Dealing with Narcissists: Two Tips from Shakespeare

Perhaps narcissists can change—with the right encouragement.

Posted Oct 10, 2018

Want to know how to deal with the narcissist in your life? Worried that you are that narcissist? Shakespeare can help.

Narcissists lurk around every Shakespearean corner—whether in tragedy (from Cleopatra to Coriolanus), comedy (from Orlando to Prospero), or history (think Richards II and III). Every play, practically, has characters who show some of the “warning signs” of narcissism that psychologist Craig Malkin has outlined—emotion phobia, emotional hot potato, exerting stealth control, placing people on pedestals, and pretending to have found a “twin.” [1]   

For now, I’ll just consider one of those warning signs—emotion phobia—and one play: Much Ado About Nothing.

Malkin writes that in large part, “unhealthy narcissism is an attempt to conceal normal human vulnerability, especially painful feelings of insecurity, sadness, fear, loneliness, and shame” (118). Avoiding feelings doesn’t have to be narcissistic, of course. But it can be if you avoid them to feel special. If you don’t feel sadness (or convince yourself that you don’t), for example, you can say that you’re unlike the rest of us. If you don’t get insecure, you’re superior. If you don’t love…maybe you are unique—self-sufficient, free from the vulnerability that comes when you depend on someone else.

Emotion Phobia in Much Ado

At least two characters in Much Ado exhibit what Malkin would call “emotion phobia”—Beatrice and Benedick. Though they clearly excite each other, they spend most of the opening acts of the play hiding their feelings, insulting each other ad nauseam, and boasting about how incapable they are of love.

Benedick in particular serves as an illuminating case study. Early on, he announces that everyone else feels what he doesn’t—that although “I am loved of all ladies” (apart from Beatrice, of course), “truly I love none” (1.1.120-121). He even speculates that if he were to love someone, the person would need to be perfect: “till all graces be in one woman,” he tells himself, “one woman shall not come in my grace. Rich she shall be, that’s certain; wise, or I’ll none; virtuous, or I’ll never cheapen her; fair, or I’ll never look on her; mild, or come not near me; noble, or not I for an angel; of good discourse, an excellent musician, and her hair shall be of what color it please God” (2.3.26-33).

We’ve all met someone like this: I’ll never fall in love. I’ve got such high standards and no one measures up. I won’t love unless the perfect person comes along. Until then—and even then—I won’t get hurt.

Tip #1: Reveal Your Feelings

In advising readers how to deal with narcissists, Malkin writes that we have to be careful not to “throw on our protective armor” and get defensive when narcissistic behavior upsets us (118-119). We also can’t just be enablers. Instead, you must focus on ‘voicing the importance of your relationship and revealing your own feelings” (120). You must tell the narcissist that you value them but that you’d like to see them change.

Much of Much Ado is about getting Benedick and Beatrice to open up in this way. At a dance where all the guests wear masks, for instance, Beatrice takes a risk. When she and Benedick have an exchange, each well aware of who the other is, she does (as always) insult him. But she also expresses her desire for him, albeit coarsely: “I would he had boarded me,” she says of Benedick, pretending not to know that she says it to him (2.1.136-7).

In her own way, Beatrice voices the importance of their relationship. She reveals her feelings. And when Benedick speaks of her insults with Don Pedro, he himself for once admits his own vulnerability. “She speaks poniards,” he complains, “and every word stabs” (2.1.234-5). Benedick has a long way to go, obviously. But at least he admits to having feelings.

Tip #2: Empathy Prompts

Malkin argues that most narcissists can change. In fact, he points to more than a dozen studies that show how narcissists respond when we encourage them to be more compassionate.[2] Don Pedro, Claudio, and others give Benedick just this kind of encouragement when they orchestrate one of the play’s more famous scenes: when they arrange for Benedick to overhear them talking about Beatrice and how head over heels she is for him.

Throughout, Don Pedro and Claudio draw attention to Beatrice’s emotional pain, hoping to draw out Benedick’s compassion.

First, they treat Benedick with a song about women’s worries regarding men’s faithfulness. (Being cuckolded, we know, is one of Benedick’s own worries.) Then, they discuss how she won’t tell Benedick of her love for him and how this refusal to be vulnerable only adds to her torment. “[S]he says she will die if he love her not,” Claudio says, “and she will die ere she make her love known” (2.3.168-170). Finally, when Pedro asks why she won’t reveal her love, Claudio says it’s because Benedick will just make fun of her.

These are all what psychologists like Malkin call “empathy prompts,” attempts to help a person share someone else’s feelings. And here, the prompts work: After Benedick overhears the conversation, he takes the criticisms, along with Beatrice’s pain, to heart, and declares that “I will be horribly in love with her” (2.3.223).

The narcissistic armor comes off. Benedick becomes more vulnerable, caring, and compassionate, and Shakespeare seems to see what most didn’t see until fairly recently: that the old adage, “once a narcissist, always a narcissist,” isn’t quite right.

Not all narcissists can change. But some can—if you encourage them.

Should We Deceive Narcissists?

I haven’t mentioned a fact about the scene I’ve just discussed: Don Pedro and Claudio are lying to Benedick. They haven’t heard Beatrice say what they claim to have heard. What can we make of that?  

Passing along gossip is bad enough. Making gossip up, as Don Pedro and Claudio do, is worse, and incredibly manipulative. Does Shakespeare expect his audience to be on board with this? Is it a good idea to trick narcissists?

I hope not. And I think it’s reasonable to think not. This is not a real-life situation but a play, and these are characters, not people, however like people they might be. Shakespeare gives us not a specific deed to imitate but an unforgettable scene of psychological insight. He stages how powerful empathy prompts can be, even when they’re artificial, and he shows us how, as C.S. Lewis would centuries later, “[t]o love at all is to be vulnerable.” [3]

References

[1] Craig Malkin, Rethinking Narcissism: The Secret to Recognizing and Coping with Narcissists (New York: Harper, 2015), 99-112. Subsequent references are to this edition.

[2] See Rethinking Narcissism, 114-118.

[3] C.S. Lewis, The Four Loves (New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1960), 169.