Helping Young Adults Spot a Narcissistic Boss: A Four-Step Plan
Neurodiverse young adults are vulnerable to narcissistic abuse. Teach them this.
Posted Nov 18, 2019
“I came back into therapy because my ADHD is back," Deena informed me. Deena had been a patient of mine when she was in high school. Her inattentive ADHD and mild autistic tendencies were interfering with her schoolwork and social skills. Through a combination of therapy, social skills training, medication, and parental education, Deena learned to successfully manage her ADHD and organize her time and developed the ability to socialize with like-minded peers. I pointed out that Deena’s ADHD is not “back"; it never left. She had learned to manage it in the school environment, and now she needed to learn to manage it in the working environment.
As I began working with Deena, I realized she was managing her ADHD quite well. She showed me various time-management tricks she had learned, including a few apps that were new to me. The problem was, she felt that she was constantly letting her boss down, emphasizing the wrong details, or misunderstanding him. Worse, he kept reminding her that jobs in prestigious marketing firms like his are hard to come by, that she would need a good recommendation from him if she ever looked elsewhere, and that he is disappointed that she isn’t living up to his expectations.
One week, Deena came to therapy in tears. “I tried to use the feedback formula to ask him not to yell at me in front of the whole office. I told him that when he yells at me, it’s hard for me to concentrate on the details of what he is asking for, and I asked him to please tell me privately.” His response? “If you weren’t such an idiot, I wouldn’t need to criticize you at all.”
As Deena’s therapy continued, I watched a formerly self-confident young woman turn into an anxious shadow of herself. Deena would report how her friends and parents were pressuring her to “just quit,” but that she believed that working for this agency was the key to all of her dreams in her chosen field.
I don’t like to diagnose people in absentia, but I decided to help Deena learn about Narcissistic Personality Disorder and Narcissistic Abuse. I wanted her to think about whether the behavior she was subject to from her boss could fit the criteria. I didn’t want to be another voice simply telling her to quit her job. The constant pressure from friends and family were just making her feel like a failure on another front, rather than helping her to see that her job was destabilizing her sense of self.
Young adults like Deena, particularly young adults with ADHD, are used to being criticized and getting feedback. When they’ve just left the supportive environment of school, where feedback is mostly constructive, they may not see the difference between constructive criticism and the type of destructive environment Deena’s work had become.
I like to use the acronym NARC to help young adults like Deena develop the ability to spot a healthy supervisor who is not narcissistic. Feedback from a person who has these four qualities is probably constructive, even if it feels harsh. On the other hand, if a person lacks these four qualities, the potential for narcissistic abuse is quite high:
Not focused on status
Compassionate, not contemptuous.
Not Focused on Status:
Deena thought about this. Her boss is constantly bragging about the high-profile clients his company pulls in, the cost of his car, the colleges he attended and where his children will go. He likes to talk about his IQ, and he has a wall in his office devoted to pictures of himself with famous business personalities. It sounds like he’s pretty focused on status.
This can be tricky because, in some fields, employees are not supposed to give supervisors feedback. In Deena’s case, though, her feedback was about certain types of communication styles. For example, she explained to her boss that when he gave her two tasks and told her both were immediate priority, she needed to know which one to tackle first, or when he says something like “I just hate everything about this design, redo it,” she does need to know what he hates, or she can’t design something that’s more in line with his aesthetic. By responding with comments like “if you wouldn’t be such an idiot, you could figure it out,” we can see that he doesn’t accept any feedback at all.
Other humans exist in an independent reality, outside of our own. A truly narcissistic person does not fully grasp that concept. For example, when Deena was sick, her boss seemed to take it as a personal attack on him: “You got sick the week I have a major project to complete? That’s unacceptable.” In addition, as we were exploring this topic, Deena realized that many of the comments her boss made about her overstepped boundaries. The state of her car, her exact relationship to the woman who dropped her off one day, her need to update her wardrobe or her diet – these are not his business. But her boss had a hard time grasping that.
Compassionate, Not Contemptuous:
Of the four, accepting feedback and not being contemptuous are the two that are the most salient. This one was a slam dunk – clearly, contempt was the lens through which this gentleman viewed everyone not immediately connected to him.
Deena is now working on her exit plan from this position. She has been interviewing at other firms, keeping her four-part checklist firmly in mind. Despite her boss claiming that the only special thing about her is working for him, she is finding that many firms appreciate her quirky aesthetic and are calling her back for second interviews. Until she finds another position, her new understanding of narcissism is helping her cope.