The majority of articles on this topic often start with the idea that all of us have some sort of narcissistic traits. Like Karl Young’s concept of having an inner shadow, he suggested we cannot recognize the shadow in others in order to help them without accepting it within ourselves first. Social media has only brought out the narcissist in all of us with its culture of selfies, pictures of our lunches and pets. Heck, I’ll share this article on Facebook just like the next person who’s trying to promote their work, themselves or a concept they care about. But oversharing on social media is still a far cry from having a clinically diagnosed personality disorder with serious, negative impacts on everyday life and relationships.
- Identifying a Narcissist on the Spectrum
Narcissism varies in extremity, and much like autism can be placed on a spectrum. Psychology Today stated that “at one side of the self-loving spectrum is the charismatic leader with perhaps some excess of charm, whose only vice may be their inflated ego. At the other end of the spectrum are the individuals with the clinical Narcissist Personality Disorder, whose grandiosity can be so extreme that they are manipulative and are easily agitated”.
Most of us might not have dealt with a true narcissist before. However, at some point in our professional, private and social lives, most of us would have dealt with someone on the lower side of the spectrum at least once. Of course, just because someone displays some annoying personality traits does not mean they warrant a clinical diagnosis, we’ll leave that up to the professionals. In the meantime, some of the more common and recognizable traits (which, as mentioned before, can vary in seriousness) include, but are not limited to, the following:
- They are like-able and can be charismatic. Often they will leave a great first impression and it can take months, even years for us to truly recognize and be affected by their narcissistic traits. In addition, narcissists often are a lot of fun to be around as well, making it more difficult for people to take note of the traits or walk away.
- They need people to admire them. A narcissist believes they are somehow better than others (even though their internal self-worth is often quite low) and need this to be reflected in the people around them.
- They don’t show empathy. A narcissist might ask questions about someone else but aren’t truly interested in the answer unless it can serve them somehow.
- They don’t respond well to criticism. While none of us might truly like criticism, narcissist are quite hyper-sensitive to it. They are capable at rationalizing their actions and will have answer for everything. Basically, they are never wrong.
- They like to keep up appearances. Often someone with narcissistic traits will either have an ‘amazing’ story or a ‘truly awful’ experience but it’s never a true reflection of the actual situation. This is their way of receiving either praise or attention and sympathy from others.
- They use mind games to control others. No, narcissists don’t have psychic powers. They use mind games, manipulation and guilt to control those around them. They tend to make decisions for others to suit their own agenda. It is all about them and others are seen as mere ‘props’. Narcissists are known for continuously creating avoidable drama by dividing people, putting them against each other, and spreading rumors.
You might recognize some of these traits (I think it’s safe to say we all may have even displayed a few of these at some point/level) so there is no need to jump to conclusions and fear that every frustrating person we encounter is a narcissist. Nevertheless, the below points might help us look at different ways we can deal with people who display toxic personality traits, with a focus on narcissism.
- Recognizing your limits and setting boundaries
It isn’t always easy to take back control, especially if we have let people defy our boundaries in the past. Before setting up boundaries, it’s important to look at our own expectations and what we will and will not let people get away with. Depending on the person, our ‘tolerance’ might vary in how we manage certain situations. For example, social squabbles and gossip could easily be brushed off, whereas interfering with our career could be a deal breaker. Healthy relationships are based on mutual caring and respect, which is a good starting point when looking at what we want out of our professional, personal and social relationships.
Once we know our own limits, it’s then important to establish a few ground rules or boundaries to help us protect those limits.
- Keep things on the surface. Talking in detail about our personal lives could give them material that they will then try and use against you. They might try to sabotage a situation or simply put you down for an achievement you’re proud of.
- Try not to boast about your successes (even though you really want to). Narcissist are driven by their egos and any indication that you are doing just fine without their input could be viewed as an offence to their identity.
