If you’ve spent significant time with a narcissist, you may feel like they slowly chipped your self-esteem away until you felt worthless and dependent on them. You may have felt powerless, deeply ashamed, and disconnected from your sense of self.
Surviving a narcissistic relationship can be very intense, but there is hope. In this article, we’ll clarify the traits and behaviors of a narcissist and offer tips for how to deal with a narcissist in both your personal and professional life.
Watch our video below to learn how to spot and deal with narcissists:
What Is a Narcissist?
A narcissist is a person who displays an exaggerated perception of their significance, coupled with an intense craving for constant attention and approval, which all originates from profound feelings of insecurity.
Narcissists make up somewhere between 0.5% and 5% of the population1https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK556001/.
According to Dr. Ramani Durvasula, clinical psychologist and expert on narcissism, a narcissist is someone who exhibits the following traits:
- Lack of empathy: An inability to understand, share, or respond appropriately to the feelings and experiences of others.
- Grandiosity: An inflated sense of self-importance or superiority, often characterized by boastful or pretentious behavior.
- Sense of entitlement: An unreasonable expectation of preferential treatment or that one deserves more than others.
- Arrogance: A belief in one’s superiority, often leading to condescension or dismissive behavior towards others.
- Superficiality: Focusing on the surface or appearances, often lacking depth or genuine emotional connection.
- Chronic egocentricity: A persistent focus on oneself, often ignoring the feelings or needs of others.
- Admiration and validation seeking: The constant pursuit of positive feedback or affirmation from others to bolster self-esteem.
- Envy: A resentful longing for someone else’s qualities, achievements, or advantages.
- Incapacity for intimacy: Difficulty in establishing and maintaining close, meaningful, emotional connections with others. There is often a view that intimacy and vulnerable relationships are a sign of weakness.
- Exploiting and using people in relationships: Manipulating or taking advantage of others for one’s personal gain or satisfaction.
- Dysregulated anger: Inability to manage or control feelings of anger, often leading to aggressive or destructive behaviors.
- Validation seeking in public, abusive in private: The act of appearing charming or solicitous in public in order to gain approval while being manipulative and cruel in private settings.
Some psychologists2https://willieverbegoodenough.com/what-is-narcissism/ refer to narcissism as a spectrum, where we each exhibit some degree of behaviors from the above list. Though the reality is there is a threshold point, which is why Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) is a diagnosable disorder1https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK556001/ in the DSM. We all know toxic people, but narcissists are in a different echelon. For example, growing up with an arrogant parent is one thing, but growing up with a narcissistic parent will embed another level of challenges.
Whether you view narcissism as a disorder, a spectrum, or a personality type, if you feel like someone in your life is manipulating you for their own gain, this article will offer you support.
Why It’s Important to Be Proactive in Protecting Yourself From Narcissists
If you are in a close relationship with a narcissist—whether they are a narcissistic family member, lover, friend, or coworker—your self-esteem will take a hit.
To protect their fragile egos, narcissists will employ all types of manipulative strategies to gain power in the relationship and preserve their image. Slowly but surely, they will diminish your self-worth and make you reliant on them.
Here are some of the common effects of developing a deep relationship with a narcissist:
- Lowered confidence and self-esteem
- Loss of identity
- Becoming afraid and hypervigilant of conflict
- You begin to prioritize their needs over your own
- Your boundaries become porous
- You blame yourself for everything around you
- You become dependent on the narcissist—financially and/or socially
- Or you start to give them too much of your money
- Depression, anxiety, and mental health challenges
- Diminished ambition, goals, and aspirations
After folks exit an abusive narcissistic relationship, they commonly have to work through PTSD3https://neuroinstincts.com/ptsd-aftermath-of-relationships-with-psychopaths-and-narcissists/. Following the relationship, they might become hypersensitive or completely numb.
If you have a narcissistic lover, friend, coworker, or family member, the relationship might impact you deeply. If this is the case, you need to take action as soon as possible.
