1. Just watch. Every day I spend a half hour or so simply watching my ego ride its roller coaster. Oh, look, I may say to myself on a day when I've been praised, I'm way up high! What a fabulous view! When I've failed abjectly, I may think, Ooh, now the roller coaster is going down. Ouch! By commenting without judgment, I take myself to a place of observation, a place where I feel compassionate and open. I did not create this place. I just visit it.
2. Laugh at your downside. Narcissists may deny their mistakes or flagellate themselves into a froth of self-pitying hatred, but they never laugh at their imperfections. Try moving away from narcissism and into self-esteem by telling others about a mistake you made, in a way that's designed to make them laugh. Go ahead, pick a mistake and make it funny. This works.
3. Focus outward. Here's a challenge: Have a five-minute conversation during which you talk only about the other person. Ask her questions about herself, then really listen to the answers. Don't talk about yourself at all until five minutes have elapsed.
4. Invite contradiction. Ask someone if they disagree with anything you've ever said to them. If they say yes, ask their opinion, pay close attention, and say, "Thank you. I'll think about that." Notice whether your narcissistic ego sphincter begins to clench up. If it does, laugh some more.
The more you recognize narcissism in yourself and exchange it for real self-esteem, the more you'll find yourself able to drop the mad pursuit of praise and the avoidance of blame.
How to Handle a Narcissist
If you have a boss, a roommate, or (heaven help you) a parent with full-blown narcissistic personality disorder, your attempts to develop healthy self-esteem will be severely challenged. There are four ways to go about dealing with such people. Each approach may be useful at various times, and understanding all four will give you a range of responses to your own least favorite narcissists.
1. Acquiesce. The first way of dealing with narcissists is to behave as they want you to. This means placing them at the center of every decision, silencing your own thoughts and feelings, and constantly reassuring them that they are what Jesus would have been like if he'd gotten some therapy. I suggest acquiescence if you enjoy grappling with the urge to hurl yourself in front of a train.
2. Push back. Narcissists are bullies. They rely on other people's decency and self-restraint to sustain their psychological dominance. Bluntly, assertively refusing to comply with their demands withers them, because in their warped emotional environment, one person in each twosome must always dominate, the other be dominated. If you take the dominant role, narcissists will fall into the "dominated" category without even understanding why.
The next time a narcissist rages at you, don't explain or placate. Instead, get dominant. State emphatically that you will not tolerate attempts to intimidate or manipulate you. If he whines, tell him to stop whining. If she bristles, bristle right back. Rather than escalating the conflict, as it might with a normal person, this assertive response often stops narcissists dead in their tracks. The dance of dominance in the narcissist's brain works in your favor if you're willing to lead.
3. Drug them with praise. When I compared narcissists with addicts, I wasn't speaking metaphorically. True narcissists are literally addicted to praise. Large doses of adulation can put them into a drugged euphoria. If you find yourself in a narcissist's power, try delivering a dose of ego reinforcement. Don't lie—just say things like "You have amazing potential!" or "Goodness, the things you know!"
This often renders narcissists so docile that you can move them to the sidelines of your life and go about your business. Sure, it's disingenuous compared to telling the whole truth ("You're mentally ill; you need help"), but trying to persuade a narcissist to change is like climbing into a pigpen to wrestle a hog: You get covered with manure, and the hog enjoys it.
4. Drop the rope. You win a tug-of-war by dragging your opponent across a line on the ground—or do you? If the tug-of-war happens to be nonsensical and destructive, then the way to truly win is to drop the rope. This is my favorite method of dealing with narcissists. As soon as you feel that crazy sense of walking on eggshells, fending off narcissistic rage, stop. Walk away. The narcissist will win the tug-of-war. You'll win your sanity. Take your pick.
If you practice any of these behaviors regularly, you will find that life becomes much less frightening. You'll be able to handle any narcissist who happens to cross your path. And you'll learn to climb off your own roller coaster of shame and adulation. This is an act of guts and grace that will help you heal the world rather than hurt it—a legacy no narcissist, however powerful, can ever claim.
Martha Beck is the author of The Joy Diet (Crown) and Expecting Adam (Berkley).
More Insight From Martha Beck