Many people ask me how to spot a narcissist or what I call an “Other-Blamer” early on in relationships. Watching for the following “verbal tells” is one way to do it. We often think of lack of accountability as the inability to admit fault and apologize. However, we can often spot a person’s poor accountability in subtle ways just by listening for small clues in how someone talks. As a psychotherapist who often works with couples, these conversations styles are often very apparent during couples therapy, but also come up in individual therapy.
Accountability is an important sign of healthy adult functioning, because it is an indicator of someone who is responsible, self-disciplined and respectful of others. Accountability is also a sign of healthy mental functioning, because it indicates someone who has good shame tolerance — or the ability accept and manage feelings of failure, inadequacy or embarrassment. Overall, the following communication styles are ways Other-Blamers use to avoid accountability and blame, lie to their victims, and get away with inappropriate behavior.
One of the tests I encourage people to engage in is to reflect on all the many responses someone could make. Other-Blamers tend to have such predictable unhealthy responses (blame-shifting, gaslighting, minimizing, defensive anger, etc) that victims often lose sight of the concept that there are other options — most notably, that the narcissist could actually accept blame and apologize. Usually, though, this response is so rare that the victim often forgets that it is even within the realm of possibility!
But even before the relationship or conversation gets to that level, there are ways to spot the narcissist through some subtle forms of communication that they engage in. Disclaimer: Many people engage in these types of communication styles on occasion, so watch for a pattern over time before you suspect Other-Blamer traits.
- Passive language: Other-Blamers and Blame Avoiders can use a passive framing that makes it seem as if “things just happened” and “events were out of my control.” I had one client say “The bank deposit went in as a withdrawal.” Huh? Turns out he purposely withdrew exactly the amount he was supposed to deposit into a joint account hoping his wife wouldn’t notice the difference. Of course she noticed it when the bills didn’t get paid! Rarely is the language personal and accountable, such as: “I withdrew money from the joint account instead of depositing my paycheck as I agreed to do.” I also hear passive language when people no-show for appointments with me.
- Overall vague language: Listen for a general tendency toward “slippery” talk where you can’t really pin them down. Watch for a lack of specifics or details, especially in narratives where these are important or they did something wrong. Often, when you question them about these details, they’ll continue to be vague, because they have something to hide, of course! Word use will also rarely involve accountability language that is specific and admits fault: “I got a traffic ticket today because I was going too fast.”
- Omissions: Beyond just vague language, when talking to an Other-Blamer there is a sense that “something is missing.” They often don’t tell stories or explain things in the same way others do, generally because something really is missing. Other-Blamers can report about their experiences in ways that leave out important details. Other-Blamers know that if they don’t mention details, you can’t hold them responsible for these facts. They may “fail to mention” who they went out for a drink with or “forget” to tell you that they aren’t going to get a bonus this month at work. In conversations, this may sound like jumps in narratives where facts and incidents “trickle out” in the conversation. You may hear incidentally about the person getting a traffic ticket or getting disciplined at work, but there is no explanation for how or when this happened. It usually turns out it happened weeks or months ago and they just decided not to report it. They are hoping to ease the topic into the conversation without you noticing — all to avoid accountability.
- Deflecting: When you ask them a specific question or are talking about a specific subject, they change the subject to a completely unrelated topic. Usually they do this without fanfare and without anger, so you may not notice it. This creates a feeling of zig-zagging from topic to topic in conversations, so that nothing gets resolved despite hours of talking. I notice this in therapy when we get too close to a subject that is uncomfortable for the patient — they will suddenly bring up a new subject to divert from the shame-provoking topic.
- Blame-shifting: The biggest problem for Other-Blamers, and the reason I gave narcissists this title, is they find a way to blame anyone and anything for their faults: “The cop gave me a ticket because it’s the end of the month and those losers always have to make a quota.” (Not because he was actually speeding!) “I can’t set an alarm and get up for work on time because it is just so much work to set an alarm and it never goes off correctly if I do.” (What? Setting an alarm is too hard?) “I’m late for work because the line at the gas station was too long.”
