Narcissists are everywhere you look (or at least, it can certainly feel that way). Whether they pop up during an armchair analysis of certain politicians, water-cooler talk about your unbearable boss, or speculation about why your partner or parent treats you so poorly, the pathologically self-absorbed tend to take up a lot of our attention—which is just how they like it.
What is a narcissist?
“Every one of us has a certain level of narcissism, little traits here and there,” says Fran Walfish, Psy.D., a Beverly Hills family and relationship psychotherapist and author of The Self-Aware Parent. “We like to look in the mirror; comb our hair; dress a certain way; and be acknowledged, seen, and valued.”
Walfish says there’s a spectrum of narcissistic behavior, with traits such as vanity on one end, and on the other, the clinical diagnosis of narcissistic personality disorder. The DSM-5 describes a person with NPD as showing a “pervasive pattern of grandiosity (in fantasy or behavior), need for admiration, and lack of empathy” in a number of different contexts.
“A person has to be missing that component in their personality where they reflect and are able to imagine the impact of their own behavior on other people,” Walfish explains.
If someone in your life possesses narcissistic traits but shows some signs of empathy, you’re in luck, because they may be able to see how their selfishness affects you and change for the good. A person with NPD won’t.
“In order for there to be change, initially there needs to be insight that there’s something wrong,” says Ramani Durvasula, Ph.D., a licensed clinical psychologist and professor of psychology at California State University, Los Angeles. “But they don’t think anything is wrong. They project onto the world and say, ‘This is the world’s fault,’ and they don’t take responsibility.”
Keep that fact in mind and you can learn to cope with their behavior toward you—or extract yourself altogether.
You can undo your narcissist upbringing.
Realizing that you were raised by a narcissistic parent can put a lot of your choices in life into perspective.
“It’s a really difficult way to grow up,” Durvasula says. “What ends up happening is that the child learns that their value comes from being in service to their parents or from some superficial quality they have: getting good grades, being attractive, being a good athlete.”
You may make it all the way to adulthood before coming to terms with the fact that you’ve shaped your identity to please a narcissist mother or father who is never going to respond with the unconditional love you need. And when you do finally begin to act upon what makes you happy and stop trying to please your narcissistic parent, they may not take kindly to it. But the important thing is to manage your expectations and seek approval and support elsewhere.
A parent who lacks empathy also fails to model this fundamental trait for their child.
“The way we learn to be empathic is by being empathized with,” Walfish says. This creates problems later on in the child’s relationships with others. “The kind of consistent or inconsistent responses the baby got—that is the way the child will expect responses from lovers in adulthood.”
What to do when your spouse or partner is a narcissist:
In Walfish’s clinical experience, having a narcissist parent greatly increases the likelihood that you’ll wind up in a romantic relationship with a narcissist.
“You’re used to having your feelings hurt by that person because they are repeatedly wounding your feelings but are not aware of it,” Walfish says.
It would be great to be able to go through a checklist of narcissistic behavior on your first date (How do they treat waiters? How much do they listen to you speak about your day? How obsessed are they with getting praised on social media?) and run for the hills if signs point to narcissism. And in her book, Should I Stay or Should I Go? Surviving a Relationship With a Narcissist, Durvasula has a more extensive quiz you might use to judge a partner’s behavior.
But in reality, most people don’t even realize they’ve got a narcissistic boyfriend or girlfriend until months or even years later. And that’s because they can be quite charming during courtship.
“Narcissists love to love-bomb,” Durvasula says. “It’s the big courtship. It’s the big gestures. It’s going on vacation two and a half weeks into the relationship, overtexting, giving big gifts. A lot of people think they’ve fallen into a fairy tale, and you can see how they can miss signs of narcissism.”
When a partner eventually turns their narcissistic behavior on you, it’s time to make some difficult decisions. After all, there is no research or clinical evidence that someone with narcissistic personality disorder can be treated.
“Is there any flexibility in that person to self-reflect, take a painful look within, and make some adjustments?” Walfish asks. If they’re willing to go to therapy, that can help answer that question. Someone with narcissistic personality disorder, on the other hand, will turn the blame for all problems right back on you.
“Throw your hands up in the air like you’re really confused and just say, ‘I’m puzzled. Why do you feel it’s my problem when you are saying A-B-C or when you’re doing A-B-C? Help me understand,'” she suggests. “If the person continues to rigidly hold the position that it’s all you and not them, you’ve got a problem.”
In her book and in her practice, Durvasula recognizes that sometimes, people won’t decide that breaking things off is their best option.
“What the decision requires is a painful look in the mirror,” she says. “What’s keeping you in? And be very honest about it. Because I’m going to be very cynical: Sometimes people might say, ‘I’m in this relationship because he’s hot and rich.’ As long as you know that and you realize that his idiotic, narcissistic behavior is the price of admission, you need to make your peace with that. But if you’re waiting for him to turn into Prince Charming, you’re screwed.”
How to deal with a narcissistic boss:
Compared to being the child or spouse of a narcissist, maybe being the employee of one doesn’t seem all that bad. But don’t discount the level of emotional and professional damage a narcissistic boss may do to you.
“We know that the workplace is probably one of the stressors that’s the most harmful to our health,” Durvasula says. “This person may actually have more power than anyone else because they’re running your professional life as well as your income—the things you need to live.”
The first thing Durvasula suggests you do when you recognize this behavior in a supervisor is to take a long, hard look at your company and decide whether you’ve got any shot at advancing. Narcissists can be very charming to those with power over them, so you can’t count on the higher-ups to ever recognize what you’re dealing with.
In order to survive, don’t be tempted to get even with them on social media or somewhere else where they can outmaneuver you. Instead, consider giving the narcissist what he or she most craves: “Compliment them. Tell them, ‘Your presentation was awesome,'” Durvasula advises. “But don’t go down the rabbit hole. Don’t do their unethical bidding. If something doesn’t feel right, don’t do it.”
Next, whether you want to leave your job or not, have your escape plan ready: Save emails and text screenshots in a hard copy or a non-work server. You want proof of the work you’ve done, the ideas that a boss may steal from you, empty promises made to you, and conflicts you have with them.
“One day, if your narcissistic boss decides to go really dark on you and shut you out of a server, you want all of that stuff accessible,” Durvasula says. “It may very well be that you just worked there six, 12, 18 months and you have very little to show for it on paper. That’s why it’s important that you have some work to show your next employer.”
Whether it’s your boss or someone else close to you showing signs of narcissistic behavior, you should consider getting individual, confidential therapy. “Don’t think that this is not taking a toll on your mental health,” Durvasula says—because while narcissists rarely change, you can always help yourself.