You know the type. Needlessly cruel and they think they’re better than everyone else. Always one-upping people. If you’ve been to Timbuktu, they’ve been to Timbukthree.
Some of them almost reach “Talented Mr. Ripley” proportions and exhibit such bad behavior it makes your eyes go wide like a silent movie actor. Calling them a “friend” requires substantial creativity but – sadly — they’re a part of your life. (No, you can’t kill them with your mind. It doesn’t work. I’ve tried).
That said, we get a lot wrong about narcissists. And what we don’t know can help a great deal…
In my new book Plays Well With Others I dive deep into the research on narcissism and provide the answers we need on not only how to deal with them – but how to, in some cases, actually help make them better people. That means a lot less grief for you. So below is an excerpt to help get you started.
This is just a taste. There’s much, much more in the book (and awesome bonuses for preordering.) Any retailer and any version of the book qualifies for the bonuses. Grab a copy at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Books A Million, Indiebound or Bookshop.
Alrighty, let’s get to it…
The data show, on average, for every ten friends you gain, you’ll also get a new enemy. Oh, and the old expression “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” isn’t true. Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler found that the jerks in your life have their own jerks, and you’d find their jerks to be pretty jerky as well. But unless you’re Batman talking about the Joker, an enemy generally isn’t the most problematic person in your life. So who is?
“Frenemies” are often worse than enemies. Julianne Holt-Lunstad, a psychology professor at BYU, found that frenemies (the formal designation is “ambivalent relationships”) increase anxiety and drive your blood pressure through the roof—even more than true enemies do. Why are frenemies more stressful than enemies? It’s the unpredictability. You know what to expect from enemies and supportive friends—but with those ambivalent ones you’re always on edge. And that’s the reason Holt-Lunstad found that the number of frenemies correlated with depression and heart disease over time. But does that really make frenemies worse than enemies? Yeah, because, believe it or not, ambivalent friends make up half our relationships. And studies find that we don’t see them any less often than supportive friends.
Now sometimes frenemies are merely people we don’t “click” with, but other times it’s because they’re narcissists. As physicist Bernard Bailey quipped, “When they discover the center of the universe, a lot of people will be disappointed to discover they are not it.” What the heck is wrong with these people? Narcissism is when you stop trying to soothe your insecurities by relying on people and instead turn to an imaginary self where you are superior.
We all have fantasy lives where we’re rich and awesome and admired. That’s human. And we all have dreams of our enemies being crushed beneath our boots, humiliated in the town square, and tortured mercilessly until… Okay, maybe that’s just me. As Dr. Craig Malkin points out, the distinction is, we enjoy our dreams—but narcissists are addicted to their dreams. Most of us find strength in others; they find it only in themselves. And that lack of empathy is central to the disorder. For narcissists, “getting ahead is more important than getting along.” And as for “a friend in need”? To a narcissist, a friend in need is simply a weak person.
So what’s the best way to deal with a narcissist? The answer is simple: don’t. Say “MEEP-MEEP” and sprint away Road Runner-style as fast as you can. The first-line recommendation of professionals is consistent; we just usually don’t want to do it. But what if “no contact” isn’t an option? Or you really believe this frenemy can be redeemed?
If they have full-blown NPD (narcissistic personality disorder), forget it. I’d sooner tell you to do your own appendectomy than try and change a clinical narcissist. Guess how well therapy works on them? Often a grand total of not at all. They frequently have “negative treatment outcome”—they get worse. It’s well documented that “countertransference” is a big problem in therapy with narcissists. Translation: they even manipulate the professionals who try to treat them. And what you’ll have to do to contend with them will damage you for other relationships.
But if they’re subclinical, there’s a shot. We’re going to use what are called “empathy prompts.” Narcissists have trouble with empathy, but the research shows it’s not because they have zero empathy; it’s more like their empathy muscle is weak. More than a dozen studies show it’s possible to activate that weak muscle in lower-level narcissists and, with time, strengthen it. But it’s important to remember here that what we’re doing is emotional, not cognitive.