- Don’t gratify their need for attention. Where possible, try to avoid falling for any traps that will provide them with a platform and take on a non-responsive attitude. That doesn’t mean you have to go completely silent, it just means you don’t respond to the narcissistic part of the interactions.
- Avoid mentioning the past. This might not only be specific to narcissist but often bringing up old arguments will only results in a blame game. This, most likely is a game you won’t win (at least not to them).
- Be assertive and focus on facts. Communicate clearly and directly with them on what you expect and where you stand.
- Avoid mind games. Mind games are created to keep you on the defensive, play out guilt trips or simply to have you doubt yourself and your own positive and negative qualities.
- Stick to your boundaries. Again, it’s easier said than done and we won’t always succeed on the first try. But if you keep reminding yourself of your boundaries and practice how you will implement them, you’ll eventually get there.
One of the more suggested ways to deal with a narcissistic personality is to use the ‘Grey Rock‘ method which essentially embodies all the above boundaries. Grey rock is making yourself so boring and uninteresting to the narcissist that you’re cutting off their ‘supply’ which they will consequently go and find somewhere else. Remember the boundaries are not there to be understood by them, but rather for you to implement them for yourself.
- Be understanding and show compassion
Sometimes, when simply walking away is not an option (you work with them, they are in your social or private circle) it’s important to try and accept some of their limitations. If you know someone around you is a narcissist, stop demanding attention or support that you know they are just no able to provide. It will only make you more frustrated which doesn’t help an already volatile relationship. This might seem easier said than done, but in spite of all their self-proclaimed confidence and success, deep down they have a severe lack of confidence or fear of rejection. They try and suppress such fears by getting constant approval and attention from others. Their negative behaviors are merely projections of their own self-loathing or feelings of inadequacy. Their behavior is unlikely to change as they often are unable to see anything wrong with that they do. Narcissism is a personality disorder and not a mental illness. Because it doesn’t stem from a chemical imbalance, much like depression for example, it cannot be effectively treated by drugs.
This doesn’t mean you throw all the boundaries you just set up out the window. It means that you remind yourself that they too are just a person who has been conditioned into what they are today. Narcissistic traits occur because of altered brain structures that have formed over time as a response to events and other stimuli. Essentially they have been turned into what they are now over a long period of time. For example a child raised by narcissistic parents where love was conditional, survivors of trauma and abuse, someone who received excessive idealization/praise without a healthy balance to compensate for it, etc. It may help to find some level of compassion when looking at it that way.
- Don’t take it personally
Whether we like it or not, most of us tend to be focused on other people’s perceptions of us. How much we care depends on who they are and the value we place on them. It’s important to know that someone’s unnecessary criticism of you is a reflection on them and not on you. You might not feel fantastic when being characterized in a negative light, based on gossip, jealousy or manipulation; but you can’t control how people see you.
Naturally our first response would be to defend ourselves, but as we saw earlier, the narcissist is always right. Simply acknowledging that you can’t change their perception of you and not launch into a counter attack shows you don’t agree with their reality. Essentially, the power they feel they might have over you will fade.
- Explore the possibility of an intervention
In the event where it simply not possible to ‘grey stone’ or completely cut out someone from your everyday life, looking at the option of an intervention can be your last attempt to finding a manageable solution. As we mentioned earlier, a narcissist’s reality is not your reality, and they most likely won’t think what they are doing is wrong. So it would not be about winning an argument on whose behavior is correct or not. An intervention is useful when you have clear expectations of what you want them to do or reasonable boundaries that they need to respect. (e.g.: you will not answer their calls after-hours because that is family time, you will hang up or walk away if they become aggressive or abusive, they need to communicate their needs clearly as mind games will not be responded to). Essentially, interventions are there to benefit everyone involved and to try and find a middle ground that will not negatively impact on everyday life and relationships.
article image: “The puppeteer” by Aja – https://www.ebsqart.com/Artist/Aja/599/Art-Portfolio/Gallery/Drawings/The-Puppeteer/17622/