It's hard not to be affected when you observe a true narcissist—a person with narcissistic personality disorder. The experience is visceral: You feel a mixture of helplessness, disgust, anger, surprise, and, depending on the situation, embarrassment or disappointment. You feel these to your core.
I was recently speaking with a friend who said she was so affected by seeing a narcissistic person in action that she felt hatred. She hated having that feeling, but it was there. This friend is one of the most kind and caring people you'll meet, but narcissism cuts through kindness and virtue like nothing else.
What should the rest of us do when we witness the lack of empathy, arrogance, need for admiration, grandiosity, excessive blaming, and braggadocio that comes with narcissism? What's the best way to take care of ourselves?
The classic way to help ourselves when we are feeling a strong emotion is to talk about it, and if possible, address it with the person who's upsetting us. This is helpful and healing in many situations, but true narcissists don't care how you feel. If you discuss your feelings with them, it will be unlikely to help your rage, your helplessness, or your disgust. Worse, your sharing might backfire. Years ago I confronted a narcissist (whom I cared for) with firm and honest sharing. I spent hours crafting a balanced and thoughtful response. I shared it from my heart and was mindful of their feelings and mental state. In response, I received a barrage of blame and anger. It was a surprise considering the bravery it took to confront the person.
So what's the best way to respond to a narcissist? Here are five tips.
1. Remember the strength of perspective.
Perspective means seeing the bigger picture. You cannot control or change the other person, but you can take control and impact change for yourself. Ask yourself what matters most in the situation. A narcissist is skilled at reeling you in, getting you into “their” world, their stories, and their perceptions. Try to see this as soon as you can and then step back to look at the bigger picture. He or she is one person among 7.1 billion. Why give this one person power over your feelings?
2. Look at your signature strengths.
What are your highest, most energizing personality qualities? Identify them and use them. Set out a plan to use each of your top five character strengths to cope the next time you interact with a narcissist. How can you use your strengths to take care of yourself?
3. Avoid the toxicity.
Avoiding problems and difficult situations is a hallmark contributor to many problems—for example, avoiding situations you are anxious about generally makes anxiety worse. But in the case of toxicity, exposure to the fumes can bring you to your knees in a coughing fit, so don’t go where the fumes are. Use your character strength of self-regulation to manage your impulse to be around or watch the narcissist. Use your character strength of prudence to spend your time wisely doing something that is non-toxic.
4. Use the narcissist to your own benefit.
Ask yourself what character strength is the narcissist expressing or not expressing that bothers you? What bothers you most about them? Is it that they are underplaying their fairness or kindness? Overplaying their perseverance or spirituality? Not giving the least bit of attention to humility? Chances are that the strength(s) they are overplaying or underplaying are very important to you. At the VIA Institute, we refer to these as character strength “hot buttons," or sensitive areas that especially bother us when we perceive someone is out of balance. By bringing your hot buttons into the sphere of your awareness, you grow in self-knowledge, and you can use this knowledge as you consider the conflicts and problems you face.
5. Sharpen your perceptions of others’ behaviors.
When dealing with someone who is high in traits of narcissism, but not living with narcissistic personality disorder, it can be useful to place the individual’s behavior in the context of strengths overuse and underuse. This helps you maintain a lens for viewing the person. But for a full-blown narcissist, in whom deep patterns of unhealthy cognition-affect-behavior are rooted, the perspective of overuse and underuse of strengths will probably fall flat. A chronic lack of empathy cannot be viewed simply as underusing kindness or social intelligence, and blatant grandiosity, quick temper, and stunning need for admiration cannot be described as simply underusing self-regulation or perspective. I suggest this requires a different interpretation altogether—misuse of character strengths. (See my post on Gone Girl for a discussion of strengths misuse.) Is the narcissist using his or her character strengths to intentionally manipulate or harm others? Research demonstrates that people can use perseverance or creativity to negative ends or for malevolent purposes. Other character strengths can similarly be deployed to serve a narcissist’s agenda of building themselves up and disregarding others.
Choose one of the five strategies above as a starting point and use it to begin taking care of yourself. Even though the narcissist won’t care about any of this, you can.