Janice's close friend, Amanda, has always been a bit of a handful. A warm and outgoing woman, Amanda has a huge circle of friends. Everyone, Janice included, loves her for the huge amount of energy she gives off to anyone in her presence. But recently, Janice has realized that she doesn’t have much of a desire to spend time with Amanda anymore.
Trying to figure out why she doesn’t like being around her old friend, she concludes that she’s just a bit tired of Amanda seeming to need all of the attention. “It’s always been true,” she says, “but she’s so much fun that you don’t notice it for a long time.” But now she has come to the painful conclusion that when Amanda is around, there’s almost no space for anyone else. “The price of being Amanda’s friend,” Janice says, “is that you have to give all of your attention to Amanda.”
Most of us have an Amanda in our lives—someone we love being with, who makes us feel happy and energetic, who always has a large group of friends around, and draws us into their circle, making us feel special. Yet, when we stop to pay close attention to all of our feelings when we’re with this person, we may realize that we feel strangely left out at the same time.
James had this experience with Thomas, an older work colleague who took James under his wing and seemed to have no greater desire than to help him move up in the business. James was extremely flattered by the attention he was getting from a man he admired and wanted to emulate; but at some point he realized that other colleagues were starting to shun him. “Maybe they’re feeling competitive with you,” his wife said when he talked to her about it. James thought this was possible—with Thomas’ support he was doing incredibly well at his job.
But then one day his team leader asked if he had a few minutes to meet. James agreed, of course. “You’re a great addition to the team,” she said. “But a small word to the wise. It would probably be a good idea to expand your circle of colleagues. Socialize a little with some of the other people here. Get to know some of the others a little better. Let them know that you’re interested in who they are.”
It turned out that many of his co-workers felt shut out by James’ close connection with Thomas. Potentially more damaging, many of them thought that he was not coming up with any original work, but that all of his ideas were simply parroting the older man's. Even worse, James learned, Thomas had been passing off some of James’ work as his own.
We’ve all dealt with people who put their own needs before anyone else’s. Maybe you’ve gotten stuck in a conversation with someone who only talks about themselves. There’s a wonderful old New Yorker cartoon that captures the feeling. A man at a cocktail party says to a bored looking woman, “Now let’s talk about you. Tell me what you think about me.”
So how can you cope with the self-centered people in your life?
First, let’s be realistic: We’re all self-centered to some degree, and to a certain extent, we should be. I know it’s old, but there’s real truth to the idea that in case of an oxygen-related emergency while we’re on an airplane, we have to put on our own oxygen masks before trying to help anyone else. The truth is that if we don’t take care of ourselves, we can’t take care of others.
However, there are degrees of self-care, and the truly obnoxious self-centered often take it to an extreme—and that’s what we’re talking about here.
Here are four steps for managing a self-centered person:
1. Assess the damage, both potential and current.
How important is this person in your life? And how important is it that you feed into their self-centered demands? If, for instance, Janice stopped catering to Amanda, would she end up being left out of social gatherings? If so, how much would she really mind? On the other hand, how upsetting was she finding it to be in these activities, feeling that her so-called good friend was leaving her out?
For James, the present damage was already apparent. Colleagues were unhappy with him, and he was not getting credit for the work he had been doing. Despite the fact that Thomas made him feel special, he was not adding value to James’ career.
2. Consider your options.
Do you want to break away completely from the person? Do you want to continue to have a relationship? Is it possible? And are you worried about being rude? Or about their anger at you if you stop dancing to their tune? Social scientists tell us that these worries are related to social anxieties. But what will really happen if you stand up to someone who has been stepping on your toes? They may indeed get angry. They may see you as rude. But if you have done nothing more than take care of yourself, you don’t have to take their behavior to heart. You don’t have to respond in kind, either. I love this quote from J.K. Rowling:
"'Professor, why couldn't we just Apparate directly into your old colleague's house?' 'Because it would be quite as rude as kicking down the front door,' said Dumbledore. 'Courtesy dictates that we offer fellow wizards the opportunity of denying us entry.'” —Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince
Your friend or colleague has the right to be angry at you for not following them anymore; but you have the right to deny them entry into your soul, as well.
3. Move on.
Divas will always find other audiences. If you are no longer an adoring fan, they will move on from you. Be ready to do the same. Janice found that she was suddenly free to meet with other friends, who had long been trying to find a time for coffee or a glass of wine. James found that his colleagues were far more supportive than Thomas had ever been, and they didn’t require constant adulation, either. This isn’t to say that you might not miss the special connection, but if your self-centered friend isn’t available for a relationship that includes you as a person, the friendship was missing a crucial ingredient.
4. Learn from your experience.
Two psychoanalysts, Frank Lachmann and Robert Stolorow, once described the sensation of being with a bigger-than-life person as “gilt by association.” By being close to them, we feel that we are also getting a sprinkling of the gold and glitter of their lives and personalities. But we pay a price. Moving on can be painful, but it also gives you a chance to look for a different way to be in the world. On the other hand, if there is still something important to you in the relationship, try to find a way to manage it differently. Perhaps make some new friends or develop some support from other colleagues while you stay connected to your self-centered friend, colleague, or relative.
What is most important is that you try to find ways to enhance your own self-esteem outside of the connection.
Please let me know about what you’ve done to cope with the self-centered folks in your life!
** All names and identifying information have been changed to protect people’s privacy