When you hear a person described as a “narcissist,” you probably have an idea of what to expect: someone who’s extremely self-centered and arrogant, right? Well, as with many aspects of the mind and mental health, it’s a little more complicated than that. If you really want to be able to spot a narcissist, you need to keep your eyes open for a whole host of different signs.
The original narcissist
The original narcissist was Narcissus himself, a character in Greek myth. He was a man of incredible beauty who loved himself so much that he spurned all other romantic advances. Hopefully this isn't ringing any bells yet... The story goes that when Echo, a mountain nymph cursed not to speak unless it was to repeat someone else’s words, fell in love with him, he rejected her so cruelly that she pined to death. Then, perhaps as punishment, Narcissus became so obsessed with his own reflection in a pool of water that he eventually wasted away. And finally he transformed into the flower of the same name.
What is narcissism?
Modern narcissists don’t generally turn into flowers, but they do tend to be self-obsessed like Narcissus. It's also important to distinguish between people with narcissistic tendencies and those with Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD). Lots of people can be narcissistic, but not all of them will have NPD. It's a spectrum. NPD tends to be when someone shows “extreme manifestation” of these narcissistic traits, as developmental psychologist Eddie Brummelman puts it. And there are some clear ways to spot this.
Narcissists vs. psychopaths
Here's a key thing to know: all psychopaths are narcissists, but not every narcissist will be a psychopath. It's easy to throw these kinds of terms around interchangeably, but they are distinct psychological disorders. One important difference? While narcissists may do bad things to others, they probably still feel guilty and ashamed. Psychopaths, on the other hand, do not feel bad for their actions. Interestingly, only around 1% of the population meets the criteria to be diagnosed as a narcissist. So what are those criteria?
Meeting the narcissist criteria
How exactly do we define Narcissistic Personality Disorder? Let’s go to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. This is the Bible when it comes to diagnosing mental illnesses in America. It has a list of nine narcissistic traits, but to meet the NPD criteria, you must have at least five of them. That means you can have up to four narcissistic traits and still not be diagnosed as a narcissist.
Two types of narcissism
You may see NPD being divided into subcategories, though not everyone can agree on how many. The two big ones are grandiose (or overt) narcissism and vulnerable (or covert) narcissism. Grandiose narcissists are self-confident, assertive, and entitled, whilst vulnerable narcissists lean more towards defensiveness and sensitivity to criticism. And here are the signs to help you spot them.
1. Sense of superiority
A word you’ll hear a lot when talking about narcissism is grandiosity. Grandiosity is when someone has a massive sense of superiority that goes far beyond self-confidence. The grandiose narcissist has to be the smartest, strongest, and best of them all. They think they’re right about everything and expect everyone else to bow down to them. Sound familiar?
2. Prone to daydreaming
Clearly, a highly inflated sense of self isn’t based on reality. It reflects narcissists’ fondness for fantasy, which is another of the diagnostic criteria. So, if someone you know constantly has their head in the clouds and often imagines themselves as powerful, successful, and outright heroic, this could be a sign they’re a narcissist. And the more stressed they become in the real world, the more likely they are to retreat into their world of fantasy to cope.
3. Sense of entitlement
Grandiosity leads to another important NPD criteria, which is an unshakable sense of entitlement. You could call it a god complex considering how narcissists want everyone to jump to meet their needs. Look out for people who expect to be given what they want and when they want it, even if it’s just constant praise. They also tend to think they’re allowed to treat people however they like and might end up hurting someone as a result.
4. Need for reassurance
Next, let's talk about vulnerable — or covert — narcissism. Again, these types of narcissists take things to extremes, but this time by thinking they're the unluckiest and most hard done by of them all. These narcissists need continuous reassurance from other people. They constantly feel attacked and think they deserve compensation from the world and everyone in it.
5. Fear of intimacy
Narcissists hate real intimacy or vulnerability. And it's mainly because beneath their facades, they can be extremely insecure. This shame and fear of being judged or humiliated is not something that most narcissists are willing to share, though. Part of the difficulty of having a relationship with a narcissist is this lack of openness, even though they still expect you to meet all of their emotional needs.
