This morning, I read an article on Psychology Today that described how to identify a narcissistic partner by the way they open up. It explained that healthy partners tend to open up in emotionally intelligent and empathic ways, while partners with narcissistic traits share their stories in ways that portray themselves as victims without sharing any vulnerable details about their feelings.
The author distinguished between safe disclosures (typically used by healthy partners) and unsafe disclosures that are typically used by partners with narcissistic traits.
Safe disclosures are emotionally laden. They share the painful details of the story and how the experience made them feel. Partners who use safe disclosures tend to use specific emotion language to describe what happened, and usually tie the story back to something they learned or how they grew as a result. (As a cognitive psychologist, I would interject here that not every safe disclosure must include a positive spin, as many people are in the early stages of their healing journey and haven’t reached that place yet).
On the other hand, unsafe disclosures tend to paint the storyteller as a victim without conveying any real or concrete feelings. Partners who engage in unsafe disclosures will use harrowing phrases like I was traumatized, but will not explain how the trauma affected them. And although they will not share a shred of emotional vulnerability, they will work tirelessly to convince you that their experience was worse than anyone else’s — that no one (including you) could understand what they went through.
I’m sure by now, a lot of you are gritting your teeth and nodding your heads. These are the tell-tale signs of people with narcissistic traits, and I’d wager that if you’ve made it to even the tender age of your early to mid-twenties, you have already encountered one of these types. It’s like they all operate from the same script, and somehow, we still manage not to see the signs until it’s too late.
When I think back to every person in my life who was high in narcissistic traits, the “I’m a victim” narrative is one of the most salient things I can recall about them. All of them, from the very start of getting to know me, spoke endlessly about the “crazy, abusive narcissists” in their lives who caused them so much pain and trauma. I remember hearing about how bad these perpetrators of harm were, but never much about how the narcissistic person felt about it — what they learned, how they healed, how it impacted their lives. The focus was always on emphasizing the utter terribleness of the people from their past so that I would also come to hate them. So that we could sit around talking about how awful those people were, and so that I could repeatedly assure them that they didn’t deserve it, that they are too kind and generous to have ever been treated that way. These unsafe disclosures always centered on painting a picture in my head of how this person has been mistreated their entire lives. The intended result, I’ve come to realize, was to make me feel responsible for making sure they are never treated like that again. And so that, if I did something to make them feel discomfort in any way, they could accuse me of being “just like all their other abusers.”
These unsafe disclosures are, at their core, a mechanism of control.
I want to take a second to make one thing clear: narcissists aren’t born, they’re made. It’s important to remember that people with narcissistic traits probably did endure something very traumatic in their past. That needs to be considered with compassion and empathy when we speak about narcissistic people. Their narcissism formed as a coping mechanism to deal with a pain that felt, at least to them, completely unbearable. But two things can be true at once. We can choose to have compassion toward people with narcissistic traits while still keeping ourselves safe from them.
In my opinion, recognizing the signs of unsafe disclosures is one of the fastest ways to identify someone with narcissistic traits. I believe this is the case because, firstly, the unsafe disclosures typically begin very early in the relationship with these types of people. Secondly, these unsafe disclosures have very obvious signs: the lack of emotional vulnerability, the vilification of practically everyone from their past, the “perpetual victim” narrative, and the implication that their pain is worse than yours or anyone else’s for that matter.
If we learn to recognize these unsafe disclosures early on, they might help us more quickly identify people with narcissistic traits and make informed decisions about how to interact with those people moving forward. I’m not going to suggest that we should walk away from every narcissistic person we meet. They are people, too. Probably deeply broken people. They deserve to have their humanity recognized, regardless of how they treat people. That said, when we know someone has narcissistic traits, we can choose how to engage with them based on our own safety and comfort level. We can choose to remove them from our lives completely. Or, we can choose to allow them to have a presence in our lives, but always keep them at an arm’s length. When we make informed decisions about how to move forward with people like that, we are better able to keep ourselves safe and healthy.
Amber Wardell is a doctor of psychology and author who speaks on women’s issues related to marriage, motherhood, and mental health. Subscribe to the free newsletter to get exclusive content delivered to your inbox and to never miss an upload.