Saturday, September 01, 2007

The Narcissists in Your Life: How to Handle Them

By Martha Beck

If you have a boss, a roommate, or (heaven help you) a parent with full-blown narcissistic personality disorder, your attempts to develop healthy self-esteem will be severely challenged. There are four ways to go about dealing with such people. Each approach may be useful at various times, and understanding all four will give you a range of responses to your own least favorite narcissists.

1. Acquiesce.
The first way of dealing with narcissists is to behave as they want you to. This means placing them at the center of every decision, silencing your own thoughts and feelings, and constantly reassuring them that they are what Jesus would have been like if he'd gotten some therapy. I suggest acquiescence if you enjoy grappling with the urge to hurl yourself in front of a train.

2. Push back.
Narcissists are bullies. They rely on other people's decency and self-restraint to sustain their psychological dominance. Bluntly, assertively refusing to comply with their demands withers them, because in their warped emotional environment, one person in each twosome must always dominate, the other be dominated. If you take the dominant role, narcissists will fall into the "dominated" category without even understanding why.

3. Drug them with praise.
When I compared narcissists with addicts, I wasn't speaking metaphorically. True narcissists are literally addicted to praise. Large doses of adulation can put them into a drugged euphoria. If you find yourself in a narcissist's power, try delivering a dose of ego reinforcement. Don't lie—just say things like "You have amazing potential!" or "Goodness, the things you know!"

4. Drop the rope.
You win a tug-of-war by dragging your opponent across a line on the ground—or do you? If the tug-of-war happens to be nonsensical and destructive, then the way to truly win is to drop the rope. This is my favorite method of dealing with narcissists. As soon as you feel that crazy sense of walking on eggshells, fending off narcissistic rage, stop. Walk away. The narcissist will win the tug-of-war. You'll win your sanity. Take your pick.

If you practice any of these behaviors regularly, you will find that life becomes much less frightening. You'll be able to handle any narcissist who happens to cross your path. And you'll learn to climb off your own roller coaster of shame and adulation. This is an act of guts and grace that will help you heal the world rather than hurt it—a legacy no narcissist, however powerful, can ever claim.