This pattern of instability and impermanence causes chaos for those around the narcissist.
13. Tendency To Suddenly End Relationships Without Remorse That No Longer Offer Sufficient Praise Or Attention
Relationships with narcissists often end abruptly once you stop providing them with praise, admiration, or attention.
Narcissists crave constant validation and will discard people who no longer serve that purpose. If you stop responding to their messages as frequently, decline invitations to get together, or fail to “like” and comment on their social media posts with the usual enthusiasm, the narcissist is likely to cut off contact without warning or remorse.
They need perpetual ego boosts and your perceived withdrawal of support causes deep injury to their fragile self-esteem.
Rather than communicate their disappointment or try to address relationship issues, the narcissist will simply vanish from your life as punishment for your perceived betrayal and lack of devotion. Don’t expect closure or an opportunity to clarify misunderstandings. Once you’re no longer useful in propping up their ego and self-image, the narcissist has no use for you.
The abrupt ending of relationships in this manner is emotionally damaging and hurtful. But in the long run, escaping a narcissist’s manipulation and control, even unexpectedly, can be a blessing in disguise. Their callous disregard sets you free to surround yourself with people who appreciate you for who you are – rather than what you can do for them.
14. Counter-dependency Characterized By Disavowal Of Needs For Others
A narcissist has a hard time acknowledging their dependence on other people. They see themselves as self-sufficient and invulnerable, not needing emotional or practical support from anyone else.
- They dismiss advice and input from others, believing they have nothing to learn. Their way is the only way.
- They rarely ask for help, even when they desperately need it. Asking for help would be a sign of weakness in their eyes.
- They avoid emotional intimacy and vulnerability with partners, friends, and family. Letting someone see them as less than perfect could threaten their inflated self-image.
- They become resentful of any perceived obligation to meet someone else’s needs. But they expect constant attention and support for their own needs.
- They see relationships in terms of power and control, not mutual understanding or caring. The narcissist’s needs are paramount.
Recognizing these behaviors in yourself or someone close to you is an important first step. Accepting your shared humanity, learning humility, and valuing mutually caring relationships are the antidotes to unhealthy narcissism. With insight and effort, counter-dependent tendencies can be overcome.
“Being a control freak is a weakness, not a strength. If you can’t allow others to shine, you’re exhibiting signs of narcissism and showing a lack of self-confidence. It is isolation through ego.”
― Stewart Stafford
15. Pursuit Of Achievement Above All Else With Complete Disregard For The Well-being Of Others
When someone is overly focused on achievement and status above all else, it often comes at the cost of how they treat others.
A narcissist will pursue success and accomplishment relentlessly, no matter who gets hurt along the way. They see people as objects to use for their own gain instead of real human beings with feelings.
If you’re in a relationship with a narcissist, you may feel like your needs and desires never seem to matter. Their eyes are always on the next prize, the next victory, the next level of status to attain.
Your worth to a narcissist depends on what you can do for them and how you make them look. They have little genuine concern for your well-being or happiness. You’re merely a means to an end, a tool for them to exploit on their path to greatness. They will take credit for your work and sacrifice you in a heartbeat if it suits their needs.
The narcissist’s constant need to achieve and gain status often hides deep insecurity and fragile self-esteem. But don’t let that fool you into staying in a relationship where you’ll always come last.
You deserve to be in a mutually caring partnership where your dreams and needs matter just as much. A narcissist will never be able to give you that.
16. Exploitative Entitlement And Lack Of Empathy Prevent Forming Intimate Attachments With Others
Narcissists lack empathy, so they have trouble forming close relationships. They see people as objects to exploit, not as individuals with feelings and needs of their own.
- They only care about their own needs and feelings. Your feelings and experiences don’t register on their radar. If you try to express your feelings, they will likely dismiss them or turn the conversation back to themselves.
- They exploit others for their own gain without remorse. They will take advantage of your kindness and generosity without hesitation if it benefits them in some way. They feel entitled to do so, showing no gratitude or reciprocity.