6. Pompous demeanor
Instead of showing their vulnerability, some narcissists rely on an arrogant and often pompous demeanor. This isn’t just about them feeling superior, but it's also about making others feel inferior. They often look down on other people and treat them with scorn, and when they don't get the respect they feel that they’re owed, then they’re likely to respond badly.
7. Altruistic behavior
They might be self-centered, but that doesn’t mean that narcissists are incapable of helping others. Some narcissists will throw themselves into doing good deeds and acts of service — sometimes with an alarming degree of intensity. This isn’t always about benefitting other people, though. It’s about narcissists wanting to portray themselves as self-sacrificing martyrs. The red flag to look out for? People who love to boast about how kind and generous they are.
8. Need for admiration
The obsessive need to be adored is another prominent narcissistic trait. It’s not enough that narcissists think they're the best people in the world; they need others to tell them so too. As psychotherapist Gina Moffa, LCSW, says, “At their core, narcissists are insecure, fragile humans who do truly just need to be loved and adored. They just need it more than the average person, but the need itself is real, pervasive, and damaging.”
9. Extremely charming
It can be hard to tell if someone’s a narcissist because they might seem very charming at first. Have you ever met someone who showers you with praise and buys you expensive gifts until you feel impossibly flattered? You might even ignore the feeling that it seems a little too much too soon. But then something changes: they become manipulative. This is called love bombing, and it’s how narcissists win your attention.
10. Manipulative tendencies
Once a narcissist has won you over with their love bombing, you might suddenly find that they change. Maybe they’ve got what they needed from you. And now you feel as though you’re the one expected to put in all the work. The thing is, many narcissists will only stay nice only as long as they’re getting the validation they need. If that means being manipulative, controlling, or even aggressive to keep you, then so be it.
11. Overly jealous
Jealously is another trait you’ll often see in someone with narcissism. As you might expect, they often imagine that other people are envious of them and all of their supposed accomplishments. But despite this, they’re also prone to being jealous of others. They don’t want their loved ones spending time with other people or paying attention to other things. Know someone who’s overly possessive? Red flag.
12. Lack of empathy
Part of the reason that some narcissists struggle with relationships is because of low levels (although not always complete absence) of empathy. Empathy is what allows us to understand others’ emotions and to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes. Narcissists, however, don’t tend to consider other people’s perspectives. They expect others around them to share their feelings. Which, remember, means thinking that the narcissist is the most important person in the world.
13. Poor team players
You can’t successfully work as part of a group without communication, cooperation, and compromise, right? So it's no surprise that narcissists struggle when it comes to teamwork. Someone who only considers their own feelings and ignores everyone else’s needs probably isn't going to make the ideal teammate, whether we're talking at work, in sports, or any group activity.
14. Lack of responsibility
Refusal to take responsibility is another clear sign that someone could be a narcissist. And this of course can be very damaging behavior in relationships. Narcissists love to be in control, but they don’t like to be the ones responsible for the outcome. Anything bad that happens is usually someone else’s fault. This allows them to maintain the fiction that they’re perfect, but it also often means that they blame the people closest to them.
Perfection is usually very important to narcissists. They think they’re perfect themselves, and they expect everything else to go perfectly for them, too. And so other people and situations need to follow their exact expectations. Of course, this is pretty much an impossible ask, and it means that they’re going to face constant disappointment. Therapist Margalis Fjelstad, PHD, LMFT, claims that narcissists feel “dissatisfied and miserable much of the time.”
16. Controlling behavior
A need for perfection explains why narcissists can be so controlling. This also ties into their sense of entitlement, because they like to be the ones setting the rules that everyone else must obey. Have you ever met someone who seems to want to dictate what you say and what you do? And if you go against what they want, they struggle to know how to react and may even lash out? This could be a sign that they’re a narcissist.
17. Sometimes violent
When we think of violent behavior in personality disorders, we may think of stereotypical depictions of sociopathy in Antisocial Personality Disorder. Research suggests, however, that there’s also a pretty strong link between aggression and NPD. This is true of both grandiose and vulnerable narcissists across all demographics. People with narcissism can be easily provoked, and their responses can be violent.
18. Always feeling threatened
If know you someone who constantly thinks they're being attacked, read on. Narcissists tend to misinterpret harmless comments or facial expressions as threatening or as signs you’re no longer on their side. Their ability to read body language is often poor, and they can jump straight to the most negative possible reading. With that attitude, it’s no wonder they often respond with defensiveness or anger.
