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How to deal with a narcissist: 5 smart tactics (backed by research)

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Narcissism seems to be rampant in this day and age. While about 6% of the population can be classified as having Narcissistic Personality Disorder, it’s much more difficult to tell how many people have predominantly narcissistic traits.

In fact, several studies have found that narcissism is on a rise, with some psychologists referring to it as a modern “narcissism epidemic.”

This leaves many of us dealing with full-blown narcissists almost daily. Whether it’s your partner, your friend, or even your boss, you might have a narcissist (or several) affecting your everyday life.

In this article, we will discuss the nuances of narcissism and exactly how you can deal with the narcissists in your life.

Narcissism: An Identity, Not a Disorder

A common yet significant misunderstanding of narcissism is that it is comparable to other mental disorders, such as bipolar disorder, depression, or even schizophrenia.

But while narcissism is classified as a personality disorder, it is more accurately described as an identity, one that is adopted to the persona.

Unlike other psychological and mental disorders, narcissism has shown no evidence to have any root cause in physiological changes in the brain.

While conditions like bipolar disorder have been proven to have physiological (chemical and genetic) roots, narcissism has so far been found to be an entirely learned personality trait.

Understanding the Rise of Narcissism

According to the professor of psychology at the University of Georgia, W. Keith Campbell, Narcissism is a “continuum”, with everyone falling on some point along the line.

We all have our own small bouts and spikes of narcissism, and for the most part, this is completely normal.

But in recent years, an unprecedented percentage of people have shifted towards the extreme ends of the narcissism continuum, creating more narcissists than ever before.

This explains why at Hack Spirit we get so many emails asking for advice on how to deal with narcissists.

Researchers and psychologists are hard at work trying to understand the reasons for the current narcissism epidemic, but perhaps the likeliest answer is there is no single cause at all.

Rather, the rise of narcissism might be a general consequence of two phenomena:

1) The “self-esteem movement” of the late 20th century, in which Western parents were encouraged to prioritize their child’s self-esteem over everything else.

2) The rise of social media, smartphones, and online profiles, in which social media interaction has been found to result in dopamine loops in the brain.

We now have generations of people who were raised in environments unlike any that humanity had ever experienced before, and one of the unintended negative consequences is the rise of narcissism.

With more narcissists than ever before, how exactly can we deal with narcissists without falling into their emotional and mental manipulation, and losing ourselves in the process?

5 Healthy Ways To Deal With Narcissists

1) Don’t.

The Common Mistake: “I can help.”

People who become trapped in professional, casual, or romantic relationships with narcissists all make the same first mistake: believing that they can be influential enough in the narcissist’s life to enact change to their personality.

After identifying that a person is a narcissist, they believe that they can force that person to change through positive reinforcement, encouragement, and other good behavior.

The Unfortunate Truth: According to licensed clinical psychologist Dianne Grande, Ph.D., a narcissist “will only change if it serves his or her purpose.”

While this does suggest that a narcissist can change, what does it mean, exactly?

Narcissists exist in their own ecosystems. Everything around them is designed to feed their egoistic needs: the need for power, the need for affirmation, and the need to feel special.

They have an intense inability to see the world the way that non-narcissists do, which is why they simply can’t change the way other people might grow or evolve.

Personal growth generally comes about through hardship, reflection, and a true desire to change.

It requires an individual to look inside themselves, recognize their weaknesses or flaws, and demand better from themselves.

But these are all actions narcissists are incapable of performing. Their entire lives are designed around ignoring self-reflection and self-criticism, and forcing them to change by normal means requires forcing them to act against their nature.

Instead, if you find yourself entangled with a narcissist, your first response (if possible) should be an immediate retreat.

Save yourself the trouble and prioritize your own happiness and sanity. In many cases, you might not have a choice, so when you do – get out, now.

Ask Yourself, If the Narcissist Is Your…

– How long have you been together?
– Is this really the person you want to struggle to save or change?
– Are you in love, or are you “trauma bonded” to them?

– Are your other friends willing to help, or are you alone?
– Is this friendship more important than your own personal happiness and safety?
– Do they deserve your attention?

– Do you really need this job?
– Is there a different way to improve your environment, such as reporting them to HR or asking to be moved to a different department?
– Have closer friends and family already tried to help them?

2) Play Along, Or Leave

The Common Mistake: “I just need them to look in a mirror and it will force them to change.”

Many of us mishandle narcissists simply because we do not put ourselves in their shoes.

We fail to realize or acknowledge the truths that make up the foundations of a narcissist’s reality.

We believe that by describing to them or showing them their behavior, we can shame them into changing. After all, this is the way we would react.

The Unfortunate Truth:

But narcissists are not unaware of the way they act. In a majority of cases, narcissists are blissfully aware of their behavior as well as the reputation of their behavior.

In a series of studies from researchers at Washington University in St. Louis, they found that “narcissists do indeed have self-awareness of themselves and that they know their reputation.”

