Is someone verbally attacking you at work, at home, or in your community? Telling you that you’re a loser, saying "It's all your fault," publicly humiliating you, spreading false rumors about you, or claiming credit for your hard work? Such people are often narcissists who are also high-conflict people (HCPs). HCPs have a preoccupation with blaming others — their targets of blame.
Narcissistic HCPs need to make others their targets of blame in order to feel superior, which they truly believe they are. (And it doesn't help to tell them they're not superior or insult them back. They will just make your life worse. Instead, read on.)
If they are a narcissistic HCP, this also means that they have a lot of all-or-nothing thinking, unmanaged emotions, and extreme behavior. This often takes the form of constant insults, putting themselves up by putting others down, identifying themselves as winners and everyone else as losers, and repeatedly demanding admiration from those around them.
Here are a few tips for dealing with the narcissistic HCP and getting out of their cross-hairs:
1. Don’t diss the narcissist! While it’s very tempting to insult narcissists right back and tell them how stupid they are and what losers they really are, this doesn’t help. Surprisingly, they can’t handle that, and will typically escalate their insults and efforts to humiliate you — sometimes for months or years, if they are HCPs. It’s better to hold off on direct negative feedback and instead focus on what you want from them. And if what you want is to have them shut up, then it’s best to find a reason to simply move away from them. It’s common to notice that they suck all the oxygen out of a room, so that it’s hard for anyone else to get attention. Say a pleasant goodbye, and get out of there.
2. Don’t expect to change them or give them insight! While you might wish that they would realize how ridiculous they appear, they’re not going to get that. Instead of reflecting on their own behavior, they will put more energy into defending it and justifying why they should be allowed to put others down and be rude and insensitive. You’re not going to make them respect you — and you don’t need to. A narcissist, especially a narcissistic HCP, either doesn’t really acknowledge your existence or treats you like dirt. This is an automatic defense mechanism for them that you can’t break through, or they would have changed years ago. If they have a narcissistic personality disorder, then they are extremely unlikely to change.
3. Don’t believe them! It’s sad to say, but many targets of blame get stuck believing the terrible things that narcissists say about them. Just keep this in mind regarding HCPs of all types: The issue’s not the issue; their personality is the issue. When they say that you’re incompetent or stupid, just remember that this is their own unconscious fears, which they are projecting onto you. Of course, you can’t say that to them, or they will do everything they can to make your life miserable. Just remind yourself that narcissistic HCPs are stuck in a pattern of blaming everyone else, which means they are not happy people, are unlikely to have any friends, will sabotage themselves, and won’t change that pattern of behavior. You can be a happy person by reminding yourself of this and spending time around people who appreciate you, rather than people who are compelled to insult and demean you.
4. Do try to connect with them! Try offering a positive comment, such as praising them for something they did well. They really like respect, so if there is something that you can respect about them, you can let them know. You don't sacrifice anything to do this. Just make sure that you don’t exaggerate or lie and say they are worthy of more respect than they are. Just be matter of fact. Many people call this “feeding a narcissist.” Sometimes you can get a pay raise or job transfer by doing this — even though it’s the opposite of what you feel like doing. Of course, if the person is clearly toxic or abusive to you, skip trying to connect, and just find a reason to get away from them.
5. Do try to analyze your options about what you can do now! It’s easy to get stuck in the past. You may be tempted to argue with a narcissistic HCP, or just complain to others (a little bit of that is okay, but don’t overdo it). Look at what your options are going forward, and move on to one of those. Maybe it’s leaving an organization, taking a day off, or looking into a new position in another department. This will help you not feel trapped. Sometimes it helps to write down a list of your options, to really reinforce the idea that you don’t have to cope with things as they are.
6. Do respond to misinformation! Narcissists, and narcissistic HCPs in particular, will repeatedly exaggerate or make false statements about you in an effort to put themselves up by putting you down. Some of these statements can be ignored, but in many cases they say this publicly. In that case, you should respond to the misinformation by speaking to the people with whom the HCP communicated. If he sent an email to your co-workers, or your family and friends, then send an email to the same people and provide accurate information that is Brief, Informative, Friendly and Firm (BIFF). There’s no need to attack them back (which often escalates the situation). Just provide useful information. When you show that you are not intimidated into silence by the narcissist and will speak up, they often move on and leave you alone. For more on this, see videos, books, and articles about BIFF on our High Conflict Institute website.
7. Do set limits on high-conflict behavior! Narcissistic HCPs are constantly engaging in inappropriate, aggressive behavior toward their targets of blame. This is usually verbal, but can sometimes be physical, financial, reputation-based, and otherwise. This can be very demoralizing and should not be tolerated. But since you’re not going to persuade a narcissistic HCP to change their personality (forgeddaboutit!), you will need to set limits. Personal limits can be as simple as saying “I’m not willing to discuss that. We’ll have to agree to disagree. I have to go now.” And then walk away. Don’t give them an opportunity to keep talking. Even though it may feel rude, you have the right to not listen to abusive verbal behavior. But organizations also need to set limits on high-conflict behavior, whether it’s a company, a church, a volunteer group, or a family. Having a policy that limits high-conflict behavior, such as a respectful meeting policy, could be promoted with notices or announcements at the beginning of a group event. And if necessary, the narcissistic HCP can be uninvited to certain or all events.
As a society, we need to become more aware of high-conflict behavior and the damage it can do to people and to an organization’s reputation. As with the very recent trend of organizations setting limits on sexual harassment, we are slowly learning that there are many narcissistic HCPs out there who harass and abuse their targets of blame in many different ways. Don’t stay stuck or quiet if you’re in that position. Now is good time to speak up or get away.