Dealing With Narcissistic Tendencies: Common Misconceptions and Establishing Boundaries

Medically reviewed by: Erica Munro, MSc
Monday, January 22

It’s a scenario many people experience: You meet someone — maybe a friend, colleague, or family member — who exudes confidence and self-assurance upon first glance. 

But the more time you spend with them, you may notice behavior patterns emerge. Perhaps the person constantly redirects attention back to themselves or seems to thrive off admiration from others. Maybe they exhibit an air of superiority or entitlement and seem to lack empathy for others. 

These behaviors may be signs of narcissistic tendencies and can be challenging to deal with — especially from a loved one. Over time, this behavior may even impact your own mental well-being. 

Learning more about narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) and narcissistic tendencies may help you understand how to handle narcissistic behavior more effectively. Below, we’ll explore NPD and its signs, discuss common myths about narcissism, and provide helpful tips for handling narcissistic tendencies.

What is a narcissistic personality disorder (NPD)?

Narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) is a clinical diagnosis defined by the DSM V. It’s characterized by a lack of empathy, a pattern of grandiose behavior, and a strong need for validation and admiration. 

You may have heard the term “narcissist” casually used to describe people with certain characteristics or behaviors. Not everyone who exhibits narcissistic tendencies has NPD. In these instances, “narcissism” is being used to describe a personality trait, not a disorder.

How common is NPD? Roughly 0.5–5% of the population in the U.S. is estimated to have NPD based on community samples. In clinical settings, though, this increases to estimates of 1–17%. 

The signs of narcissistic personality disorder 

How do you know if someone has NPD? A clinical diagnosis is the only definite way to know. However, being familiar with some of the signs of NPD can help you identify narcissistic behavior, which is a great place to start understanding how to approach someone with these tendencies. 

Below, we’ll explore some of the most common signs of NPD. As you read, keep in mind that not everyone who exhibits these behaviors has NPD, nor is it an exhaustive list.

Grandiosity and an inflated sense of self-importance 

Individuals with NPD are known for their grandiose beliefs and tend to exhibit self-centered behavior. They might exaggerate their accomplishments or brag about their achievements. This goes beyond being vain or arrogant: Those with NPD believe they’re in a superior class of their own and that they’re better than other people. 

Preoccupation with power, beauty, or success

People with NPD typically live in a fantasy world that validates their inflated sense of self-importance. They may be obsessed with seeing themselves as powerful, successful, or beautiful. 

Note that this isn’t the same as someone driven to pursue success or power or enhance their appearance. Someone with NPD thinks of themselves as already having these things, and they may become defensive or angry if you challenge their perception of reality. 

Entitlement and a need for admiration

Individuals with NPD often think they deserve favorable or special treatment. This sense of entitlement may cause them to expect others to give them anything they want. If you don’t meet these expectations (or refuse to), they might respond aggressively. Or they might ignore you if they feel that you’re not useful to them.

Those with NPD may also thrive on constant praise. This admiration helps them maintain their inflated sense of self-worth, and they may respond coldly or angrily if you don’t provide that praise.

Lack of empathy and consideration for others

Being able to put yourself in someone else’s metaphorical shoes is known as empathy. Those with NPD may lack this ability. They might not be able to see things from another person’s point of view, so they disregard others’ feelings. 

Individuals with NPD might take advantage of others in order to get what they want or to protect their ego. They might exploit others without realizing the effects of their behavior. In some cases, though, they engage in this behavior with malicious intent. In other words, they know their actions are hurtful or harmful, but it doesn’t bother them.

Interpersonal relationship issues

People with NPD may have problems with interpersonal relationships. These relationships tend to be one-sided: They expect others to provide them with constant admiration and give them what they want, but they ignore the needs of others. Their lack of empathy may cause friction in relationships and prevent genuine intimacy from developing. If you’re on the receiving end of this behavior, it may harm your emotional and mental well-being.

Vulnerability and hypersensitivity to criticism

Despite acting superior to others, those with NPD have a lot of vulnerability. They tend to have deep insecurities and low self-esteem, making them hypersensitive to criticism. When they’re criticized or challenged, they might respond with contempt, dismissiveness, or anger. 

Meeting someone with the qualities they lack — like genuine popularity or self-confidence — may make them feel threatened. They also clash with those who don’t give in to their need for flattery and may resort to belittling, bullying, or threatening. 

Common misconceptions about narcissism 

Quite a few myths about narcissism have been around for a long time. These misconceptions can make it harder to understand narcissistic tendencies and behaviors. In the following sections, we’ll discuss — and clear up — a few of the most common myths about narcissism. 

