The word narcissist is thrown around today with such carelessness that it has almost lost its meaning. If a person is looking out for their own self-interests, is charismatic, doesn’t like to engage with others, or is too popular they are labeled a narcissist. Many do so without thinking twice.
However, it is important to recognize that while some individuals may exhibit narcissistic traits or behaviors, labeling someone a narcissist can be dangerous if absent a clinical diagnosis. Indeed, it can be reputationally damaging and can cause us to have biased opinions and even change how we deal with these individuals. Additionally, at times we may have manifested some of these behaviors ourselves, but that does not make us a narcissist. When these behaviors are predominant in an individual and they consistently affect others, then we can argue more persuasively that they have an abundance of narcissistic traits and because of that we must master strategies to deal with them.
Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD)
The term “narcissist” originates from a story in Greek mythology in which a hunter, Narcissus, believes himself to be of such divine beauty that he falls in love with his own image, and whilst looking longingly at his reflection in a pool of water, he drowns. A sad story indeed, but one that rather accurately depicts the personality of a narcissist.
However, with the advancements in research and technology in clinical psychology, we are better able to understand the complex behavior and interpersonal dynamics associated with narcissism. As such, Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) is a mental health condition characterized by a pervasive pattern of grandiosity, a need for admiration, and a lack of empathy for others, as defined by the APA. Individuals with NPD often have an exaggerated sense of their own importance and may display a preoccupation with fantasies of unlimited success, power, beauty, or ideal love. Although, narcissism does not always manifest the same way in everyone. Some individuals exhibit difficulties with emotional regulation and inhibiting impulsive emotional responses, whilst others have no such difficulties. What we do see consistently, however, are deficits in empathy and an inability to take the perspective of others.
But of course, definitions speak little to the lived experience of those dealing with narcissistic individuals. These are the individuals who live with, are the children of, spouses, or work with someone who falls within the clinical definition of narcissistic personality disorder. From these victims, we hear things such as:
“He made me feel like I was worthless.”
“She would always point out how much more attractive than me she was, and remind me that she could do so much better if she wanted.”
“I found myself always having to apologize for everything I did and nothing was ever right.”
“He would always dismiss my feelings and devalue any opinion if it wasn’t consistent with his or did not originate with him.”
“It got to the point where he made me feel so small and insignificant that I didn’t think anyone would ever want me if I left.”
“He made me feel small, insignificant, or worthless and he made sure others felt the same.”
“He shamed me in public repeatedly and made me out to be stupid or ignorant.”
If these sound familiar, then you have been exposed to how narcissists make others feel. And this is just the tip of the iceberg. If you are looking for a more in-depth look at how individuals with NPD make those around them feel the book Dangerous Personalities by Joe Navarro is an excellent resource.
At this point, you might be wondering, why don’t they just remove this person from their life? Sometimes it’s not that easy. Consider, what if the individual is their parent, a sibling, or even their child? What about a colleague, should they be expected to leave their career to escape? Even when the individual is a chosen romantic partner, it’s not always as easy to leave as you might expect, because narcissists tend to leave their partner injured emotionally and financially such that their partner becomes dependent on them and feels ‘trapped’.
Dealing with a Narcissist
There is not a single strategy that I can give you that would be effective when dealing with a narcissist, across every situation, and as research has shown us, doing so could be highly dangerous. However, there are some things you can do to protect yourself.
- Of course, limiting or ending contact with the individual in question would be most effective where possible.
- When the former is not possible, focusing on building your own self-esteem and taking care of yourself is essential. Narcissists will try to break people down and then prey on their weaknesses, thus if you prioritize self-care, practice stress reduction techniques, and maintain a support system outside of such individuals, you will reduce their ability to manipulate you.
- Build alliances with friends or trusted individuals so that they understand also the behaviors you are witnessing and make them aware of what is going on and how it is affecting you.
- If necessary, document the behaviors of these individuals especially if they are bullying you, yelling at you, or are making threats, or are violent.
- Set boundaries as to what you will tolerate and when it is no longer tolerable, resolve to distance yourself from these individuals as best you can. The book Dangerous Personalities has a whole chapter dedicated to dealing with these individuals and if you find yourself stuck consider getting professional help.
The increased access to information about mental health and personality disorders has many advantages for understanding the behavior of others and has opened the doors to important conversations across the general public. However, attempting to diagnose others as narcissists without proper training, qualifications, or understanding of the complexities of these conditions can be extremely damaging. As such, if you suspect that someone in your life is manipulating you, please seek guidance from mental health professionals. And always remember the final words in the book Dangerous Personalities, “You have no social obligation, ever, to be victimized.”