Wagging a finger at a narcissist, telling them what they did wrong and what you want is just instructing them how to more effectively manipulate you. The goal is to emotionally scooch yourself into their identity. This involves critical feeling, not critical thinking.
(If you’re enjoying this, preorder the book.)
What’s great is that empathy prompts are both litmus test and treatment. If the narcissist doesn’t respond, they’re probably past the clinical threshold. (The next step involves garlic and a stake through the heart.) But if they are affected, you can help them improve.
So how do we bring out the best in “bad” people? We’ll attack from three angles:
The study “Attenuating the Link Between Threatened Egotism and Aggression” found emphasizing similarity actually has a bigger effect on narcissists than non-narcissists. Why? Because there’s some very clever psychological judo built into this angle. The researchers wrote, “This manipulation would also capitalize on narcissists’ weakness—self-love. Narcissists love themselves, and if someone else is like them, how can they hurt that other person?” And the result? “Narcissistic aggression was completely attenuated, even under ego threat, when participants believed they shared a key similarity with their partner.” And it doesn’t take much either. Merely telling a narcissist that they shared a birthday or the same fingerprint type had an effect. Did you know we’re both O+ blood type? Maybe you want to stop stabbing me in the back now. (No, don’t actually say that.)
You have to be careful here because weakness can make a predator pounce. But that’s also what makes this a good litmus test: if they move to exploit, they may be too far gone. If they soften, there’s hope. Two critical points while executing this: voice the importance of the relationship to you and reveal your feelings. Showing anger will backfire, but disappointment is surprisingly effective. Next time the jerk says something jerky respond: “That hurt my feelings. Is that what you intended?” If they can be saved, they’ll backpedal.
Just like similarity, this method is actually more powerful with narcissists than regular people. Researchers analogized it to alcohol: if you’re not a regular drinker, booze has a bigger effect. And your narcissist isn’t accustomed to empathy, so when it hits, it can hit a lot harder. Remind them about family, friendship, and the connections you have. Their default setting isn’t empathy, so you just need to kick that back into gear. And if you get a positive response with any of these, take a lesson from dog training: positive reinforcement. Reward them for it.
They’re not going to change in one big moment of Freudian realization. This isn’t a Disney film, and giving the Grinch a big hug isn’t going to instantly turn him into a sweetheart. This can be a painstaking, thankless process, but for someone you care about, it can be worth it.
It helps to remember they’re suffering. Rarely seems like it, but they are. Being an addict to your dreams is a curse. Narcissism is “highly comorbid with other disorders,” which is a fancy way of saying these people have more issues than Vogue. They suffer from higher rates of depression, anxiety, chronic envy, perfectionism, relationship difficulties, and last, but certainly not least, suicide. When people suffer from depression, anxiety, or borderline personality disorder, we tend to feel sympathy, but with narcissism we often say they’re just “bad.” That’s like feeling sorry for people with tuberculosis but saying those with meningitis are a bunch of jerks. Narcissism shows a heritability of 45–80 percent, with at least two studies pointing to genetic underpinnings. No, your frenemy is not nice. But it’s important to remember it may not be their fault.
But what do you do if they are clinical-level and you can’t MEEP-MEEP? The final option is the two Bs: boundaries and bargaining. Basically, you need to aim for the opposite of a deep friendship — a totally transactional relationship. First, establish boundaries. What will you no longer tolerate? And what will you do if they violate those boundaries? Be firm and consistent but not mean. Next is bargaining. It’s Let’s Make a Deal time. (Ignore that smell of brimstone.) Focus on win-win. Narcissists will often play ball if you have something they want. Make sure they pay in advance and always price above market. Judge actions, not intentions. A final good move that clinical psychologist Albert Bernstein recommends when they’re angling for something dishonest is to ask, “What will people think?” They may not feel guilt, but they do feel shame, and narcissists are very concerned about appearances…
Okay, that’s enough excerpting for now. (I’d love to give you more but I’d also love to not have my publisher sue me.)
Rest assured there is much more in the book. We’re not just going to cover narcissists and people who have more red flags than a matador – we’ll also learn how to create love, revitalize love, kill loneliness and build community.