If you grew up with one or two narcissistic parents, then one of the biggest “OMG not again” experiences you can have is to end up in a workplace, social group (or country!) that has a narcissist in charge.
You thought you made it out, and now you’re “back there”.
You find yourself slipping back into old, familiar, claustrophobic patterns of panic and people pleasing. You know exactly what to do to “make it work”. Simultaneously, you hate yourself.
As a kid you told yourself that as a grown-up you’d be able to move on. You wouldn’t have to deal with this ever again. You’d be your own person, in charge of your own life.
Yet, the irony is that, since narcissists love love love having power over others, and they will aggressively fight for what they want, many DO end up in positions of power.
You might walk into a room one day and find that the leader you’re introduced to makes your stomach turn in very old and very familiar ways (and it’s not because of romantic butterflies).
When this happens, a few different things typically will come up.
1- All your unresolved fears from the past will surface.
Unfortunately, it’s not enough that you “grew up and moved on”. Whichever parts of you are inwardly still frozen in old patterns of fear, people-pleasing and beating up on yourself, they’ll get reactivated.
THIS by the way is a prime reason narcissists can have so much power over others. It’s not because they are all-powerful. Rather, it’s because for those of us who grew up with parents like this, they hook into old emotional patterns of powerlessness.
As a result, your brain may be telling you one thing about how to interact and what to say, but inwardly, your emotions are turning you to mush. The new narcissist in charge just pushed your inner 3-year old button. Emotionally, all you want to do is cry and grab your blankie.
2- There will be a lot of other people who don’t think things are quite that bad.
“He doesn’t mean it like that”. “I’m sure she really does care”. “It’s just the stress talking”. The scary reality is that, despite the many many popular psychology articles on narcissism, most people don’t realise how real it is. That is, until they are dramatically forced to confront it.
As a result, you may be the only person in the workplace who can accurately predict how screwed up your boss is going to behave. Meanwhile others poo poo it away as “it’s not too bad, really”.
What’s important to remember though is that nothing will change if you try to protect everyone else from the narcissist’s influence. As long as you stay the lone fighter, protecting everyone from the consequences of having a self-absorbed dinosaur(ette) in charge, it will be much too easy for management to blame you for making a big stink about nothing.
If you want the workplace to wake-up (and there is no guarantee it will) you need to let them suffer the dinosaur consequences to some extent. You also need to look out for your own well-being.
If and when other people start to see through the fog of charm and power and recognize something dinosaurilly disconcerting, that’s the moment to band together and take some action. Unfortunately, you can’t make them see. It takes time for people to put two and two together.
This by the way is another big reason narcissists can get a lot of power: many people refuse to see them for who they really are. Narcissism is a very uncomfortable reality. As a result, there are plenty of people who will tell themselves things aren’t that bad as a way to self-soothe.
Surely all parents love their children, even if they don’t necessarily show it, right?
Surely every person in charge of a charity is in that position because they want to aid humanity, right?
Surely every spiritual leader only has the best interests of others in mind, right?
Surely every person who wears yogapants sincerely means it when they wish you love and light, right?
And on, and on.
The reality of narcissists upsets many people’s worldviews. Like the day you learned Santa wasn’t real. Even if you’d slowly started to realise it for yourself, it’s still depressing, sad and disconcerting. It’s a shock, one you try your hardest to avoid.
3- You avoid your own anger, because you don’t want to be like a narcissist.
If you were raised by a narcissist, then you know how out of control they can be with their anger. They either blame others and throw their anger around, or they will freeze you out for weeks because “you did something wrong”. Whether they (emotionally) hit you or freeze you out, their anger gets ugly, really ugly.
So naturally, you don’t want to be like that! The only problem is, you’ve got your anger too (even if you want to write me right now to tell me you are “above” any feelings of anger – hint: check below!).
Without any healthy modeling of how to process anger, you were left with just 2 obvious options: take it out on others, or suppress it and try to pretend it’s not there. Most of us started off doing the latter. You associate anger with bad behaviour, you don’t want to be that way, so you make your anger wrong all together and try to cut it off completely.
There are a lot of spiritual paths by the way which encourage this anger squashing. It’s not healthy, because the anger is still there, but now it’s eating away at you from the inside. In this way, you’ve created a little tyrant on the inside bashing away at you.
If you want to deal with narcissists attacking you on the outside, you have to come to terms with the ways in which you are so afraid of them, or so afraid of being like them, that you’d rather take all that anger and beat up on yourself instead. Guess what, doing that only gives a narcissist more power: you’re effectively doing the work for them.
So this is another reason narcissists gain power: they are in cahoots with our inner attackers. The more outrageous a narcissist behaves, the more they will fuel anger in others. When this anger doesn’t have a healthy outlet, it will end up beating away at us on the inside. We effectively swallowed a Trojan Horse. All that unfairness and danger and the anger it creates, now has a way to attack us from the inside.
As a result, you may feel ill, or paralysed or plain bad. Either way, the anger is not being channeled into righteous and productive action.
