This Type Of Covert Narcissist Might Fool You Into Dating Him
You know the guy.
He's the poetry-writing guy who sports a more feminine sense of style and can tell you all about your chakras. He seems to be in touch with his emotions, he's introspective, and he loves talking about art and philosophy.
These days, he's called the softboi—a new type of masculinity that at first seems to purposefully be the opposite of the more traditional masculinity marked by lack of emotions, interest in sports, and the like. But behind the seeming sensitivity is something pernicious: narcissism.
The softboi starts off as sensitive, then like a Bugatti revving up from zero to 200 miles per hour in mere seconds, bombards you intensely before spitefully discarding you. There's an illuminating (and hilarious) Instagram account dedicated to screenshots of soliloquies composed by these guys. It appears as though they've all read from the same manual. In my work with survivors of narcissistic abuse, narcissists of different breeds also appear to have read from the same manual, but more accurately, their underlying personality disorder means they are programmed that way by a combination of genetics and upbringing.
The softboi's red flags:
- Moral grandstanding, on a drug-addled high: The softboi has superior moral standards to you and may perhaps speak of how spiritual he is. Substance abuse is often weaved in, all in the name of being enlightened. The moral grandstanding is exhausting but can make you question whether you're close-minded.
- Stream of consciousness word salad: "The ideas or things I believe in my psyche are very reminiscent of the Lovecraftian existential horror you'd feel when realizing your fragile futility on the scale of the universe," one text posted on an Instagram account reads. These random references and long befuddling sentences are designed to make him seem philosophical. But really, in narcissist speak, it's word salad—random streams of consciousness thrown together to confuse you. This is because dark personality types thrive on throwing people off-kilter, so you walk on eggshells because you never know what to expect.
- Boasting about his high sex drive: Another of the softboi's claim to fame is his phenomenal sex drive that will blow your mind. It's a topic he references relentlessly while putting others down for being unable to satisfy him.
- Denigrating your plebeian taste: This is the guy who'll find a way to bring up Pulp Fiction and/or send you a band recommendation if it kills him. He seems to thrive on telling you all about his superior taste in movies, music, and the arts in general. It's one thing to enjoy these; it's another to wield one's alleged taste to denigrate another.
- The drama triangle: The softboi flips among the roles of savior ("I'm here to rescue here"), persecutor ("You're stupid," "I'm so different from everyone else"), and victim ("You don't understand what I've been through; cut me some slack"). This is essentially a free pass for them to unleash their abuse.
- The ghost: Softbois take pride in their ability to flit from one victim to another. As my friend and fellow therapist Shannon Thomas, LCSW, tells Insider, they are adept at holding deep conversations before disappearing without warning, because "softbois are narcissistic in their belief that people are in their lives to keep them from getting bored."
The making of a softboi.
We all have our insecurities. While some of us are able to face up to them, narcissists will do anything to escape their insecurities and, as such, inflate a false self to be maintained at all costs. This helps them to sustain the high from feeling superior and entitled.
My friend and fellow psychologist Jonathan Marshall, Ph.D., describes softbois as affection-oriented narcissists, the "new-age boy schooled at tapping into the sensitive side, to harvest desire, love, and connection." While there is nothing wrong with learning how to create and maintain connection, the softboi's modus operandi comes from a deep-seated wound that expresses itself in creating relationships based on dependence.
Marshall posits that softbois' flitting from one victim to another may indicate "someone starving for an emotional intensity but only looking for low-hanging intense connections." He gives the example of a softboi whose wounding came from his childhood and from being heartbroken by his first girlfriend. Wanting revenge on women, he learned the rules of the game to hook women and hurt them.
For the softboi himself, this is akin to self-soothing with substances—it makes you feel good temporarily, but the hangover hurts. And then you self-soothe some more.
It's also possible that this stems from a sense of self-sabotage. The softboi knows he is unable to sustain longevity in relationships, and so he must create chaos to keep someone on their toes or discard his potential partner first before the mask slips, allowing others to realize he is really a fraud with little emotional intelligence.
Thomas believes that people who have previously encountered an overt narcissist are most vulnerable because the softboi appears to be the exact opposite. "Some softbois will apologize and show remorse for their behaviors, and this can throw a survivor off because these behaviors are very different from what they previously experienced," she tells me.
Then there is also the neg—a negative remark or backhanded compliment intended to undermine your confidence and seek the manipulator's approval. Marshall points out that for women with many suitors, a nice comment may not register. Instead, the softboi "triggers a primal reflex to prove that you are adequate by making you feel insecure."
Marshall believes that the key thing is to ensure that you are not isolated. There's a reason isolation is how a cult gets you, hook, line, and sinker, Marshall points out. He says that's why having peers around you to help you see clearly is so important: "Nobody is perfect. If your partner lies to you that he works out so you think well of him, that may be a deal-breaker for you, or it may be the starting point for a conversation you have about candid communication. In a relationship, we may lose sight of what should be a deal-breaker, so it's important to have people you can trust to give you your perspective."
The importance of discernment.
As human beings, we can be delightfully quirky. It doesn't make us softbois (or softgirls, which could also be a thing). What matters is that we don't use these differences to make someone else feel inadequate in order to manipulate them and then procure a high from this.
It's one thing to develop emotional intelligence for better relationships; it's another to cower behind the carapace of alleged sensitivity to hurt someone else. And most importantly, it's all right to label someone's behaviors potentially toxic. Discernment doesn't make us bad people; it makes us wiser.
If someone exhibits these red flags, and you feel genuinely creeped out, it's OK to listen to your body's wisdom, without having to justify the softboi's behaviors or trying to rescue him.
You have permission to walk away. Or better still, run fast and far.
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Perpetua Neo is a psychologist and executive coach currently living in Singapore. She received her doctorate in clinical psychology from University College London and her master's in philosophy from University of Cambridge. She has been featured in Elle, Forbes, and Business Insider and has previously worked with olympians, business professionals, and individuals seeking to master their psychological capital. She works globally in English and Mandarin-Chinese via Skype and Facetime, blending cutting-edge neuroscience, psychology, and ancient wisdom.