by Cathy Lumsden
Are you working or living with a narcissist?
It might be your boss, your neighbour, or even your spouse. Narcissists are described as challenging, demanding, difficult, self-absorbed and even abusive. Throughout your lifespan you will most likely run across someone who fits this profile.
How do you know if you’re dealing with a narcissist? Initially you may not know, as narcissists can be charming, bright, considerate and interesting. As time goes on, though, you may feel emotionally drained, angry, frustrated, helpless, anxious and stuck. The feeling of walking on eggshells often occurs; sometimes you may feel as though they are throwing egg at you! Some of you may experience PTSD (post- traumatic stress disorder) if you co-exist with one of these individuals day in and day out for a longer period of time.
Who is a Narcissist?
A narcissist is frequently described as someone who:
seeks to achieve and present a perfect image
fears being wrong
lacks empathy and understanding of the needs of others
has issues with anger control
expects social attention and recognition
and interrupts others.
As children these individuals may have been treated as princes or princesses; they may have developed a sense of entitlement and become dependent on this attention. Thus, they don’t have the gift of knowing personal competence. On the other hand, these individuals may have been criticized extensively by their parents. While they may not have been criticised daily, they may have had a black cloud looming over them—a sense of failing or not being good enough.
Wendy Behary, social worker and author of Disarming The Narcissist, notes these children “develop an approach to life characterized by such principles as I will need no one. No one is to be trusted. I will take care of myself, or I’ll show you.”
In my opinion, understanding how and why people become narcissists may help you to not personalize the behavior. Their behavior is a reflection of their childhood hurts; how they treat you, although unacceptable, is not because you are doing anything inappropriate to cause it.
The Devastating Trail They Create
I have experienced a narcissist’s behavior both personally and professionally. Many clients dealing with a narcissist at work come for coaching or counselling feeling anxious and experiencing insomnia, depression and helplessness. They feel stuck, since they don’t want to give up their jobs but they can’t find relief. The narcissists they’re dealing with are like bullies on the school ground—relentless and persistent.
One common mistake I see with my clients is they imagine these narcissists feel and think like they do. They believe the narcissists reflect on their behavior or feel guilty. This is absolutely not true! Narcissists need to win; they love to argue with and challenge people. Some of them are stimulated by demoralizing others.
1- Know that everything coming out of their mouths is about them. This is called projection. For example, if they say, “You always need to be right” or “You are the worst employee I’ve ever seen” change the You to an I.
They always need to be right. Remembering this is key to survival with a narcissist, since it’s easy to feel like you’re going crazy or doing something inappropriate.
2- Identify the “trigger” situations you react to emotionally.
Do you get emotionally reactive when the narcissist flies off the handle, blames you or disapproves of your behaviour? Knowing what triggers you emotionally is important because all feelings remind you of events you experienced growing up. This narcissist may behave in ways that are similar to those of a parent, sibling or friend. Your mind looks for familiarity and patterns; that’s its job. The narcissist is unknowingly pushing buttons you’ve had since childhood.
For example, I had a client who was fearful of failure and who worked with a narcissistic boss. He constantly interrupted her, always found something to criticize her for, and expected her to be available 24/7. She listened to him and turned herself inside out trying to please him. (By the way, that’s impossible; a narcissist will always find something else to criticize.) Needless to say, she suffered burnout and needed to be off work for many months.
3- Set boundaries with the narcissist. This individual is not going to like it. However, in some cases he or she may respect you more. If you are in a meeting, state what you want to accomplish and set timelines for each item. If you are interrupted, and most likely challenged, acknowledge the comment with, “Thank you for sharing your opinion” and move forward.
If you are in an intimate relationship with a narcissist, set a boundary by stating that you do not want to be interrupted as you express your opinions, needs or wants. If the individual chooses to interrupt or become confrontational, set another time to have the conversation. One way of not losing who you are in a relationship with a narcissist is to express your needs and opinions.
Often people want to avoid conflict. You can still avoid conflict by stating your boundaries and expectations and then following through. It is crucial to know you deserve a voice in your relationship. Counselling or coaching is frequently necessary in order for you to choose to leave or stay, and in order for you to develop the strength and intuition to make a wise choice.
4- Recognize you do not deserve to be bullied or treated with contempt. As much as possible, at work, present your concerns or ideas in front of others. Document and report to HR any incidents of abuse or bullying. You also have a right to set a boundary stating you do not feel safe in one-on-one meetings, and you would like HR to be involved.
If you are married to a narcissist, document verbal and physical abuse with your physician. As a mother, psychotherapist and friend, I urge you to run if you are experiencing abuse. I also recommend you read Not To People Like Us, by Susan Weitzman.
Not only is this article meant to increase your awareness of narcissists, it also aims to help you choose to extricate yourself, set clear boundaries or seek assistance from a professional. You are never alone.
Cathy Lumsden is a psychotherapist, researcher and international speaker. Contact her at Adlerian Counselling and Consulting Group, 613 737-5553.