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The One Word a Narcissist Doesn’t Want to Hear

If the person in question seems to fit these items, then the chances are good that you’re dealing with someone high in this extremely bossy form of narcissism. How, then, do you approach realistically the situations in which you need to refuse an order or challenge your boss’s strategy?  You know that to preserve your sanity, or at least the effectiveness of the group’s efforts, you’re going to have to say something, but if you’re fired, you’ll be deprived both of the opportunity to make changes and, of course, your paycheck. Similarly, if you challenge that narcissistically managerial family member, you’ll risk creating irreparable family divisions that might include your banishment from holiday and birthday gatherings.

Thus, knowing why individuals high in managerial narcissism have these unpleasant stances toward the people in their lives doesn’t really help you solve these dilemmas.  Indeed, recognizing that a person you need to challenge, potentially, is high in narcissism can only make the problem seem worse. You fear “poking the dragon” because you anticipate that the other person will retaliate against you because of the injury you’ve inflicted with your disagreement or challenge.

University of Kentucky’s David Chester and C. Nathan DeWall (2016) conducted a study that can provide a way out of this quagmire. Chester and DeWall tested the proposal that  “narcissists react aggressively to interpersonal insult because of a heightened discrepancy between their grandiose self and the now threatened self” (p. 366). To understand why they react this way, the research team put undergraduate participants through a simulated social rejection while a brain scan (fMRI) measured their neural activity in an area involved in maintaining vigilance. The rejection simulation involved the game of “Cyberball” in which participants think they’re being excluded from a computer game by two people who throw the ball just to each other, and not to the participant. People who had scored high on the narcissism scale, and had heightened activity in this one brain region, reacted to rejection by “punishing” the opponents they believed had rejected them. No one was actually punished, of course, nor were there any actual opponents in this simulation, but the participants didn’t know this at the time. They believed their rejection was real, and their response indicated they were intent on seeking revenge.

It appears, then, that people high in narcissism who are vigilant for potential threats will be the ones you should most fear if you cross them by refusing to accede to their will or pointing out where they’re wrong. In real life, you can’t test someone’s intention of seeking revenge by pulling out a portable brain scan. As a suggestion for avoiding this unpleasant outcome, then, it might be worthwhile to consider Chester and DeWall’s observation from previous research that the acute sensitivity to rejection that some people high in narcissism show results from a life history “characterized by volatile, ‘hot-then-cold’ interactions with attachment figures” (p. 366).

You can’t go back and fix those early childhood experiences, but knowing where the rage comes from can help you approach the situation from a more empathetic standpoint. Prefacing your comments by offering ego-protecting words in which you show your admiration can help soften the blow. Knowing that confrontations provoke angry responses can also help you plan end-run strategies that allow you to achieve the same outcome in an indirect fashion. Returning to the example of the unpopular potatoes, you might work with whoever is organizing the menu for the occasion to suggest a face-saving alternative such as simply asking for another contribution because there haven’t been enough, for example, cheese platters brought to your family gatherings.

It can be difficult to establish fulfilling relationships with people whose narcissism makes them overly sensitive and reactive to challenges to their sense of self. In the long run, the delicate and tactful route may pave the way to happier outcomes for all.

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