Here are several tips to help you deal with the narcissist in your life.
7 Tips For Dealing With a Narcissist
To “gray rock,” a narcissist is to cease all emotional reactions. The narcissist creates a looping cycle where they poke, prod, and manipulate you, and you emotionally react. Each reaction feeds them and their sense of power and control. To go “gray rock” is to break this cycle.
To do so, stop engaging with them. Become boring, flat, and emotionless with them. Don’t argue, explain, or defend. If they try to get a rise out of you, don’t react. Just give enough filler to keep the conversation going.
If you give them nothing to work with, they will eventually get bored and move on.
But beware, they will first try to manipulate you when you gray rock. They might gaslight you or bait you into an emotional outburst. They know all of your trigger points and weaknesses. They’ll say, “You’re just like your mother,” at just the right moment to get you to lose your cool. But don’t give in.
They want you to react to them. They want you to pedestal them, view them as a helpless victim, or get upset. But don’t respond or react; just disengage and gray rock.
Watch our full webinar below to learn how to deal with difficult people:
Dr. Ramani explains the firewall technique as a metaphor for computer firewalls. Keep these tips in mind:
- Acknowledge that this person is a narcissist. Don’t try to change them. Don’t assume it’s about you. Just like malware wasn’t created to affect your computer; it will go for anyone’s computer. This narcissist is just doing what they do; you just happen to be in their path.
- Get to know their techniques. Once you realize how they operate, you might notice that they are evoking sympathy from you or getting you to question your reality. You can dispel its effects when you spot what the narcissist is trying to do.
- Don’t share any vulnerable information. Narcissists will try to get you to open up more and faster than might feel natural. They might use tricks like telling you a secret to get you to open up. But keep it surface-level. Don’t share anything emotionally vulnerable or sensitive information. Anything you say can and will be used against you.
- Communicate with purpose. If you must communicate with them, do it with a purpose. Be clear on why you need to text or talk with them and stick to your objective. Don’t let their bait suck you in—communicate for you, not for them.
- Keep the firewall up at all times. Don’t let it lapse. You can’t just have it up sometimes and take it down other times. If you know someone in your life is a narcissist, you must be vigilant with dispelling their techniques on you and filtering what you share.
Set boundaries you can protect
One of the hallmark features of narcissists is that they think the rules don’t apply to them. Because of their arrogance and grandiosity, they may violate laws and personal boundaries on a whim.
If you try to set boundaries with a narcissist—telling them there’s a topic you don’t want to discuss or a physical act you’re uncomfortable with—do not expect them to honor your boundary. In fact, it’s a safer bet to assume they will try to violate your boundary if it gets them what you want.
That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t set boundaries with narcissists. It means you can’t state a boundary and expect them to uphold it—you must set boundaries that you defend.
This is a tall order. Boundaries are difficult to notice and voice for almost all of us.
But one way that narcissists chip into your self-worth is by violating your boundaries over and over again. So you must clarify your boundaries and stand by them.
Action Step: Make a list with two columns. In Column 1, list the places where the narcissist takes actions that violate your boundaries. In Column 2, list the places where you are allowing yourself to violate your own boundaries in this relationship.
Next, pick one item at a time from Column 2, and do your best to stop it. It might take time, so be gentle with yourself.
Take on a personal project
One side effect of connecting with a narcissist is that they’ll clip your wings and have you feel disconnected from your ambition and aspirations.
If you’ve noticed this happening to you, take it upon yourself to start a personal project, even if it’s a small one.
What’s a desire you have that’s just for you? Maybe writing a song, going to a play, or running a half-marathon.
The more positive projects, goals, or adventures you have going on in your life –separate from them, the easier it will be to disconnect.
Action Step: Pick a personal goal, no matter how small, and carve out an hour this week to move towards it.
Go no contact
No contact is just what it sounds like. If you are able to, completely cut the narcissist out of your life. Don’t answer their calls or respond to their texts. This is undoubtedly difficult, but if it’s manageable for the situation, it’s the best way to free yourself.
