The author of The Narcissist Next Door: Understanding the Monster in Your Family, in Your Office, in Your Bed — in Your World explains how to deal…without destroying yourself.
By Jeffrey Kluger
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Narcissists are the kudzu of the human condition — a rapidly proliferating species that shows up anywhere, thrives everywhere and resists all attempts to wipe them out. There are a lot of reasons for that: They’re charismatic, articulate and often brilliant. They have the power to charm the pants off of you — sometimes literally — which means they breed a lot, leaving plenty of little narcissists behind. (And yes, there’s a genetic component to the condition.)
What this means is that you are all but certain to encounter narcissists, at any given time, on any given day. The question is how to deal with them. Here are five places narcissists lurk — and what you should do when you find them.
The Narcissist in the Corner Office
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You know this boss; you’ve probably had this boss. He — or increasingly, she — is the boorish, bullying, arrogant, blame-laying, credit-grabbing monster who haunts your days. You’re not alone. According to one 2007 study by the polling firm Zogby International, 37 percent of all workers in the U.S. have at some point been bullied on the job — or, a whopping 54 million people, when you calculate from a conservative estimate of the size of the workforce.
The most delightful way to cope with this kind of narcissist is to find another job, slap your resignation letter on the little despot’s desk and walk on out. But that’s not always an option. So, for as long as you’re stuck in a bad gig, remember these coping strategies:
If possible, always pitch the boss a new idea in a group setting, rather than to the boss alone. The more people who hear that the idea is yours, the harder it is to steal.
When the boss blames you for a problem that’s actually his or her fault, resist the panicky impulse to pass that blame further along to a subordinate. This leads to what’s known as a blame contagion that can cycle all the way down the organizational chart. Better to cop to anything that truly is your fault, explain the things that aren’t—and do it all in a traceable, storable e-mail chain.
Don’t stand for being bullied — verbally or physically (and yes, that happens). Document every single incident of abuse and report them all to human resources. If other people witnessed the incidents, ask them to back you up. And to the greatest degree possible, take none of this personally. The boss’s narcissism really is about the boss — and that explains a lot about what motivates narcissists.
In 2009, Nathaniel Fast, PhD, a professor of management and organizational behavior conducted a study of 410 people employed at various levels in various companies and found that aggression and abusive behavior come from a particular combination of authority and self-perceived competence. Repeatedly, he found, the most dangerous people are the ones with a lot of power but not as much confidence — which means they are deeply insecure about being found out. That makes them intolerant of any criticism or contradiction — and that, in turn, can lead to misbehavior when they feel threatened.
Bosses are particularly susceptible to this lethal combination because their charisma and confidence means they interview well, but that also means they have a higher than average chance of getting hired for a job they may secretly know they’re not qualified to perform. “Search committees can’t get enough of these guys,” says management expert Robert Hogan, of Hogan Assessment Systems. You, by contrast, will have more than enough of them very quickly.
The Narcissist in the Next Cubical
Some of the same rules that apply to a narcissistic boss apply to the narcissistic co-worker — particularly avoiding the blame game and protecting your ideas. But there are differences, too.Narcissistic co-workers can be great in the early stages of a group project — say, when you’re brainstorming ways to land a new client. That makes sense: The work is usually done in groups, where individual contributions get noticed and applauded; recognition is the narcissist’s drug of choice. If your focus is on what’s best for the team, don’t begrudge the narcissist the spotlight — but don’t be shy about pulling it to yourself when you have something of your own to contribute.
The bigger risk comes later — when the work is more about managing the account, meeting deadlines, holding the nervous client’s hand. There’s no audience for work like that, and so the narcissist will slack off, letting other people carry the load. Don’t permit it. The group should have a way of accounting for hours logged and tasks completed, and the narcissist should be included in those ledgers.
Even in businesses that don’t work by billable hours, there are ways to keep track of how much of a contribution any one person is making. An unnamed narcissist at an unnamed magazine in my past was forever shirking work — taking on fewer and fewer assignments and claiming chronic illness as a reason. A quick byline count on the magazine website provided an exact accounting of who in our department had been producing what — and who had been producing next to nothing at all. In the next round of layoffs (and there were plenty in that era), the narcissistic colleague became an ex-colleague.
The Narcissist in Your Bed
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Get out of bed. Run away. Don’t look back. Any questions? Okay, maybe it’s more complicated than that. It’s very easy to fall for the charm of a narcissist; and since charm often equals sexy, and sexy often equals sex, things get messy fast. Paradoxically, narcissists are often quite faithful in the early stages of relationships, because what frequently leads people to cheat is insecurity: If you’re afraid the person you love doesn’t love you back, you begin looking for your next landing spot. Narcissists can’t conceive that they’re not adored, so they don’t go through that phase.
