After unintentionally befriending a narcissist, Kelly Dennett got clued-up on how to spot — and avoid — them.

Several years before his untimely death from cancer, Apple founder Steve Jobs gave a commencement speech at California's Stanford University, where he talked about unfortunate circumstances in his life that gave rise to fortunate accidents.

Like that time he dropped out of college and fell into taking calligraphy and typography classes instead. His knowledge of beautiful fonts became part of the success of Apple. Aged 30, he was fired from the company he founded but, as it turned out, this paved the way for him to meet his wife and start another highly successful business, Pixar.

The weighted words are fascinating, inspiring, a true food-for-thought speech before TedX talks were a thing. It's ironic then, that Jobs became known not just for his tech genius; his vision that launched billion-dollar companies, but also his notoriety as one of the world's best-known narcissists.

Jobs had a penchant for bouts of rage and bullying, wearing down his employees who he frequently labelled not good enough, and humiliating those he felt failed him. Former employees said he took credit for their ideas, made risky business decisions, and had a distorted view of reality. One employee later said of him: "I have always liked Steve, but I have found it impossible to work for him. He acts without thinking and with bad judgement.


"He does not give credit where due. Very often, when told a new idea, he will immediately attack it and say it is worthless or even stupid, and tell you that it was a waste of time to work on it ... but if the idea is a good one he will soon be telling people about it as though it was his own."

US-based narcissism expert, the University of Buffalo's assistant professor of human resources, Dr Emily Grijalva, later detailed those descriptions in a research paper she co-authored, where she concluded Jobs was perhaps the best example of the pros and cons of having a narcissist in the workplace. Jobs was so obsessed with perfection his drive for success was unmatched. But he was feared in the workplace and was a terrible boss.

I've become fascinated with the topic after encountering a narcissist. Later, bewildered by the experience, I sought to explain and understand his behaviour so I could avoid his type in the future.

To me, narcissism felt like a practically invisible affliction held by more and more people I met, who would out themselves after I got to know them, usually by bragging about their accomplishments or talking about themselves tirelessly. Once I had learned to see narcissistic traits, I couldn't un-see them and I began to spot them everywhere: living in my flat, going out with my friends, taking me on terrible dates.

My narcissist friend ticked many of the boxes. He bragged about minor achievements, and consistently put others (including me) down. His main grievances included people's weight or hair colour, their perceived intelligence, political beliefs and even how well travelled they were. He frequently talked over top of me, mocked my values and beliefs, and crumpled at the smallest slight.

More strange than anything, however, was watching him turn on sparkling wit and congeniality when around other people. He put on a performance of being polite, sensitive and interested when meeting other people before denigrating them mercilessly behind their backs. He was preoccupied with people's appearances and said anybody even slightly out of shape was lazy, and disgusting. After a while I couldn't bear walking down the street with him as he nitpicked the people we passed.

"I usually warn people that narcissists tend to be charismatic and make a positive first impression," Grijalva says by email. "Thus, when I meet someone really charismatic/assertive, dominant, confident, funny, smart, attractive, I put them in a 'wait and see' category and delay making a final judgement of their trustworthiness until I have seen a wider range of behaviours."

Narcissism, she says, is not simply just being vain. That's a part of it, but it's also exploiting people for personal gain, feeling entitled, and having a desire for power, status and authority.


They can be manipulative for personal gain and can be hypersensitive to criticism. Most checklists suggest you need to tick off several characteristics to be on the narcissistic spectrum and, if you tick all of them and your narcissism profoundly affects your interpersonal relationships, it's possible you have Narcissistic Personality Disorder — a clinical disorder diagnosed only by professionals.

Narcissism is not new. Sigmund Freud was talking about it in 1914 and the legend dates back to the ancient myth of Narcissus, who died after staring obsessively at his own image in a puddle of water for so long he withered away.

The topic is having a resurgence though, not least because of US President Donald Trump. His leadership style has attracted multiple diagnoses of narcissism. As far back as November 2015 Harvard University psychologist Howard Gardner told Vanity Fair Trump's narcissism was "so classic that I'm archiving video clips of him to use in workshops because there's no better example" of the disorder.

Grijalva also attributes the resurgence in interest to social media use, whose users can be perceived as narcissistic, and the relentless debate about which generations are more self-centred. The 2006 book Generation Me pits baby boomers as more confident and assertive than any other, while a simple Google search of narcissism and millennials makes it clear the selfie generation might have usurped that title.

The week before writing this I put a call out to people on Facebook for their experiences of narcissism. I was inundated. Friends I hadn't spoken to in months quietly messaged me, outing the narcissist in their life. Like an exchange system, I was suddenly being linked to women and men I'd never met who wanted to talk.

In messages tinged with sadness, one male acquaintance admitted he was a narcissist. He had taken narcissistic personality tests online, he said, and always rated highly. He had to make a conscious effort not to talk about himself too much. He admitted constantly thinking, "what's in it for me?" He tried to stifle his self-centredness when meeting new people. "By God, it's exhausting and maladaptive," he confessed.

Others talked about family members, describing behaviours of relatives that felt too chilling to conform to a typical narcissism checklist, including instances of stalking and death threats.

One woman painstakingly described an affair that ended with her feeling like she was in a big, black hole. "Everybody else was stupid, but he was smart," she said. "Everything always came down to what he wanted. Not just sex, but life in general. He was simultaneously the most fragile and the most egotistical man I've ever met."

Another US expert, University of Georgia psychology professor Keith Campbell, has authored books on narcissism and says you can't pigeonhole the personality disorder. That while plenty of people believe emotional abuse is perpetuated by narcissists, that wasn't necessarily the case.

"Narcissists can be emotionally abusive, and this is usually done to benefit the narcissist's ego. So, for example, the narcissist might put others down so that he/she looks good in comparison. However, there are many emotionally abusive people who are not narcissistic, and narcissistic people who are not emotionally abusive," he says.

The thing to look for is how a person treats others, not just you, and look out for callousness, Campbell says.

Grijalva agrees. Narcissism is different to psychopathy in that narcissists do not enjoy hurting people. "I think one misperception of narcissism is that people tend to equate it with everything negative or bad. This is an overgeneralisation," she says.

"The defining feature of narcissism is a grandiose, inflated sense of self-importance, which can lead to selfish behaviour that hurts other people. However, hurting or abusing other people would usually not be the narcissist's fundamental goal — [their] fundamental driver is a desire to maintain a positive self-image."

She suggested reducing contact with narcissists where possible, as they didn't tend to change. My last experience of diagnosing a new acquaintance, a friend of a friend, with narcissism led to me slowly reducing contact as politely as possible.

After one unavoidable meeting, he confided, to my surprise, how disappointed he felt at not being able to build meaningful relationships with people. He wondered why he didn't have a girlfriend. The candour was unsettling. For a time, I felt pity. But only for so long.