Should you tell a narcissist, they are one? Some believe that you shouldn’t, while others argue the opposite.
According to experts, these are the things you should consider before you decide to tell them or not.
Table of Contents
- They will hear your words as a threat to their weak self-esteem
- Instead of saying, “You’re a narcissist,” you should say, “You’re acting like a narcissistic person”
- The best response is avoidance rather than confrontation
- Your realization that they are a narcissist is unlikely to be received well
- If you choose to tell a narcissist they are a narcissist, do it with calmness and compassion
- Direct communication will generally be unsuccessful
- The problem with confronting a narcissist is that they are not likely to take your words to heart
- Share how you feel when that behavior is inflicted on you, rather than handing out a label
- It doesn’t make much difference whether you tell your narcissist that they are one
- Telling a narcissist that they are a narcissist is usually not effective if they are truly a narcissist
- It all depends on what you are trying to accomplish
Licensed Clinical Psychologist | Author, “For What It’s Worth – A Perspective on How to Thrive and Survive Parenting Ages 0 – 2“
They will hear your words as a threat to their weak self-esteem
Individuals with a narcissist personality disorder believe they are the center of the universe and often feel they are “perfect” in all ways.
Their relationships with others are devoid of deep and meaningful connections because they lack the self-awareness and introspection to see humans as unique individuals rather than an object to be manipulated and used to get their needs met.
A narcissist’s underdeveloped ego won’t allow them to process or take in any information that contradicts their personal beliefs. Consequently, if you tell a narcissist that they act like one, they aren’t going to hear you.
What they hear instead is:
- “This person is jealous of me.”
- “This person is really a narcissist and is projecting onto me.”
- “This person must be unhappy in their life, and they are taking it out on me.”
You see where I’m going with this, don’t you? Narcissists have spent their entire life learning how to deflect and avoid negative feelings about self and/or self-reflection.
You need to ask yourself:
- What is your goal in telling someone they are a narcissist?
- Do you want them to change? (they won’t)
- Do you want them to self-reflect and see how they’ve hurt you? (they won’t).
- Do you want to make them mad so they will leave you alone? (this might work)
The point is, no matter what you say to this person, they will hear your words as a threat to their weak self-esteem and try to turn the conversation back on you and more than likely suggest you’re the one with the personality disorder.
CEO and Lead Therapist, Naya Clinics
Instead of saying, “You’re a narcissist,” you should say, “You’re acting like a narcissistic person”
It’s hard to tell someone that he is behaving narcissistically, especially if that person happens to be your partner, child, parent, boss, or co-worker.
Here are some ideas on how to communicate with a chronic narcissist:
Ask clarifying and probing questions
This is an effective way to call a person’s attention to his narcissistic ways. Asking some probing questions focuses on the behavior and sees if the person is self-aware enough to recognize what’s wrong with his behavior.
For instance, you can do this when that person is making unreasonable demands or requests. By asking clarifying questions, you will find out if the person will recognize the unfairness of the situation.
You can phrase questions like:
- “Does what you want from me sound fair?”
- “Do I have a say in this?”
Separate the behavior from the individual
Doing so will allow you to point out a person’s narcissism and allow that person to change at the same time. Instead of saying, “You’re a narcissist,” you should say, “You’re acting like a narcissistic person.”
Saying the former gives an implication that it’s the person’s character and therefore cannot be changed. But by saying the latter, it gives the suggestion that the individual can still change by making better choices.
Ask straight up if the person is a narcissist
This is admittedly a very blunt way of dealing with the person. Ask him directly, “Are you a narcissist?” and see how he answers.
Many narcissists openly admit that they are narcissists, but they are actually proud of it too. They do this in order to brag about their egocentric exterior and hide their deep feelings of inadequacy.
John F. Tholen, PhD
Retired Psychologist | Author, “Focused Positivity: The Path to Success and Peace of Mind“
The best response is avoidance rather than confrontation
Narcissism is a personality dimension that exists in each of us. “Healthy” levels motivate us to present ourselves as attractive and influential and avoid or withdraw from circumstances that cause us to feel disrespected.
Narcissism also creates a desire to—and the belief that we can—accomplish important goals.
