How Do You Handle A Narcissist?

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Having a narcissist ー or more specifically, someone with Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) ー in your life can be hard. The nature of the condition ー an inflated or delusional level of self-importance and an exaggerated ego (whether that’s brought on by a warped sense of reality or deep-seated insecurities) ー can be very challenging to navigate, since interacting with someone like this can have a negative effect on your self-esteem, your confidence, and your relationships ─ both with the person in question, and with the knock-on effect on your interactions with others.

In order to boost their self-worth or egocentrism, a narcissist, or someone with NPD, will typically find different ways to exert their power over you while serving their own needs. They may attempt to isolate you from others so that you only rely on them; gaslight you by challenging your reality, making you feel at fault for everything that is wrong in your life (and likely theirs too), and discounting your thoughts, opinions, and needs as invalid; and telling you how you should feel, act, and behave, believing that they are absolutely entitled to whatever their heart desires. They lack empathy for others, and will typically project their own insecurities onto you, all while filling your head with fantasies and idealistic empty promises as part of their delusions of success, power, and self-importance一only to never apologize and likely even turn the blame back towards you. 

Sounds awfully stressful, doesn’t it? It is. Narcissistic abuse is, unfortunately, a very real form of emotional abuse─and most of the time, the best thing to do is to walk away and try to remove the person in question from your life. However, this isn’t always possible一yet that also doesn’t mean that you need to suffer in silence forever. There are ways to make your life a little easier when dealing with a narcissist, from setting stronger boundaries to learning how to disarm them一and by that, we mean the literal definition of the term as opposed to the more colloquial one: by taking away what they use as weaponry, rather than charming them. 

What Causes Narcissism?

When you’re trying to deal with a problem, the first step is to know what you’re actually dealing with一which means that first, it’s important to understand what causes narcissism. It is believed that narcissism can be influenced or brought on by both genetic and environmental factors. 

There are generally two types of narcissist: those with Grandiose Narcissism, and those with Vulnerable Narcissism. The former is characterized by people who are very attention-seeking and believe that they are better than and deserve more than others, while being unconcerned with how their behavior affects the people around them. The latter tends to hide a strong sense of entitlement and hypersensitivity under a quiet and reserved surface layer, and tend to be particularly narcissistic with people they perceive to be better than them, since their inflated ego is used to mask their own suppressed insecurities and lack of genuine self-love.

Both types can have a negative effect on the people around them, but Vulnerable Narcissism is generally considered more harmful to others since it can exhibit through more envious, cruel, and threatening behavior. 

Below are some commonly-attributed causes for narcissism.

  • Genetic Factors: Narcissism can be an inherited trait, sometimes passed down from parents, which means people with family members or blood relatives who are narcissists are more likely to become one themselves. On a more specific level, one study found that certain characteristics indicative of narcissistic tendencies can be passed down: for instance, the research suggested that grandiosity was 23% heritable, while a sense of entitlement was 35% heritable.
  • Brain Structures: In a study comparing the brain scans of people with NPD and those without it, the brain structure of narcissistic versus other types of people was found to be different. In particular, certain regions of the brain responsible for social behavior and emotional regulation were different. These differences could increase one’s tendency to focus on their own needs over those of other people, and change how they perceive or interpret social behaviors.
  • Learned from Others: Narcissism can be a learned behavior, and the children of narcissistic parents can develop it by imitating them, even unwittingly. Without awareness of the issue, as well as an effort to unlearn then change this mimicked behavior, they can grow into arrogant adults who lack empathy. 
  • Individualistic Cultures: People raised in individualistic cultures are more likely to become narcissists, as this type of culture emphasizes the importance of one’s social status and achievement of individual success. Individualistic cultures generally place more emphasis on personal factors as they are more inclined to view each individual on a unique basis, and encourage self-expression. As a result, people from individualistic cultures are more likely to have a strong focus on the self一which, if taken to an extreme, could develop into narcissism. 
  • Parenting Style: The way parents treat their children can affect how likely they are to develop narcissistic behavior or not. Parents who often praise or over-praise their child, for instance, can increase their risk of developing narcissism, as they may grow up with a warped perspective of thinking that they are better than their peers. Extremely authoritative parenting can also increase a child’s tendency to develop a narcissistic personality, since this parenting style tends to over-evaluate a child and criticize them harshly and/or frequently without addressing areas of improvement. This could lead to insecurities that wind up being masked by vulnerable narcissism. 

What Happens to People Who Are Around a Narcissist?

Interacting with a narcissist can be confusing, frustrating, and hurtful. Narcissists tend to be self-centered and lack empathy, making it very hard for others to feel equal when communicating with them. For example, narcissists tend not to listen when others are talking. Narcissism can negatively affect people in many ways, such as through relationships and work.

Narcissists in Relationships

When it comes to dating, grandiose narcissists are very attractive to some, since they feel more comfortable showing off their social status. For example, they may buy luxury products to display their power to others. One study also found that narcissists are perceived as attractive as they tend to put more effort and time into their physical appearance. Yet narcissists tend to have shallow relationships. They may avoid building closer and more intimate relationships with their partner. 

In extreme cases, narcissists may also start dating someone for the purpose of boosting their own self-esteem. For instance, a narcissist may choose to date an attractive, popular, beautiful person who has many admirers, as a reflection of their own self-value. Narcissists are also more likely to be unfaithful in a relationship. They thrive on admiration, so when someone other than their partner shows affection towards them, they tend to cheat and betray their partner to display power in the relationship. 

