If you know a narcissist, there’s a good chance you’d prefer not to know a narcissist.
That’s because narcissists tend to ruin the mental health of those around them. Typically, they’re emotionally and physically abusive to those they’re closest to—no better targets than those within arm’s reach, after all—and use verbal smoke and mirrors to create an ego-driven, me-first, gaslit meta-reality. Their mission: complete control, sometimes for sport. You’re but a pawn.
Unless—chess move—you queen yourself. This can be done, and sometimes must. Unfortunately, you can’t always just leave the narcissist in your life. You may not even want to. You might be dealing with narcissist boss, co-parent, or child. The narcissist might even be you.
So, what can you do when you’re stuck with a narcissist? We asked the experts.
When the Narcissist in Your Life Is a Co-Parent
The narcissist’s kryptonite: boundaries. They hate ’em.
Try a “connection contract,” suggests clinical psychologist Craig Malkin, Ph.D., in his book Rethinking Narcissism. This simply means setting boundaries for when you’re in their presence. (Think: “If you get pass-agg, I will leave.”) Doing so can be effective because narcissists don’t like to have their behavior anticipated or predicted.
“In a perfect world, you go with no-contact,” says psychologist Jaime Zuckerman, Psy.D., a narcissistic abuse expert. “If you are in a situation where you have children and joint custody, I recommend no phone calls. You want everything in writing. And you only respond with a few words no matter how much of the novel they write. No opinions, no emotions, just facts. And save everything.”
If your ex was (or is) abusive and you still share custody, follow our 7-step plan for how to disconnect from a narcissistic abuser and stay safe, which includes advice on using legal experts and the court system to navigate your communication.
When the Narcissist in Your Life Is Your Boss or Coworker
Okay, this one is less scary because you never loved this person. But you sure do spend a lot of time with them. And while you can leave a job, obviously—what if you can’t right now? Or what if your job is otherwise great and you don’t want this credit-stealing, blame-shifting narcissist boss person to box you out of your dream career?
For starters, protect yourself by documenting everything. Just as Dr. Zuckerman recommends communicating with a toxic co-parent over email, having a record of what a narcissist boss or team member says to you is a great idea. Because: paper trail.
If you’ve had a call or discussed things in a meeting, send a follow-up email summarizing what you’re responsible for. This may also help prevent them from claiming your ideas and work as their own. Or from gaslighting you or denying the reality of a project’s details or deadlines (which they will do if it serves them!). And if the day comes when you must take things to HR, you’ll be coming with more than just your word.
GOTTA READ: The Type of Gaslighting That Happens Every Day
People with narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) can be prone to quickly changing moods. This is a unique threat with a narcissist boss. His or her behavior is out of your control. But you can step away before responding reflexively and hurting yourself in the workplace.
As with anyone who is emotionally reactive, it’s best to literally remove yourself from the situation if you can. Go walk around the block (or your living room, if you’re working from home). When you come back, you’ll be able to speak in a calmer way.
Sometimes it’s not possible to just drop off Zoom and become a gray box. Speaking of gray… This is where the “grey rock method” might come in. It’s a technique where you respond as stoic-ly and unemotionally as possible. Toxic people love getting a rise out of you. By grey-rocking them, you don’t give them the pleasure. Keep things straightforward and on-point. The key word here: neutral.
Another way to game a narcissist boss or coworker? If you can stomach it, compliment them. Their ego is also their Achilles heel. As annoying as this may be, make them believe you are an ally.
You may also be able to entice a toxic person to alter their behavior by, as Dr. Malkin suggests, discreetly “nudging the narcissist.” That is, gently reminding them of the benefits of “consideration, collaboration, and respect.” Like, if teamwork is valued in your office and necessary for getting ahead, that will speak to a narcissist.
Here’s an example if you’re the boss and the narcissist is a valuable employee. Researchers at the University of Buffalo’s School of Management found that basing a bonus on team performance could force the narcissist to collab.
Now, say your colleague is too far gone for any of this to work. You may not have to worry about them in the future. “Severely disordered bosses and coworkers aren’t likely to retain their employment for long,” according to Dr. Malkin.
When the Narcissist in Your Life is Your Kid
Oof: What if the suspected narcissist in your life can’t be avoided—and shouldn’t be—because they are your young child? Act right now. If you do, your child can be helped.
While nature creates a narcissist, nurture can save one, according to Dr. Malkin, who believes one’s tendencies come from a “genetic blueprint”—nature. At the same time, he says a child’s score on the Narcissism Spectrum Scale (NSS), which he co-created, can be lowered or raised through nurture.
