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:

Have compassion.

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.

Set boundaries.

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.

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We talk about leadership almost ad nauseum in blog posts, workshops, seminars, keynotes, webinars, anyone who will listen to us!

We do this because leadership is often lacking in the very people who are in leadership roles. So we keep beating a dead horse, in the hopes that something sticks. If we keep talking about leadership skills they will hopefully become part of our collective consciousness.

Because the sad fact remains that many bosses and managers are not inspiring, do not effectively lead, do not create employee engagement, and all of the other positive aspects we hope to find when we go to work. Typically, as an employee, you are not in your dream job and you are working for someone you don’t find particularly inspiring. You may not even like the person as a person, never mind a leader.

There are many blog posts about knowing when it’s time to leave your job, how to nail your interview; how to create the perfect resume, what to look for in your prospective employer, but the harsh reality is we are often relegated to our jobs out of necessity. We should always strive to look for something better. I don’t advocate settling, but there will most likely be a period when you are working for someone you wish you weren’t.

So how do you keep your wits about you in this scenario without losing your mind?

  1. Raise yourself up if no one else is. If you’re not getting the leadership you desire from your boss or manager then be your own leader. Lift yourself This is an opportunity to flex and develop your own skillset. Read the books and blogs on leadership to hone your leadership abilities. I recommend Carol Dweck’s book, Mindset, to cultivate a growth mindset, crucial for resilience and propelling forward in life. Vent privately if you need to, then regroup and take action. Being negative will only hurt.
  1. Raise everyone else up too if need be. If you feel your leader is operating at a lower level don’t lower yourself. Stay at your own level and have them come up to yours…respectfully. Though your ideas and views may sound strange at first to those that don’t share them they might come around in the long run. At least they’ll have been heard. Propose the ideas that you think are the best, do your best work. Combat mediocrity with excellence. Be a part of the solution.
  1. Recognize the lessons this person is teaching you. Listening to viewpoints you don’t share helps you move past biases and expand your mind. An undesirable leader teaches the lesson of how not to lead. Thank them (in your head) for showing you what not to do. Being able to see solutions through an optimistic lens will help you immensely throughout all areas of your life.
  1. Be diplomatic. Eloquence is a lost art. Much like scenarios that test our patience teach us patience, scenarios that test our discretion teach us diplomacy. This hones your communication skills, which is imperative for your personal and professional life. Resist the impulse to say or do something you can’t take back. Once you’re seen as a negative influence it’s very difficult to change someone’s mind about you. Diplomacy keeps everyone’s integrity intact.
  1. Practice empathy. When it comes down to it we’re all individuals with specific motivating factors for each of our lives. When we understand the why behind what we perceive as faulty leadership it can mitigate our frustration. There might be a very human reason for faulty leadership that elicits empathy rather than hate. We each have a past that created our core beliefs. Is yours better? For you it is. Don’t alienate yourself; ingratiate yourself, without being obsequious.
  1. Seek counsel from other leaders. Find other business owners if possible and bounce the behavior/opinions of your leader off someone else. It’s good to know where you might be wrong and skewed in your own thinking. Seeking counsel is in fact something I routinely suggest leaders themselves do. It’s important for everyone to have checks and balances in their lives to counter our own inherent biases.
  1. If you want to keep your job, do your job. You’ll know if being vocal about your opposing views is beneficial for you or not. Don’t be contrary for the sake of your ego. If you need your job and you’re not changing anyone’s mind then the best course of short-term action is to keep your opinions to yourself and do the job you were hired to do. Try not to burn any bridges.

Though it might not feel like much consolation in the moment, working for a leader you don’t believe in helps define your own needs and desires. It’s akin to dating in your romantic life: each relationship illuminates who you are, what you need, and what you want. So it goes with your professional life as well.

Understanding opposing viewpoints expands your consciousness, whether you like it or not. When you surround yourself with people of the same ilk, with the same beliefs, your worldview becomes narrow. Working for people that you don’t like or that make your life difficult are usually the best business lessons in life.

Leaders cultivate inclusivity. Become part of the solution, not the problem.

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