The term “narcissist,” however, is usually reserved for someone with Narcissistic personality disorder (NPD); a psychiatric diagnosis in which these traits are so extreme as to cause serious problems, usually in interpersonal relationships or repeated failure due to overreach—pursuing ambitious goals without sufficient resources or preparation.
Like all mental disorders, NPD results from a complex interaction between inherited genetics and environmental exposure. Like many mental disorders, it is also functional—a compensatory adaptation to intense(but suppressed) feelings of inadequacy.
A healthy person who is superior is humble and modest to facilitate positive connections with others.
Defensiveness is a key characteristic of narcissists. Any criticism, implied or direct, is a threat to their fragile ego adjustment and must be vigorously rejected.
The narcissist “hears” only the language of the left hemisphere, which is motivated by competitiveness and acquisition. They are deaf to right hemisphere concerns about affiliation, community, kindness, and charity. Rather than treating others as they “would wish to be treated,” narcissists see others only as prey, tool, or threat.
The narcissist’s motive is to get what can be had before others can take advantage—and they project that motive onto others.
The best response to someone who has displayed unhealthy levels of narcissism is avoidance rather than confrontation. If forced to interact, it would be best to avoid labeling the person in favor of asking for what is wanted, offering incentives, and bargaining.
Your realization that they are a narcissist is unlikely to be received well
Should we tell them we’ve figured them out?
Short answer: No.
Long answer: Sometimes—and that depends on their level of self-awareness and ability to recognize that a lot of the problems in their lives were caused by their own actions.
Narcissism is not a dirty word; it’s a form of arrested development. Sometimes just changing your perspective to start seeing them as children helps things start to make sense.
The main key when debating about whether you should let them know is their level of accountability. Their ego acts as a shield that ‘protects’ them from seeing the way their behavior hurts others because they are not mature enough to change (yet).
Narcissists are incredibly insecure and have a deep sense of internal shame.
They have never felt empowered to be able to take responsibility for those around them because of feeling inadequate, so in their mind, you are causing them pain by ‘blaming them for something they didn’t do or can’t be made responsible for.’
The ‘no’ group
Narcissists are wounded children. They are incredibly sensitive to slights despite being defensive and aggressive in response. This can be dangerous in high-spectrum cases, but generally, it is simply frustrating navigating their triggers while managing your own sanity.
From our perspective, they respond inappropriately to benign life stimuli. From their perspective, everything is about them, and they frequently become offended and attacked.
It comes across like it’s out of the blue, but they legitimately see threats where there aren’t any. This means in situations where you may require empathy and compassion; they will become angry if it at all impacts them instead of being able to consider that other people have needs.
Telling this person that they have any sort of mental health condition will likely result in them defending themselves against it as a perceived threat and potentially becoming vicious depending on how unhealthy their early life was.
They can’t see how you may deeply care about them and wish them happiness, only that you’re saying they’re defective.
The ‘maybe’ group
At some point in a narcissist’s life, their house of cards may crumble in such a painful way that they are forced to change. A really big band-aid rip such as losing an important job or family members finally cutting them off can sometimes result in them accepting the truth.
The pain of the results of their narcissistic behavior outweighs the pain of taking accountability, and that can be their key to freedom.
This is the point at which you will be able to gently present ‘proof’ to them about how they hurt others, and they are likely to be capable of developing some genuine empathy because they have transitioned from being in defense mode to being in their feelings.
I am passionate about this key distinction because it’s crucial to protect yourself with education and guidance while navigating a relationship with a narcissist.
You must be wise about whether this is someone who’s ready for self-reflection. Whether they are your boss, your spouse, your kids, or a ‘toxic’ friend, they are humans who have suffered and who now make others suffer.
Your realization that they are a narcissist is unlikely to be received well.
As soon as you recognize that somebody in your life is narcissistic, you must change your attitude when you’re around them to become more like a responsible parent. They are going to be very selfish and unintentionally damaging.
If you’re capable of not taking their behavior personally, you’ll be far less hurt. Think of a toddler hitting and biting, just in a large body. In many cases, they are not ready to change, and you need to find a way to reduce contact.
It is your responsibility to take care of yourself first and foremost, and it’s up to you whether you sense that they’ll be open to this information or hurt by it.