But they’ll cheat soon enough, because for narcissists, a relationship is all about how the partner enhances their own self-image. That means always trading up to someone who’s younger, prettier, richer — or just plain newer. Narcissists will lie about where they’ve been and what they’re doing; they’ll listen less and less when you speak (not that they ever listened much to begin with), and they’ll leave you flat if you don’t leave first.
If you’re married to a narcissist you’re in a lot deeper. Here you must confront the problem squarely and suggest — indeed, insist on — either marriage counseling, individual therapy for your spouse, or both. Narcissists resist that, since the nature of the condition is that they don’t accept that anything is wrong with them. But stand your ground — and if that doesn’t work, consider leaving the marriage. You deserve better.
This broad rule holds for both sexes, but when it comes to romance, women really are in greater peril than men. A 2008 study, by a researcher at New Mexico State University, looked at the improbable attraction many women have to men who exhibit the so-called dark triad of personality traits: narcissism, Machiavellianism and impulsive thrill-seeking. The paper crunched the statistics and found that these men outscore other men in number of sexual encounters in any given week, month or year. If you’re seeing or married to one of these guys, that alone argues for getting single or unmarried fast.
The Narcissist in Your Social Circle
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The narcissistic friend is the one who can go out drinking with you, talk all night about her job and her boyfriend and her vacation plans, and never think to ask you about how you’re doing.It’s often not necessary to toss aside a narcissistic friend if you’re getting some satisfaction from the relationship. Like what? Invitations to good parties, funny stories, someone to go out and have drinks with. But it’s best to do your socializing in larger groups or, if you do socialize with the narcissist alone, lower your expectations for the evening. Some narcissists — the ones with a low-grade case of narcissistic fever — might respond to a little good-natured teasing. When I lived on the second floor of an apartment building with a narcissistic friend who lived on the fourth, and we were making plans on the phone to go out for drinks, he said to me, “Okay, come get me on your way out.” That’s a statement that ought to come from the person on the lower floor, unless the person higher up is entirely self-absorbed and needs to be collected and squired. My response: “Um, are we going via roof helicopter?” It got a laugh, it made the point and I think our friendship inched ahead a little.
The Narcissist in Your Family
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You know the sister who never talks about anyone but herself? The uncle who holds forth at Thanksgiving dinner, from the pumpkin soup straight through the pumpkin pie and brooks no interruption, and certainly no contradiction? You know the parent or grandparent or even offspring who has never been heard to utter the words, “So how are you doing?”Well, get used to them, because you’re stuck with them. For the most part, there’s no divorcing or quitting or firing your family. Even though you only see them at holidays, weddings and funerals, they’ll always be a fixture in your life. That means finding ways to deal with them.
The answer, most psychologists say, begins with the same advice that applies to dealing with a narcissistic boss: Don’t personalize it. The self-adoring family member is responding to an inner script, which is very often a painful script. That’s worth keeping in mind.
It can also help, say therapists, to establish your boundaries: Make clear what you expect from a relationship, or at least a conversation, and that it must include some reciprocity. Narcissists are characteristically obtuse, but they do have a learning curve. When your relatives make short work of you often enough at family gatherings — turning away to have a rousingly good conversation with the person seated across the table — the message does get through. “It’s possible,” says psychologist W. Keith Campbell, PhD, of the University of Georgia. “But it’s not the natural course of things.”
Better still — if you can abide it — is simply to wait the narcissist in your family out. The old wisdom about personality disorders like narcissism was that they’re intractable. Once you’ve got the diagnosis, you’re stuck for life. But in 1990, psychologist Mark Lenzenweger, PhD, of The State University of New York at Binghamton launched a 16 year longitudinal study and found that it’s possible for people simply to age out of narcissism — at least a little.
“We did see something that was not so much spontaneous remission as it was maturation,” Lenzenweger says. “The disorders just seem to clear for some people.”
Spending the next few decades waiting for the narcissist in your family to shape up is not a pretty prospect. But if compassion counts for anything, remember: It is far easier to know a narcissist than it will ever be to be one.
Jeffrey Kluger is the author of The Narcissist Next Door: Understanding the Monster in Your Family, in Your Office, in Your Bed— in Your WorldandThe Sibling Effect: What the Bonds Among Brothers and Sisters Reveal About Us. He is also an editor-at-large at TIME Magazine and TIME.com.