Q: I think I'm dating a narcissist! But how can I tell for sure?
There are three hallmark characteristics of a narcissist: an exaggerated sense of self-importance, a need to be admired all the time, and a lack of empathy toward other people. How does this reveal itself? He may be arrogant, grandiose, entitled, manipulative, and extremely sensitive to any criticism. While many folks use the term "narcissist" to label someone who is super confident, it's not the same thing. If someone is wooing you with creative dates and an air of self-assurance, that doesn't mean he's trouble. Unlike self-confident people, those with narcissistic tendencies expect to be treated as superior or put on a pedestal. They're preoccupied with thoughts of being powerful, attractive, famous, and smart, even if those thoughts don't line up with their real accomplishments. These tendencies must be interfering with the person's relationships and work, though, for him to be diagnosed with actual narcissistic personality disorder.
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Now, navigating a romantic relationship with a narcissist can be tricky. Narcissists rarely see any problem with their behavior and have little interest in changing—and you can only help someone who wants to change. But not all narcissists are the same, nor do they act the same. Someone who's only mildly narcissistic may not present that much of a problem; he may be able to reel himself in and thus keep partners happy. But if he lands on the more extreme end of the spectrum, his weaknesses may become more troublesome for you. Perhaps he never wants to spend time with your friends if it means he's no longer the center of attention. Or he may have a very short fuse and become enraged when things don't go his way, even turning emotionally abusive—which is, of course, a big warning sign that the relationship isn't worth saving. Do not allow someone to bully you or control you. If he does, I encourage you to reassess and get out before you get in too deep.
Gail Saltz, MD, is a psychiatrist and television commentator in New York City who specializes in health, sex, and relationships.