By Eric Barker, author of Barking Up the Wrong Tree: The Surprising Science Behind Why Everything You Know About Success Is (Mostly) Wrong
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 Twenge and 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 UPenn 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.
…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.
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 more about the science of a successful life, check out my bestselling book here.)
So how do you deal with them? Here are 5 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 80’s 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 MIT 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.)
Okay, 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?