“Most of their stories end with them accidentally saving the day or doing something amazing, and they’re frequently expressing something that’s almost unbelievable about themselves,” Dr. Weisner says, adding that those with NPD are typically attracted to high-powered jobs and people, and often have lofty goals (think vying for CEO or influencer status).
Self-centered folks are known to brag about their accomplishments, too, of course, but for narcissistic people, the underlying motivation is “a need to keep their image intact in front of others,” she adds. “It’s about being seen a certain way by the world.” In other words, it’s not that they truly believe they’re superior (as a selfish jerk might); it’s that they need you—and everyone else on the planet—to think they are.
“The theoretical understanding over time has been that most narcissists developed that way because they either had a parent who over-praised them and made them feel as if they were the sun and the moon—or, they had a parent who undervalued them and narcissism became their coping skill,” Dr. Weisner explains.
A selfish jerk is more likely to bore the hell out of you.
Again, like a narcissist, a selfish jerk might be prone to braggy comments, rattling on about where they went to school, why they’re on a macrobiotic diet, and how heavy they lifted at the gym. But it’ll probably get monotonous quickly, Dr. Hirsch says. Narcissism, on the other hand, can be thrilling.
“When a narcissist is shining their light on you, it can make you feel like a rock star. They’re often a little too complimentary, at first,” Dr. Weisner says. “They can even seem like the perfect partner, parent, or friend—the only thing is, there’s a subconscious manipulative quality to it.” The positive attention they’re giving you isn’t really about you at all; it’s about making a good impression so that you’ll stick around and supply them with their lifeblood: Praise and admiration.
A real-life example: A run-of-the-mill jerk might not show up to your birthday party because they’re angry at you and don’t really care if others think they’re mean for ditching you. But a person with NPD would likely show up, give you the biggest gift, and come off as a wonderful partner to everyone in attendance—and then privately say hurtful things when nobody’s looking.
Many narcissists have an ingrained need to put other people down in order to feel better about themselves, “and that’s the part that gets revealed more slowly,” explains Dr. Weisner. Eventually, you might start feeling like you’re walking on eggshells—a sign you might be dealing with narcissistic traits or NPD. “Ultimately, these are people that you either feel fantastic around, or a little frightened.” This brings us to our next point:
A narcissist takes your lack of worship as an attack, and they’ll respond in kind.
Attempting to match a selfish jerk’s patterns (you stop texting them back, say) or failing to adequately agree with how talented they are may mildly irritate them—or, they might not even notice. They’re out for themselves, and what you’re doing doesn’t typically have an enormous effect on that, says Dr. Hirsch. But for a narcissist, these are major triggers that can motivate aggressive and abusive behavior.