How to Cope with a Narcissist
October 26, 2016 by Dr. Ryan Niemiec ·
A narcissist is someone who shows extreme selfishness, is obsessed with gaining admiration and has a superior view of their own talents. It’s a personality disorder that you probably find personally offensive. When you observe someone who is a true narcissist you may feel a mixture of helplessness, disgust, anger, surprise, and depending on the situation, embarrassment or disappointment. You feel these to your core.
I was speaking with a friend a couple days ago who said she was so affected by seeing a narcissistic person in action that she felt hatred. And, she hated having that feeling of hate. But it was there. What’s most interesting about this is this friend is a woman who by anyone’s standards, is one of the most kind and caring people you could meet. Narcissism cuts through kindness. It cuts through virtue. It leaves goodness lying on the street corner like a leper begging for food.
What do we do when we witness a lack of empathy, arrogance, need for admiration, grandiosity, excessive blaming, and braggadocio that comes with narcissism? How might we take care of ourselves?
The classic way to help ourselves when we are feeling a strong emotion is to talk about it, and if possible, to address it with the person that is upsetting us. This is helpful and healing in many situations. But, true narcissists don’t care how you feel. If you speak with a narcissist about your feelings, it will be unlikely that sharing will help your rage, your helplessness, or your disgust. Worse, your sharing might even backfire.
I recall years ago confronting a narcissist (whom I cared for) with firm and honest sharing. I spend hours crafting a balanced and thoughtful response. I shared it from the heart and mindful of their feelings and mental state. The response was a barrage of blame and anger that rained down upon me. It was a surprise considering the bravery it took to confront the person.
So, how can you help yourself? Here are a few tips.
1.) Remember your strength of perspective.
Perspective means to see the bigger picture. Remember, you cannot control or change the other person, but you can take control and impact change for yourself. Ask yourself what matters most in this situation? A narcissist is artful at reeling you in, getting you into “their” world, their stories, their perceptions. See this as soon as you can and step back. See that bigger picture. They are one person among 7.1 billion people. Why give that one person power over your feelings. What matters most for you right now?
2.) Look at your signature strengths.
What are your highest, most energizing personality qualities? Use them! Set out a plan to use each of your top 5 character strengths to cope with a narcissist that you will soon be interacting with or observing. How can you use your highest, #1 strength to take care of yourself? Your second highest strength? And so on.
3.) Avoid the toxicity.
Avoiding problems and difficult situations is a hallmark contributor of many problems (e.g., avoiding situations you are anxious about often makes anxiety worse). But, in the case of toxicity, exposure to the fumes can only bring you to your knees in a coughing fit. Therefore, don’t go in the room where the fumes are. Use your character strength of self-regulation to manage your impulse to be around or watch the person. Use your character strength of prudence to spend your time wisely doing something that is non-toxic.
4.) Use the narcissist to your own benefit.
Ask yourself – what character strength is the narcissist expressing or not expressing that bothers you? What bothers you most about them? Is it that they are underplaying their fairness or kindness? Overplaying their perseverance or spirituality? Not giving the least bit of attention to humility? Chances are the strength(s) they are overplaying or underplaying are very important to you. At the VIA Institute, we refer to these as character strength “hot buttons.” Hot buttons are sensitive areas that get fired up in us when we perceive someone is out of balance with their strengths use. By bringing these hot buttons into the sphere of your awareness, you grow in self-knowledge and can use this knowledge as you consider conflicts and problems you have in your life.
5.) Sharpen your perceptions of others’ behaviors.
For a more mild narcissism (outside of the full-blown disorder), it can be useful to place the individual’s behavior in the context of strengths overuse/underuse. This helps you maintain the use of a strengths lens for viewing the person.
But, for a full-blown narcissistic personality disorder, in which deep patterns of unhealthy cognition-affect-behavior are rooted in who the person is, overuse and underuse of strengths will probably fall flat. A chronic lack of empathy cannot be named simply as underusing kindness or underusing social intelligence. A blatant grandiosity, quick temper, and stunning need for admiration cannot be described as simply underusing self-regulation or perspective. I suggest this requires a different interpretation altogether – misuse of character strengths (see my post on Gone Girl for a discussion of strengths misuse). Is the narcissist using their character strengths to intentionally manipulate or harm others? People can use perseverance or creativity to negative ends or for malevolent purposes. There is research to show this. Same would be true for the other character strengths – they can be deployed to serve the narcissist’s agenda: build themselves up and disregard others.
Choose one of the 5 strategies above as a starting point. To take action in one of these ways is to begin to take care of yourself. Even though the narcissist won’t care about any of this, you can.
VIA Institute on Character – home of the most popular and most applied tool in all of positive psychology – the VIA Survey of character strengths.