Sketches of a Narcissist: Part 1

How to spot an unchecked, predatory narcissist in the wild.

As Voltaire said, “better is the enemy of good.”

In that spirit, I have decided to publish some short word sketches, in rough draft form, to encapsulate thoughts I have been meaning to write about for a while.

An attempt to get to the heart of a thought quickly, and get something published. Otherwise, so many thoughts escape into the mists of time, never written about because there is never time to “do them justice.”

Note: narcissistic behaviour is a spectrum, and people can have narcissistic tendencies without matching the description below. These sketches describe the behaviour of “the narcissist” towards the extreme end of the scale, where they become active and destructive social predators, pulling other people into their games by design. It also describes a narcissist who indulges in destructive behaviour knowingly, does not recognise their behaviour as a problem, and has no intention to correct it. The same goes for manipulation — something most of us do, perhaps without fully realising it, and there is a distinction to be made between harmless or trivial manipulation, and psychological abuse. The below describes an abusive, malicious, and destructive form.

Below are a few snapshot impressions of how to spot a narcissist in the wild.

Narcissists tend to be extremely manipulative, and good at disguising themselves. They often put forward a “heart of gold” persona (in the moments where it serves their interests, but not others) that, more often than not, stretches credibility when looked at objectively and in full context.

To the narcissist, every social interaction is a power game against the person they are socialising with, and they must win.

Unless you've been very close to a few, for a long time, you might consider them to be novel strains of a virus your immune system has no defence against. And even if you have been around them, the exposure may have only served to condition you to accept their behaviour as normal.

Which is to say, your instincts may well be fucked when you come up against this kind of person.

Here are a few characteristics that, in my experience, are reliable red flags that you are dealing with an extremely manipulative and narcissistic individual.

1. Positioning to implicate

When you speak to a narcissist, they see you as currency. A tool to derive social gain from. Otherwise, you are useless to them.

Out the gate, they will usually start testing you for compliance. If you “go along,” acting in a way they deem sufficiently compliant, they will get encouraged. They will start positioning you.

If you do not comply, you will likely be bullied, and if that doesn’t work, bluntly rejected, and perhaps silently put on their enemies list as someone who should be destroyed at a future time if possible. Things are black and white with them: people who do not comply with them must be eliminated from a social group, or destroyed.

Their goal tends to be to implicate you in something — typically something they have brought up, such as gossip, which is their bread and butter. If they can get you to sufficiently comply with gossip, and with luck participate in it, they can position you as an active participant and conspirator. The goal is to implicate you in whatever gossip they have brought up.

They want you to “join the team.” That team is always one that serves their interests, not yours — but it will often be sold as something that is in your interest to comply with, with them being charitable souls “just trying to help.” Behind this “team” tends to be a collection of people who have been implicated. The only interests served by this group are the one (or maybe, two) narcissists who have orchestrated its creation.

If they succeed, you can possibly be used directly to their purpose (destroying their “enemies” or otherwise furthering their interests, usually by giving them something) as an accomplice that has now been recruited. Or, your complicity with them (and it doesn't need to be complicity, just something they can successfully argue to be complicity) can be used as leverage against you if you have second thoughts.

They will jump the gun on “assuming” your complicity, to make it harder for you to reject them.

By doing this they have won a power game, turning you into social currency they can cash in on whenever they like. Usually when a narcissist positions you they attempt to do it in a way that prevents you from reversing course. They try to implicate you past the point of return, before you have been able to verify anything or think about what is really happening.

In this way it becomes in your interest to believe what you have been told (because you feel implicated, and if what they are saying turns out to not be true, this complicity reflects badly on you).

Once implicated, you will be treated as an equal conspirator. Someone who is in it as thick as they are. In fact, you might even be treated like the originator of the conspiracy. If they go down, you go down.

Congratulations! You are now, in the absence of a drastic course correction, a puppet dancing on a string. You have been positioned in a way that implicates you in something that should have nothing to do with you.

2. “Just”

One of a narcissist's favourite words is “just.”

They are not gossiping, they are “just saying” or “just being honest.”

They are not crossing boundaries and trying to forcefully insert themselves into a position they have no right to occupy in your life, they are “just trying to help.”

