Is YOUR partner really a narcissist or just a bad guy? Psychologist reveals the traits of an abuser – from never feeling guilty to always blaming you for problems

  • Dr Sarah Davies is a psychologist who specialises in narcissistic abuse 
  • She spoke to FEMAIL about how we risk ‘over-diagnosing’ narcissism
  • Dr Davies explained we all exhibit narcissistic behaviour from time-to-time
  • She explained how you can tell if you are the victim of narcissistic abuse 

A psychologist who specialises in narcissistic abuse has shared her expert knowledge on how you can tell if your partner is really a narcissist.

Dr Sarah Davies, a trauma therapist based in Harley Street, told FEMAIL that narcissism has become a ‘buzzword’ on social media which carries a risk of ‘over-diagnosis’ of narcissistic personality disorder (NPD).

It is estimated that around five per cent of the global population has NPD – although it is difficult to know the true number because narcissists rarely seek help and receive diagnoses for their condition.

However, with more than 1 million posts on Instagram with the hashtag #narcissisticabuse, psychologists like Sarah are concerned people with no clinical expertise are wrongly diagnosing their partners or ex-partners as narcissists.

Here, she shares her expert knowledge with FEMAIL about what narcissistic abuse really looks like, and how you can tell if it’s happening to you.

What is narcissism?

According to Dr Davies, who specialises in narcissistic abuse recovery, many people have narcissistic tendencies but only a small percentage of the population have narcissistic personality disorder (NPD)

According to Dr Davies, who specialises in narcissistic abuse recovery, many people have narcissistic tendencies but only a small percentage of the population have narcissistic personality disorder (NPD)

Narcissism is an extreme level of self-absorption to an extent that makes a person ignore the needs and feelings of other people around them.

Narcissists frequently dismiss other people in order to get what they want and do not understand the effect their behaviour has on other people. 

Dr Davies explained: ‘Narcissism is very much on a spectrum, ranging from being a little selfish or self-absorbed sometimes (which we can all be), through to ‘narcissistic defences’, to a full-on personality disorder, bordering on sociopath.’

She added the so-called ‘mid-range’ of the spectrum, where ‘narcissistic defences’ lie, is the most common way in which narcissism presents itself.

Dr Davies described the term as when someone reacts to something in a narcissistic way, but it does not mean they are a ‘full-blown narcissist’.

An example of narcissistic defence would be an immediate denial when accused of something, such as eating the last chocolate from a chocolate box.

She said: ‘Usually then what happens, somebody feels bad and then may feel remorse and later admit “Yes, sorry I did eat that, I couldn’t resist”.’

While many people have narcissistic tendencies, Dr Davies pointed out the key difference between this and having NPD is that most people feel remorse when they do something they consider to be wrong.

‘Feeling guilt serves to keep our behaviours in check and guide us to live in a way that aligns with our values and moral compass,’ she explained.

‘Most people, if they do something that they don’t feel good about, will geniunely feel bad, be sorry, and make amends through real action with an alter in ways.

‘Somebody with NPD is very unlikely to experience genuine remorse, and therefore won’t feel bad enough to apologise or attempt to change. Instead they may position themselves as a victim and/or blame others in some way.’ 

How many people are actually narcissists?

‘Narcissism is a real buzzword these days,’ Dr Davies said. 

‘Whilst it is helpful that more awareness of this is out there, it also sadly runs the risk of an over-diagnosis and over-vigilance to this in our society.’

The psychologist added that approximately 5% of the world’s population has narcissistic personality disorder, according to statistics.

However, while she believes we are being too liberal with our use of the word ‘narcissist’, she also thinks the true proportion of people with the personality disorder is greater than 5%. 

‘It may be that there is an under-estimation given that narcissists are unlikely to seek professional support,’ she explained.

‘A core feature of a clinical diagnosis of narcissism includes an inability for honesty or self-reflection – these are two things that are necessary to engage in effective psychological therapy.’

Dr Davies added narcissists struggle to take personal responsibility for issues and prefer to frame themselves as the victim to pass the blame onto others.

‘They are the least likely to seek professional help as in their view, it’s everybody else’s fault and therefore everybody else’s problem,’ she said.

What does narcissistic abuse look like?

According to Dr Davies’s website, narcissistic abuse is often known as a form of ‘silent abuse’.

She wrote: ‘Unlike physical abuse where the results are clear and undebatable in the form of bruises or cuts, narcissistic abuse and bullying is often seemingly very subtle, especially in the beginning. 

‘Narcissistic abuse is often executed in a way where nobody else, aside from the victim, sees or suspects it. 

‘In fact, often narcissistic abuse is so manipulative and abusive that often sufferers are left unsure if what they are experiencing is abuse at all.’

She explained that many people who suffer from narcissistic abuse will feel they are being ‘too sensitive’ or ‘imagining things’ – because this is what the narcissist will tell them. 

‘A symptom of narcissistic abuse in itself is being left with a sense of self-doubt, questioning or second-guessing yourself – losing trust in yourself and your judgements and perceptions,’ she explained.

What is the narcissistic abuse cycle and how does it work?

