Eric Barker is the author of Barking Up the Wrong Tree.
You must be tired of them. They’re everywhere. Narcissists. And if you think there are more of them than ever, you’re right. Research shows we are experiencing a narcissism epidemic.
In data from 37,000 college students, narcissistic personality traits rose just as fast as obesity from the 1980s to the present, with the shift especially pronounced for women. The rise in narcissism is accelerating, with scores rising faster in the 2000s than in previous decades.
(And as for selfies…well, do I really need to link to any research about narcissism and selfies? No? Thank you.)
Now, we all have a little narcissism in us and these days we have a lot more than we need around us.
Let’s learn more about what narcissism is, how to deal with narcissists—and even a bit about what to do if you feel you’re becoming one yourself.
You have entered the selfie-free zone. Let’s get to it…
What’s the Deal With Narcissism?
As Jean Twenge and W. Keith Campbell explain in The Narcissism Epidemic, it’s a myth that narcissism is just “high self-esteem” or that underneath it all narcissists are insecure and overcompensating.
Narcissists believe they really are that awesome—and you’re not. (The latter part doesn’t matter, narcissists don’t think about you much at all, frankly.)
How can you tell if someone is a narcissist? It’s easy; just ask them. Research shows narcissists feel so good about themselves they don’t mind admitting it.
And narcissism can be quite beneficial in the short term. They make fantastic first impressions. In job interviews and on first dates, narcissists get results. And in youth, being a narcissist makes you happier.
Narcissists are more likely to become leaders and narcissists who obsessively work hard are more likely to get promoted. But the stuff that works for them so well in the short term proves lethal in the long term.
That job interview is great but University of Pennsylvania professor Scott Barry Kaufman explains that after three weeks people regard narcissists as untrustworthy. And narcissists might become leaders, but they’re not good ones. And when prestige isn’t on the line, most narcissists don’t work that hard.
From The Narcissism Epidemic:
…college students with inflated views of themselves (who think they are better than they actually are) make poorer grades the longer they are in college. They are also more likely to drop out. In another study, students who flunked an introductory psychology course had by far the highest narcissism scores, and those who made A’s had the lowest.
From The Narcissism Epidemic:
A recent psychiatric study found that the biggest consequences of narcissism—especially when other psychiatric symptoms were held constant—was suffering by people close to them.
(To learn the four rituals neuroscience research says will make you happy, click here.)
So how do you deal with them? Here are five strategies from scientific research:
1) The Quick Answer: Don’t
I’m going to get grief for this being the first solution, but it is by far the best answer and one that we should all take to heart more often.
Narcissists lack empathy, they usually don’t work hard and in a few weeks to a few months they make the people around them miserable. And narcissism is very hard to change. So, if at all possible, just stay away.
Some will say, “But I’m smarter than they are. I can change them!” Stop it, now you’re being narcissistic.
If you dig ’80s movies, you might remember War Games. What did the computer realize about thermonuclear war? The only way to win was not to play.
What do rational people scream at the TV when watching haunted house movies? “GET OUT NOW!”
When there’s blood all over the living room, furniture is floating through the air and ghosts are speaking to you in Latin, smart people don’t prepare to battle the undead, they get out immediately and make an angry phone call to their realtor.
As M.I.T. negotiation professor John Richardson says: never start with, “How do I make this deal?” Start with, “Should this deal be made?” With narcissists, the answer is usually no. It’s not worth it.
(To learn how to be happier and more successful without being a narcissist, click here.)
O.K., before the Internet commenters tear me apart for the obvious answer of “Don’t deal with narcissists,” let’s move on.
There are plenty of times where we just don’t have a choice. You may have a narcissistic boss, co-worker or family member. Luckily, there are answers…
2) Kiss Up or Shut Up
Yeah, this isn’t a popular answer either. Sorry. But if you’re dealing with a narcissist and you’re in the less powerful position (like they’re your boss), there may not be a choice. At least not right now.
Clinical psychologist Al Bernstein recommends you kiss up to them or at least keep your mouth shut until you can get the heck out of there.
There is no way around this. If you want to communicate effectively with narcissists, you have to admire them, their achievements and their toys as much as they do. Typically, this won’t require any great effort. They’ll be more than happy to come up with reasons to congratulate themselves. All you have to do is listen and look interested.
There’s this concept called “narcissistic injury.” Pointing out a narcissist isn’t all they think they are can be like pulling the pin on a grenade. A grenade you have to see every day of your life.
Realize that narcissism is an identity, just like religion or politics. When you argue about it, people don’t fold or change their minds—they just hate you. And narcissists are among the most vindictive people you’ll ever meet.
You might reply, “But I’m right about them!” You may very well be. But that only makes the situation worse. Burst their narcissistic bubble and you will pay. Dearly.
And if you’re in the lower-power position in this relationship, as with an employer, well, you may have found a way to get away from them…along with two weeks’ severance.
Reject them and they’ll freak out. Act weak and they’ll try to victimize you. Expose them and they’ll hate you forever. (Trust me, I’ve tested all these personally—and in a single conversation.) It’s just not worth it.
(To learn how to improve your self-esteem without becoming a narcissist, click here.)
Alright, here’s where the rubber meets the road. If you can’t get away from them, and they don’t have power over you, how do you deal with a narcissist?
3) Know What You Want and Get Payment Up Front
Don’t expect fairness. They’re just about themselves, right? Well, O.K. then. Know what you want. (They will, trust me.)