And so on.

The word “just” in a context of “I was just… X” comes up a lot with narcissists, usually as a first line of defence when you question their actions. It is a major red flag.

3. False authorship: “it’s not me, it’s everyone”

A narcissist tries to disguise the authorship of their actions and claim to represent other people. They say they are not speaking for themselves, but on behalf of “everyone.”

They claim not to be acting in their own interests, but “just” trying to help you, to be acting in the interests of others, or perhaps to be on a moral crusade of some kind, in the fashion of a good samaritan.

Therefore if you do not go along with what they are saying, you will not be rejecting the narcissist — you will be rejecting “everyone” and as such making what they hope seems like a very bold stand.

These people they allude to may not exist, may be previous individuals they have approached and implicated via method 1 (and often have weak levels of complicitly, formed by attempting to avoid conflict with the narcissist), or they may be people they have opportunistically latched onto, who happen to suit their purposes.

And if they are on-board, there is a good chance have been manipulated into that position. The tell tale sign is that they won’t have gone to the narcissist, the narcissist will have gone to them.

The key thing is, a narcissist typically drives all the action, but represents itself as a middleman acting on behalf of others — when in fact, they are front and centre, in the driving seat.

If possible, they will drag others along for the ride, and put them in the spotlight to speak for them, dangling them like puppets on a string and giving them cues to speak (those who have been positioned as puppets via method 1).

Again, the tell tale sign is that they, not the other people, are the ones who orchestrate events — even if they then stand back and try to get others do their dirty work or anything that involves risk.

They won't be completely removed, because they need to see for themselves the damage they cause. They want to gloat and feel victory in their power games.

4. Upping the ante: “I dare you to say I am lying”

Narcissists exploit the politeness and decency of others. Most people feel extreme reluctance to accusing someone presenting themselves with a veil of civility of being a scumbag, for example.

Therefore, the narcissist will state extreme things in very absolute terms, implying they have first-hand knowledge of them. This means they can't be challenged without implying that they are a scumbag.

The narcissist will remind you of just this: that someone who would lie about the things they are saying would have to be a scumbag. That way, there's no two ways about it — if you challenge them, you are making an enormous leap and calling them a scumbag. They will make you do just this, in a very direct and blunt way, if you proceed to challenge them.

Narcissists hide behind lies sufficiently big enough, reliant on them, personally as the source of truth, that most people will back down from challenging them, in effect accepting the truth of what they are saying (and that is how the narcissist will read all back downs: as compliance and complicity).

In short, they rule out ways to civilly challenge what they are saying. They will attempt to make you feel guilty for even a vague suggestion that what they are saying is less than completely truthful. This is a big part of positioning. It's a go-to move to force someone into compliance.

5. The code of silence: “you can’t verify this because…”

Accompanied with the stories a narcissist tells you is usually a reason that you can’t possibly, simply and directly verify the things they are telling you in the most obvious fashion.

They aim to block you from verifying the facts of what they are saying in a straightforward and direct fashion. By doing this, they implicate you further and position you firmly as a conspirator.

Being given a reason you can’t verify what they are saying is another tell tale sign. You can be fairly sure that if you were to verify the facts of what you have been told in a straightforward way, you would find they would be disputed — probably in extreme terms.

Along with fabrications, often the narcissist has based each one of their lies on a kernel of truth that has the potential to be twisted and spun into a false and destructive lie that serves their purposes.

This gives them cover if their lies are exposed: they can claim to have misunderstood what happened, or what someone said, saying something along the lines of “that’s what I thought” as an excuse, and maintaining their guise of honesty —unconvincingly, but with some amount of plausible deniability, especially in the company of those who are afraid to confront them.

Those are some of the big red flags, but there are many more, which I’ll write about next time.

So keep an eye out, and beware.

Remember the above traits, and it might guide you on how to defend yourself, or at least take sharp evasive action, next time you rub up against a narcissist in the wild. If they are already well known to you, things are more tricky… but that is also for another time.

James Lanternman writes movie reviews, short fiction, essays, and nonsense (politics). Reach him at [email protected], or follow on Twitter.