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) with a preoccupation with blaming others.
Narcissistic HCPs need to make others their targets of blame to feel superior, which they truly believe they are. (It doesn't help to tell them they're not superior, or insult them back. Read on.)
A narcissistic HCP typically engages in 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 such individuals and getting out of their crosshairs:
1. Don’t diss the narcissist.
While it’s tempting to insult narcissists right back, this doesn’t help. Surprisingly, they can’t handle that, and they will typically escalate their insults and efforts to humiliate you — if they are HCPs, sometimes for months or years. 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 for them to 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.
You might wish that they would realize how ridiculous they appear, but they’re not going to get that. Instead of reflecting on their own behavior, they will put more energy into defending it, 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; if you could, they would have changed years ago. (If they have narcissistic personality disorder, then they are extremely unlikely to change.)
3. Don’t believe them.
Many targets of blame get stuck believing the things narcissists say about them. 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. If you say that to them, they will do everything they can to make your life miserable, so just remind yourself that narcissistic HCPs are stuck in a pattern of blaming everyone else, which means they are not happy, are unlikely to have many friends, will sabotage themselves, and still won’t change their pattern. You can be a happy person by reminding yourself of this and spending time around people who appreciate you, rather than those 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 like respect, so if there is something that you can respect about them, let them know. You don't sacrifice anything to do this. Just make sure that you don’t exaggerate or lie and say that 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.
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 to 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 them publicly. In that case, you should respond to the misinformation by speaking to the people with whom the HCP communicated. If he (or she) sent an email to your co-workers, or your family and friends, 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 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.
7. Do set limits on high-conflict behavior.
Narcissistic HCPs constantly engage in inappropriate, aggressive behavior toward their targets of blame . This is usually verbal, but can sometimes be physical, financial, or reputation-based. This can be demoralizing and should not be tolerated. But since you’re not going to persuade a narcissistic HCP to change their personality, you instead need to set limits. This 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. It may feel rude, but you have the right to not listen to abusive verbal behavior. 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 an event. And if necessary, the narcissistic HCP can be uninvited to certain events.
Conclusion: 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 recent trend of organizations setting limits on sexual harassment, we are slowly learning that there are many narcissistic HCPs who harass and abuse their targets in many different ways. Now is a good time to speak up—or get away.