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05/09/2013 03:16 pm ET | Updated Jul 09, 2013

The Narcissism Epidemic: The Red Flags

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Parents are known to deliver an overabundance of advice to their college-age children. I remember heading out into the great big world at the age of 18 knowing the basics. I knew that I shouldn't drink myself into oblivion nor should I accept rides from complete strangers. I understood the basics of balancing my checkbook (although my check register never quite matched what the bank statement showed). I felt confident with my petite canister of pepper spray designed to ward off the evil villains that my parents had warned me about.

While I was well equipped to deliver an agonizing blast of pepper spray straight into the eyes of a potential attacker, I wasn't warned about what to do when faced with another type of assault. I wasn't prepared for the emotional assault that someone with Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) can deliver. We've all heard the term, "narcissist" thrown around to describe the sorority girl who takes three hours to get "club ready" for her 10 a.m. class, or the pretentious guy at the gym who can't seem to take his eyes off of his own biceps. What we aren't taught is that NPD is a real personality disorder that can wreak havoc on co-workers, roommates, family members and others who fall victim to the romantic charms of a narcissist.

Jean Twenge and W. Keith Campbell, research psychologists at San Diego University and co-authors of The Narcissism Epidemic, conducted a study of 35,000 Americans and found that roughly six percent of Americans have experienced clinical NPD in their lifetime. The percentages based on generational statistics were staggering with young adults in their twenties showing a much sharper increase than their elders. In fact, the study demonstrated that almost ten percent of this age group showed clinical signs of NPD. With statistics like that, courses should be offered on how to avoid these toxic individuals and students should be taught what to do if you find yourself romantically involved with a narcissist.

While common sense tells us to avoid the slimy guy at the end of the bar, narcissists are a completely different trap. They are generally charming, charismatic, and often the life of the party. Because they seem to be larger than life, people are often drawn to the narcissist. Being included in their circle leaves one feeling "special". However, those feelings are short-lived. The feeling of being special will become riddled with random put-downs and passive aggressive attacks. Over time, your self esteem will reach all time lows and you will start to doubt yourself and your self-worth. Now the narcissist has you exactly where he wants you.

How do you avoid these toxic people? You need to be aware of the red flags.

Red Flags

  • Excessive charm: Question a person that seems too good to be true. Narcissists are masters at wooing their targets. If you are receiving tickets to your favorite ballet and bouquets of flowers larger than your Christmas tree before the third date, you may be dating a narcissist. Offers to whisk you away to Paris for New Year's Eve are fabulous but could be considered odd behavior if you just met last week and don't know his middle name!
  • Overly confident: A healthy dose of self-esteem is a good thing but remain cautious if he seems to be the president of his own fan club. In short order, you are likely to become the secretary of that fan club!
  • Haughty: Pay attention to elitist comments and an attitude of arrogance toward those who are "beneath" him. Narcissists will often put down co-workers, friends and even family members. People with NPD are skilled at making you believe that they are superior. If you find yourself in their chosen circle, this attitude can rub off. Being chosen by someone so superior must mean that you too are superior, right? Wrong. That feeling will be short-lived. Trust me.
  • Bragging: Narcissists do not care about your feelings, views or opinions. Narcissists are generally too obsessed with telling you how great they are to even ask about you. Their bragging rights carry over to a wide variety of topics including their family, heritage, money, cars, physical appearance, elite gym memberships, clothing and shoes.
  • Grandiosity: Narcissists seem to live by the phrase, "Go big or go home." They like to be seen and known. Grandiosity is often their middle name. A narcissist will pick up an enormous group drink tab or buy everyone in the bar a round of shots. Their motivation is to be showy and attract attention. These gestures could be easily interpreted as kindness, which is the furthest thing from the truth. While a narcissist is signing the tab for drinks, he is simultaneously scanning the group to take inventory on how he can personally use each person to maintain his inflated self-image or for elevation in prestige or status.
  • Success: There is a reason why the political and celebrity arenas are brimming over with narcissists. Narcissists are often found in leadership roles where they have free reign to dominate and dazzle those around them. They flourish in big cities where there is less accountability and less risk of developing a reputation that will haunt them.
  • The Band-aid: Narcissists are professional Band-aids. They will seek out your weaknesses (abandonment issues, self-image issues, etc.) and will morph themselves into your savior. Whatever voids you have, they will fill. This sounds great except for the fact that it is short-lived. Once you are hooked on them, they will rip off the Band-aid and leave you bleeding.
  • Hypersensitivity: Fluctuations between extreme confidence and extreme insecurity seem to be a common trait with narcissists. They will often imagine non-existent criticism and will act out by shutting down and sulking, or acting out in a rage. Any perceived attack or criticism of the narcissist is not dealt with in a healthy, normal way. In his mind, you are either with him or against him;there is no gray area.
  • Moving Quickly: Narcissists have a tendency to move at the speed of light. Has he extended an invitation to meet his parents after the second date? Did he have towels monogrammed with your initials as a gift on your first sleepover? By the way, beware of the monogrammed towels. I haven't found any studies to back my claim but there is something very suspicious about people with their initials sewn on hand towels!
  • Lying: You may notice white lies or grey lies in the beginning however, these expert manipulators are well versed at twisting reality to the point where you find yourself doubting reality.

To clarify, we are all narcissistic. This is a disorder that affects both men and women. Most levels of narcissism are healthy but if it crosses over to a level of dysfunction, then it is classified as Narcissistic Personality Disorder. If the research is correct and up to ten percent of young adults in their 20's suffer from NPD, then there are a lot of people that you should avoid like the plague the next time you visit the local club or frat party. Sadly, narcissists don't have warning labels printed across their foreheads. That means you need to be aware of the red flags and listen to your gut instincts.

What to do if you encounter a Narcissist

The simple answer: Grab your running shoes and start training for your first 5K! There is no bouquet of flowers, expensive dinner, or trip to Paris that is worth the havoc a narcissist will cause in your life. If you can't find a pair of running shoes, at least excuse yourself to the ladies room and then avoid him for the rest of the night at all costs. The bottom line: get away quickly.

Dating a Narcissist

If you have had an "aha moment" and discover that your current partner is a narcissist, what do you do next? First, take a deep breath. This isn't an easy road. You are not dealing with a mentally healthy person. Therefore, you cannot expect this to be a normal break-up. Breaking up with a narcissist is playing by a whole new set of rules. Once you have called off the relationship, you must follow the most important rule: No engagement.

While difficult for many to follow, the "no engagement rule" is fairly straightforward. Do not call him and do not answer his calls, emails, texts, or faxes. Faxes? Yes, there are no limits to the great lengths a scorned narcissist will go to for his next fix. Think of him as a junkie and you are his drug. Narcissists need your emotions because they are not capable of their own emotions -- they need you to feed their ego. It could be good emotions or bad emotions -- they do not care. This is known as "narcissistic supply."

If you are planning to leave a narcissist, I encourage you to educate yourself thoroughly on the topic of Narcissistic Personality Disorder. Education is more than just power in this case. It will be your lifeline. There are a multitude of online articles and support groups along with some great books on the topic. Read everything you can get your hands on. Leaving a narcissist is one of the hardest things you will ever do, but it is imperative to your future.