How then can they maintain their arrogance if they are aware that others perceive them negatively?

According to the researchers, narcissists convince themselves of two things to cope with society’s negative perception of them:

– They believe that their critics are envious of them
– They believe that their critics are too stupid to recognize their value

When others try to talk to them about their behavior, they attempt to get around this with what is known as the self-verification theory, or the idea that they are exceptional and should continue to brag and be arrogant to show others their brilliance.

Instead, you would save more time and energy by simply playing along with their narcissism.

According to clinical psychologist Al Bernstein, the only way to truly communicate with a narcissist is to pretend to admire them as much as they admire themselves.

If you refuse to play by their rules, you trigger something psychologists refer to as a “narcissistic injury”, in which the narcissist will make your life as miserable as they can make it.

Instead of trying to fix it, see if you can play along and live with it. The answer to this will depend on how entwined your life is with the narcissist, as well as how deeply narcissistic your narcissist is.

Ask Yourself, If the Narcissist Is Your…

– Is their narcissism a major issue or something you can live with?
– Do they let their narcissism affect every aspect of your life and relationship?
– Are your families negatively affected by their narcissism?

– Is their narcissism just annoying, or is it a danger to you, themselves, and/or your social circle?
– Have they always been a narcissist, or is it something they recently developed?
– Do they know that they negatively affect their friends’ lives?

– How long will they be your boss? Can you live with this in the meantime?
– Do you need your boss as a reference for the future, or can you cut them off permanently?
– Does their behavior negatively affect your workplace and productivity?

(To learn how to be mentally tough in the face of toxic people, check out my eBook on the art of resilience here)

3) Reward Their Behavior, Not Their Promises

The Common Mistake: “I confronted them and they promised to change. We’ve finally reached a breakthrough!”

For those attempting to fix the narcissists in their lives, you might have had a few moments where you believed you had finally reached some sort of breakthrough.

Maybe you just had a simple heart-to-heart conversation with them about their behavior, or maybe you tried something drastic, like an intervention involving all their closest family and friends.

One way or another, you got the narcissist in your life to acknowledge their behavior and acquiesce.

You managed to get them to say, “I’m sorry, I will try to change”, something you never thought would happen.

And now the worst is over, and you can start to see true changes in their behavior.

The Unfortunate Truth: Narcissists are liars, and they know how to play the game better than anyone else. This is particularly an issue when dealing with covert narcissists – these are narcissists who understand how important it is to make people believe what they want to believe.

They manipulate those around them with white lies, empty promises, and fake smiles.

Unlike overt narcissists, they know when it’s time to trade in the confident visage for something smaller and more vulnerable. And every time they win, it simply empowers them to do it again when needed.

The better way to deal with narcissists is to show them that they won’t get what they want with promises and smile.

Only until you get your end of the deal should they get theirs. Not only will they respect you for not being so easily manipulated, but they will also learn to cooperate with you.

With this simple change, you evolve from “just another pawn” in their eyes to someone they respect, and may even like.

Ask Yourself, If the Narcissist Is Your…

– Do they respect you, or do they try to manipulate you whenever they wish?
– Have you reinforced their behavior by always giving them what they ask?
– Is it too late in the relationship to start acting differently?

– Is there anyone in your friend circle that they treat with more respect? If so, why?
– Have they ever had a falling-out with other friends who didn’t do as they asked?
– Have they promised and failed to change in the past?

– Will your boss try to invoke their power if you don’t do as they say?
– Do they have equals in the office you can connect with to try to fix their behavior?
– Can you disobey their demands without risking your employment?

4) Invoke the Crowd

The Common Mistake: “This is a personal issue. This person deserves privacy and intimacy, no matter how narcissistic they may be.”

Kindness comes naturally to many of us, and we follow the credo: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

This is why we always try to confront narcissists as gently as possible. We hide their behavior for them, excuse their actions on their behalf, and lie to our closest friends and family about the true nature of the narcissist.

We do this out of kindness, and the belief that everyone, good or bad, deserves the chance to heal and fix themselves without being shamed to the world.

The Unfortunate Truth: The more you hide their behavior, and the more solitary you make your mission to “fix” your narcissist, the more vulnerable you make yourself to their manipulation.

Narcissists are not intimidated by small-scale attempts to change them. They prefer that you keep your concerns personal and discreet because it makes it much easier to manipulate your thoughts and feelings if you are on your own.

Instead, it works better to attack the narcissist’s strongest source of drive and motivation: the absolute need to look good.

According to a team of researchers from the University of Alabama, narcissists “are prone to shame, highly neurotic, and cling to others, afraid of rejection.”

They become most vulnerable not when they feel a sense of shame from one concerned individual or even a few, but when they feel that their entire community is displeased with them.

Invoke their community. Show them that people around them are losing faith in their abilities, that they are no longer respected or admired at a large-scale.

