Is that difficult someone driving you up the wall? What's the best way to handle impossible people?
Personality disorders are notoriously difficult to treat, cluster Bs are notoriously difficult to deal with, and you're not a therapist. (Though at this point you probably feel like a very frazzled one.) But I received a lot of responses from readers basically saying: What do I do if I can't leave? Is there any way to make them change? It's their boss and they need this job. It's their spouse and they have kids together. It's their best friend and they can't in good conscience abandon them.
So how do you deal with a narcissist when saying "MEEP-MEEP" and sprinting away Road-Runner-style isn't an option?
Dr. Craig Malkin is a psychologist at Harvard Medical School and his new book Rethinking Narcissism: The Bad — and Surprising Good — About Feeling Special offers some hope.
A lot of what you know about narcissists is wrong and there are proven ways to not only deal with them but to help them get better. (Not that narcissists need to get better — hey, they're "perfect," right?)
Okay, let's get to work.
Sympathy for the devil
Turns out we all have some narcissistic traits and they're normal, natural, and, frankly, essential. Without them you'd deal with crippling low self-esteem, Eeyore. It's when people go too far down the spectrum into "malignant" narcissism that we get the entitlement, exploitation, and other assorted nastiness narcissists are so well known for.
We need our grandiosity at times to feel happy and healthy. And a growing body of recent research concludes that a little narcissism, in adolescence, helps the young survive the Sturm und Drang of youth; moderate teenage narcissists are less anxious and depressed and have far better relationships than their low and high narcissism peers. Likewise, corporate leaders with moderate narcissism are rated by their employees as far more effective than those with too little or too much … The difference between narcissists and the rest of us is one of degree, not kind.
Extreme narcissism is a disorder, and to help those who have it we need to remember it's a disorder. When people suffer from depression, anxiety, or borderline personality disorder we tend to feel sympathy, but with narcissism we often moralize and say they're "bad." That's like feeling sorry for people with tuberculosis but saying those with meningitis are a bunch of jerks who had it coming.
Malkin explains that narcissists weren't given secure love when growing up. They weren't appreciated for just being themselves; they were only celebrated for what they achieved. When you can't count on empathy from those around you, you stop trusting, and you feel ashamed of your normal human frailties.
You stop trying to get your emotional needs met from love and instead try to be special — better than others. Better looking, more talented, smarter, or more accomplished. You stop trying to soothe your insecurities by relying on people and instead turn to a fantasy self where you are superior.
The childhood of a narcissist is sad and a little scary. But it also holds the secret to helping narcissists get better.
How do you fix someone who is "perfect"?
All psychopaths are narcissists, but not all narcissists are psychopaths. Psychopaths can't feel empathy. For narcissists, empathy is more like an underdeveloped muscle. Still there, but as you have probably experienced first hand, it sure doesn't get used much. You need to help them build that empathy muscle. Calling them a jerk or criticizing their behavior only makes them worse. But when they are compassionately reminded of the importance of their relationships — and how those relationships can help them achieve their goals — they can improve.
More than a dozen studies exploring whether or not narcissists can change have now been conducted… and they all point to the same conclusion: encouraging narcissists to feel more caring and compassionate reduces their narcissism… If narcissists are approached in a gentler way, many seem to soften emotionally. When they feel secure love, they become more loving and more committed in return… The lesson from research is that people only slide down the spectrum when they're reminded of the importance of their relationships. Change doesn't come from telling them off for being too success-driven, ruthless, or manipulative; it comes by showing them the benefits of collaboration and understanding.
No, this isn't a Disney film and giving the Grinch a big hug isn't going to instantly turn him into a sweetheart. But psychologists have found success with using what are called "empathy prompts."
Prompting involves two components: voicing the importance of your relationship and revealing your own feelings. Voicing the importance of your relationship generally involves making supportive statements, such as "You matter so much to me" or "You're important to me" or "I care about you a great deal." Declarations like these signal how special someone is to us. They're the kind of reassurance many narcissists don't even realize they miss. They nudge people toward thinking about the relationship, moving the focus from you and me to we. More importantly, they signal your willingness to offer secure love.
So you might say:
- "I consider you an important friend. That's why I feel so sad when you don't return my calls for weeks."
- "Mom, you're one of the most important people in my life. So when you question my every move, I feel devastated, like I'm a failure in your eyes."
One caveat: For people who have narcissistic tendencies, empathy prompts can, over time, help to reduce their bad habits. But if someone has full-blown Narcissistic Personality Disorder, well, the cancer has metastasized. They may be too far gone to improve without professional help. That's sad, but it gives empathy prompts a second use: They're a good litmus test for whether there's hope for the "narcy" in your life.
When empathy prompts are delivered properly and sincerely, without a raised voice or implied guilt trip, most people melt. If your narcy is impervious to them, they may be impervious to your help overall.
Can your partner, friend, or relative place the relationship — in other words, place you — ahead of their coercive attempts to feel special? Can they allow your pain to touch them and say they're sorry or comfort you or just show they understand? If they can't, you need to view their narcissism exactly as you would any addiction. The "drug" has taken over their lives…
So how do you know if empathy prompts are working? Malkin explains that you're succeeding when your narcy responds by:
- Affirming: "You're my best friend, too. I don't want you to feel bad."
- Clarifying: "How long have you been feeling sad around me?"
- Apologizing: "I'm sorry — I don't want you to feel like a failure."
