Narcissists have all kinds of ways to hook you, but there are always warning signs.
Maybe they're charming and funny, but the smoothness feels a bit too polished. Conversations with my narcissistic ex initially felt like jazz music—they were punctuated with figurative appoggiaturas, trills, and gruppetti. Even if his monologues sometimes didn't quite land, my brain would fill in the gaps because I wanted it all to add up (a sentiment my clients echo).
Other narcissists may lure you in with the "woe is me! The world has it out for me," stories, tugging at your heartstrings. My ex eventually resorted to this kind of behavior, attempted to guilt me if I "abandoned" him (he used that word often).
If you notice that everything seems to be conspiring against someone, and they're always the first to tell you about it, something is probably rotten in Mudville.
You'll notice that if you start to ask a narcissist questions about their topics of interest or expertise, they'll either recite a textbook answer or try to turn the conversation around and make it about what you are or aren't doing and what that says about you as a person.
My ex often liked to flaunt his expertise in sacred geometry, so I once played a TEDtalk that combined molecular shapes (something I'm interested in) and geometry. He stopped the video a few minutes in, told me he’d figured this out a long time ago, and that I was stupid if I needed to watch it. I was confused and hurt. In hindsight, I realized that he was trying to hide his own ignorance.
Most narcissists eventually start exhibiting controlling behavior. My colleague Sheela Mackintosh-Stewart says that this often starts early with subtle signs. They may start commenting on your clothing or asking you to change. A narcissist may make vaguely threatening comments like, "You might not want to make me mad." They might tell you your friends don't want what's best for you or your family is trying to hold you back because they want to be the only person you trust.
My ex would literally check my body for signs that I'd had breast implants. It was unfathomable. He'd explain it by saying, "I've been lied to before." I told him it wasn’t cool, but I didn't make a firm boundary.
If I could tell my younger self one thing, it would be this: Trust your gut. If it feels wrong, it probably is.
Every time we let someone infringe on our boundaries, we're inviting them to do it again. Little by little, we become numb to behavior that we would never have accepted in the past.
As Sheela says, "This is not a partnership of equals and you must step away quickly."