When we talk about narcissism, we’re talking about a personality tendency towards a sense of grandiosity and a need for admiration. Although there is a DSM diagnosis of narcissistic personality disorder, I would like to put more emphasis on narcissistic functioning that goes beyond the criteria usually described. It is therefore important to mention that this article is not intended to facilitate diagnoses, only to inform and empower those who may find themselves in a dysfunctional interpersonal situation. Each characteristic described here should not be scrutinized independently and out of context. Any diagnosis should be made under the clinical eye of a qualified health professional. More important than establishing a diagnosis is knowing how to recognize unhealthy relational patterns and looking for ways to deal with or adjust to this reality.

The characteristics most commonly identified in narcissism are a grandiose “self-esteem”, manipulation in interpersonal relationships and the feeling of entitlement to special treatment when compared to others. However, there is also a form of narcissistic functioning that is beginning to be recognized with more vulnerable expressions of hypersensitivity to criticism. In any case, a self-centered view of themselves is common to any narcissistic personality, with an unconsciousness of the needs and feelings of others, and therefore a difficulty in empathizing with the experiences of the people who surround them.

These visible behaviors of narcissism do not reflect true self-esteem — behind this apparently grandiose perception of themselves, there is a feeling of inferiority and a sense of emptiness that is sometimes unconscious to the person. Deprivation of love, affection and validation in childhood can be fertile ground for narcissistic expression in adulthood. This is why the need for recognition in adults tries to compensate for what they were once denied.

In the organizational context

The need for admiration can translate into an excessive ambition for power and admiration, often driving individuals towards professional leadership positions, where there is greater potential for power and recognition. Although the narcissistic personality can be present in any profession, in any position, it is commonly found in more prominent positions.

The characteristics they display — self-confidence, charm in the way they communicate, an apparent lack of anxiety, the way they stand out in a group, the certainty with which they make decisions — can be, at first glance, considered useful for a leadership position. And so it’s easy for them to be selected for these positions over other candidates, and they will more naturally look for opportunities that bring them closer to these positions and allow them to move up the corporate hierarchy more quickly.

There are theories that even talk about the “Dark Triad” of personality — Narcissism, Psychopathy, Machiavellianism — which when taken together translate into a hostile, manipulative, self-centered profile, with high levels of anger, a superficial character and an absence of empathy or remorse. Once again, although these characteristics may initially be “masked” by a tendency towards ambition and professional achievement, in the long term they have a very negative effect on organizations and the employees they work with.

Lack of emotional intelligence

While there may be social and professional skills, there is undoubtedly a gap when it comes to emotional intelligence. In other words, the ability to understand their own emotions and those of others, to be aware of their reactions and the impact they have on their relationships, is compromised.

There is an ease in communication, there is friendliness and even a certain charm — which end up being perceived by others as superficial. In other words, despite the friendliness, there is no real interest in the people they relate to. The relationships they establish are empty.

The other — with all their needs and wants — doesn’t exist. They only exist as an object that can be manipulated to their advantage. This ends up causing great suffering for those who are closely in contact with this personality — be it a family member, partner, friend, work colleague or boss.

Warning signs in colleagues and leaders

Bringing the focus to the world of organizations, we can talk about a co-worker who does not consider the opinions of others and establishes one-sided relationships, who is extremely competitive and consistently needs to be the focus of attention, who is hostile in communication, who seeks to get closer to people with “more reputation” and more power in the organization or who relates to colleagues differently depending on who is present in the room. But we can also talk about a leader who makes constant comparisons between employees, who does micromanaging and has a great need to control all team members (doing so directly or indirectly — for example, by choosing someone to tell them everything that happens in the company), who reinforces excessive work, who manipulates and blames, who invalidates opinions that differ from theirs, who uses their power abusively, who doesn’t communicate openly with all members or who withholds relevant information from certain people in the team.

It’s very important to point out that the presence of these characteristics is not enough to indicate a diagnosis of narcissism, but someone with narcissistic traits will display some of these characteristics systematically in the professional context — and this will certainly cause suffering for those who surround them. It is also important to say that there is a spectrum of narcissism with different intensities and facets, and that we can never analyze characteristics in isolation without taking into account the context in which they occur. Narcissism, as a personality disorder, requires us to be faced with a chronic and rigid pattern of behavior.

Whatever the job role and whatever the expression of narcissism, external admiration and a sense of power over others function as a form of emotional regulation, and so these people will continue to seek out forms of exhibitionism and manipulation, always oblivious to the poor quality of their relationships and the suffering they cause. Due to this lack of awareness of themselves and others, there will always be little motivation to change or to identify a problem in their relationships and ask for help — usually “others are the problem”.

How to protect myself from a narcissistic relationship

As I mentioned earlier, rather than diagnosing, it’s important to assess the impact this person has on the mental health of those who surround them. Here are some questions that might help you assess this impact:

  • What needs of mine are often suppressed in this relationship?
  • What values of mine do I regularly have to give up in this relationship?
  • How do I feel emotionally and physically when in contact with this person?
  • How much energy do I spend interacting with this person?
  • What are my levels of physical and mental exhaustion after spending time with this person?

It’s the emotional burden that this relationship causes that will provide clues about what needs to be done to address this strain. In an ideal scenario, no one would have to adjust to a narcissistic personality for an extended period of time. No one would have to endure consistently high levels of emotional exhaustion. Therefore, if there are the resources necessary to change the context, then they should be utilized. Do I have the resources to end this relationship? Do I have the option to change jobs?

Unfortunately, however, this is not always the case. Sometimes, due to the social context and financial factors, individuals find themselves trapped in an organizational climate that consumes them. And when that’s the case, it’s necessary to build resources that relieve the emotional burden they have to carry on a daily basis:

  • Can I find ways to protect myself more in this relationship?
  • Can I regulate my emotions when in contact with this person?
  • Can I take care of my emotions after interacting with this person?
  • Can I vent and share the experience with other colleagues who feel the same way?
  • Can I set boundaries that respect me more in this relationship?
  • Can I find a way to communicate what I need to this person?

We should always look for a way to take care of the emotions that arise in contact with others. But we know that there is no level of self-care or emotional regulation that makes it easy to relate to a narcissistic personality. Sometimes, the greatest act of compassion you can have is to remind yourself “if I need to leave, I’ll leave”, other times, self-compassion will sound more like “I can’t leave right now, but I’ll do what I can to protect myself from this relationship”.

Hardly anyone spending time with a narcissist will feel that there is room for their personal needs and values. And knowing that there will be no space to be who you are in the relationship with the narcissistic person, may the relationship we establish with ourselves open up that space more and more. Perhaps we not only need to look for (and experiment with) new ways of relating to someone with a narcissistic personality, but we also need to test new ways of relating to ourselves. Let that relationship come from a place of compassion, of affirmation of who we are, of respect for our values, as well as validation and openness to the most challenging emotional experiences.

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