Dealing With Narcissists

In our past two columns, we’ve discussed how difficult it is to deal with a workplace narcissist, one whose main personality traits include a lack of empathy, a sense of entitlement, arrogance and condescension. Today we explore how to handle these types of workers. ..

There are four ways to handle narcissists at work, according to Sandy Hotchkiss author of “Why Is It Always About You?”

Be Self Aware

Narcissists are adept at reading other people and can exploit their weak points easily. To make themselves indispensible, ensure others’ admiration, remain in control and stave off their feelings of inferiority, narcissists will find others’ weak spots and use them to maintain intimacy. Weak spots can include being too dependent, disliking hurting others, needing approval or needing to be liked. The narcissist is focused on maintaining connections that satisfy and serve his needs. It’s important not to be caught in the snare of the narcissists or put them on pedestals. It’s tempting to do that when they strive for and achieve seemingly perfect standards.

Check in with yourself. Do you find yourself feeling inferior – less competent, less attractive, less well off or successful – when you compare yourself to the narcissist? Do you find yourself wondering how you could ever live up to their standards or how they even do it themselves? These are hints that they are striking at your trigger spots. You may be feeling what the narcissist needs you to feel: inferior, admiring and less worthy than the narcissist. The narcissist does not necessarily experience him or herself as superior. In fact, she may be hiding a lack of self worth, emptiness and inadequacy. But the narcissist needs to somehow encourage others to absorb or take on these feelings. He or she is working hard not to experience or acknowledge these feelings and as a result passes them along to others.

Beware of being a convenient target for these projections since the toll it will take on your confidence and self esteem may be considerable.

You may feel very angry when dealing with a narcissist. It is important to not succumb to those emotions, since the narcissist will gain the upper hand when you lose your cool. Remaining one up is the key way narcissists control their worlds and contain their feelings of emptiness, shame and inferiority. Displays of intense emotion, especially anger, reduce you in the eyes of the narcissist and provide them a means to gain an upper hand. Maintaining self control is important when dealing with a narcissist. Your best bet is to know yourself well and protect the more vulnerable parts of your personality (needs for approval, belonging, emotional connection and the like).

Be Realistic
Narcissists usually operate developmentally like a vulnerable child in an adult’s body. Their focus is, generally, “What about me?”, “How does this affect me?”, “What will this do for me?”, in almost every instance. With that in mind, you can decide how to handle the situations you may encounter. Challenging the narcissist’s carefully constructed illusion about who they are – superior, talented, perfect – threatens the fragile sense of self that exists underneath. This may mean refraining from out-shining the narcissist by allowing him to take or share credit for what you do, downplaying your achievements and keeping under the radar. It is important to remember that by adopting this strategy you are not less than the narcissist, you are merely surviving the interaction.

Soothing the narcissist can be important too. Compliment her. Acknowledge contributions. Congratulate. Be aware that if you do accidentally out-shine or inadvertently seem to have a talent the narcissist lacks, you may trigger a conversation in which your talent is devalued or you are forced to acknowledge the narcissist’s contribution to your achievement. If this occurs, quickly recover by pointing out how the narcissist has been important to your development or the success of the project. Remember you are really talking to a little kid who needs to feel included and stroked, or he’ll feel rejected

Set Boundaries
Once you are aware of your own foibles and accept that you are dealing with the equivalent of a child in an adult’s body, accept what you are facing and start to set boundaries. Withhold information about your private self and guard against incursions into your inner world. You will protect yourself better. Remaining unknowable or unobtainable gives you power. Watch out for being too self-effacing as the narcissist will, as Hotchkiss observes, “feed on you at your own expense”. Maintain a mask when dealing with the narcissist – it’s key to your well-being when you are in their company.

Set your limits with the narcissist and be prepared to defend the lines you don’t want crossed in a firm and calm fashion using few words and little emotion. Protect against incursions into your personal space, your relationships with others, or unwanted and unsolicited advice. Try telling the narcissistic co-worker that you appreciate their interest in what you did on your personal time but tell them you feel uncomfortable when they ask and need them to stop. Remember to empathize with the narcissistic boss or co-worker. Tell them how the intrusion into your life is affecting you and end by stating what you need from them. Remain calm and non-emotional when delivering these assertive messages.

If you encounter a temper tantrum or angry incident, remember that the narcissist is acting out to discharge their anger and shame and refrain from personalizing attacks, attempts to shame you, or make you feel guilty and less than, in whatever manner these messages are delivered. Narcissists are adept at using hurt tones to get their needs met as much as they are able to engage in angry outbursts to restore any perceived power imbalance. By keeping your guard up, protecting your inner self and responding consistently with boundaries, you are more likely to continue at work with your self esteem intact.

Cultivate Equality
Your narcissistic boss or co-worker will compete with you, especially when he or she senses you could outperform. This is a form of envy where the narcissist senses subtle shifts in the balance of power between you and her. When these shifts occur, the narcissist will rebalance the power dynamic in his favour. Remaining superior is important and efforts will be made to reassert this structure.

The best antidote is to try to maintain equality in the relationship with the narcissist – ensure that you give back to a narcissist and an account in which you are indebted does not get built up. Respond to favours with favours. If asked to go beyond the call of duty to fulfill unrealistic standards of perfection, ensure you get time off for the time taken. Try to build reciprocity into the interactions as much as possible.

In the end, it may be important to consider how much energy you have for a narcissist. If you are wondering whether its worth it to maintain your employment consider looking elsewhere, broadening your contact base and planning your escape. When the economy turns, you may want to find a more respectful workplace.

Dr. Jennifer Newman and Dr. Darryl Grigg are registered psychologists and directors of Newman & Grigg Psychological and Consulting Services Ltd., a Vancouver-based corporate training and development partnership. They can be contacted at

Identifying information in cases cited has been changed to protect confidentiality.

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