They walk among us.
They look like normal people.
That’s what makes dealing with a narcissist so difficult. You are typically caught in their web before you realize who and what ensnared you.
If you don’t already, the chances of you working with a narcissist at some point in your career are very high. In fact, research has shown that narcissism is on the rise and has been for quite a while.
In our society, we tend to reward and promote the qualities exhibited by narcissism, mistaking confidence for competence, and arrogance for achievement.
To be clear, I am talking about clinical narcissism as a disorder, classified in the DSM as Narcissistic Personality Disorder. This is not to be confused with mere grandiosity or conceitedness.
Narcissists don’t have the telltale signs of a crazy person: they’re not sitting at coffee shops writing manifestos on napkins in an illegible scrawl, shouting about aliens.
Quite the contrary. They are often charming, talented, attractive people who have a natural allure to them. They can be great motivators and group leaders, with a flare for inspiring others. A narcissist in the workplace can work wonders at times. They have a fire in their belly, a zest to get things done!
That is, until they lose interest or something doesn’t go their way. Then all hell can break loose.
If they do not get what they want or they feel attacked, they will lash out with every fiber of their being until the other party surrenders, apologizes, and admits they were wrong – which, by the way, are all actions a narcissist will never take.
What if you are forced to work with a narcissist and must deal with them? What if you are already ensnared and unsure about how to proceed?
Here are some methods to help you cope when you have no choice but to cope:
I put this first because it will be the last thing on your mind when you have a narcissist in your life. The important thing to remember is this is a sick person. They would not act this way if they had a healthy ego.
It’s easy to have compassion for the blatantly insane; it’s much harder to extend it towards the insidiously insane. The narcissist was significantly bruised at some point in their early childhood – typically by a caregiver – and is at heart a child trying to gain acceptance and love from everyone they meet.
Manage your own ego and your expectations.
Hang around a narcissist long enough and you will get bruised. You will want to bruise back. Pick your battles.
A narcissist’s ego is extremely fragile. Wounds and bruises cut deeper than you can imagine; they lack the antibodies to heal from these wounds. Seeking an apology is a fruitless endeavor. Taking the high road is often a necessary strategy when dealing with a narcissist.
Don’t expect a clean bow-tie resolution to a conflict. Don’t expect them to come around to your point of view when in conflict with them. Recognize you may walk away feeling crazy, as narcissists are expert argument manipulators and logic twisters.
Manage your need to win, to prove yourself right. Learn how to heal yourself. These are great skills to learn anyway.
Don’t call them a narcissist.
This is the first rule of the Narcissist Companion’s Club. The narcissist’s entire life has been built around the notion that they definitively know who they are, when in fact they don’t have a fully formed self. If they feel their façade is under attack they will launch a counter-attack.
Ironically, you will probably be called a narcissist by a narcissist before you even get the chance to consider calling them a narcissist. Narcissists love calling other people narcissists. It’s almost as if their unconscious knows to throw out this insult first to weaken any subsequent claim against them.
Detach and Reframe.
If you have to deal with a narcissist you will need to practice detachment. When they hurt your feelings you will want to say something; you will feel the natural desire to express how they made you feel.
Recognize, however, you may end up feeling worse than you did before you said something. You can of course say whatever you want, but your main goal shouldn’t be to seek an apology, as you most likely will not receive one. In fact, you may end up apologizing to them for something you didn’t see coming.
Better to see everything they do and say in the light of mental illness: abnormal behavior characterized by feelings of superiority, a need for admiration and a lack of empathy. By emotionally detaching you can effectively shape your conversations and your reactions.
It is crucial that you set clear parameters. Your agenda matters just as much as theirs. A narcissist will take advantage of you any chance they get. It is simply their nature. Drop the guilt you may feel about setting boundaries. You are protecting yourself from feeling resentment down the line when you find yourself doing more work than you signed up for while they reap the benefits.
The narcissist may try to bend your boundaries, seeing what they can get out of you. Keep your boundaries strong and intact.
Don’t Jump In Front of the Train.
In a normal scenario, when a friend or colleague is acting grandiose you might be able to bring them down to earth, but there’s no point in jumping in front of the narcissism train. Let it roll along right past you.
For better or worse, when the narcissist in your life is happy you’re likelier to be happy as well. There’s no harm in staying in their favor, even if it feels inauthentic. Sometimes self-preservation is more important than self-sacrifice. You don’t have to be a truth or morality crusader, fighting the good fight at every turn. You’ll exhaust yourself.
If they’re not hurting anyone or anything let them believe what they want.
If their behavior goes too far, report it to HR or seek counsel.
If their actions impede a project, recruit others to help set it on the right track. You may have to give them a little credit or help them feel it was their idea to prevent the backlash. Frustrating? Yes. Worth keeping your own sanity in tact? Even more yes.
Be willing to say goodbye.
When push comes to shove the narcissist is going to use everything in his/her arsenal that they think will keep you from leaving them. Your greatest asset when dealing with a narcissist is to truly not need them in your life.
If the separation requires an open declaration you might find yourself dodging hideous threats. This is their backwards way of keeping you in their life. If you do not need anything they have, if you can walk away in good conscience and wash your hands of them you are in a good place.
There are some upsides to working with narcissists. They often have a tremendous drive for new, exciting projects. They can inspire and lead. If they dangle an enticing project in front of you it’s not always the wrong move to turn them down. You just have to be very clear about expectations, responsibilities, and if relevant, money.
Another upside to dealing with a narcissist is we learn how to skillfully navigate irrational waters. You might learn how to coolly collect information before jumping into the fray. You learn how to be clear about your own needs.
You learn there’s sometimes peace of mind in surrendering your ego. Narcissists have a way of tapping into your own self-importance. Maybe we welcomed the praise they sent our way? Maybe we readily acknowledged their suggestion that something about us is better than others, that we are special?
They force you to grow and stretch yourself. You should be thanking them! They’re definitely wondering why you haven’t already.