19. Won’t listen to reason
You might find that you can’t reason with a narcissist since they’re so caught up in their own feelings and opinions. It’s not about logic but about emotions. They want what they want, and they’ll do what it takes to get it. That’s regardless of the costs, whether financial or personal. And they’ll likely ignore sensible advice in favor of satisfying their own impulses and desires.
One thing that may not be obvious about narcissists is that their actions are often driven by insecurity and fear. They fear being rejected, they fear other people laughing at them, and they fear losing the things they love. And this fear can manifest as jealousy, defensiveness, and trust issues, which in turn may lead to poor treatment of family, friends, and romantic partners.
21. Lack of self-awareness
Despite the destructive behaviors that damage their relationships, narcissists still have an idealized self image. They may recognize that others have problems with them, but they don't necessarily see a problem with that. Plus, they’re often reluctant to show real vulnerability or admit that they should change. When narcissists do seek out help, it may be for other conditions such as depression.
22. Prone to depression
Narcissists are particularly at risk of depression, perhaps because they’re so badly set up to deal with disappointment. When they don’t get the admiration they need or if life doesn’t go to plan, they can go to dark places. Not everyone prone to melancholy moods is a narcissist, of course. Still, when someone is showing depressive symptoms, then it may be worth considering if they’ve ever shown narcissistic attitudes or behaviors as well.
Displays of narcissistic behavior can vary by culture. NPD diagnoses are more common in the individualistic societies of the modern West than in collectivist societies elsewhere. Psychology professor David Ludden observes, “Of course, there are narcissists in Japan and China as well, but they don't show up quite the same way as here.” It’s something people trying to spot NPD should bear in mind.
How does someone become a narcissist?
How do people develop narcissistic traits? Current thinking is that people may be genetically predisposed to personality disorders, but they can also be triggered by life events and environments. Some people with NPD can trace their behavior back to childhood, where they may have experienced poor attachments, unreliable parenting, and been exposed to either excessive praise or excessive criticism.
Narcissists in popular culture
Gaston from Disney’s Beauty and the Beast is often used as a fictional example of narcissism. After all, he’s vain, pompous, arrogant, and he can't understand why Belle isn’t infatuated with him! Other characters in pop culture associated with narcissism include Meryl Streep’s Miranda Priestly in The Devil Wears Prada, Regina George in Mean Girls, and American Psycho’s Patrick Bateman. But remember: don't let funny or exaggerated fictional depictions like this allow you to miss some of the more subtle signs that someone might be a narcissist.
Hard to spot, harder to treat
As you might expect, people with big egos are not the most likely to seek out help. They think they’re perfect already, and that can stop narcissists going to the doctor for a diagnosis or trying therapy. There are therapies that can help, though. It can be very difficult to spot the signs of narcissism, but you need to if you want to understand how it impacts lives and relationships.
A complicated spectrum
As you can see, narcissism is a lot more complicated than it first appears. NPD in particular may have specific criteria for diagnosis, but those criteria can manifest in different ways. Narcissistic behavior comes in a spectrum from innocuous to intensely harmful, and it isn’t always easy to spot. You have to be aware of the subtle signs as well as the more obvious traits.
It’s often a stereotype that narcissism comes hand in hand with a high IQ. But that’s not always the case. In reality, narcissists believe that they are extremely intelligent, but like most of their other traits, this is often deceiving. They work hard to present themselves this way — especially those with grandiose narcissism — but someone with NPD is just as likely to be of average or even below-average intellect.
Like to keep fit
If you want to spot a highly intelligent person, there are some key signs that set them apart. Nothing is universal, and every individual has their own habits. But a lot of people who are highly intelligent will also work to keep their bodies in great shape. Exercise is great for keeping your spirits high, which in turn helps your brain to function to the best of its ability.
Will ask lots of questions
Smart individuals don’t just automatically know everything from the moment they’re born. Sure, they might be equipped with certain traits that help them develop an impressive intellect, but they still need to learn about the world. And one of the best ways of doing that is by asking questions, which the cleverest among us do all the time.
Strong sense of self
People who are sure of who they are often tend to be on the smarter side. After all, having a strong identity means a person knows what they’re best at — and conversely where their weaknesses lie. Being aware of personal shortcomings is the first step toward overcoming them and generally improving oneself.