- Blame-shifting and deflecting combo: Many narcissists do what I call “the yeah-but” move. When accused of some failure, they counter not with accountability but with, “Yeah, but you did X two weeks ago.” This is a form of deflecting, but usually done with anger and accusatory language that is more noticeable. Again, this style of arguing leads to unresolved issues and resentment. Other-Blamers blame shift because the alternative is so unacceptable to them — apology and accountability. It feels much better to dump their shame on you than own it.
- General lack of transparency: When dealing with Other-blamers, it can feel like you are a police detective grilling a recalcitrant suspect, because they are often not very forthcoming. Early on in a relationship this may be hard to spot, but watch for someone not being forthcoming about where they are or what they are doing. Later in relationships, the big issues may be the narcissist’s failure to mention serious addictions, money problems, or affairs. I’ve had clients who married a partner who failed to tell them before the wedding about $80,000 in credit card debt or major student loans that are now the legal responsibility of their spouse. One woman would leave the house for hours and refuse to say where she was going, only to have her husband later discover that she was going to the casino every day and had gambled away a large inheritance. Others will quit jobs without giving their spouse any warning or make other major decisions without input. My ex-husband smoked weed every day and used cocaine — but I only discovered this after a few years when I found his big stash in the garage! Shame makes people hide their shameful behaviors, but this leaves partners in the position of being lied to and even abused financially or put in legal jeopardy.
- Defensive when criticized: Watch for anger, certainly, but even sullenness and pouting when challenged, even in a small way. I often have patients who are looking to learn how to spot narcissists when dating and I tell them this story. Many years ago I was on my second date with a man and he asked a typical “get-to-know-you” type of question: Who is your favorite rock vocalist? I saw Queen in 1977 at Cobo Hall, in what turned out to be an iconic concert, and despite my preference for punk and alt rock I came to love Queen, largely because of Freddy Mercury’s voice and performance. So I picked Freddy Mercury to answer his question. He got a bit upset, because he said he preferred Bob Seger — as if my differing opinion was a personal slam against him. I then pointed out, very politely and with a sense of humor, that even Seger admitted his voice wasn’t very good— he had a half-octave range, I think! My date then got even more frustrated that I was challenging his opinion. I was already sensing he was very insecure and sensitive. But it got worse. He then tried to explain that Seger was a great lyricist … well, now that’s a different question, I said, again very politely. You can guess how that went. He huffed and puffed and sulked — and I never dated him again. So I now suggest gently disagreeing with someone early in the relationship and watching for his or her reaction. If they cannot handle an opposing opinion or questioning, especially about an inconsequential topic, then run the other way!
- Ignoring: Some people, when facing a subject that they’d rather avoid, will adopt a deer in the headlights look and just choose to not respond. They sit in silence with a blank face, which often provokes the victim to feel uncomfortable with the silence, and then jump in to change the subject or otherwise rescue the narcissist from the awkwardness of the shameful subject. My father often blatantly ignored subjects, but was never overtly mean or cold, just completely obtuse. He was a university professor, so I know it wasn’t a lack of intelligence, but rather stubbornness. It took me years to recognize the pattern, because it was so subtle and accepted in my family. I now know that I can sit and tolerate the silence and even return to press the subject, even if the other person is uncomfortable.
- Stonewalling and withdrawing: Many narcissists, when they know they’ve been cornered and proven wrong, will just leave — hang up the phone, leave the house, go to the basement or garage, or just sit in silence and refuse to talk. They may say this is to “cool down” or avoid conflict, but usually it is because they just hate being held accountable.
- A Firehose of Words: As I wrote in this blog, narcopaths often use the “firehose of words” technique to overwhelm and confuse their victims. This goes beyond just being verbose, because the avalanche of words has an agenda — helping the Other-Blamer avoid accountability. If you’re meeting someone new, watch if they become verbose when challenged, criticized or questioned in ways that trigger their shame and guilt.
So when on the lookout for a narcissist, get granular and look at specific words they use or don’t use. Watch especially for an overall lack of accountability in what they say and do.
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