According to psychologists, the narcissistic abuse cycle broadly takes the form of three-too-four stages. These are:

1. Idealise

Once a narcissist has latched on to a new form of supply, they will pursue them vigorously, showering them with affection to ensure they can secure their source of supply. 

They will ‘love-bomb’ and throw praise upon the new object of their affections to hook them in. 

They may use the word ‘love’ early on in the relationship and suggest their victim is their ‘soul mate’.

2. Devalue

Once the narcissist is sure their new form of supply is hooked and unlikely to go anywhere, their attitude towards that person changes and the words of affection stop. 

The narcissist will become cold and uncaring, and in many cases, will tell their victim things that make them feel inadequate. 

They may pick at the person’s appearance or personality, which gradually chips away at their confidence and leaves them feeling incredibly confused.

 3. Discard

This is when the narcissist decides they want to find a new form of supply and breaks up with their vicitim.

Many victims of narcissistic abuse may feel that the relationship has been ended very suddenly and in a cold, hurtful way.

Often, they will put the blame on the victim, telling them they are ‘crazy’ and making them feel small. 

They will enact a smear campaign to leave their victim feeling as low and broken as possible, which can leave them with severe mental health implications.

4. Hoover 

This stage of the narcissistic abuse cycle does not always occur, but can happen in many cases.

It happens when the narcissist makes attempts to bring their victim back into their life after a period of distance.

In order to suck their victim back in, they will tug on their heartstrings and turn the charm back on.

They may find a random excuse to get in touch so they can be back in contact with the victim.

If the victim decides to give the narcissist another chance, the likelihood is the cycle begins all over again. 

 Sources: Psychology Today, Narcissistic Abuse Support


How can you tell if your partner is a narcissist or just not very nice?

According to Dr Davies, narcissistic abuse in a relationship can be characterised by long-term patterns of repeated narcissism.

She identified ‘core themes’ that point to a narcissistic personality, which include:

  • Pre-occupation with wealth, status, power and success 
  • Selfishness and a disregard for others 
  • Lack of remorse or guilt 
  • Arrogant, haughty behaviour
  • A strong sense of entitlement
  • A distinct lack of taking responsibility for themselves or their actions
  • Consistently blaming and shaming others  

‘Core narcissistic personality is difficult to change, so you will see the same thing again and again,’ she said.

‘There will be unhealthy, destructive patterns to a narcissistically abusive relationship. Like being with somebody who does not take their share of responsibility.’

Dr Davies added that, because narcissists will blame others for their problems and will not self-reflect, it is very unlikely you will ever get an apology out of them.

‘Narcissists do not experience remorse or guilt in the same way most of us do. 

‘They will instead be so defended that they believe they are the wronged party/victim and blame everyone else or anything else. They will rarely, if ever, be accountable.’

How can you spot signs of narcissistic abuse in your relationship?

To be able to spot narcissistic abuse, Dr Davies recommends taking a two-fold approach of making a note of your partner’s behaviour and then recognising your own feelings.

‘Many people I’ve work with over the years recognise only in hindsight that they did not give enough attention to how they felt, emotionally or on an instinctual level,’ she said.   

‘What do you notice in the other persons behaviour? How do they treat you and how do they treat others? How do they speak about other people? What are their other relationships like? Do they have patterns of issues with work colleagues, friends, family?

‘Equally, how do YOU feel? How are you left feeling when being with this person? How do you feel with this person overall?’

Most importantly, Dr Davies pointed out that healthy, loving relationships should give you a sense of safety and support.

She said: ‘If you are left feeling anxious, on edge, insecure or that you can’t rely on a partner, it may be a sign the relationship is an unhealthy one.’

Dr Davies added that human beings can all be a bit selfish sometimes, but it doesn’t necessarily make us narcissists.

She said: ‘To recognise if your partner is narcissistic or just having a bad day, take an honest, grounded inventory or what happens between you and note how often issues arise.’

She recommended asking yourself the following questions:

  • How often are you left feeling bad or upset?
  • Do you recognise any of the characteristics of narcissistic abuse? Ie. gaslighting, ghosting, blaming, denial
  • How do you overcome difficulties? Can you talk it through and do they ever apologise, or do they blame you?
  • Are you the one left to take responsibility every time?
  • Is there a pattern to your partner’s behaviour?
  • Is the relationship affecting your self-esteem or mental health? 

Dr Davies noted that arguments are perfectly normal in relationships, but the way you work through disagreements together is how you know if the relationship is healthy or not.

She said: ‘In healthy relationships, resolutions are sought and met relatively quickly. Or if there are issues recognised, there is a joint effort to work through them together. There is a shared vision and goal.

Relationships with a narcissist are highly dysregulating, often traumatic and can be highly detrimental to your mental health and wellbeing. 

‘You can really feel like you are losing your mind and in extreme cases can even lead to a complete nervous breakdown. 

‘If your relationship is taking its toll on your overall health and wellbeing it’s a fairly certain sign it’s toxic.’

She added: ‘If you suspect a partner is a narcissist or abusive, it may well be time to consider if it’s a relationship you want to be in. 

‘If you are concerned it may also be helpful to seek professional support.’ 

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