The odds that you live in a narcissist-free zone are pretty small. And if you’ve had to deal with one for a prolonged period of time, you know firsthand the damage they can do to others while trying to feed their bottomless egos.
That’s why it’s important for everyone — at least those who aren’t narcissists — to know how to handle themselves without getting dragged down by the narcissist’s insatiable need to feed off your emotions.
What Is Narcissism?
The word “narcissist” is derived from the Greek myth of a hunter named Narcissus who was so attractive that he could make others do his bidding with a snap of his fingers. Completely uncaring of others, Narcissus came to a bad end when he fell in love with his own reflection in a stream and drowned as he tried to possess it.
“Narcissism is a disorder of pathological insecurity, and, unfortunately, it’s rampant in our consumer culture,” says psychologist Ramani Durvasula, Ph.D., an expert in narcissism and the author of “Should I Stay or Should I Go: Surviving a Relationship with a Narcissist.”
But what denotes a narcissist? According to Dr. Durvasula's Four Pillars of Narcissism, the traits are:
- Lack of empathy
- A chronic sense of entitlement
- A chronic need to seek out admiration and validation from other people
Numbers suggest that narcissism is a growing problem. Its prevalence may be as high as 6.2 percent in the general population, with differences between gender: 7.7 percent for men and 4.8 percent for women, according to a July 2008 issue of the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry.
But there’s a possibility that it could be much higher than those percentages, as clinicians are still debating about whether and when narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) should be considered a standalone diagnosis or an aspect of another disorder, such as borderline personality disorder.
1. Run, Don’t Walk
A full-blown narcissist will totally wreck your life if you let them. And if you’re not married to, employed by or otherwise handcuffed to the person in question, the best coping strategy is to get away — and fast, says Dr. Durvasula.
“If you stay in the relationship, you can trust that everything you’re going through now is going to get 100 times worse, and you’re going to have to live with the regret that you stayed in this abysmal show.”
In other words, trying to appeal to a narcissist’s better nature isn’t going to work, because narcissists don’t have better natures — they have the best natures. And as every narcissist will tell you, their nature is so much better than yours that you’re probably incapable of even understanding how inferior you are.
2. Don’t Feed the Narcissist
But what if you can’t just walk away or cut them out of your life? Don’t engage. “It is pointless to engage with a true narcissist,” says Dr. Durvasula, “because they are masters of manipulation and you are not going to come out on top. It won’t get you anywhere.”
And now for the bad news! “You’re a good person, and you feel that if you can just make them understand your position that you can work it out. Sadly, it doesn’t work that way because, first, they probably can’t even understand your point of view even if they wanted too — which they do not.”
It’s important to recognize that narcissists have feelings too, and deep ones — for themselves_._ In the mind of true narcissists, you matter only to the extent that you reflect back to them how superior they are, says Dr. Durvasula. That’s going to be a total drain on your energy and demands constant attention, and you’ll be blamed for the narcissist’s mistakes. Or you’ll be “gaslighted,” making you question your own sanity.
What a narcissist needs most is ego fuel. Understand that your willingness to accommodate them is what gets their motors running in the first place. That’s why you should keep your distance if at all possible.
3. Stick to the Facts
If you must engage and the narcissist starts tap dancing on your head, stick to the facts of the matter, says Dr. Durvasula. “Just as the narcissist will repeat their own made-up story until you want to scream, your best bet is to repeat the facts of the matter — over and over, without emotion — just as if you’re repeating a definition out of a dictionary. And don’t deviate.”
4. Document Everything
If you’re in a handcuff situation with the narcissist, such as in the workplace, co-parenting, divorce, custody or any situation where there may be legal ramifications, “document the hell out of it,” says Dr. Durvasula.
That means save every text message and email and keep a detailed diary of your antagonist’s actions. “That’s all that’s ever going to work in court or in the human resources department. They don’t want to hear about character defects. They want documented violations.”
Read more: 9 Signs You Should Reconsider a Friendship
4. The Gray Rock Method
Knowing that narcissists depend on your emotions for validation, you can start learning ways to keep them from pushing your buttons. How? Deprive them of their fuel, which is their ability to manipulate your emotions.
An alternative therapist who blogs under the name of Skylar (she maintains anonymity to protect herself from an NPD ex) formulated the Gray Rock Method, which has been widely embraced by victims of narcissistic abuse.
The Gray Rock Method is simple but not necessarily easy. It’s a matter of making yourself as boring, nonreactive and unremarkable as possible — like a gray rock.
More importantly, remain as emotionally unresponsive to their pokes and prods as you can possibly allow yourself. Reduce eye contact, speak in a low and uninflected tone, and if they go off on you, try to act like you don’t understand what they’re talking about. If your narcissist is in the workplace, be slightly but unremarkably frumpy. Stay dull and the narcissist will eventually lose interest.
Narcissists don’t necessarily go after the weak; it’s the person who stands out the most from others that’s likely to arouse their envy, says Dr. Durvasula. “That’s because they want you to envy them_,_ and if they think you have something they don’t, they’ll try to wear you down until they’re in the superior position.”
- American Journal of Psychiatry: Narcissistic Personality Disorder: Diagnostic and Clinical Challenges
- Psychology Today: 8 Ways to Handle a Narcissist
- 180 Rule: Examining Psychopathy through the Lense of Girdian Therapy
- Personality Disorders: Empathy in Narcissistic Personality Disorder: From Clinical and Empirical Perspectives
Martin Booe writes about health, wellness and the blues. His byline has appeared in the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times and Bon Appetit. He lives in Los Angeles.