How to handle a narcissist

Jane Murphy / 17 February 2016

Is someone you know full of their own self-importance and apparently dead-set on making you feel unworthy and insecure? You could be dealing with a narcissist.



Most of us know one or two. They're the people who insist on telling you how well they're doing, how busy they are and how everything and everyone else just can't meet their exacting standards. They make the rest of us feel like we'll never quite match up – and we tend to come away from each encounter feeling just a little bit down and deflated. 

But – whisper it – narcissism is often just a mask for insecurity. Learn to recognise this in others, and you'll be well on your way to coping with them more effectively.

Related: Are you your own worst critic?

How to spot a narcissist

So how do you know you're faced with a text-book narcissist? 'For someone to be classified as a narcissist, they would need to display a pervasive pattern of grandiosity, a need to be admired and, crucially, a lack of empathy,' explains integrative psychotherapist Hilda Burke (hildaburke.co.uk/).

'Of course, we can all exhibit narcissistic behaviour occasionally – but to be clinically described as a narcissist, five or more of the following behaviours need to be present:

  • a grandiose sense of self-importance
  • a preoccupation with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty or ideal love 
  • a belief that he/she is special and unique and can only be appreciated and understood by similar types
  • a need for excessive admiration
  • a sense of entitlement
  • exploitation of others for their own gain
  • lack of empathy and unwillingness to recognise or identify with the feelings and needs of others
  • envy of others, alongside the belief that others envy them
  • arrogance and haughty behaviours.'

Who's really insecure here?

So the trick is to spot hidden insecurities in others, as well as pay attention to your own feelings. If someone is constantly bragging about their achievements and sense of importance, they may well be trying to convince themselves of their own worth first and foremost. And if you're not normally an insecure person but certain individuals make you feel that way, it's likely they're projecting their own insecurities on to you.

One interesting point to note: contrary to popular belief, people who over-use first person singular pronouns such as 'I' and 'me' aren't necessarily displaying narcissistic tendencies, according to a recent study at the University of Arizona. Researchers could find no association between pronoun use and narcissism: the significance lies in the overall sense of what someone is saying, rather than the individual words they use.

So why do some people turn out to be narcissists? 'The root cause of narcissism, at least in psychoanalytic circles, is attributed to the failure of the individual's mother to accept the child as a separate entity,' explains Hilda Burke. 'Their upbringing will have been strongly defined by the mother's intrusiveness in all areas of their lives.'

How to manage the relationship with a narcissist

More than half the battle lies in realising you're dealing with a narcissist. 'It's hard to build a friendship with a narcissist as they are hyper-sensitive to anything that might be perceived as criticism,' says Hilda Burke.

'They will tend to either devalue or idealise you – both of which can be difficult to deal with. Narcissists find it hard to express remorse and gratitude because the former implies some sort of personal defect and the latter indicates a kind of neediness, which threatens their own sense of highly independent self.'

Do remember that all the bragging, bossiness and bravado is really just a cover for the narcissist's own insecurities. 'If you bear that in mind at all times, you'll find it much easier to show tolerance towards them,' Hilda Burke adds.

And recognising the kind of person you're dealing with will make you far less sensitive to their unkind words or criticism. There's no point getting upset or attempting to play mind games here. Basically, you just need to let all their nonsense wash over you.

Finally, can a narcissist ever change their behaviour for the better? It's certainly a possibility, according to recent studies from the University of Surrey.

Researchers found that narcissists do possess the physical capacity to empathise with someone else's distress – suggesting they're at least capable of forming healthy, mutually supportive relationships. But this is probably something that needs professional intervention, in the form of tailored therapy or treatment.

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