8 Ways to Handle a Narcissist
How to keep your own emotions in check when dealing with difficult people.
Posted Aug 30, 2014
A tendency toward narcissism is present in everyone, to more or less of a degree. Sometimes you don’t know if someone’s particularly high in this personality quality until you’ve gotten deeply involved in a relationship and come to realize that the very qualities that attracted you to a person are the narcissistic qualities that now annoy you. You may have a sibling, parent, or other relative whose narcissistic personality traits you’re forced to confront but can’t control or challenge. Or you may be forced to work with a boss, co-worker, teacher, student, or employee with strongly narcissistic tendencies.
Just because some people are narcissists doesn’t mean they’re unlovable. People high in narcissism may also be fun, charismatic, or good at what they do. Having them around gives you more pleasure than pain and, in the workplace, enhance your team’s success. You may, if you have a choice in the matter, prefer the idea of “reforming” the narcissist in your life rather than leaving him or her by the wayside. (Some people’s narcissism may make them so vulnerable to rejection that you fear that harm will come to them if you shunt them aside.)
Not all narcissists are created alike, so the way you choose to handle one in your life should be based on which type you’re dealing with. University of Nottingham psychologist Vincent Egan and collaborators (2014), questioned a sample of over 850 online participants to determine the relationship between subjective well-being and narcissistic personality tendencies.
Previous researchers have distinguished between “vulnerable” and “grandiose” narcissistic types:
- A vulnerable narcissist’s outward shell of self-centeredness and self-absorption masks a weak inner core.
- In contrast, grandiose narcissists truly believe in their own greatness—and they may even be almost as good as they think they are.
Both are varieties of narcissism, but particularly those of the grandiose type may share the larger “Dark Triad” traits, along with so-called "Machiavellianism" (manipulativeness) and psychopathy (lack of remorse and empathy).
People high in both narcissism and Machiavellianism, Egan and team point out, are the ones who really get under your skin. Their antagonism makes them particularly hard to live with, and they’ll almost always get in the way of your accomplishing your goals. Machiavellian narcissists have mastered the art of one-upmanship as they try to show their superiority while steamrolling over everyone else’s feelings and opinions.
Egan and collaborators pointed out that no previous researchers had looked at the role of emotions, especially positive emotions, in studies of the Dark Triad. They believed that narcissism might have differing relationships to happiness than would psychopathy and Machiavellianism. In other words, it might be possible to be a happy narcissist—but less possible to be a happy psychopath or manipulator.
In Egan et al.’s study, participants rated themselves on a general personality test that provided ratings on the “Big Five” or “Five Factor” traits of Extroversion, Emotional Stability/Neuroticism, Agreeableness, Openness to Experience, and Conscientiousness. They also rated their “Dark Triad” personality qualities. Their subjective well-being was assessed with one scale measuring happiness and another measuring their satisfaction with life.
After condensing and analyzing the scores on all of these measures, Egan's team was able to identify 4 groups within the sample—vulnerable narcissists; grandiose narcissists; a group identified by their overall unhappiness; and, finally, one identified by overall happiness and low narcissism scores.
Comparing the two groups of narcissists, Egan and colleagues found that the grandiose narcissists tended to be happier, more extroverted, and more emotionally stable. The vulnerable narcissists were less agreeable, less emotionally stable, and higher in the other Dark Triad traits of manipulativeness and psychopathy.
With these findings as background, let’s examine ways that you can manage your own emotions when you’re dealing with people high in narcissism:
- Determine which type you’re dealing with. Vulnerable narcissists don’t feel particularly good about themselves at heart. In contrast to grandiose narcissists, they’re less “out there” with their emotions, and so you might not realize when they’re undercutting you or getting in your way. If you’re trying to put people in your family or on your work team to best use, the grandiose narcissist might be your best ally—as long as you can get that person on board with your overall group’s goals.
- Acknowledge your annoyance. As noted above, narcissists can be antagonistic and get under your skin. If you’re trying to get something done, and one person is always interrupting or trying to shine the spotlight on himself or herself, recognizing where your frustration is coming from can help give you the strength you need to put a stop to it.
- Appreciate where the behavior comes from. Vulnerable narcissists need to make themselves feel better about themselves, which is why they can become sneaky and undercutting. They may question your authority just to create mischief. Once you recognize that they are coming from a place of insecurity, you can provide them with just enough reassurance to get them to settle down and focus on what needs to be done. Too much reassurance and you'll fan their egocentric flames, but the right amount will allow them to calm down and get to the task at hand.
- Evaluate the context. Narcissism is not an all-or-nothing personality trait. Some situations may elicit a person’s insecurities more than others. Let’s say a woman was turned down for a promotion she wanted very much, and now must continue to work with the person who got the job. Her insecurity will only worsen with time, leading her to become defensively narcissistic, vindictive, and spiteful. If you know a person like this, it's important to remember that the situation helped create the monster with whom you must now interact.
- Maintain a positive outlook. If you are dealing with narcissists who derive pleasure from watching others suffer, then seeing the pain they cause will only egg them on to more aggressive counter-behavior. Don’t look ruffled, even if you’re feeling annoyed, and eventually that behavior will diminish in frequency. Furthermore, by keeping the previous tips in mind, you may be able to help ease the situation so things actually improve.
- Don’t let yourself get derailed. It’s easy to lose your own sense of purpose or goals when a narcissist tries to take center stage. You don’t need to attend to everything this person says or does, no matter how much he or she clamors for your attention. Find the balance between moving ahead in the direction you want to pursue and alleviating the vulnerable narcissist's anxieties and insecurities. If it's a grandiose type of narcissist, you may want to acknowledge his or her feelings but then move on anyhow.
- Keep your sense of humor. Calling a narcissist’s bluff may mean that you ignore the person, but it might also mean that you meet that bluff with a laugh at least once in a while. Without being cruel about it, you can point to the inappropriateness of the person’s egocentric behavior with a smile or joke. This would be particularly appropriate for the grandiose type of narcissist, who will probably find it entertaining and possibly instructive.
- Recognize that the person may need help. Because some narcissists truly have low self-esteem and profound feelings of inadequacy, it’s important to recognize when they can benefit from professional intervention. Despite the belief that personality is immutable, psychotherapy research shows that people can change even long-standing behaviors. Bolstering the individual’s self-esteem may not be something you can tackle on your own, but it is something you can work on with outside help.
Reference: Egan, V., Chan, S., & Shorter, G. W. (2014). The Dark Triad, happiness and subjective well-being. Personality And Individual Differences, 6717-22. doi:10.1016/j.paid.2014.01.004
Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D. 2014