And make them reach these conclusions on their own rather than saying it to them out straight – the more naturally they come to these conclusions themselves, the more of an impact they will make.

And this community displeasure shouldn’t be anger, but disappointment. Narcissists see anger as an irrational, emotional reaction from people who don’t understand them; disappointment, however, is viewed as a much more personal reaction to their behavior.

Remember: a narcissist will never feel guilt the way most of us do. They feel shame.

Ask Yourself, If the Narcissist Is Your…

– Which community matters to them the most? Their family? Their friends? Their workplace?
– What is the trait they value the most about themselves? How can you show them that other people don’t feel the same way?
– Can you accomplish this without ruining your relationship?

– Are you close enough to your friend that your opinion matters to them?
– Have you ever seen them feel ashamed about anything? What was it?
– How can you approach this topic without being too forward?

– Does your boss care about what their team thinks about them?
– Is your boss a popular figure in your community or industry?
– Can you accomplish this without losing your job?

5) Redirect Their Narcissistic Energy

The Common Mistake: “I’ve done everything in my power to change their narcissism and I just can’t do it. There’s no hope!”

You’ve read all the articles and you’ve listened to all the advice. You’ve tried everything there is to try, but no matter what, the narcissist in your life simply won’t change.

You are resigned to the fact that your narcissist is one of the bad ones, a hopeless case that will require years of therapy to ever have a chance of changing.

The Fortunate Truth: While it may feel disappointing to concede that someone’s narcissism might never change, there is another way to look at it: narcissism doesn’t have to manifest negatively.

Narcissists don’t think about good actions or bad actions. They care about their investment and their return.

While this generally manifests in selfish and short-sighted behavior, this can be redirected positively towards the community.

Narcissists have more opportunity than ever before to be rewarded for their good behavior. With social media, it has never been easier for a narcissist to draw attention to themselves for acting altruistically.

Some writers refer to this as “Empathy Theatre”, in which narcissists compete with one another for social attention and recognition.

They may do this through charity events, helping NGOs, or other traditionally altruistic social deeds.

And this is how you can best redirect the energy of the forever-narcissist in your life. Nudge them towards good causes and help them realize that their participation and contributions would make them more appreciated than ever before.

With the right audience, any narcissist can fall in love with the act of doing good deeds, even if their actions aren’t as selfless as they seem.

Ask Yourself, If the Narcissist Is Your…

– Are there any charities or organizations they have ever shown interest in during your relationship?
– Do they have any skills that could add value to these organizations?
– Do you know how to help them directly get involved as soon as possible?

– Is your friend willing to try something new?
– Does your friend already have a social media following they could further utilize?
– Does your friend have any hobbies or interests that could be tied to selfless organizations?

– Is your boss currently an active member of any part of their community?
– Are there organizations, charities, or other groups that could be looking for a new patron you could introduce to your boss?
– Does your boss understand how to use social media for online attention?

[To learn how to deal with selfish and toxic people, and build your own self-esteem, check out my new eBook: The No-Nonsense Guide to Using Buddhism and Eastern Philosophy for a Better Life]

Dealing With Narcissists: Your Roadmap

Let’s have a quick review for how to deal with a narcissist:

1) Don’t – If you have the option, just don’t deal with it at all. Cut it from your life while you still can.

2) Play Along, Or Leave – If the narcissism is manageable and something you can live with, then play along. Keep the peace, and make small changes from there.

3) Reward Their Behavior, Not Their Promises – For a narcissist, it’s always about power and lies. Show them that you aren’t one to be manipulated with empty promises, and they will respect you.

4) Invoke the Crowd – Narcissists aren’t afraid of the disappointment of an individual, but the disappointment of a crowd is something else. If you want them to change, hit them where it hurts most: their need to look good in their community.

5) Redirect Their Narcissistic Energy – Sometimes, you just can’t change a narcissist. So just redirect their energy. Teach them how to use their narcissism for the greater good, in ways they can contribute positively to society for less-than-selfless reasons.

But remember: before going through any of the steps above, ask yourself – is it worth it?

Narcissists can be dangerous, and you can fall into their games and traps without even recognizing it.

Some of us find ourselves trapped with narcissists for years, and the psychological and emotional trauma of those experiences can last a lifetime.

As much as narcissists have a mental complex, it’s important to reflect on your own need to help them.

Are you truly acting out of a rational interest, or are you plagued with your own savior complex?

Look inside yourself and understand your true intentions; only then can help a narcissist become a better person.

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Lachlan Brown

Written by Lachlan Brown

I’m Lachlan Brown, the founder, and editor of Hack Spirit. I love writing practical articles that help others live a mindful and better life. I have a graduate degree in Psychology and I’ve spent the last 6 years reading and studying all I can about human psychology and practical ways to hack our mindsets. If you want to get in touch with me, hit me up on Twitter or Facebook.

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