The One Word a Narcissist Doesn’t Want to Hear

Narcissism is marked by a distinct belief in one’s own exceptionalism. People high in this quality are convinced that they are better than everyone else and deserving of attention and recognition. They certainly don’t want to be criticized or called out for any misbehavior. Perhaps you have a relative who likes to show off at family gatherings as being the best cook in the clan. She produces what she believes to be perfectly prepared potatoes, making sure everyone applauds her contribution as she flamboyantly sets them on the table. Unfortunately, no one thinks they’re actually all that good. When the potatoes inevitably go uneaten time after time, she seems oblivious until someone finally gets up the nerve to point this out. The result, in retrospect, was predictable: “What’s wrong with you people? You wouldn’t know good cooking if it stared you in the face!”

As hard as it is for people high in narcissism to accept criticism, it’s even more difficult for them to take “no” for an answer. You might have a very demanding and self-centered boss who, like the Queen of Hearts in Alice and Wonderland, wants everyone in her vicinity to do what she tells them to do. You wouldn’t dare criticize her or even offer constructive comments about how she might try moving the chairs around her desk so that it would be easier to have meetings in her office. The last time you tried this, you stopped yourself before the eruption reached its full proportion. What if, along related lines, you indicated your disagreement with her managerial style? The last time someone tried this, she told them never, ever, to talk to her that way again. 

There are many words people high in narcissism don’t want to hear, but perhaps the worst involve a “no,” as in “No you can’t,” “No, you’re wrong,” or- even worse- “No I won’t.” This makes it difficult to go about your ordinary business with the people in your life, who understand the give-and-take of normal social interactions. According to a 2014 study by Hacettepe University (Turkey)’s Şefika Şule Erçetin and colleagues, this type of “Managerial Narcissism” can create chaos. The highly narcissistic come up with “new and dramatic goals” whose inability to succeed can only be attributed to “outside conditions or enemies who attempt to hinder them” (p. 98). If you try to stop this managerial narcissist, by extension, you become “the enemy.” 

From this description, you might think that you could readily identify the managerial narcissist in your life.  Test these ideas against sample items from the scale developed by the Turkish authors. Each item appears after the dimension it represents on the scale:

  1. Leadership and authority: I am a good leader.
  2. Anticipation of recognition: I know that I am a good manager because everyone says so.
  3. Grandiosity: I very much want to be powerful.
  4. Self-admiration and vanity: If I ran the world, it would be a much better place.
  5. Exhibitionism: Everyone likes hearing my stories.

If the person in question seems to fit these items, then the chances are good that you’re dealing with someone high in this extremely bossy form of narcissism. How, then, do you approach realistically the situations in which you need to refuse an order or challenge your boss’s strategy?  You know that to preserve your sanity, or at least the effectiveness of the group’s efforts, you’re going to have to say something, but if you’re fired, you’ll be deprived both of the opportunity to make changes and, of course, your paycheck. Similarly, if you challenge that narcissistically managerial family member, you’ll risk creating irreparable family divisions that might include your banishment from holiday and birthday gatherings.

Thus, knowing why individuals high in managerial narcissism have these unpleasant stances toward the people in their lives doesn’t really help you solve these dilemmas.  Indeed, recognizing that a person you need to challenge, potentially, is high in narcissism can only make the problem seem worse. You fear “poking the dragon” because you anticipate that the other person will retaliate against you because of the injury you’ve inflicted with your disagreement or challenge.

University of Kentucky’s David Chester and C. Nathan DeWall (2016) conducted a study that can provide a way out of this quagmire. Chester and DeWall tested the proposal that  “narcissists react aggressively to interpersonal insult because of a heightened discrepancy between their grandiose self and the now threatened self” (p. 366). To understand why they react this way, the research team put undergraduate participants through a simulated social rejection while a brain scan (fMRI) measured their neural activity in an area involved in maintaining vigilance. The rejection simulation involved the game of “Cyberball” in which participants think they’re being excluded from a computer game by two people who throw the ball just to each other, and not to the participant. People who had scored high on the narcissism scale, and had heightened activity in this one brain region, reacted to rejection by “punishing” the opponents they believed had rejected them. No one was actually punished, of course, nor were there any actual opponents in this simulation, but the participants didn’t know this at the time. They believed their rejection was real, and their response indicated they were intent on seeking revenge.

It appears, then, that people high in narcissism who are vigilant for potential threats will be the ones you should most fear if you cross them by refusing to accede to their will or pointing out where they’re wrong. In real life, you can’t test someone’s intention on seeking revenge by pulling out a portable brain scan. As a suggestion for avoiding this unpleasant outcome, then, it might be worthwhile to consider Chester and DeWall’s observation from previous research that the acute sensitivity to rejection that some people high in narcissism show results from a life history “characterized by volatile, ‘hot-then-cold’ interactions with attachment figures” (p. 366).

You can’t go back and fix those early childhood experiences, but knowing where the rage comes from can help you approach the situation from a more empathetic standpoint. Prefacing your comments by offering ego-protecting words in which you show your admiration can help soften the blow. Knowing that confrontations provoke angry responses can also help you plan end-run strategies that allow you to achieve the same outcome in an indirect fashion. Returning to the example of the unpopular potatoes, you might work with whoever is organizing the menu for the occasion to suggest a face-saving alternative such as simply asking for another contribution because there haven’t been enough, for example, cheese platters brought to your family gatherings.

It can be difficult to establish fulfilling relationships with people whose narcissism makes them overly sensitive and reactive to challenges to their sense of self. In the long run, the delicate and tactful route may pave the way to happier outcomes for all.


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