4. Narcissists are very very good at finding other people’s wounds.
You could say they are the Sherlock Holmes of triggering your pain. They will also – if they are leaders – provide you with a plan for your pain: follow them! Do what they tell you! Fight the common enemy! Kill the Jews!
Narcissists have a lifetime of practice figuring out how to manipulate others. What is the best way to manipulate and control someone? Find the backdoor entrance to their psyche. They will crawl up into the armpit of your subconscious and start energizing things there that you didn’t even know you had. You didn’t know you had them because – typically – these are the parts of you that you either judge and don’t like or that are so painful that you never processed them.
How do you take away this power they have over you? Consciously heal your own wounds: look at them, feel the pain, learn to move through those experiences instead of keeping them locked inside like unstable ammunition.
5 – They are utterly confusing, but present themselves like they’re clear as day.
A narcissist has no real coherent plan. All they do is decide what they want right now, and what it will take to get there. If they want to blame you, they’ll find a way to make that happen, even if it contradicts what they told you yesterday.
If they want more power, they will find a way to make it happen. They may suck up to you one day, put you down the next, befriend the enemy, change a deal made. You may be scratching your head thinking: “What’s their plan? Surely, they must have some deep and intelligent framework that they are operating on?”
While you’re spending lots of energy trying to figure out their “coherent philosophy”, they’re actually operating from a toddler place of “want more food now” and throwing around all kinds of strategies (even contradictory ones) to see which one will get them what they want. That is, until finally, yay, more cheese for their macaroni!
Meanwhile, you’re scratching your head wondering why they are now pro what they seemed to be against, and blaming you for the same thing they were praising someone else for. While you’re digging for their deeper truth, they’re on to their next goal, ketchup!
This is another reason narcissists can get an insane amount of power. Even if they are being completely erratic, most people around them will assume that surely they have some kind of meaningful plan. This is because, the reality of a narcissist (and how superficial they are) is just too outrageous for a sane brain to comprehend.
Secondly, for all that narcissists lack in sanity, they make up for by projecting an unshakable sense of confidence. Emotionally, they come across like they know everything about everything. That’s because, on some level, they believe in their fantasy personality as “the one who knows where it’s all at”.
6 – They will say what others won’t.
Better the devil that you know, than the devil that you don’t, right? Depending on the type of narcissist you are dealing with (covert narcissists -conversely- are very cunning at saying the “right” thing because they know it’s what people expect) overt narcissists can come across as “brutally honest”.
They will say what others may think but would never express out loud. In their own aggressive way, they may come across as being very transparent. “Yes, he hates gays, but at least he doesn’t pretend otherwise!””Yes, so she thought the presentation was awful and she was unnecessarily rude about it, but at least she didn’t just smile and nod politely!”.
If you’re tired of people saying one thing, and believing something else, a narcissist may seem like a breath of fresh air initially. Finally, someone who speaks their mind! The problem is though, their mind can easily change (see point 5) AND who’s to say they are actually sharing all of it?
In many ways, a narcissist will test boundaries, see what they can get away with. Chances are, once they were publicly able to go THIS far, they will take it even further next time. What’s more, since their strategy is typically based on an emotional desire for more power (whatever the cost) they will amplify whatever strategy works. So yelling worked? Great, yell louder!! So excluding people worked? Great, exclude even more people!
7. Whatever it is, it’s never enough.
There is psychological research that shows that – as people – there are a lot of things we can get used to as long as it’s done to us gradually. We are able to take a psychological step that is “a bit of a stretch, but still possible to defend”. From that new, stretched place, we can again take a step. We’ll defend our own shift afterwards and pretend we never shifted at all. “Oh, but I’ve always done/thought that!”
Why do I bring this up here? Well, a cunning narcissist leader is a master at stretching people. They will do something outrageous yet still defensible and when people have accepted that as the new status quo, they will force another outrageous yet defensible step. This is how, one step at a time, a group of people can shift into a way of thinking and way of life that they never otherwise would have thought themselves capable of.
If you grew up in a narcissistic family, you know this. If you have been in a long-term relationship with a narcissist, you know this. If you’ve worked under a narcissistic boss, you saw how they slowly but surely poisoned the work atmosphere.
It never starts with an atomic bomb, it starts with inappropriate fireworks. But, they’re just fireworks, right? Let’s not make a big deal out of it. Let’s get some extra strong earplugs… Oh, they’ve opened up a shooting range in the canteen? Well, I guess it’s good we already had those earplugs, haha! Look, they’re just blowing off some steam, I’m sure they won’t take it any further… Wait, why is there a grenade hidden under the palm tree as part of the easter egg hunt? They ran out of other decorations? Ah, that’s plausible…
There comes a point when everyone’s involved. You bought the fireworks, because you’re the assistant in charge of supplies (just doing your job!). You were re-organising the canteen and heard some talk of a shooting range, but didn’t think that would actually happen. Then it did, but these are all you co-workers! You know them! They’d never do anything bad.