Narcissists in the Workplace

Grandiose narcissists are very good at promoting themselves as they typically have high self-confidence一a key quality that can make someone effortlessly pass a job interview. Yet research suggests that narcissists in the workplace are more likely to show unethical behavior, such as sexual harassment, fraud, lying to employees, and even gaslighting. As a result, narcissists can leave their colleagues feeling frustrated. Click here to learn more about what to do if your boss is gaslighting you

As narcissists are extremely self-centered, they tend to focus on personal gain rather than doing good for the team. When working with narcissistic people, they may take credit from and exploit colleagues, particularly if the workload is divided. A narcissistic boss may also benefit by giving too much work to their employees, making their employees feel burnt out at work. Click here to learn more about what to do if you are experiencing job burnout.

How Do You Handle A Narcissist?

It is not always easy to handle narcissists as they are highly self-centered and lack empathy. If you suspect that someone you know may be a narcissist and that it’s affecting your life, below are a few tips that can help you better handle the situation, and protect yourself.

Find Out What Type Of Narcissist They Are 

Dealing with narcissists can be tricky if you’re unsure of what makes them tick. Observing their behavior to try and identify what type of narcissist they are can help you learn to be flexible and change how you interact with them. For example, when interacting with grandiose narcissists, it’s worth considering that praising them more often may be enough to satisfy their self-esteem needs, so that they don’t try to seek it through other means with you. When talking to vulnerable narcissists, be careful of your word choices, as they are highly sensitive and can start ruminating on that when they feel offended.

Understand the Causes 

Narcissistic qualities may develop from how someone was treated when they are young (such as through emotionally neglected childhood experiences), and may even speak to their hidden insecurities. Understanding the reasons behind their behavior can help you regain your patience and tolerance when you interact with a narcissist, and it may also offer you more insight into how to communicate with them more effectively. 

Listen to Your Gut 

There’s absolutely no problem with the idea of learning to love yourself more. Self-love is an important aspect of mental health, after all. But the difference between self-love and narcissism is that narcissistic people tend to look others down in order to feel better about themselves. When communicating with a narcissist, it’s likely that they’ll say disrespectful or insulting things about other people or even you, to gain a sense of superiority and entitlement. Even if the narcissist you are dealing with is someone you are close to, it’s important to break the spell by understanding that their views are distorted. Narcissists typically only care about themselves, and what they are saying is not necessarily reflective of the truth.

Pay attention to your intuition, and try not to let their words lead you to question your own self-worth. Remind yourself of your own strengths, desires, and needs on a regular basis, and ensure that you give yourself enough “me-time” to be able to look after yourself first. Watch the person in question: do you get the chance to see how they really are when they are in a vulnerable state, or not being performative? Have you caught them being dishonest or manipulative with others? Remember them like this, and remind yourself that if they can do this to other people, they may be doing it to you too, to help you ensure you’re seeing them for who they really are, rather than through rose-colored glasses.

Learn to Disarm Them

When someone is trying to hurt you, one of the first things to do would be to take away the weapons they’re using to do so. But how do you do that when it’s a personality issue, or tricks and manipulation? In the case of a narcissist, you can begin by stopping giving them so much attention: they feed off it, so by stripping them of this, you’ll already be taking away fuel from their fire. Speaking up is another key step─but be warned, they may try to retaliate by gaslighting you, baiting you, projecting their own issues on you, and dragging up nasty words and behavior to try and make you crack and re-submit to their will. Stay strong, arm yourself with ways to keep your boundaries strong and clearly-set, and defuse their words. 

Learning to respond with phrases such as, “I hear what you’re saying, and I’m sorry you feel that way, but I can’t control how you feel about me”, “You are entitled to your own opinion, as I equally have the right to my own, so we’ll have to agree to disagree,” or “Can we try to be respectful in how we communicate with each other? If not, then I don’t like the way you are speaking to me, so I won’t be engaging in conversation like this,” can be a powerful way to level your interactions. Practice these means of disarming a narcissist before you step into conversation with them, and keep repeating these responses until you feel confident enough to use them with the person in question, to reinstate your boundaries. Not only will it help to show them what you will and won’t tolerate, it will also remind you of how you will not accept to be treated, to retain your own sense of self-worth.

Set Boundaries

Due to their lack of empathy and sense of entitlement, narcissists may not realize how damaging their behavior is. If someone’s narcissistic behavior is having a negative impact on your mental health and how you feel about yourself, it’s time to set or maintain boundaries with them to regain your peace. Take a break or try to create some healthy space between you, whether they are in your workplace, your circle of friends, or even your partner. Limit the contact you have with them, and if nothing else is working, it may be worth reconsidering whether you should continue your interactions or relationship with them.

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All of the content on our website is thoroughly researched to ensure that the information shared is evidence-based. For more information, please visit the academic journals and other resources that influenced this article: APA Dictionary of Psychology - Narcissism; What are Personality Disorders?; A Behavioral Genetic Study of Intrapersonal and Interpersonal Dimensions of Narcissism; DSM Criteria of NPD; Narcissistic Personality Disorder: Progress in Recognition and Treatment; Transference-Focused Psychotherapy (TFP) for Narcissistic Personality: Engaging Patients in the Early Treatment Process; Mentalization-Based Treatment for Pathological Narcissism; Could Schema Therapy Help Treat Narcissistic Personality?; Cognitive Behavioral Perspectives on the Theory and Treatment of the Narcissistic Character;Narcissism and Attractiveness; Why Do Narcissists Cheat So Much?

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