And then get them to pay up front with whatever it is you need before they get what they need. Al Bernstein explains:
Never extend credit to, or accept promises from, a narcissist. As soon as they get what they want, they will be on to the next thing, forgetting whatever they said they would do for you. Sometimes they make promises they don’t intend to keep, but just as often, they merely forget. Either way, you should keep a ledger in your mind and make sure you get what they dangle in front of you before you give them what they want. With other people, this mercenary approach might seem insulting. Narcissists will respect you for it. Everything in their world is quid pro quo. They will rarely be offended by people looking out for themselves.
Dealing with a narcissist regularly is like having a pet tiger: You always have to be careful that one day he’s gonna see you as dinner. But if you don’t have a choice, negotiate hard. This is nobody to be win-win with.
Always reward behavior, never words. They get what they want when they do what you want.
Now I’ve been very negative toward narcissists (understandably), but they can be worked with and can even be good employees. Yes, really.
Why? Because they want something. They really need to look good. And if you can align your desires with their desires, you may find yourself with an unstoppable achievement machine.
From The Narcissism Epidemic:
One possibility is to set up a situation where acts of caring and kindness are aligned with admiration and success. In other words, show narcissists that they can get their narcissistic needs met by acting like decent, caring people.
Give them a way to be impressive if they do what they are told. This makes them much easier to deal with than lazy people, trust me. Just make sure you get what you want first.
(To learn how to negotiate from the FBI’s lead hostage negotiator, click here.)
But what if you’re not in a position to reward them with what they crave? How can you keep a rampaging narcissist in line?
4) Ask Them, “What Would People Think?”
Narcissists don’t feel guilt, only shame. They’re all about appearances, right?
If they believe something will hurt their reputation, they will think twice. Al Bernstein explains:
If you are in a position to advise, ask what people would think. Narcissists are not stupid; there are just things, like other people’s feelings, that they rarely consider. If you have their ear, don’t tell them how people might react; instead, ask probing questions. Narcissists are much more likely to act on ideas that they think they thought up themselves.
Emphasize community and use disappointment, rather than anger, to keep them in line. They want to look good. So help them look good by helping them do good.
(To learn an FBI behavior expert’s secrets for how to get people to like you, click here.)
This piece is about how to deal with narcissists…well, what if the narcissist is you? It’s an epidemic, remember? And if you’re not a narcissist, you might be infected. As the studies show, plenty of others have been recently.
So how do you avoid becoming a narcissist—or stop being one?
5) Be Dexter
We all have some narcissism in us. It’s natural. And narcissism may work for you now but, as we saw, the odds are very very much against it bringing you success, good relationships and happiness in the long term.
So how do you stop being a narcissist or make sure you don’t become one? You need to make sure you maintain empathy for others.
Stop trying to stand out, get attention and be so darn special. Al Bernstein says:
Narcissists will be further damaged by just about any situation in which they are treated as different from ordinary people.
It’s O.K. to be ordinary. (And if that concept terrifies you, you are already on the narcissistic side of things, so read this piece on empathy now.)
Problem is, overcoming narcissism is hard and takes a long time. And if you’re a hard-working narcissist, it may be bringing you enough rewards in the short term to feel like it’s a good idea for the long term.
What do you do then? Redirect your narcissism.
I offer you a new role model: Dexter. Yes, the serial killer who kills serial killers. (I know, Dexter is a psychopath not a narcissist but, jeez, work with me here, O.K.?)
Dexter has a problem—a serious problem, no doubt—but he tries to be good.
Dexter acts ordinary. He struggles to develop empathy. And he redirects his impulses to do things that benefit other people. (That’s where the comparison ends. I’m not telling you to kill anyone, O.K.?)
This attitude (sans chopping people up) can produce results.
From The Narcissism Epidemic: “[i]f you can’t stop feeding the ego, you can align your narcissism with behaviors that help the community.”
I’m sure a lot of narcissists run charities. And they get lauded, praised and admired. I’m O.K. with that kind of narcissist.
(To learn how to fight your own narcissism, click here.)
O.K., let’s round this up and get the final secret on how to deal with the me-me-me people…
Here’s how to deal with a narcissist:
- Don’t. Think haunted house. Get out of there first chance you can.
- Kiss Up or Shut Up. If they’re your boss or they have power over you, fighting makes it worse.
- Know What You Wantand Get Payment Up Front. Don’t assume they’ll play fair.
- Ask, “What Would People Think?” They want to look good. If they think they’ll look bad, they’ll behave.
- Be Dexter. If the dark side of The Force has you, channel your need to look awesome into helping others.
In the long run, narcissists almost always lose. We see plenty on TV, but those are the very few that got lucky. And, trust me, they’re not all happy.
Stay away if you can, otherwise you will be victimized by them or, even worse, you will become one of them. When I spoke to Stanford professor Bob Sutton, he told me his number one piece of advice to students was this: “When you take a job take a long look at the people you’re going to be working with—because the odds are you’re going to become like them, they are not going to become like you.”
And if you spend more time with good people you will become, um, good-er. Here’s Yale professor Nicholas Christakis:
We’ve shown that altruistic behavior ripples through networks and so does meanness. Networks will magnify whatever they are seeded with. They will magnify Ebola and fascism and unhappiness and violence, but also they will magnify love and altruism and happiness and information.
Every chance you get, surround yourself with people who are good to you. And be good to them.
Don’t fight narcissism. Starve it.
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Eric Barker is the author of Barking Up the Wrong Tree: The Surprising Science Behind Why Everything You Know About Success Is (Mostly) Wrong. Eric has been featured in the The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Wired and TIME. He also runs the Barking Up the Wrong Tree blog. Join his 240,000-plus subscribers and get free weekly updates here. This piece originally appeared on Barking Up the Wrong Tree.