Before you know it, you’ve gotten involved. You didn’t mean to, but now you need to defend the “new you” to yourself. Owning up and saying: “I got swept up in the madness, I’m sorry! I’m going to back out of this now” that’s hard, really hard. What if instead you can buy into a new patriotic myth? Something about militarism being just a symbolic expression of a need for more self-esteem and practical action in the workplace? Before you know it, you’re spreading the rhetoric too.
It’s easy to think: I would never do THAT. I would never go THAT FAR. I would never participate in THAT and yet, if students can do awful things to each other as part of hazing rituals, if anyone can give in to peer pressure, if any of us care about belonging and what others think… we may do something we never thought we’d do. Catching craziness early matters. It’s easier to apologize for blowing smoke up someone’s ass, than it is to apologize (to their family) for blowing their head off.
So, what can you do?
It starts with taking care of you.
It starts with addressing your own fears: the ones that are currently destabilising you and making it impossible to think straight, sleep well, or take any meaningful action.
To halt a narcissist’s power on the outside, we need to loosen their grip on us on the inside.Click to tweet
1. This means identifying and healing the root of your fears.
The root of your fears is not the narcissist you’re dealing with right now. Yes, the person in your face right now is scary, but, chances are, they are activating old fears and experiences that were going on when you were little. Dig there. Start there.
2. Take your focus off of trying to convince everyone else.
It’s mostly a waste of time. Instead, identify a long-term survival strategy: if and when other people do wake up, you want to still be standing to be able to join them in assertive action. (Alternatively: connect with people outside of your immediate social circle who are already convinced)
3. Connect with your anger.
Hit pillows. Scream in pillows. Clean up all the “anger is bad” stuff that you’ve internalised and that is blocking your energy. If you want to take assertive action then you’ll need your anger.
What you don’t need is a big implosion, or spontaneously bursting into flames because you’ve been holding in your feelings for so long.
4. I’ll say it again: “Consciously heal your own wounds: look at them, feel the pain, learn to move through those experiences instead of keeping them locked inside like unstable ammunition.”
5. Stop trying to figure out their “deeper strategy”.
Stop feeling into their message (they are emotional manipulators). Instead, record the facts: what did they do, what did they say? Don’t let a narcissist confuse you.
Don’t give them control over their own story. Their story is erratic, incomplete and full of bull shit. Yet, left up to them, they will somehow “talk a banana straight” (as we say in Dutch) and find a way to make their latest version of events seem plausible.
6. Use what you know and what else you can learn about narcissism as the best predictor of their behaviour.
After all, it’s all about them. Narcissists are not that confusing, not really. They are just so outrageous that it’s hard to accept how they really operate.
They are trying to further their own agenda for status / power / influence. They do this by projecting an image of success. This is what truly matters to them, everything else is just a tool.
When you understand what they want most, you understand how to influence them: their inner decision process is always along these lines: will this get me more status / influence / make me look good? Every narcissist has their own specific brand of this of course, but that is their weak spot.
They won’t do something intuitive and unexpected to serve the common good, their ultimate agenda is always to serve themselves. This means that when you accept who they are, and you present them with two options, you should be able to accurately predict which one they’ll pick, every single time.
That’s the power you can have: you can be one step ahead of them. What you can’t do is make them change what they base their decisions on.
So you can’t make them invest in equality for the sake of equality. You can make them invest in equality if they believe that doing so will improve their social status and power.
You can’t make them come up with a truly decent plan. You can present a decent plan to them in a way that makes them look like a genius, let them take the credit, swallow your pride and rejoice for having influenced them in the best way possible.
Sometimes, you can also expose them. You can lure them into a juicy trap, something that is so tempting to them (but so clearly despicable to others) that they will “out” themselves in front of a group. They can get so caught up in the bling bling of the status-increasing possibility in front of them, that they will temporarily forget to calculate how this will make them look to others.
You can also wait for them to out themselves and then ask an innocent question that highlights that fact: “So, from what you just said, I understand that since it’s obviously very important that you personally* represent our company at the televised event – the one with the mayor and other important people- we will unfortunately have to cancel the charity event coming Friday, right? Would you like me to call everyone or just send a group email to let the volunteers and women from the women’s shelter know?” (and yes, that is a “based on a true story” example).
*in this example, there were plenty of other people who could have been a good representative at the televised event. It was not necessary to cancel the charity event. Yet, the narcissist in question literally pushed everyone and everything out of the way so that they could meet the mayor and be on t.v. … Just sayin’.
When you’re dealing with a narcissist, you have to master your own “training circle” first.
This clip from the movie “The Mask of Zorro” explains that concept really well. Zorro – the pupil – in this clip can’t wait to run out and get retribution. With his current skill set and uncontrolled rage, that would mean getting himself killed. To be effective, he needs to train within literally a small circle of influence first. He needs to master himself and his own issues first. To be able to challenge his opponent, he needs to transform.
In dealing with a narcissist, there’s no point running out there all righteous and brave and then getting blasted to bits. You need to be able to stay standing in the face of everything they will throw at you. When you can do that, you can challenge them.
It’s not fair, but it is what it takes (thankfully you don’t need to be able to do push-ups though!)