Snake in the Grass
Monday, 22nd October 2018 at 8:46 am
There are plenty of obvious narcissists, whose grandiosity, self-involvement, sarcasm and cynicism reveal them to the world, but these aren’t the ones you really need to worry about, writes psychologist Adam Blanch.
There have been a couple of questions come in about how to deal with a narcissist in the office. It’s a tough one, that almost everyone faces at some time. To be honest, there are no easy answers. Narcissism is an exaggerated version of a normal feature of the human condition and sits across a spectrum ranging from healthy self-concern to pathological self-obsession that manifests in a few different ways. An earlier article talks more fully about the different presentations of it, so for this article I’m going to concentrate on the one that causes the most angst amongst others – malignant narcissism.
In his book “Malignant Self-Love”, author and self-confessed narcissist Sam Vaknin defines it as: “(A) lifelong pattern of traits and behaviors which signify infatuation and obsession with one’s self to the exclusion of all others and the egotistic and ruthless pursuit of one’s gratification, dominance and ambition.”
It’s as good a description as I’ve seen, particularly the bit about dominance and ambition. The reality is that somewhere between 0.5 and 1 per cent of the population suffer from clinical Narcissistic Personality Disorder, and they crave power as a way of overcoming their essential psychological wound of being powerless, so the chances of meeting one in the management level of your work are very high.
People often fail to recognise a malignantly narcissistic colleague or boss because they expect them to display obvious delusions of grandeur, but malignant narcissists learn to keep these to themselves. Malignant narcissists are quite charming and keep their behaviour well inside the bounds of normal social boundaries, or so it appears. There are plenty of obvious narcissists, whose grandiosity, self-involvement, sarcasm and cynicism reveal them to the world, but these aren’t the ones you really need to worry about.
Malignant narcissists usually lead outwardly normal lives – partners, children, holidays and so forth – though their relationships often fail. Their true personality doesn’t show until you either get in their way, fail to give them what they want or challenge their power. Even then, don’t expect some psychopathic villain to suddenly emerge, they aren’t that dumb. Your imminent destruction will be far subtler than that. The most likely course of their behaviour will be a series of subtle slights, provocations, exclusions, intrusions and public embarrassments, carefully engineered to make your life hell until you either comply or leave.
The best result for a narcissist is that you end up losing your cool and attacking them. That way you look like the crazy villain and they look like the injured party. The good ones take that further and are magnanimous in victory, displaying exaggerated acts of support, maybe even arguing for your retention or reinstatement. Effectively, your career and any influence you had is in the toilet by now, and you have little option but to leave, so appearing generous and forgiving just makes them look good.
Malignant narcissists are experts at using other people. Though deficient in emotional empathy, which allows them to be ruthless without emotional consequences, they are high in cognitive empathy. In other words, they can easily figure other people out. They know what you want, they know what you fear, they even know what you longed for as a child, and they know how to give it to you. They are good at making other people feel special and important, in return for loyalty. This is how they bring other people to their side, so when you attack them you become a threat to their lackeys and proteges, who attack you back. Most narcissists don’t act directly, they use their networks against you.
If a narcissist has decided you are a threat to them it’s probably because you are competent, stable and difficult to manipulate. There is nothing more dangerous to a narcissist than a natural leader, someone who instinctively empowers others. The more egalitarian you are the greater the threat. A narcissist needs hierarchy and power differentials to thrive, they need to be in control, and genuinely empowering isn’t really part of that.
However, they may be very good at pretending to be empowering others. The best one I ever met made his way to the top of a voluntary not-for-profit organisation by convincing everyone that they were being disempowered by the current hierarchy, and by playing on minority group disenfranchisement to build a power base that toppled it. It was a study in how to stage a coup.
Ten years down the track and he had effectively dismantled all the structures of democracy, accountability and transparency that had been put in place to prevent abuse of power. In its place was a “safety council” that existed to censure any challenge to his power. Most of the newer members thought him a guru, a kind and wise paternalistic father figure. The older members had been forced out.
So how do you defeat a malignant narcissist?
Honestly, I don’t know. I think it probably takes another malignant narcissist to accomplish it. I’ve challenged a few of them over the years and I’ve always lost. Ordinary people with ordinary levels of empathy and emotion simply aren’t capable of the type of ruthlessness and long-term planning required. Malignant narcissists can be contained for a time by rules and structures, but the good ones quickly turn those rules to their own advantage or find ways to change them.
My best advice is to get away from them and rebuild elsewhere. If you can’t, document everything and build a case with Fair Work or whatever regulatory authority applies. When you are up against a bully of this calibre, you need a bigger bully on your side.
Your other option is to ally with them and use them for your own ends. If you can’t beat them, appear to join them, or at least don’t threaten them. Or you can ask yourself what it is you really want to accomplish in life and build your own pathway or business.
Most people who go up against a malignant narcissist will lose. Leaving with your integrity and your sanity should be counted as a win. There is no shame in losing to a powerful enemy, just so long as you don’t lose yourself in the process.
Malignant narcissists always remind me of the serenity prayer.
“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.”
I hope that helps.