May 19, 2016
What’s the most humiliating thing that could ever happen to you? It might be your mum entering your room while you’re masturbating, or inadvertently sexting an ex boyfriend. These personal events pale into insignificance compared with the more extreme end of public humiliation, such as David Cameron’s obscene act with a dead pig’s head, or the public release of Kim Kardashian’s sex tape.
Now imagine these excruciating humiliations happening on a daily, or even hourly basis. Only instead of experiencing extreme events, your humiliation is provoked by the most innocuous-seeming occurrences, which are about as far removed from actual humiliations as you could possibly imagine. Welcome to the inner life of a narcissist, where humiliation is the defining emotional theme.
To understand narcissists and why they react the way they do, we must first understand that narcissists are created, not born. A narcissist is someone whose emotional development has been cauterised at age two by a toxic upbringing. The parents of a narcissist rewarded their child for being unusually gifted or exceptionally beautiful. These rewards were necessarily extreme because the child needed to reflect the parents’ own impeccable image and importance in the world:
My child is better than everyone’s else’s – smarter, more beautiful and better behaved; my child is a reflection of me.
Conversely, the narcissist was shamed for displaying developmentally normal childlike behaviour: playing in the mud and getting dirty clothes, displays of intense emotion, age-appropriate toileting, talking too much or too loudly, asking “stupid” questions and other behaviours likely to show the parents up in a bad light. Hence a “false self” grew from the cauterised emotional wound and the “real self,” with its multiple human imperfections, was repudiated.
Imagine how terrifying it would be navigate the world as an emotional two-year old: “I don’t know how I feel, what to do or how to do it.” In other words, not having a stable sense of self with a clearly articulated purpose, set of preferences and interpersonal competencies. At the heart of the narcissist exists a terrifying emptiness, rage, helplessness and depression that must be avoided at all costs.
The upkeep of the false self takes a lot of effort. Narcissists must continually monitor their environments to find “narcissistic supplies,” which James Masterson describes as a constant need for attention, admiration and unconditional support in: “The Search For The Real Self.” Without these supplies, narcissists face the danger of having to experience their underdeveloped real self, which is unbearable.
The fear of humiliation drives narcissists ever onwards and upwards, so they are mostly found at the top of the corporate game. They are skilful, cunning, hard-working, flawless and celebrated. No one must challenge their superhuman feats or the narcissist is nothing.
I’ve yet to meet a person who will voluntarily face their own emotional pain without the coercive effect of a real life crisis that makes self-awareness unavoidable (myself included). There’s always the comforting distractions of TV, food, sex or alcohol when things get too uncomfortable. Yet this pain is probably a drop in the ocean compared with the narcissist’s pain. No wonder narcissists are so demanding and blame you for their distress when you don’t provide supplies.
The narcissist is mostly humiliated by the three inevitabilities of life all human beings must face: imperfection, rejection and lack of control. Reminders of how fallible we are routinely pop up in daily life. Therefore, the narcissist’s fear of annihilation is ever present. Hence, an innocent compliment about another person’s attractiveness threatens the narcissist’s grandiose belief in her own supreme beauty; the sterling job you did completing the annual budget threatens his perceived superior competence.
Each time you inadvertently humiliate a narcissist, he feels a depth of rage, hatred, resentment and jealousy you can only imagine. With a perfect smile on her face, not a hair out of place, and without an ounce of empathy or a twinge of conscience, she will plot to hurt you in the most devastating way possible. She is dangerous, cunning and revengeful: watch out.
The damage narcissists inflict is everyone else’s problem, not theirs. They are unlikely to address their issues in therapy unless the pain of real life consequences exceeds their own inner torment. Therefore, it behoves you to use the following three skilful means:
Make no mistake, having a narcissistic boss is hard work. Forget any ideals you have about “being yourself;” it’s not safe. Instead, you have to manage your boss, which takes effort. Flattery is the best way. Even the most cheesy, insincere-sounding compliment will put a smile on his face.
I experimented with this strategy when I complimented my narcissistic, womanising boss on his superior intelligence and he said: “now that wasn’t so hard, was it Maeve?” I nearly toppled off my perch due to the ridiculousness of this exchange. I kept up the charade for months until I got sick, then I gave up and told him: “it’s really hard work managing you.” After that he barely spoke to me, but I was three weeks away from leaving that job and it couldn’t come soon enough.
