At some point, you’ve probably been forced to confront someone you would call a narcissist. But the term means more than just having a big ego. Actual narcissism is a real personality disorder in which people feel overly important, require admiration, and lack empathy for others. It’s not that uncommon —about 6 percent of Americans show signs of the disorder. Since it can be incredibly challenging to deal with a narcissist, Cosmopolitan.com has rounded up some expert wisdom to help get you through any future encounters with your own sanity intact.
1. Narcissists have zero tolerance for shame. They’re so sensitive to issues of feeling inadequate, insecure, and shameful that they don’t typically allow themselves to experience shame. If someone criticizes them, shows disappointment, or even asks for something they don’t feel equipped to offer, “they will either shut down completely and get distant, avoidant, and pouty, or they will overcompensate and become critical or hostile,” explains psychotherapist Wendy Behary, author ofDisarming the Narcissist.
2. The fragile, insecure core of a narcissist has roots in childhood. Narcissism is thought to be a mixture of nature and nurture, according to the Mayo Clinic. There may be a genetic component, but the way a child is brought up has a lot to do with it. There are two main routes to creating an adult narcissist: As young children, they might have missed out on what it means to be cherished and loved unconditionally, so they don’t feel comfortable in the emotional realm. This can lead to them spoiling relationships with obnoxious behavior or acting like a victim if they’re being blamed. The other way is through being overly indulged: “You can have the purely spoiled, entitled narcissist who was just given the message as a child that they could have whatever they want when they wanted,” Behary says. A new study released just this month of 565 children and their parentsconfirms the view that making kids believe they are overly special can lead to adult narcissism.
3. Burdensome expectations were often placed on them at a very early age. They might have been expected to perform at the highest level or be overly responsible for a parent or sibling. So as adults, “they’re constantly trying to prove themselves by being a showoff or the center of attention,” Behary says. “It’s all in the name of trying to win approval through performance rather than just being.”
4. Narcissists are fueled by the desperate need to be superior. They may react with contempt to anyone who is perceived to have something they lack. “If someone else is one up, they are automatically one down,” says expert Dr. Sandy Hotchkiss, a therapist and author ofWhy Is It Always About You: The Seven Deadly Sins of Narcissism. “It’s not like I can be good and you can be good. It’s, ‘I’m better and you’re worse.'”
5. Narcissists tend to engage in grandiose thinking to insulate themselves from their inner emptiness. “They may name-drop or have best this or that, and they want you to know it,” Dr. Hotchkiss says. They indulge an inflated view of themselves that doesn’t necessarily correspond to reality, so they may exaggerate their achievements and talents, and expect you to be impressed even if they’re not all that.
6. A sense of entitlement lies at the core of narcissistic behavior. They feel they are deserving in situations without regard to other people. “Entitlement is a way to bypass their having to feel disappointed or vulnerable because they’ve asked for something and didn’t get it,” explains Dr. Craig Malkin, author ofRethinking Narcissism and an instructor of psychology at Harvard Medical School. When an extremely entitled narcissist also exhibits manipulative and exploitative behavior, that’s the most troubling combination.
7. Narcissists tend to ignore appropriate boundaries. It may be up to you to make sure you’re not being taken advantage of by enforcing boundaries that you establish. “It’s a very, very important strategy,” Behary says. “If someone’s being overly aggressive or selfish, and you have a sturdy sense of yourself, say, ‘This conversation is over, you can’t talk to me like that.'” Other suggestions: Don’t pick up every phone call and keep the ones you do pick up short.
8. Narcissists respond best to empathic validation when being confronted. “Affirm the relationship first before you share anything that doesn’t feel right,” Dr. Malkin advises. “For example, if it’s someone you’re dating, say to them: ‘I care about you a lot, so when you don’t listen to what I’m saying, I feel like I’m nothing in your eyes,’ instead of, ‘Why don’t you ever listen to me?'”
9. Narcissists may be motivated to change if there is a meaningful consequence to their bad behavior. Consider how much it would matter to them if you walked away from the relationship. “Don’t necessarily threaten them,” Behary says, “but lay it down as a solid prediction for what might happen if they don’t take their behavior seriously — if they don’t stop and become more responsible about the way they’re hurting someone.” It’s not a matter of giving someone an ultimatum in an aggressive way, but rather calmly and rationally expressing the stakes if the person continues to behave that way. If the consequences are high enough, they might start to reevaluate their actions.
10. Narcissists are emotionally stuck at a toddler’s age. “It helps to think of a narcissist as being emotionally 2 or 3 years old, like a tantrumming child,” Dr. Hotchkiss says. Adds Behary: “They’re just putting on a show. They’re trying to get under your skin to evoke a reaction.” As long as you’re not in any danger, your own tolerance levels and non-negotiable values will help you dictate which battles to pick. But you might not want to go after every little thing. All the experts agree: Sometimes you just have to take the high road.