Your relationship with them could be viewed as a mutual addiction—you may have become dependent on the narcissist and developed an addiction to the pendulum of highs and lows. And they may need you for the power, validation, and supply. But if you don’t feed the relationship at all, it will slowly suffocate the mutual addiction until it dies.
Dr. Ramani suggests only going with no contact if you can hold it. Many folks try to exit a narcissistic abusive relationship with no contact but then give back in and rekindle the connection, which falls back into abuse. Then they go no contact again and fold again.
If you are going to try no contact, she suggests giving it a go for 4-6 weeks. You might feel guilt and confusion, but you will likely also feel relief, lightness, freedom, and hope. On the days when you want to give in, focus on those positive feelings.
If you have joint custody of a child, then no contact is a bad idea because you could lose rights to the child.
But if this is an approach you can functionally execute, then it is effective.
Understand the Cycle of Narcissistic Abuse
When someone falls into a deep, abusive connection with a narcissist, the relationship tends to go through the following cycles4https://narcissistabusesupport.com/stages-narcissist-abuse/:
- Idealization. This is a stage characterized by love bombing. Once the narcissist has found someone that feels vulnerable enough to take advantage of, they will praise and value that person to an incredible degree. They might call them a soulmate or speak to their strengths. To receive this kind of praise can create an intoxicating high.
- Devaluation. Unfortunately, love bombing never lasts forever. Once you are hooked, almost overnight, the narcissist’s tone will change. They will gaslight you into doubting yourself if you express doubt or concern. They’ll also start to manipulate and jab at your self-confidence until you start to crumble.
- Discard. After a devaluation stage, the narcissist will often discard the other person. It is usually cold, abrupt, and done with gaslighting. To the narcissist, you are a tool for supply. So if you stop providing supplies, they’ll throw you out like a piece of trash. It’s just like if your phone charger stops working, you’ll just toss it and get a new one at some point. When the discard happens, the narcissist will often frame it as if the breakup is your fault.
What stage are you in?
Seek professional support
There are plenty of tactics you can employ on your own, but becoming enmeshed with a narcissist can be an emotionally deep and traumatizing experience that can benefit from support.
Here are a few resources to consider:
- Doctor Ramani’s Healing Program. A community-based program with meditations, journaling prompts, lectures, and Q+A’s on narcissistic emotional abuse.
- Psychology Today is a great directory for mental health professionals from across the world.
Difficulties in Dealing With a Narcissistic Boss or Coworker
So far, we’ve mostly referred to narcissistic relationships with friends, family members, or romantic partners. But having a narcissistic boss or coworker can be equally troubling.
If you notice that a boss or coworker is having you feel constantly intimidated, inadequate, invalidated, confused, and doubting yourself, you might have a narcissist in your workplace.
Here are some common signs that someone in your workplace might be a narcissist:
- Gossip: This person is constantly gossiping and pitting people against each other.
- Secret meetings: This person will invite you to secret or exclusionary meetings. If you’re invited, you might feel special and valued, but it’s ultimately fostering a weird secretive culture of hierarchy and mistrust.
- People left off of group emails: In a similar vein to secret meetings, a narcissist might “accidentally” leave you off of an email exchange to pull the puppet strings of company relationships.
- Favoritism: A narcissistic boss will often play favorites and take people under their wing. Lovebombing exists in the workplace, too—they might make someone feel special and chosen until the day when the lovebombing turns into devaluing.
- Everyone must communicate through the leader: This type of communication isolates employees from each other and makes everyone dependent on the boss.
- Vying for the boss’s attention: A narcissistic boss can create a workplace culture where everyone is fighting for their attention. Everyone becomes a puppet for the boss, which can mimic a dysfunctional family structure with a narcissistic parent.
- Culture of mistrust: People in these workplaces feel like everyone else is hiding a knife behind their backs. It creates chaos that the narcissistic leader thrives on.