“The key childhood experience that pushes children too high or too low on the spectrum is always the same: insecure love,” he writes in his book. Dr. Malkin coined the term “echoist” for people too low on the NSS—they feel a need to make themselves as small as possible. Sometimes these people were abused by a narcissistic parent and fear becoming or seeming like a narcissist.
A drive toward narcissism can appear as early as age 3, according to Dr. Malkin. When parents only recognize an accomplished child, they risk encouraging the type of extroverted narcissism that involves the child turning outwardly “nasty” to those close to them. Or it may lead to an introverted form of narcissism that involves quiet resentment of those not paying enough attention to them.
As a parent, there are ways to help kids gain high self-esteem without it skewing narcissistic. One such strategy? Offering realistic feedback (rather than inflated praise) and encouraging a focus on growth (rather than a sense of superiority), according to a 2020 study published in Child Development Perspectives.
Another study on elevated narcissism in young people found that overprotective parents fed narcissistic traits. Being pampered caused “impaired autonomy,” and increased both grandiose and vulnerable narcissistic traits.
Dr. Malkin believes the key to raising a child who lands in a healthy place on the NSS is showing them that “they count as people,” regardless of accomplishments, and listening to and comforting a child. “Narcissists and echoists are made, not born,” he insists.
When the Narcissist in Your Life Is You
Allow Mental to get all Carrie Bradshaw for a minute: With all of this talk of narcissism everywhere, I had to wonder… Does anyone ever recognize themselves?
The answer is yes. In 2022, Vice reporter Sophie Wilson spoke with several of #NarcTok’s “self-aware narcissists,” who use the platform to dissect their past behaviors, validate victims of narcissistic abuse, and encourage those victims and other narcissists to seek mental health treatment.
#NarcTok celebrity Lee Hammock came to suspect his NPD status after his wife called him a narcissist in a heated argument. He reflexively called her one right back…but the precise word she’d chosen stuck with him enough that he looked up narcissistic personality disorder. “After researching the symptoms, I instantly knew that it was referring to me,” he wrote in Newsweek. Hammock went on to join a self-aware narcissist Facebook group and began therapy.
Not every narcissist who recognizes themselves wants to get help. Researchers behind a study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology expected to find that “the lack of self-insight” long associated with narcissism would mean that narcissists would have no insight into “the negative aspects of their personality or their reputation” (e.g., that they were arrogant, disagreeable, entitled).
Instead, the opposite was true. The narcissists they studied did recognize that others viewed them negatively over time, after a positive first impression deteriorated. Many of the narcissists described themselves as arrogant—they just saw that as more of a positive trait than those around them. And generally, they believed that others simply couldn’t see “the full magnitude of their likeability, intelligence, and attractiveness,” per the study.
“A disorder implies poor functioning, but there are plenty of successful people who are narcissistic and live happy lives,” says psychiatrist Ken Duckworth, M.D., the chief medical officer at the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). “If you’re fine with not having meaningful relationships, if it works for you on some level, you might do nothing. But I think empathy can be learned through group work and psychotherapy. So, I wouldn’t necessarily write off your life [if you want to change your patterns]. I don’t think you’re doomed if you want to work on the problem.”
If you’re reading this part of the story and see yourself, you probably want to work on it—as you should. Because narcissism hurts narcissists too. (And hey, isn’t that the perfect reason for a narcissist to seek help?)
To someone who has been hurt by a narcissist, this closing might sound like sympathy for the devil, but the life of a narcissist can be miserable. NPD accompanies comorbidities such as eating disorders and drug and alcohol abuse, according to numerous journal articles including those in the American Journal of Psychiatry and Substance Use & Misuse. “Comorbidity is the rule rather than the exception,” says Dr. Duckworth. “Narcissism travels with addiction, depression, and other mood disorders or other personality disorders.”
So, if people exiting your life have told you that you are self-centered, that you lack empathy, and that you weren’t willing to consider their experience, consider getting a therapist, urges Dr. Duckworth.
An NPD pro might administer personality tests to determine your diagnosis and design a treatment plan. While a straight-up “cure” isn’t likely, many experts believe a narcissist can reduce destructive behaviors. According to the Mayo Clinic, NPD can be managed with psychotherapy and medications for commonly co-existing mental health problems. Attacking this head-on can help the narcissist build rewarding relationships and learn to take criticism.
You can try to be better. And who knows? Maybe you’ll even be the best recovering narcissist ever.