If you’re talking to a smart person — a genuinely smart person — you’ll probably find they won’t interrupt you as you speak. People with a high intellect tend to love learning and considering perspectives different to their own, which means that they listen to others. Cutting people off isn’t an option if you want to get a handle on what they think.
There are usually few ideas that are off-limits to a smart person, and they’ll give everything due consideration. Even if they find a certain perspective abhorrent, they’ll think about it and come up with a counterargument to challenge it. When thinking about something with which they disagree totally, they’ll have the ability to learn from it. When introduced to a new perspective, a smart person will really take it seriously. And if they think this new way of looking at a problem works better than what they’d initially thought, they won’t be afraid to concede. Nobody can be right all the time, and the smartest people know and accept that.
Empathy can be an underrated feature of the super-intelligent, but lots of smart people are notably understanding of others. And that makes sense, if you think about it. Without being able to understand your peers and pick up on how they’re feeling, how can you be expected to learn from them effectively?
Good at debating
The ability to conduct a civilized debate is a very important skill. If a disagreement descends into a messy, aggressive argument, the opposing parties won’t be able to listen properly to each other. That means they’ll lose the opportunity to learn from the other’s perspective, which limits their own understanding of the subject.
The ability to explain complex ideas in a way others find easy to understand is a sure sign of a person’s intelligence. It demonstrates they know a subject inside and out, so much so they can deconstruct it and express it using analogies novices can wrap their heads around. As Albert Einstein is once said to have remarked, “If you can’t explain it to a six-year-old, you don’t understand it yourself.”
Some studies have shown that people who keep rhythm well tend to have a higher IQ than most. This doesn’t necessarily mean they’re good at playing music, but just that they can tap out a beat. It’s not the most obvious indicator of intelligence, but keep an eye out for it in people you know.
If smart people want to get the best out of their brains, they need to keep them in good shape — and that means resting. If someone isn’t getting enough sleep, they’re obviously not going to be as sharp as they could be. Everyone’s different and some people need longer in bed than others, but the smartest folk get the shuteye they need.
Like to spend time alone
Lots of intelligent people spend quite a bit of time all on their own. That doesn’t necessarily imply they don’t get on with others, but it does mean they have more time to think and reflect. If you’re surrounded by people all the time, at least some of your attention is inevitably diverted towards them. So look out for your friends who like to spend time by themselves; that could mean they have high IQs.
The very manner in which a person gazes at you could indicate their level of intelligence. Smart individuals make an effort to listen, but that doesn’t just mean hearing another person’s words. It also involves looking at them intently, observing with care and picking up on unconscious cues and tics.
Pets are great for a person’s state of mind, helping to keep on top of stress levels and lifting spirits. Looking after our animals makes us more emotionally intelligent, which is an important element of intellectual ability more broadly. Smart people, then, might well have a pet in their homes.
Good at peacekeeping
If a person is good at defusing tense situations, that might indicate an impressive intellect. It shows they can empathize with other people and pick up on their cues, while also suggesting an ability to consider varying perspectives. Peacekeeping might also actively involve helping to solve the dispute itself, which takes a certain shrewdness.
Studies have suggested smart people might have bigger pupils than others. This difference in size might actually be so significant that others can perceive it first-hand when looking into their eyes. This all makes sense when we consider the pupil widens when the brain is in a particularly active state.
A person’s wit can be impressive on its own terms, but it also might indicate a high level of intelligence. Firing off jokes shows how quickly and clearly they can communicate with other people, plus it shows how well they understand a given subject. You can’t usually joke about something without really understanding it first.
Prone to worrying
This isn’t necessarily the most desirable of traits, but it might show off a person’s smarts. If someone worries a lot, it indicates how intensely they think about things. And if a person is anxious, it means they’re aware of any dangers that might befall them and can possibly respond better to them. Having said all that, anxiety should be kept under control.
Dictated by routine
A strict morning routine can be really helpful for smart people trying to get the best out of their brains. It helps to keep them grounded, setting them up for the rest of the day in a positive way. If someone in your life has a special ritual they stick to every single time they get up, maybe they’re something of a genius?
