It comes up in politics, in social media ("omg that girl’s posted so many selfies she’s such a narcissist") and of course, in dating – how many times have I chucked the term "classic narcissist" out there to make a friend feel better about a bad date? Answer: a lot.
But are we actually using the term in the correct way? Or has it, like "gaslighting", "anxiety" and many other very serious-indeed terms, become such a ubiquitous part of popular parlance that we're at risk of forgetting the gravity of its meaning altogether?
Writer Marianne Vicelich’s book should go some way to helping us gain a proper understanding of the term. Destruction: Free Yourself From The Narcissist is an easy-to-read, self-help text, all about identifying and dealing with narcissists in your life. Hell, there’s even a quiz in there to figure out if you’re a narcissist. I’m not (much) by the way, but thanks for asking.
"The thing that people tend to get wrong about narcissism is that they think that anyone who has confidence or is self-assured is a narcissist. But it’s actually the opposite," Marianne tells me. A narcissist, she says, is actually someone lacking in self-esteem.
"The key point about narcissism is that this person has no sense of self, and so they look to the external world for validation, every day of their life," Marianne says. "They are always very charming, we find them attractive, and they drive the fancy cars because they’re looking for that validation to prop themselves up." But, she warns, though they may be alluring, they lack empathy and compassion, and that’s what causes the issues.
Many of us may suspect that we are already dealing with people with narcissistic traits in our everyday lives, and it can be tough going spending time around someone who, for lack of a better description, regularly acts like a 4-year-old.
Here, Marianne gives her advice on how to identify and tackle a narcissist, no matter what area of your life they're in.
If it’s your boss
"You can detect a narcissistic boss by the way they treat you," Marianne says. "If they undermine you, if it's all about them, if they don't show leadership, if they put you down, are constantly criticising you…"
Once you’ve identified a narcissistic boss though, she says it can be hard to know how to move forward; having it out with your boss in the middle of the office isn’t really a great situation for anyone.
"It's really just having healthy boundaries," Marianne says, and advises trying to understand what they’re about and back off when necessary. "It's almost like you need to feed their ego, it's the only way you can identify with a boss like that. Challenging them is the worst thing to do because that highlights their fragile ego."
"When you’re dealing with someone [like this], they will do anything to undermine you, to make you feel unworthy."
If, like me, the idea of indulging a narcissist who has the unfortunate luxury of being in charge of you makes you want to turn to drink and hide under a very big rock, then it’s probably time to start looking for a new job.
If it’s someone you’re dating
First things first: "If there is emotional abuse involved then walk away, it never gets easier," Marianne says. "If he lacks empathy and compassion, that will never change, so walk away."
Dating a narcissist doesn't seem advisable to me but if you are, Marianne says that setting boundaries and remaining in control of the situation is key. "But if you argue with them and they tend to retaliate, then it's a very toxic relationship." Again, you need to walk away.
Unfortunately, many of us are easily attracted to narcissists. "If you have a need for validation, you're going to attract someone who needs control so it's really about your own self-esteem," she says. "Once you raise your confidence and are in control [of your own sense of self], you're going to repel someone like that; they won’t even come into your life because they can’t see your weaknesses, your vulnerabilities, and that's what they like."
"They like someone they can manipulate," she says firmly.
Long story short? For your own good, if you’re dating a narcissist, GTFO.
If it’s your friend
"Jealousy is always a good indicator," Marianne says about identifying a narcissistic friend. "If you're in a friendship and she's jealous of you, that's always a very good sign. Because [narcissists] are always comparing themselves, they are always looking for validation. In a healthy friendship, she would be able to say, 'Wow, you're doing so well, that's so great'. Narcissists are not capable of doing that." They may try to put you down, she continues, or undermine you, copy you or have no compassion. "They might pick up the phone and all they want to do is talk about them," Marianne says. "Like, the whole conversation revolves around them."
Talking to them about this behaviour probably won’t prove hugely successful either, she says. "Because their whole world revolves around them, if you do that they will see it as 'Oh that person is being mean to me,' and so they'll retaliate."
So again, Marianne says, you have to ask yourself, "What are you getting back out of the friendship?"
If it’s a family member
Dealing with narcissistic family members is incredibly tough, Marianne says. The best approach is to, “form very strong boundaries and don’t allow them into your inner core. When you see them, meet them at a superficial level to eliminate personal attack or hurt." Successfully emotionally detaching yourself, she says, is most effective way to lessen the affect they can have on you.
Family members, for many complicated reasons, aren’t always people you can easily disentangle yourself from; just cutting them out isn't always an option."They can always do things that hurt you but if you're taking yourself out of that emotional fray then you're not going to get affected. You have to prepare yourself and be mindful of keeping those strong boundaries at all times."