- Neglect for workplace boundaries: Narcissists might bring alcohol to meetings or offer to meet in inappropriate places like hotel rooms. They disdain boundaries and will constantly invite you into situations that cross the company code, or that just feel off to you.
- Credit stealing: A narcissistic coworker may take credit for others’ work or ideas, presenting them as their own to enhance their image and position.
- The constant need for praise: They may constantly seek validation and recognition, often becoming resentful or upset if they feel their work isn’t sufficiently acknowledged or praised.
- Belittlement: They may belittle or undermine coworkers to elevate themselves, often using sarcasm, put-downs, passive aggression, or critical comments. These might happen both in person and over Slack and email.
- Rage: Abusive bosses who don’t get the results they want might launch into narcissistic rage. They might also demean staff in front of each other or in front of clients.
4 Tips for Dealing With Narcissism in the Workplace
Many of the tips above apply to the workplace as well. But here are a few more tips specific to an office narcissist.
It might be challenging to go completely “gray rock” and to be unresponsive to the narcissist. But you can still take measures to distance yourself. Here are three steps you can take.
Step 1: Avoid any 1-on-1 meetings with the narcissist if possible.
Step 2: If the narcissistic person is a coworker, ask your boss in confidence if they could avoid putting you on collaborative projects with them.
Step 3: Avoid the narcissist as best you can. If they’re at the water cooler, take your break by the ping pong table. If they rant at you on a Slack thread, don’t respond. If you must communicate with them, be as efficient as possible, share little or no information about yourself, and express no emotion.
Watch out for boundary encroachments
Narcissists feel entitled and don’t believe rules or boundaries should apply to them. So watch out for situations where the narcissist invites you into sketchy situations. Here are a few to avoid:
- Avoid meetings that involve alcohol
- Avoid meetings in hotel rooms, or anywhere outside the office or Zoom
- Don’t accept inappropriate work projects outside of your role (e.g., running personal errands for your boss, helping them plan a family vacation, or even buying flowers for their secret lover).
Work with over-ear headphones
A narcissistic coworker may constantly trample your work boundaries. They might interrupt you when you are in a workflow, expect you to be constantly available, and disregard your breaks.
One tool to help here is over-ear headphones–which have become an implicit “do not disturb” sign.
Action Step: Purchase over-ear headphones, and wear them whenever you are working. If the narcissist disturbs you while working, have a prepared response ready, such as; “I’ll be taking a break in 15 minutes and will answer your question then.”
Record Zoom meetings
Narcissists may gaslight you. They might steal credit for ideas you came up with or falsely accuse you of saying something at a meeting that never happened.
One way to protect yourself is to ensure all of your Zoom meetings get recorded.
Action Step: Make it a habit to record every meeting you host and ask the host to record meetings. You can say it’s because sometimes you like to look back to meetings to reference what was discussed.
How a Narcissist Thinks
What motivates a narcissist?
Contrary to popular knowledge, narcissists’ behavior is a coping mechanism5https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0191886921001550?via%3Dihub#s0080 adapted to deal with acute insecurity and low self-worth, say researchers from NYU.
The narcissistic manipulation, power games, and outbursts stem from an intensely negative self-image and habituated attempts to feel worthy and validated.
There is a psychological term that describes what fuels narcissists: narcissistic supply. Narcissistic supply refers to the attention, admiration, and validation a narcissist needs from others to bolster their self-esteem and sense of importance.
Supply could take the form of receiving compliments, recognition, and awards. But a narcissist could also get supply if someone becomes visibly upset or hurt by their actions, as both scenarios confirm the narcissist’s sense of power and control.
Narcissists view relationships as functional mechanisms to get the supply they need.
