Hate is the complement of fear and narcissists like being feared.
It imbues them with an intoxicating sensation of omnipotence.
~Sam Vaknin, Malignant Self Love: Narcissism Revisited~
Psychiatrist Mark Goulston tells us that engaging people in the midst of narcissistic rage is not likely to be productive. If it is safe, you might just listen until they are finished ranting. You can later request that they talk with you in a calm and respectful manner. If that does not happen the next time, it might be best to just walk away if you can or avoid such people altogether.
Susan Whitbourne, Ph.D. suggests specific ways to handle narcissists:
- Determine which type you’re dealing with. A grandiose narcissist might be a good ally if your goals exactly match theirs. Vulnerable narcissists are harder to deal with because they are constantly on the lookout for people who might further diminish their already poor concept of themselves.
- Acknowledge your annoyance. Learn to recognize where your annoyance lies, usually related to the person who constantly interrupts you when you are trying to accomplish something.
- Appreciate where the behavior comes from. Understand that vulnerable narcissists need to make themselves feel better. A modicum of reassurance for them is necessary to focus them on a group task. Just don’t get carried away with praising them or they will take over a project.
- Evaluate the context. Some situations will worsen tendencies toward being defensive, vindictive and spiteful. One example is a narcissist who is passed over for a promotion but still needs to work with the team who they are not leading.
- Maintain a positive outlook. Some narcissists enjoy seeing others suffer. Letting them see your annoyance is likely to just increase their efforts to make your life more miserable.
- Don’t let yourself get derailed. Stay focused on your own goals despite a narcissist’s efforts to take center stage and monopolize the direction of your group.
- Keep your sense of humor. Try using humor to react to a narcissist’s attempt to monopolize group goals rather than direct confrontation.
- Recognize that the person may need help. Narcissists whose low self esteem leads them to their disruptive behavior may be in need of help to find better ways to improve how they see themselves.
These suggestions appear to be good ones when you are the one in charge. If the narcissist is the one in charge, your chances of using any of them successfully will be quite diminished. Using any of these approaches when you are in a vulnerable or one-down position is likely to be seen as undermining the power of the narcissist in charge. In such a situation, your options for improving the situation do not look good. Your best bet may be to find a way to remove yourself from the situation or group.
Maybe you are not ready to flee or are in a position of not being able to afford doing so. Now what? Susan Price has some ideas. Here is one possible scenario: “Your boss is a complete narcissist: he expects you to be at his whim all day, he blames everyone for mistakes except himself, argues and contradicts employees with every small detail even things he said himself!” If this sounds familiar, read on. Here are her suggestions for handling the situation:
- Forget being friends. You will have to sell your soul to be considered a friend by such a person. Remember that narcissists are not capable of making friends in the sense of having mutual respect and caring for each other. Your interests are never a priority.
- Don’t criticize. Your criticism will never be taken at face value. Anger or rage is to be expected when you criticize a narcissist.
- Focus on analyzing problems. Sharing your feelings is not likely to get you anywhere. Narcissists are interested only in their own feelings. Instead, concentrate on problems and potential solutions. Then, don’t count on receiving credit for a good idea.
- Let him or her make decisions. Presenting options works better than suggesting the best option. Then allow him or her to take credit for the plan.
- Make him or her look and feel good. His or her importance and having it recognized are uppermost in such a person’s mind. Don’t be stingy with praise.
- Absorb the blame. Narcissists never see themselves at fault. Someone else is always the blame for whatever goes wrong.
- Set boundaries and keep them. Try to focus on solutions and temper criticism with praise.
- Don’t compete. Don’t expect praise for yourself or thanks for doing a good job. A narcissist will always take credit for teaching you to do a good job.
To survive, you need to set aside your own needs and become a cog in the machine operated by a narcissistic boss. Staying afloat is a tricky business and has few rewards. You might be better off finding a more rational and rewarding position. If you decide to stay, don’t expect much for yourself.
You might be wondering whether dealing with a narcissist with power is a lost cause. It is difficult but not impossible. In a social group, you can work with others to reconstitute the group without the offending narcissist. In a corporation, the board of directors, informed by shareholders and workers, has power over any given boss. In government, citizens have power to elect representatives who have the power to contain if not remove narcissists not in touch with public needs. In all these cases, your job is to start working with others and find a mutual path toward resolving the impasse.
Life Lab Lessons
- Dealing with a narcissist is an uphill battle at best.
- Don’t expect to do the impossible.
- Don’t expect too much of yourself.
- Get support from others in your venture.
- Try to avoid situations where narcissists have power over you.
(Excerpt from my forthcoming book, Anger in America)
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