Esteem is a warm, accepting quality, and directing it toward oneself is a fine thing. However, not all aspects of human behavior merit this cozy welcome. Positive-thinking guides rarely draw the distinction between healthy self-acceptance and the malignant narcissism characteristic of tyrants who dominate relationships and households, if not entire nations. Think of someone in your life who seems to have an abundance of self-satisfaction. Now think about the way you feel after an interaction with this person. If you feel warm, nourished, and valued, you've probably encountered someone with healthy self-esteem. But if the conversation leaves you feeling ashamed, confused, self-doubting, or invisible, break out the red flags. It's highly likely you're dealing with a narcissist. Asian philosophy might call narcissism the "near enemy" of real self-esteem; something that looks like the genuine article but has opposite results. Learning to spot narcissists and deal with their destructive behavior can save you the world of hurt that awaits anyone who mistakes the near enemy for a friend.

How to Tell Healthy Self-Esteem from Narcissism

Try this: Go to the person in your life who reeks of self-esteem and ask, "In what ways do you think you need to grow or change?" If the person is psychologically healthy, the list will be as long as your leg. That's because real self-esteem is based on finding areas where we can improve ourselves and honestly working to overcome problems. Healthy people know that they are always a work in progress. Narcissists, on the other hand, will tell you they have nothing to change. They're unwilling to acknowledge their unfinished nature, because admitting imperfection is intolerable for them. This means they never correct mistakes or broaden their horizons, and whatever pain they feel festers indefinitely. Narcissists often live in anguish while refusing to accept that their own behavior has anything to do with their discontent.

Molly, as I'll call her, sought my services because she felt unfulfilled. However, bewilderingly, she also told me that her life was absolutely perfect. She wanted me to fix her pain but avoid the slightest suggestion that she herself should change anything. When I did recommend change, Molly became intensely anxious and defensive, almost hostile. She threw a mild version of the tantrum psychologists call a narcissistic rage, an explosive reaction to the idea that the narcissist might be less than perfect. Narcissistic rage may take the form of shouting, crying, whining, lying, or stomping out of the room—which is what Molly eventually did, to my immense relief.

The intensity of a narcissistic rage reveals not self-esteem but an underlying fear of being thought unworthy and bad. To deal with narcissists, it helps to understand that they generally detest themselves at some level. They've fully incorporated the values of some highly judgmental social system (a family, a religion, a community), where love is given or withheld based on external criteria. (If you're beautiful, thin, and smart, you'll be loved; if you're a fat, ugly grade-school dropout, forget it.) People who are socialized this way become addicted to status markers the way junkies are addicted to intoxicants; they crave praise because it's the closest they ever get to unconditional love. The following thoughts may help you avoid this booby trap.

Riding the Self-Esteem Roller Coaster

The problem with depending on external success is that it makes you terribly vulnerable to failure. If you rely on youthful beauty, growing old is a living annihilation. If brains are your ticket to self-acceptance, one whack on the head could demolish your entire excuse for being. The cycle of good and bad fortune is like the rise and fall of a roller coaster: What goes up inevitably comes down. The narcissist's objective is to stay at the high points of the roller coaster all the time. This is impossible. Real self-esteem comes from being able to enjoy the whole loopy ride.

I remember visiting my friend Steve, a political cartoonist, as he happily perused some hate mail that would have sent me into hiding for, oh, a year or two. When I asked him how he stayed so calm, Steve said, "Well, these letters are basically right. My last cartoon was pretty mean-spirited." A little later I noticed a beautiful crystal sculpture on the coffee table and asked Steve what it was. "That?" he said, in exactly the same mild voice he'd just used to criticize his work. "That's my Pulitzer Prize." Steve was riding the roller coaster of shame and adulation without being caught up in either its highs or its lows—and he was enjoying it immensely.

This is possible only if we have a point of reference that lies beyond the roller coaster. Imagine yourself as a loving mother watching your child ride the roller coaster from a safe spot on the ground. Do you notice when the child is going up and when she's going down? Of course! Does your love for her vary depending on which way the roller coaster is headed? Of course not! Adopting this benevolent attitude toward your own skittish, childish little ego is a fairly straightforward process, though not always an easy one. In Robert Frost's words,

It asks a little of us here.
It asks of us a certain height,
So when at times the mob is swayed
To carry praise or blame too far,
We may choose something like a star
To stay our minds on and be staid.

The "something like a star" that can stay our minds is our awareness that every person, including ourselves, is infinitely—and therefore equally—precious.

Though you may not realize it, your core self dwells constantly in this awareness. Here are a few of the many practices that can help you connect with it.

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).

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