Here are a few more examples of narcissistic supply:
- Having an attractive “trophy” partner
- Belonging to a prestigious group or organization
- Having a child who can accomplish goals that seem valuable
- Having a luxury car, pricey home, designer clothes, or pricy jewelry
- Being associated with celebrities or high-status individuals
- If they provoke someone to pity the narcissist and feel guilt
- If they trigger someone to feel hurt, flustered, or angry
Narcissistic injury and narcissistic rage
Because narcissists are deeply insecure, they often experience narcissistic injuries. This is when you do or say something critical that they take as criticism or insult. You might make a completely well-intentioned and innocuous comment that they take the wrong way, such as: “Is this last year’s Tesla model?”
When this happens, the narcissist will have a massively disproportional response. Either they will shut down and sulk or go into narcissistic rage. This type of rage is like a switch is flipped, and they become an entirely different person.
Often those stuck in relationships with a narcissist will start to fear the rage and will become suppressed, tentative, and walk on eggshells.
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Different Types of Manipulation That Narcissists Employ
There is no handbook that teaches narcissists the most effective manipulation tools. However, because narcissists are people with high insecurity and low empathy, they tend to use relationships as mechanisms to feed their self-worth. As a result, narcissists naturally gravitate towards the same methods of manipulation and control.
If you are dealing with a narcissist, it can be helpful to know how they operate. Here are some of the more common manipulative tactics.
Gaslighting: Gaslighting is a manipulation technique where a person makes another question their reality, memory, or intuition. They might give you false beliefs about insecurities you have, or they may gaslight you about random things like “Oh, you must not care about your family.” They’ll also “forget” about the times they slighted you and made you feel bad. The gaslighting will add up, and you won’t know what’s what.
Love bombing: Love bombing involves an excessive display of attention, adoration, and affection towards someone, often at the beginning of a relationship, in order to manipulate them and get them to quickly share vulnerable information. This may take the form of empowering compliments, or they may pretend they are opening up to you and trusting you. As the relationship progresses, this constant praise gives way to abuse.
Secret-sharing: Another form of love bombing, to manipulate you into feeling special, a narcissist will try to convince you they are telling you a top secret. They tend to repeat these “secrets” (which are often lies) because they are part of their canned stories designed to impress people by making themselves look great or to divide people by making others look bad.
Hoovering: This is when you try to leave the relationship with the narcissist, but like a Hoover vacuum, they suck you back in. Either by playing the victim card, charming you, or pretending like you finally got through to them, and they changed themself.
Scapegoating: This is when a narcissist blames a person or group for the mistakes or misfortunes of others, often to avoid accepting responsibility. Any narcissistic parent will have one scapegoat in the family where they take out all of their own insecurities by blaming this child.
Future faking: this is a form of manipulation where the narcissist will promise things to you that you really want to hear but then continually never follow through; this keeps you hooked into the relationship for the promise of something that never comes. This might be getting married someday or supporting you in starting a business someday. But the day never comes.
Mirroring: Mirroring is a technique where a narcissist mimics the behaviors, interests, or attitudes of another to manipulate them or win their trust. They may start taking up pottery because you like pottery, all while getting to know you deeply. But they are in the process of winning over your trust and gathering data points about your weaknesses which they can hurt you with down the line. At some point, the mirror turns dark, and they can mirror back to you all the insecurities you think might be true about yourself.
Baiting: Baiting involves using hurtful remarks or actions to provoke a reaction from someone. A narcissist is after power in a relationship, so if you try to take power back, they may provoke you into having a large emotional reaction. At this point, they may gaslight you into thinking there’s something wrong with you, thus taking the power back.
Flying monkeys: Flying monkeys are individuals that a narcissist manipulates into taking their side and doing their bidding. The narcissist will spread rumors and innuendos about the victim, which causes the flying monkeys to view the victim suspiciously and take the narcissist’s side. They start to view the victim as the “bad guy” and the narcissist as the helpless one. This also isolates the victim and burns up their social support, making them more controllable.
Breadcrumbing: Breadcrumbing is the act of giving someone just enough attention or affection to keep their interest but never enough to actually foster a meaningful relationship. Once your self-esteem and mental well-being have diminished, the narcissist might do something as small as have dinner with you without taking their phone out. This breadcrumb of attention will give you hope and keep you around.