- Validating: "I know my sarcasm hurts you."
This is a great system for dealing with that self-absorbed loved one in your personal life. But you probably can't get this deep and emotionally gooey at the office. So how do you help a narcissistic boss or co-worker?
The narcissist in the corner office
The knee-jerk advice everyone gives when dealing with a workplace monster is to report them. But as experts like Stanford professor Bob Sutton have made clear over and over, that just doesn't work.
A 2008 survey of 400 people asked what their employers did when they reported being bullied. Malkin lists the results:
- 1.7 percent conducted a fair investigation and protected the target with punitive measures against the bully.
- 6.2 percent conducted a fair investigation with punitive measures for the bully but no protection for the target.
- 8.7 percent conducted an unfair investigation with no punitive measure for the bully.
- 31 percent conducted an inadequate/unfair investigation with no punitive measures for the bully, but plenty for the target.
- 12.8 percent did nothing or ignored the problem with no consequences for anyone, bully or target.
- 15.7 percent did nothing, but retaliated against the target for reporting. Target remained employed.
- 24 percent of employers did nothing, except fire the target.
Long story short: More than 70 percent of the time it'll be you who takes it on the chin. So reporting doesn't work and empathy prompts might be a little too personal — at least at first. So what should you do to deal with your office narcy? Malkin has some tips:
1. Use the word "we"
Use the first person plural whenever possible. Emphasize relationships in all communication. Yeah, I know, it sounds ridiculous that this is going to get Mr. Center-Of-The-Universe to grow a heart…
But research shows it works.
…researchers had narcissists read a passage filled with words like we, our, and us and count the number of pronouns. This simple activity not only made them more willing to help people in need (by giving them the spare change in their pockets, for example), it also made them less obsessed with becoming famous!
So "we" should start doing this, shouldn't "we"?
2. Reward good behavior
Compliment them when they are warm. And compliment them for their warmth — not for achievement or performance.
…look for moments when the person demonstrates better behavior and underscore them. Nudging narcissists to center means focusing on moments when they show some capacity for collaboration, interest in other people, or concern for the happiness of those around them— in short, whenever they behave more communally.
3. Contrast good and bad behavior
Is the complimenting helping? Okay, then it's safe to take it up a notch. Diplomatically contrast their bad behavior with their good behavior.
Contrasting is much the same as catching, except that you're describing the past and the present at the same time. Noting bad behavior becomes far more effective when it's paired with some recollection of more communal behavior (assuming you've caught any).
Malkin suggests something like:
I had such a great experience on our team last week when we left time for everyone to contribute. Today, we had less of a chance and I felt a lot less hopeful about the project. Can we try to do it the same way as last week?
Getting good results? Now you can finally move to something closer to empathy prompts.
4. Teach them their ABCs
Malkin says that first you should tell them how you're feeling:
A is for affect, aka feeling. Feeling statements use the word I liberally, as in I'm feeling uncomfortable, uneasy, unhappy. You can also use stronger words like sad, afraid, scared, but since you're usually not in a friendship or romantic relationship with the person you're speaking to, vaguer, less intense emotional language might be better. Follow your gut on that one. The main goal is to describe your experience only. Never use "you" in this step.
Then tell them what behavior is causing it:
B is for behavior. This is the experience, interaction, or action that causes the feelings. For example: When you raise your voice; When I hear only criticism; When you sound sarcastic; When you cut me off midsentence.
And then let them know what correction you would like to see:
C is for correction. This refers to the change you're seeking. Proper assertiveness always involves a request of some kind. It's a form of coaching. You're telling the listener what they need to do to improve interactions. Examples: Can you lower your voice?; Can you tell me what steps you want taken?; Can you use a kinder tone?
"I feel unhappy the rest of the day when you criticize me in front of the entire group. Can you save your feedback for one-on-one meetings?"
(To learn the seven-step morning ritual that will make you happy all day, click here.)
Alright, we've learned a lot. Let's round it up and learn how we can always feel special, and not turn into a narcissist.
This is how to win with a narcissist:
- In your personal life, use "empathy prompts": Music doesn't soothe the savage beast, but reminding them about relationships and your feelings can.
- Use "we": It's just one word but it's effective with narcissists. (If you can't manage to do this you're not paying attention to me. You should pay attention to me. I'm really important.)
- Reward good behavior: When the puppy behaves, give it a treat.
- Contrast good and bad behavior: "Normally when Jim turns in a report late you kick him down a flight of stairs. I thought it was wonderful today when you chose to throw a stapler at him instead."
- Teach them their ABC's: Mention your affect, their bad behavior, and the correction you'd like to see. This is an advanced Jedi move. Build to this with your Sith Lord, young Padawan.
Narcissists come in many flavors (grandiose, covert, communal, etc.) but they all share one thing in common: They need to feel special. And, frankly, feeling special is kinda nice. We all like to feel special. But what's the path to the healthy way of feeling special vs. the narcissistic kind?
Don't put up a false front. You're human and you screw up. That's normal and natural. Trying to seem perfect often earns you only envy. Instead, show others your true self. Warts and all. You'll look stupid sometimes. But that is when the people who truly care about you will show empathy. And you'll grow closer to them, showing empathy back.
Ruthlessly striving to seem special in the eyes of strangers alienates those who care about you and is the path to narcissism. If you open up and are vulnerable you can have the only kind of specialness that matters: being special to the ones you love.
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