- Their lack of empathy and intimacy prevents real emotional connections. While they may act charming at first to win you over, they are incapable of the vulnerability and reciprocity required for true closeness and bonding. The relationship remains superficial.
- They lack compassion. When you are struggling or facing difficulties, they offer no comfort or support. They are indifferent to your pain and suffering. Your hard times are merely an inconvenience to them.
- Their entitlement and lack of empathy make them poor team players. They are selfish and concerned primarily with their own status and rewards. They will manipulate and exploit their coworkers and engage in self-serving behavior that undermines group cohesion and productivity.
17. Secretive Or Withhold Information Due To Underlying Shame, Insecurity, Or Fear Of Failure
Do they seem reluctant to share details about themselves, their life, or their background? Narcissists often struggle with feelings of shame, insecurity, and inadequacy. Rather than be vulnerable, they may avoid sharing personal information or be vague.
“Some people, in an attempt to mask their shortcomings dig lies so deep, they end up drowning in a sea of their own delusions!”
― Carlos Wallace
They could also withhold information to maintain a sense of power or control. Not providing details keeps you in the dark and dependent on them. Their fear of failure or imperfection leads them to avoid transparency.
Some signs of secrecy or withholding information:
- Vague or inconsistent stories about their past, family, education or work history. Details don’t quite add up.
- Avoiding direct questions or giving ambiguous answers. Refusing to provide clarification when asked.
- Not inviting you to their home or introducing you to close friends and family. Keeping you at a distance.
- Lying or manipulating the truth to portray a more favorable image of themselves. Exaggerating accomplishments or talents.
- Blaming others for their lack of openness or claiming privacy as an excuse. But secrecy seems to go beyond a reasonable level.
- A strong need to be seen as superior in all areas of life. Admitting imperfections, faults or failures threatens this image.
While everyone is entitled to privacy, be on alert if their secretive behavior leaves you feeling confused, insecure, or somehow off.
Trust your instincts—if something feels amiss, there may be underlying reasons for their reluctance to be fully open and honest.
18. Fragile Self-esteem That Requires Constant Reaffirmation From Others
Your narcissistic friend or family member lives for the admiration and praise of others. Their self-esteem is fragile and requires constant validation to prop it up. They expect you to shower them with compliments and accolades for even minor achievements or attributes. If you fail to do so, they may become angry or sullen.
Narcissists crave attention and affirmation like a drug. They surround themselves with admirers who can supply their “fix” and boost their ego. However, their need for praise is bottomless. No matter how much you compliment them, it’s never enough. They always want more.
This constant need for validation and reaffirmation is exhausting for the people around them. Yet the narcissist feels entitled to it. They see nothing wrong with demanding constant praise and tribute from others.
After all, in their minds, they deserve to be worshiped and adored for the superior beings they believe themselves to be.
“So many abusers survivors feel they were loved so little, as if the abuser was the most important person to receive love from. They forget that God loves them deeply and that is the only person’s love they need to validate their worth.”
― Shannon L. Alder
Providing the narcissist with a steady stream of admiration and accolades is not healthy for them or for you. While it may temporarily boost their ego and self-esteem, it does not truly fulfill them. Their fragile self-worth remains unstable and insatiable.
For you, constantly praising and flattering someone else is draining and can damage your own self-esteem in the long run. The healthiest approach is to avoid feeding the narcissist’s endless need for validation. Set boundaries and don’t allow their demands for praise to control you.
So there you have it, 18 red flags that could indicate you’re dealing with a narcissist. The narcissists in your life may not exhibit all of these signs, but if you see a pattern of selfish behavior, lack of empathy, and constant need for admiration, that’s a pretty good indication you need to establish better boundaries or cut ties altogether.
The reality is, narcissists rarely change, so your best bet is to protect yourself. Don’t let their manipulation and toxicity get you down. Surround yourself with people who treat you well and support you, focus on self-care, and try not to take the bait when narcissists in your life try to provoke you or make you feel bad about yourself.
You deserve so much better than that! Stay strong, trust your instincts, and don’t be afraid to stand up for yourself.