Myth #1: All people with narcissistic traits have NPD

NPD is a clinical diagnosis, so individuals need to meet certain criteria and be assessed by a medical professional for a clinical diagnosis of NPD. This is different from those with narcissistic traits, and someone can act in a narcissistic way without having NPD. 

Keep in mind that there’s a spectrum of narcissistic behaviors. Some people have adaptive narcissism that can boost self-sufficiency and other positive qualities. Others have narcissistic behaviors that are maladaptive, like being overbearing or passive-aggressive. 

Myth #2: Anyone diagnosed with NPD is incapable of empathy and love

A lack of empathy might be a common sign of NPD. However, not everyone with this disorder is completely devoid of empathy. Individuals with NPD may be able to feel some degree of empathy and love for others, but how they show these emotions can vary.

There are many nuances and variations in emotional expressions in people with NPD. Some may show more charm and charisma and be able to form deeper bonds with others. Others might struggle with this and mainly have superficial relationships, seeing them as transactional. 

Myth #3: Those with NPD are always outgoing and charismatic 

One of the biggest myths about those with NPD is that they’re incredibly charming and extroverted — but this isn’t always the case. Some might act this way, but there’s a lot of diversity in terms of behaviors and personalities among those with NPD.

Some people with NPD are introverted, and the signs may be subtler or harder to notice. This kind of covert narcissist might behave more passive-aggressively instead of being direct or domineering. Others with NPD might be more hostile and antagonistic toward other people rather than charismatic. 

Tips for dealing with narcissistic tendencies or behaviors 

When someone in your life has narcissistic tendencies, dealing with them can be emotionally exhausting. However, there are ways to handle these interactions adaptively to help you protect your own mental health. Below are some helpful tips for interacting with people who exhibit narcissistic tendencies and behaviors. 

Set and maintain clear boundaries 

Boundaries are a key part of guarding your emotional well-being. Establishing firm boundaries — and upholding them — lets those with narcissistic tendencies know what you will and won’t put up with. For example, you might set the boundary that you won’t tolerate being insulted or called names.

Keep in mind that individuals with narcissistic tendencies might not honor your boundaries. They might feel offended, upset, or angry instead. But it’s important to stay firm and maintain clear boundaries, even if you have to do so repeatedly. 

Avoid accusatory language 

Remember that people with narcissistic tendencies are often hypersensitive to criticism. Using accusatory language may immediately put them on the defensive. They might refuse to hear what you have to say. Or they might argue with you, threaten you, or insult you.

Use neutral language when interacting with someone who has narcissistic tendencies. You might discuss how their actions affect you, but avoid accusing them of having certain intentions. For example, don’t accuse them of purposely trying to hurt you.

Practice assertive communication

Communicating effectively with individuals who have narcissistic tendencies is important in order to get your point across. Avoid getting defensive or speaking aggressively, since this may just lead to arguments. 

Use assertive communication, which involves talking about your opinions and needs directly yet respectfully. For example, you might use “I” statements that start with “I feel or think that...” This is more effective than starting with a “You” statement (something like, “Your behavior makes me feel…”), which may cause defensive or hostile reactions. 

Prioritize your own well-being 

Interacting with someone who exhibits narcissistic behaviors can take a toll on you emotionally and mentally. You might feel drained, frustrated, angry, or upset. You might even experience gaslighting during these interactions that causes you to doubt your own thoughts and feelings. 

This is why practicing self-care and prioritizing your needs is so important: It’s critical for maintaining your emotional and mental well-being. Self-care can take many forms: 

  • Spending quality time with people who truly value you
  • Joining support groups to connect with others who know what you’re going through
  • Making time for yourself to do activities that are fulfilling or relaxing, like a hobby or reading books
  • Practicing meditation and mindfulness to help ease stress and promote inner peace 

Discuss your experience and feelings with a therapist

All of the tips mentioned above can help you deal with someone who has narcissistic tendencies. But you might have a hard time processing what you’re feeling. Mental health professionals have the expertise and compassion needed to help you understand your emotions and experiences. 

SonderMind makes it easy to find a therapist quickly. No matter what your therapeutic goals are, SonderMind can connect you with an online or in-person therapist who can help you work through your experiences. 

Share and process your experiences with a therapist at SonderMind 

Being able to interact with someone who exhibits narcissistic behaviors while also maintaining your well-being can be a tricky balancing act. 

Knowing the truth behind common narcissism myths and signs of NPD can help you understand the situation more clearly. Using the tips above is a great first step toward handling these challenging interactions. 

For even more support, connect with a therapist at SonderMind


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