I'm a professor of human behaviour, and I have some news for you about the 'narcissists' in your life
- Melody Wilding is an executive coach, licensed social worker, and professor of Human Behaviour at Hunter College.
- She finds people constantly tell her about their narcissistic coworkers, but most of those people don't truly understand what a "narcissist" actually is.
- She has some news: Narcissism is a spectrum, and most people are on it to some degree. Narcissistic Personality Disorder is something entirely separate, and misusing that label is unethical - and dangerous.
Dealing with a difficult boss or coworker can test your patience and be drag on your productivity. But working with a narcissist, on the other hand, can be downright unhealthy. Their selfishness, manipulative tactics, and power hungry ways can be annoying at best and career-ending at worst.
As an executive coach and Human Behaviour professor, I hear from readers every day who claim that they work with a narcissist. They complain about managers and colleagues who make their work-life harder than it should be and frustrate them to no end. They blame the other person's narcissistic tendencies for a lack of progress, not realising that their own self-absorption might be contributing to the problem.
The truth about narcissism
Psychologically speaking, narcissism is a personality trait that every person possesses to some degree. Like any characteristic, it exists on a spectrum. We all fall somewhere along the narcissism continuum. In fact, a certain amount of self-centredness is healthy. Research shows that it contributes to confidence, resilience, and ambition.
However, any personality trait taken to an extreme can become pathological. A person who is excessively high in narcissism is said to have narcissistic personality disorder (NPD), which is a diagnosable mental illness.
A person with narcissistic traits may be mildly self-centred at times, but NPD, on the other hand, is a deeply ingrained, pervasive pattern. These people have an extremely fragile sense of self-esteem (masked by an inflated sense of superiority) to the point where it interferes with normal functioning across a wide range of settings beyond work. Studies show that this may be due in part to brain differences. People with NPD often have less brain matter in areas related to empathy.
Difficult or disordered
In other words, there's a difference between working with someone who has narcissistic personality disorder and working for someone who has higher than normal narcissistic traits.
With the recent rise in narcissism and popularity of the topic, I've also noticed an increased interest in self-diagnosing the difficult people in our lives and careers. Although narcissistic personality disorder is very uncommon (between 0.5-1% of the general population or one in every one hundred people), it seems like everyone now claims to have a narcissist in their lives, especially at work where relationships can get the most heated.
Chalking up what you dislike about another person to a mental disorder isn't ethical or fair. You may say things like, "my boss is absolutely crazy" or "she's a raving narcissist" off the cuff and out of anger, but pathologising people in this way can be very dangerous. Labelling someone with a psychiatric disorder not only further stigmatises those who do live with mental health diagnoses, but it also trivialises how serious narcissistic personality disorder can be.
Spotting a real narcissist
Before you jump to self-diagnosing your boss or co-worker as a narcissist, it's important to understand what differentiates narcissistic traits from full-blown NPD.
Spotting narcissistic personality disorder in the workplace is crucial because it can be very damaging. For example, because they have trouble taking criticism, research suggests that people with NPD are responsible for more work-related lawsuits. Narcissists are also drawn to power, which helps them rise to leadership roles, but their penchant for unethical behaviour, need for admiration, and lack of empathy can kill morale and destroy an organisation.
So, how can you tell when narcissistic traits tip over to NPD? According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders to diagnose narcissistic personality disorder, the following criteria must be met:
- An excessive need for admiration and gaining approval from others
- A sense of entitlement, seeing one's self as exceptional, and condescending behaviour
- An inability to recognise the feelings and needs of other people
- Superficial relationships
- Vast fluctuations in mood
These criteria must be relatively stable across a person's lifetime and many situations, including in their personal relationships outside of the workplace.
People with narcissistic personality disorder also typically show extreme behaviour like:
- Overly emotional or unpredictable thinking or behaviour
- Distorting facts and making false accusations
- Enjoyment of getting away with breaking the rules or violating boundaries
- Using psychological manipulation like gaslighting, public shaming, and deflection
- Aggression and antisocial behaviour
Whether you're dealing with someone who has NPD or simply higher-than-normal narcissistic traits, you must learn how to protect yourself. Developing assertiveness skills, boundaries, and the ability to stay calm in response to the narcissist's tactics can help you succeed despite their presence or make the decision to move on to an environment that's a better fit for you.
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