Narcissists (aka people with narcissistic personality disorder) are people who tend to inflate their own importance, lack empathy for others, and need constant validation. If you've ever encountered someone who actively asserted that their good looks entitled them to privilege above others, you may have specifically been dealing with a somatic narcissist.
What is a somatic narcissist?
"A somatic narcissist uses their body and the physical space around them as a way to express their narcissism," says psychotherapist Katherine Schafler, LMHC. "Their superiority and sense of entitlement are localized in their perception of their physical self." This may manifest as someone feeling more beautiful, stronger, or fitter than others, says psychotherapist Christine Scott-Hudson, LMFT.
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, which therapists use to make mental health diagnoses, doesn't group narcissism into different types, but some experts classify narcissists into one of three groups:
- Cerebral narcissists, who feel superior due to their intellect
- Sexual narcissists, who gain their sense of entitlement from sexual situations
- Somatic narcissists, whose feelings of worth come from their bodies
These aren't clinical terms, nor are they validated psychological concepts demonstrated by peer-reviewed research. We reached out to experts familiar with this classification system to understand more about how to spot a somatic narcissist.
Signs of a somatic narcissist:
1. They obsess over food, weight, fitness, and appearance.
Somatic narcissists may spend a lot of time engaging in and talking about activities like going to the gym and dieting, says Scott-Hudson. Plastic surgery is popular among some somatic narcissists. Others have issues with overspending on items like clothing, fitness equipment, and makeup, says mental health consultant Adina Mahalli, MSW: "They will do whatever it takes to make sure that their appearance is impressive." They may also brag or fish for compliments about their physical appearance.
2. They use sex for self-esteem.
Serial infidelity, compulsive sexual behavior, pursuit of "trophy" partners, and manipulation of sexual partners are all signs of somatic narcissism, says Scott-Hudson, as many somatic narcissists gain validation by feeling sexually desirable.
3. They take credit for your accomplishments.
Somatic narcissists exhibit the more general traits of narcissists, and this is one of them. "Narcissists exhibit a lack of empathy for others and often devalue the contributions of others while inflating their own sense of contribution or accomplishments," says Schafler.
4. They ignore your needs.
Narcissists "tend to focus solely and excessively on their own needs, problems, or thoughts and have great difficulty recognizing the feelings or needs of others," says Schafler. In a relationship, this means that you always come second, especially when your narcissistic partner's self-esteem is at stake.
5. They can't stand criticism.
Narcissists have trouble taking criticism and often respond defensively, sometimes in abusive ways, says Schafler. The DSM uses the term "narcissistic injury" to describe this phenomenon, stating that criticism can "haunt these individuals and may leave them feeling humiliated, degraded, hollow, and empty. They may react with disdain, rage, or defiant counterattack." For somatic narcissists, this will be particularly true for criticism of their looks.
6. They gaslight you.
Gaslighting is a manipulation tactic that makes the victim question their perception of reality, and it's a favorite tool of narcissists. "It is a manipulative behavior designed for self-gain and even for sport," says Scott-Hudson. "It is designed to weaken, trick, and destabilize the victim."
A gaslighter might, for example, deny doing something they did, accuse you of behavior they themselves are guilty of, or call you oversensitive or dramatic when you confront them. You may be particularly susceptible to gaslighting if you're a people-pleaser, empath, or codependent.
7. They criticize people based on appearance.
In order to solidify their sense of superiority, somatic narcissists will put down those they consider physically inferior or unattractive, says Scott-Hudson. This may include making jokes about fat people, older people, or anyone they deem less than physically ideal. They also may judge and obsessively monitor others' appearances, which can include telling them what to eat, how to exercise, and what to wear.
The difference between a somatic narcissist and a sexual narcissist.
Somatic narcissism can include sexual narcissism, but it's broader, Schafler explains. "Both express their narcissism through their physicality, but somatic narcissists don't need that expression to be sexually charged." Sexual narcissists may gain validation from seducing unsuspecting partners, collecting many sexual partners, or demonstrating sexual prowess, says Scott-Hudson.
Somatic narcissists may feel a sense of sexual entitlement and treat their partners like objects to stroke their egos rather than people with bodily autonomy, says psychotherapist Richard A. Singer Jr., M.A. Narcissistic traits have been linked with sexual assault in college men, and narcissistic abuse affects somewhere between 60 and 158 million people in the U.S. (Narcissism can also lead to nonsexual forms of intimate partner violence since a narcissist may expect their partners to drop everything in order to meet their needs, says Schafler.)
Sexual narcissism can also manifest in the opposite way, though. A sexual narcissist may constantly ask their partners if they're satisfied but only because their partners' satisfaction validates their own prowess, says Schafler.
Somatic narcissist vs. cerebral narcissist.
"Cerebral narcissists get their supply from feeling smarter, more clever, and more intelligent than others," explains Scott-Hudson. They may use big words or name-drop books they've read or schools they've attended.
While cerebral narcissists gain their sense of importance from their minds, somatic narcissists rely on their bodies, says Mahalli. "A somatic narcissist aims to impress you with their body, the number of people who look at them, or their six-pack, and needs approval in those areas."
What to do if you realize you're dating a somatic narcissist.
It's very difficult, even possible, to have a healthy relationship with a narcissist. "A narcissist by nature will always put their needs ahead of yours," says Schafler. "They truly feel their needs are more important, that they are more important."
In addition, getting them to change is an uphill battle. "Narcissists typically don't see a problem with their behavior," says Schafler. "It's aligned with who they feel they authentically are."
It's rare for narcissists to even seek help unless their jobs or other aspects of their lives are at stake, Singer adds. "The finger is always pointed toward others and not at one's self."
In other words, if you realize you're dating a somatic narcissist, the best thing to do is to get out. "The longer you engage with them in a relationship, the more they will hurt you," says Scott-Hudson. "Somatic narcissists are just like any other narcissist in that they have a profound lack of empathy for others."
If you're in contact with a somatic narcissist, try to avoid displaying emotional responses to their behavior, because narcissists feed off drama and will continue targeting you if their manipulation tactics are having the desired reaction, says Scott-Hudson.
She also recommends seeking counseling to examine what led you into a relationship with a narcissist, as this often becomes a pattern for those with histories of trauma. "People with childhood abuse histories are more vulnerable to narcissistic abuse and often require professional counsel to extract from the narcissistic dynamic in relationships, so they don't leave one narcissist only to get involved with another," she says.
While it's normal to care about your appearance, you should be wary of anyone whose life seems to revolve around theirs, who judges others based on their own, or who shows other signs of narcissism. It's unlikely that a somatic narcissist will change their ways, so if you think you're in a relationship with one, get out as soon as possible and seek therapy for yourself.
Suzannah Weiss is a certified sexologist, sex educator, sex and love coach, and trained birth doula. She has degrees in cognitive neuroscience, modern culture and media, and gender and sexuality studies from Brown University and certifications from Everyone Deserves Sex Ed and the American College of Sexologists. Her work has been featured in The New York Times, The Washington Post, New York magazine, and elsewhere, as well as on television shows like The Today Show and The View and in anthologies including Here We Are: Feminism for the Real World and The Big Book of Orgasms.