Triangulation: Triangulation involves a narcissist creating a triangle of competition between you and another party, typically to gain attention or create jealousy. They might be constantly comparing you to other people that you know or even to celebrities. It’s a way of hooking other people into the connection to create more instability in you.
Stonewalling: This is when the narcissist gives the “silent treatment” in response to a conversation they don’t want to have. They may not want to have the conversation because it’s vulnerable, makes them look bad, or they’re being asked to take responsibility. This can stoke the other person’s fear of abandonment, creating a dynamic where certain topics feel off-limits.
Frequently Asked Questions About Dealing With a Narcissist
Narcissists cannot handle criticism and have a high need for praise and validation. They also lack empathy, struggle with maintaining meaningful relationships, and have a fragile ego that is easily wounded. They run off narcissistic supply, which they get from praise and emotional reactivity, so the best way to “fight back” is to stop reacting to them.
The gray rock method involves removing oneself as a source of narcissistic supply by becoming emotionally non-responsive, boring, and unengaging. This method discourages the narcissist’s attempts at manipulation and helps the person practicing it avoid getting emotionally entangled with the narcissist.
When dealing with a narcissistic boss, it is beneficial to maintain professional boundaries, avoid sharing personal or vulnerable information, and refrain from reacting emotionally to their attempts at manipulation. Also, try to limit one-on-one interaction and ensure any communication serves a clear purpose relevant to work.
Narcissists can be identified by their grandiose sense of self-importance, a strong need for admiration and validation, a lack of empathy, manipulative behavior, and an inability to handle criticism. They often disregard the feelings of others and may exploit others for their own gain.
A narcissist is an individual who exhibits traits of Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD), characterized by an inflated sense of self-importance, a deep need for excessive attention and admiration, troubled relationships, a lack of empathy for others, and often a fragile ego that is sensitive to criticism.
Takeaways on How To Deal With a Narcissist
Having a narcissist in your life can be challenging, emotionally draining, and even traumatizing. Keep in mind these key tips:
- Gray rock. If you can go no contact, become a gray rock to them. Give them no emotional reactivity or vulnerability. Just communicate as basically and boringly as you can.
- Firewall. Don’t let their manipulations in, and don’t let any information out. Share nothing vulnerable or personal that can be used against you.
- Learn to identify narcissistic manipulation. Look for love bombing, devaluing, gaslighting, secret sharing, hoovering, scapegoating, future faking, mirroring, baiting, flying monkeys, breadcrumbing, triangulation, and stonewalling. The sooner you spot their techniques, the better you can avoid getting sucked in.
- Uphold your boundaries. The narcissist won’t honor your boundaries, so you must do your best to honor your own boundaries.
- Go no contact. If you can, cut ties with them completely. You’ll feel lots of emotions and the pull to get back in touch, but cold turkey is the best way to go.
- Take on a personal project. A narcissist will try to disempower you. You must find your self-worth again, and one great way is to fan the embers of your ambitions.
And here are a few work-specific tips to consider:
- Distance yourself. If you have a narcissist in your workplace, avoid them as much as possible. Avoid 1-on-1 meetings, avoid them on breaks, and don’t react to them on Slack.
- Don’t engage outside of work parameters. The narcissist might try to get you to attend meetings or activities outside of work boundaries. Adhere to what feels appropriate to you.
- Use headphones to protect your work time. Make your boundaries as clear as possible. When you’re working, signal “do not disturb.”
- Record all meetings. A narcissist will lie and reshape past events. Record meetings to cover your bases.
It is undoubtedly difficult to have a narcissist in your life. But there is hope if you take the right actions and take care of yourself.
There is also a type of narcissist called a “covert narcissist,” who displays many attributes of NPD but is not quite as far along the narcissistic spectrum. If you’d like to learn more about covert narcissism, here is an article that breaks down the topic.
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