Mary Joye, LMHC
Licensed Mental Health Counselor, Winter Haven Counseling
If you choose to tell a narcissist they are a narcissist, do it with calmness and compassion
If you choose to tell a narcissist they are a narcissist; you need to do it:
When you are calm and confident, you retain your power. Narcissists often make you lose your temper to gain their fuel. So, remain calm, confident, and don’t go on the offense or defense.
Narcissists do not like powerful, confident, or unshakable people. If they can’t ruffle your feathers, they will stay out of your nest.
Also, in the therapeutic profession, they sometimes say you shouldn’t tell someone if they have a personality disorder. I disagree, as many other counselors do as well, because how can they work on something if they don’t know what it is.
Narcissists don’t feel insults or injury the way other people do, so telling them that they’re a narcissist would probably not upset them the way it may upset you if someone told you something about your personality was offensive. They feel empathy differently than other people.
Some of them completely lack empathy even for themselves because they’re not aware of what the future will look like if they keep being narcissistic.
You should never tell someone they’re a narcissist if you’re not completely sure and if you don’t understand the difference between narcissistic personality disorder, which is a diagnosable illness, and someone who is just a little self-centered at times.
Whether you tell them or not, do it with calmness and compassion and understand that they lack the capacity to love or be loved like other people.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapist, Thoughts on life and love
Direct communication will generally be unsuccessful
The simple answer is “No.” If your intention is to get a narcissist to look at their own behavior (by telling them they are a narcissist), you will not receive the results you desire.
Narcissists are incredibly insecure and suffer from low self-esteem underneath their bravado. They will do everything they can (often below the threshold of their conscious awareness) to avoid the threat of feeling they are a failure.
Hence, telling a narcissist what you truly think of them will cause a narcissist to redouble their efforts to discredit you. Instead of facing the threatening truth, they will deflect their fear back onto you. You might be labeled jealous of them or be dismissed in some other way that nicely fits the narcissist’s grandiose narrative.
Narcissists need to be managed
The best way to deal with a narcissist is to manage your own behavior. Narcissists find it almost impossible to self-reflect, and as a result, they control their external world as a way to regulate themselves. If you don’t admire them, they will find someone who will.
If you tell them you think they are a narcissist, your days will be numbered.
They won’t consider that you might have a point. Instead, they will make a mental note to get rid of you as soon as possible. Their MO is to replace insubordinate with someone fresh, who doesn’t destabilize their fragile sense of self.
This is known as a narcissist’s “supply,” and they are always on the lookout for fresh supply to boost their flagging self-esteem. Their motto in life tends to be “what’s in it for me?” and if you are no longer an adoring fan, you lose your usefulness rather quickly.
Use indirect behaviors to influence a narcissist
Unfortunately, direct communication will generally be unsuccessful. If you wish to get your needs met where a narcissist is concerned – don’t hold your breath.
It’s a far better idea to work on yourself by acting indifferent when a narcissist is using you for their own needs or when they treat you like an object.
Learn to get your emotional needs met through friends and interesting activities. The research shows consistently that narcissists don’t change and the best way to feel happier around a narcissist is to change yourself.
Claire Karakey, LPC
Founder, Claibourne Counseling
The problem with confronting a narcissist is that they are not likely to take your words to heart
When you find yourself in regular proximity with a Narcissist, for example, a manager at your office, you may be tempted to tell them that you recognize some narcissistic tendencies in them.
The problem with confronting a narcissist about their behavior is that they are not likely to take your words to heart – they may deem you as a new adversary, or they may even take your comments as complimentary, boosting their ego higher than it already is.
So, my recommendation is to avoid the conflict with passing individuals displaying narcissistic traits. Simply be aware and take whatever steps you need to protect yourself from their divisive ways.
However, if this person is very close to you, such as your significant other or close family member you interact with often, it is worth having a serious conversation with them.
Let them know that you are aware of their behaviors and that they won’t fly with you.
Perhaps, if you feel safe doing so, suggest they do a bit of reading on the subject – or seek therapy – if they are willing to start changing their behavior. If they are open to seeing the error of their ways, there is surely hope for correcting their patterns and improving their lives and the lives of those around them.
Dr. Brenda Wade
Clinical Psychologist | Relationship Advisor, Online for Love
Hang on; before you go throwing around the label Narcissist, it is my duty to share the facts as your friendly psychologist/relationship expert.