In school, some kids could get in trouble for staring into space all the time. But in reality, that can be a sign of high intelligence. Daydreaming means a person is thinking creatively and using their brain in a very active way. While they can look idle from the outside, there’s often a lot going on inside their head.
Good body memory
A good memory is a sure sign of intelligence in people — and that applies to body memory, too. Let’s say you’re able to walk to a place you’ve only visited once before without consulting a map. You don’t even think about where you’re going, but you just automatically end up there. That’s body memory in action.
Smart people are usually perfectly comfortable not understanding absolutely everything in life. So, if you know someone who frequently utters the phrase “I don’t know,” it might be a sign of an impressive intellect. There’s nothing wrong with not knowing things, but the trick is to open yourself up to learning about them.
Life is unpredictable, and not everything always works out as you expect. The ability to respond to new scenarios, then, is really important. The smartest people among us are expert adapters. These are people who are at complete ease when it comes to adjusting their behavior or understanding of the world as circumstance dictates.
"Intelligent people can handle subtlety"
In his novel The Diamond Age: Or, a Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer, Neal Stephenson writes of the importance of understanding subtlety. He muses, “The difference between stupid and intelligent people — and this is true whether or not they are well-educated — is that intelligent people can handle subtlety. They are not baffled by ambiguous or even contradictory situations — in fact, they expect them and are apt to become suspicious when things seem overly straightforward.”
The ability to speak a foreign language besides one’s own mother tongue is a clear indication of intelligence. It’s an impressive skill in and of itself, but it helps people to develop other skills, too. Through learning a new language, people’s memory and their ability to retain new information increases.
Smart people are able to change their minds about things: even Einstein was okay with reconsidering his beliefs. He once wrote a paper pushing the idea that gravitational waves weren’t real, but it was rejected by a journal. He then took another look at the subject and completely changed his mind, coming to argue that they did indeed exist.
Sometimes you can just tell someone is intelligent, based purely on the way they speak to you. When a person is nice and mannerly, it can sometimes be a big giveaway of their brains. After all, smart people make for great listeners, and that goes hand in hand with being polite.
In control of emotions
The ability to handle emotions in a healthy way is important for everyone — but that can be tougher than it sounds. People with a high degree of emotional intelligence, though, are pretty well equipped to do so. They can recognize and understand how they’re feeling, respond accordingly, and move on to new things.
While daydreaming can certainly be a healthy exercise for developing one’s mind, too much of anything can be a bad thing. If you end up outright procrastinating, you’re not really going to stretch your mind as you should. The cleverest of us are usually able to resist the urge to put things off until tomorrow.
Always setting targets
Smart people often set targets: if they have something they want to achieve, they set a deadline and get to work trying to meet it. Ambition is no bad thing, but it needs to be clearly set out if it’s to be reached. If you know someone who’s always setting targets, it could be a sign of a fine intellect.
Good at spotting patterns
If a person is particularly good at discerning patterns where others cannot, it could indicate highly developed spatial and visual awareness. This is a useful ability, of course, as patterns can be found absolutely everywhere. It just takes a very special kind of individual to actually be able to identify them.
Thinking before speaking
If you’re speaking to someone and they’re slow to reply, it might mean they’re really choosing their words carefully. That can be a sign of intelligence, as it shows they’re not going to speak for its own sake. They want to come up with a reasoned response.
Smart people are seldom satisfied with what they already happen to know. There’s always more to learn, after all, and they always tend to aspire to do so. It’s a life of research and asking questions, and there’ll never come a time when that stops. And they wouldn’t have it any other way!
Get up early
It’s not universally true, but lots of smart people see the benefit of starting their days bright and early. Getting up at a reasonable hour in the morning means there’ll be plenty of space for learning in the long day ahead. Provided they got enough sleep the night before, early risers can get a lot from their mornings!
Wildly, research has found taller people tend to be more intelligent. That’s not to suggest shorter people aren’t clever, but it simply means one particular study found a correlation between height and intelligence. It’s certainly not a universal rule, but it’s interesting all the same — especially if you happen to be quite lanky!
Read a lot
This one should be obvious, but it’s worth saying: reading makes us smarter. So, if a person is a big reader, then it’s a safe bet that they’re pretty intelligent. And if the types of books they consume are varied in terms of their content, then all the better. It all helps to hone one’s intellect.