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Feeding the Narcissist

Is your boss a narcissist?

We all know people who require constant attention and affirmation--so much so that supporting and propping them up can even feel like a second job.

Take Michelle's boss. After every client meeting she stops by to chat--and make self aggrandizing comments. "Did you see their faces? They loved my presentation!" After the millionth fist bump, Michelle could hardly stand it.

And things aren't much easier with her sister, Lori. While Lori doesn't seek praise about her performance at work, she does need to be told she looks thin, pretty, and put together, and multiple times a day. Michelle has grown tired of making validating comments--they hardly make a dent, after all--but she doesn't know what else to do to pacify her sister.

If all this weren't enough, Michelle has a bunch of unfriendly pre-school moms to contend with. Whenever she goes to school, they all ignore her. Unless she walks over to them and makes a joke or pays a compliment, Michelle feels invisible. "It's a lot of work, pleasing these people," she sighs.

What Michelle's boss, sister, and the women at the pre-school have in common, is that all suffer from Narcissism, a condition characterized by an underlying fragility, a feeling of being damaged and broken, and a constant need to be "fed" from the outside.

And no one's talking about restaurant food here. What narcissists really need is something psychologists call "emotional supplies." People who feel defective or empty are everywhere--and they suffer deeply. Most spend their days attempting to shore themselves up, maintain self-esteem, and garner enough external emotional support to make it through the day without feeling they will fall apart. This self-focus and preoccupation is what makes narcissists seem selfish, even arrogant.

But appearances do not tell the whole story. What looks like bravado or conceit often masks an underlying insecurity. This is the case with Michelle's boss, who deep down feels like a fake. She is convinced she has no talents or abilities, worries that her recent promotion was a mistake, and fears she will be exposed and fired from her job. This is where Michelle comes in--she is always there to provide constant affirmation in the form of a pat on the back, food for a fragile ego.

Likewise with Lori, for whom Michelle serves as the "go-to," any time Lori needs propping up, reassurance, or positive feedback. Lori calls whenever she wants--at any time of the day (and sometimes night). And though they do not appear to be seeking her out--not apparently, anyway--some of the woman Michelle encounters at her daughter's school also need constant drawing out and expect to receive compliments before they can be civil in conversation.

With so many people requiring her support and attention on a daily basis, Michelle often feels resentful and drained from the effort it takes to make everyone feel good--and that on top of raising three kids and caring for her husband. After the umpteenth discussion of her boss's prowess and her sister's hair, Michelle recently felt her blood begin to boil. When Lori called to ask about what to wear on her date that night--did her cat-suit look "hot enough?"--Michelle exploded. "Why do you keep calling me, begging for compliments?" The sisters haven't spoken since. In therapy Michelle worked to identify a self-defeating and one-sided lifelong pattern in relationships: believing it is her responsibility to make those around her feel good, she bends over backwards to be available and provide gratification-24/7.

After some good work around her need to please others, Michelle decided to stop "feeding" the narcissists in her life. Though her boss and sister were initially insulted by her refusal to dole out constant props and shore up their fragile esteem, they eventually came to seek attention from others in their orbits, as did the women at Michelle's daughter's pre-school.

There's a little Michelle in all of us. So how to know if you are trapped in a perpetual cycle of feeding a narcissist, in which each praise or boost merely engenders another request for supplies and "feeding?" "If you notice you feel resentful every time you see someone's name on the caller ID, that is your first clue that something is amiss in the relationship," says Dr. Valerie Golden, a clinical psychologist in Minneapolis, Minnesota. "Ask yourself whether your interactions with this person share a common pattern. If so, consider whether you doing all the emotional heavy lifting." Relationships should be equal; one person should not seek to meet the other's every need--to the exclusion of his or her own wants and desires.

Once you do identify a pattern of unequal relationship behaviors, look for ways to regain a healthy balance. "Setting boundaries is crucial," Dr. Golden continues. Identify what your limitations are, and don't be ashamed to stick to them. If you can't take personal calls at work, say so. If you need to take care of children in the evening and cannot counsel a lonely friend or anxious sibling, be clear. Once you make your own needs and goals known--and unambivalently--you will feel less resentful, and the relationship will proceed at a more equal pace.

Who knows; maybe you'll even be the one seeking emotional support or positive feedback next time around.