Fact #1: Narcissism is a real clinical diagnosis with specific criteria to qualify.
Fact #2: The truth is few people are actually true narcissists. That said, there are many folks who are selfish, petty, and emotionally insensitive and believe they are special and entitled to whatever they want at someone else’s expense.
- Point out the behavior that is off base.
- Share how you feel when that behavior is inflicted on you, rather than handing out a label.
- Wrap up your communication with a request. For example,
- “please be aware that behavior doesn’t work for me, and I will not accept it. Instead, you must treat me with the same courtesy and kindness I show you.”
- Enforce the boundary by stepping away.
- If the behavior persists, get professional help for the two of you if the relationship is important to you.
- If the relationship is not important or the offender isn’t interested in making an effort, gracefully step off stage left.
Dr. Samantha Rodman, PhD
Licensed Clinical Psychologist, Dr. Psych Mom
It doesn’t make much difference whether you tell your narcissist that they are one
Honestly, it doesn’t make much difference whether you tell your narcissist that they are one. The majority of narcissistic clients I see in my practice have been told they are narcissistic by their partners, kids, coworkers, and others.
The benefit of disclosing your thoughts is that if you can get them into therapy and the therapist agrees with your view, the narcissist will recognize this is a shared view and may give it more credence.
Unlike what many people think, narcissists can change and grow in therapy just as people can with other personality disorders (like Borderline Personality Disorder). They usually need a reason to change, like keeping a relationship or a job. But they can evolve and become more empathic.
Also, I’ve known narcissists to get curious and start reading or otherwise learning about narcissism. Either way, telling them what you think will not likely hurt and may help long term.
Rabbi Shlomo Slatkin, MS, LCPC
Certified Imago Therapist, The Marriage Restoration Project
Telling a narcissist that they are a narcissist is usually not effective if they are truly a narcissist
A real narcissist is not capable of insight or taking personal responsibility. They don’t think anything is wrong with them and usually point the finger at someone else. Telling them they have a problem is unlikely to encourage them to get help as they are incapable of admitting there is something wrong.
People do like to throw around this diagnosis, many times where it is not warranted.
In that case, instead of labeling the other, invite them to work together with you on your relationship. The bottom line is that something is wrong in this relationship, and it needs to be repaired. The label is irrelevant if the problem can be fixed, and if the situation can change, then the label is likely inaccurate.
So whatever unsavory behavior you are experiencing, encourage this person to work together with you to change your dynamic. If you are successful, then you have done more good than you ever would be telling them to their face what their “diagnosis” is.
Change Management Consultant | Executive Mentor, Babbitt Consulting
It all depends on what you are trying to accomplish
First, I want to share a fun little time saver when it comes to narcissists. It’s not 100% accurate, but it can be very telling.
While there are tests and questionnaires you can employ to determine whether someone is truly a narcissist or not, it often only takes one statement. You simply accuse them of being a narcissist!
Most narcissists are proud of this fact, as they see it as the only rational means of conducting oneself. If you have suspicions that you are dealing with a narcissist, often simply accusing them can clear it up for you!
Second, let’s get back to the question. It all depends on what you are trying to accomplish. It’s important to note that everyone displays narcissistic traits at one time or another, but not often enough or severe enough to qualify as a disordered personality.
Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) is somewhat common, with estimates that up to 1 in 20 people suffer from the disorder. If you are trying to identify whether the person actually is a narcissist, then accusing them saves both the layperson and the professional a lot of time.
This brings us to the next problem. Since most narcissists are proud of their narcissism, accusing them won’t shame them. At all. It won’t make them reconsider their conduct or course of action. If anything, it will let them know that you recognize their brilliance and may feed into their narcissism.
That returns us to the point of, what are you hoping to accomplish?
If you want to flatter a narcissist, then calling them a narcissist is a very self-deprecating way of earning their favor. I say self-deprecating because they will view the fact that you are not a narcissist as a flaw (or assume that you are lying about not being a narcissist yourself).
The fact they are proud of their own self-interest is one of the reasons true narcissists rarely seek professional help; they do not see a problem in their approach to the world and, therefore, see nothing for which they need help.
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