A more sophisticated strategy is what James Masterson calls “narcissistic mirroring.” First, you need to cultivate an attitude of inner spaciousness, which involves never taking anything the narcissist says personally. You remain calm, centred and attentive, no matter how unreasonable his behaviour. You listen carefully to both the content of his speech as well as the underlying nonverbal nuances, then you reflect back empathically (but succinctly) what you’ve seen and heard. This strategy validates your boss because he realises you’ve understood his message as well as his feelings. You’ve shown you care about him and don’t judge him.
For example, let’s say your boss is having a rant at you, calling you stupid and lazy because you failed to restock the stationery cupboard. Instead of feeling attacked and reacting fearfully, you take a step back to survey the scene, calmly stand your ground and say: “You want me to restock the stationery cupboard and you feel frustrated I haven’t done it yet.”
He says: “Yes, if you weren’t so stupid and lazy, you would have done it already.”
You say: “You’re really frustrated about that, huh?”
You keep on reflecting back what he says until he’s soothed by your understanding of him.
Then you say: “I’ll get onto it straight away.”
Then he says: “Now that wasn’t so hard, was it, Judie?”
You can see how much effort, time and maturity it takes to deal with narcissistic behaviour. If you’re feeling defensive or resentful, this strategy over the long term will exhaust you. There’s no room for your needs or feelings; they are irrelevant to your narcissistic boss. You may feel invalidated or even that you don’t exist. However, in order to keep safe, you must keep this up for as long as it takes to leave your job.
The relationship with your boss is a one-way street. Never reveal any personal information that she could use against you. Narcissists are very sensitive, smart and super-sneaky survivors, so they will store the juicy tidbits you let slip for possible use at a later date.
Always deflect any requests for personal information unless it’s absolutely necessary to your job. Early on in the relationship, your boss’s charm may seduce you into letting your guard down. Narcissists are excellent chameleons who can make you feel they’re just like you, so you feel important and understood. Don’t fall for it! This behaviour is called “grooming,” which means fishing for stuff they can manipulate you with later on.
The best way to avoid the snake-charmer approach is to step into your professional role and be as polite as possible. Instead of responding personally as “Judie,” ask yourself: “How would “Judie-the-professional-sales-rep” deal with this situation?” That will shift your behaviour from, say, flirtatious teasing to a more formal-but-sympathetic mode, thus creating necessary space between you.
Another great way to manage personal questions is to deflect them into compliments. So if she says: “How long have you been with your partner?” you might reply: “A while now, but I have to say, I was super-inspired by how you surprised your husband with a second honeymoon – I must try that, it’s genius!”
Daily interactions with a narcissist will challenge you like nothing else. Emotionally mature adults who have confronted their own inner demons are the most resilient winners when it comes to dealing with narcissists. As Neale Donald Walsch says:
Unless you go within, you go without.
Therefore, it’s essential to commit to your own personal growth.
Without a light to guide your path, you will stumble and fall into reactivity and burnout. Having a personal mentor will teach you effective ways to deal with difficult interactions and more importantly, how to transition to a narcissist-free zone ASAP. You will learn how to remain centred and maintain your self-esteem no matter what anyone says. How to not give a fuck about what anyone thinks of you – that’s GOLD. This gold paves a path to inner peace and by extension, will introduce peace into all your relationships.
As a Work Stress Strategist, Author and Doctor of Psychology, I've had over 20 years' experience helping clients recover from stress, anxiety and depression as a result of relationships with toxic people at work (e.g. your bad boss) and at home (e.g. an emotionally abusive partner). I’m especially interested in helping professional women, who, in mid-career, find themselves working in a toxic work environment with a bad boss but fear to leave because there seems no other way to pay the bills. My clients long for a transition into a free spirited life and I help them find their voice, their confidence and their ambition to succeed so as to put them firmly back in the driver's seat of their own lives so they call the shots. I also help my clients develop their imagination, intuition and spirituality - because often that's what it takes to get out of a stuck place. I've written two books: "Stressed, Depressed And Dreading Mondays What Smart Career Professionals Can Do To Claim Their Life Back” and contributed a chapter to the edited book by Anton Hout: “What Every Target Of Workplace Bullying Needs To Know.” I've appeared on Channel 10, 6PR, 92.9FM, Huffpost Live and WA Today and had articles published in PsychCentral, Women's Agenda, NineMSN Health, Rebelle Society and Witch magazines. I'm currently a regular Huffington Post contributor (under my pen name).