Have you worked with a narcissist?

In ancient times people believed that the earth was the centre of the universe with the planets revolving around it.  The discovery that the earth revolves around the sun was a controversial discovery.  Yet, as more and more proof surfaced to support this new theory that the centre of our universe is the sun, not earth, it became accepted as true. Now, it is generally accepted that there is no one single centre and that our universe is ever-evolving, ever-expanding.  In the future, this will probably change again as we gain more knowledge.

Narcissism, in its simplest form, can be seen as someone who views himself as the centre of his world.  The narcissist has a limited view of the world at large and has not yet come to believe in the expanding, interdependent nature of human beings.

Not only is the narcissist the centre of his universe and ruler of everyone in it, he also needs these external forces around him to sustain this false perception of power and control.  While on the outside a narcissist might look powerful and in control, on the inside, it is an extreme lack of personal power that causes this dysfunctional behavior in the first place.

Truth or Fear?

True power – the essential life force a narcissist so desires – is the opposite of this fear-driven approach exploiting vulnerable resources to benefit one.  True power is when people choose to follow you, out of free will.  No person will indefinitely choose to follow a narcissist.  They will only do so for as long as they fear him or believe there is no alternative.

The truth, however, is that the narcissist only has as much power over you as what you allow them to have.  Working for a narcissist can be soul-breaking, or extremely empowering.   Here is what I learned from working for a narcissist and sociopath and how it empowered me.

1. Look past false compliments

When dealing with a narcissist, the first phase of the relationship is the honeymoon period where they will shower you with compliments and do everything you ask.  They will spend all their time with you and get to know you intimately in a short time.  This is the first red flag when meeting someone new.

The compliments are not real and the gifts and favors shortlived.  It is merely a tool to discover your vulnerabilities and see what you react to so that they can use the information as a tool against you later on.

When it seems to good to be true, it probably is.

I’m a firm believer in love at first sight, but I’m also a firm believer that love can’t survive without healthy breathing space.  Don’t be blinded by the false flattery and be on alert when someone wants to suddenly spend so much time with you.

Healthy relationships, whether personal or at work, take time to grow.  Too many compliments too soon are probably not authentic and most likely not sustainable.

2. Don’t take it personally

For a narcissist, it will never be good enough.  It’s not about you.   It’s not that you’re not doing great work.  In fact, it is exactly because you are doing such great work and deemed valuable that a narcissist will continuously criticize you.

If a narcissist would tell you how valuable you are to them, they will lose the fear-grip they have on you.  By criticizing everything you do and constantly pushing you to do even more, faster, better, they keep you in a grip of fear, afraid that you’ll lose your job.

They know that inherently people want to please their superiors and that when they criticize, you are more likely to try even harder.  This makes them feel more powerful and makes them look good to the outside world.

Realize that it will never be good enough for a narcissist and that the criticism is no reflection on your worth and value to the organization.

It’s not about you.

3. Have strong boundaries

A narcissist lacks boundaries.  They see every person around them as extensions of themselves.  People to them are belongings they can do with as they please, not individuals with personalities and hopes and dreams of their own.  Everything is about them and making them feel good and powerful because they haven’t learned how to feel good themselves.

When dealing with a narcissist, personal boundaries becomes even more important than in any other circumstance.  From the onset of the relationship, say no early on and clarify any grey areas as and when they arise.  A narcissist doesn’t like hard-and-fast rules and regulations.  They will shift the boundaries ever so slightly each time they deal with you, without you realizing until it’s too late.

They will make promises without intending to keep it to lure you into their spider web.  That’s the number one reason why it’s so hard to spot a narcissist.  At the onset of the relationship, they will do everything you need or ask for.  Then, slowly but surely, excuses will start popping up why it can’t be done anymore and without you realizing, one day you will wake up with all the responsibility but without any recognition for it.

Quantify agreements and say no early on.  Don’t accept anything that is not concrete or tangible, like a promise of being paid commission.  Clarify how much commission will be paid and when it will be paid and get it on writing if possible.

4. Be Flexible

Years of travelling in developing countries made me flexible to such a degree that very little upsets me anymore.  Where previously I might get agitated when I can’t start my day with a good cup of coffee, now it doesn’t phase me at all.  If there’s coffee, I enjoy it.  If there’s tea, I’ll have that. If there’s nothing, that’s also ok.

This life skill turned out to be my biggest tool to prevent narcissistic behaviors to destroy my soul.  A narcissist is constantly looking for reaction and will purposefully find ways to try to upset you, as by being upset you are feeding his sense of power over you.

Learn to look past the inconveniences presented to you and like water, simply flow past it.  Being flexible will keep you sane.

5. Talk to people

A narcissist leads a double life.  On the one side, they need to maintain an image of the ‘perfect citizen’ for people they believe they have something to gain from.  On the other hand, they need to maintain their image of being powerful over the vulnerable.  These two realities overlap, but the narcissist is a master in keeping these different perspectives hidden from key players in their game making it very hard to believe when someone does expose a narcissist.

A narcissist doesn’t want employees to talk to each other.  They try to turn people against each other so that there is disharmony, allowing them to be seen as the savior and peace-maker.  Looking back, however, they were the ones who caused the disharmony in the first place by subtle comments to prime someone to think in a specific way.

When a narcissist slanders someone, which they are bound to do at some point or another, objectively observe without judgement what is really going on and make up your own mind.  Don’t allow conflict to grow, especially if it’s based on gossip.  Cut out the middleman.

6. Love conquers all

The natural reaction to dealing with a narcissistic boss is to feel resentment and wanting revenge.  When someone so obviously goes out of their way to make your life difficult it is hard not to be resentful.

However, that is simply putting more fuel on the fire that enables the narcissist.  Resentment and vengeance will be turned around to make you look bad.

When a narcissist engages in conflict with you, don’t react.  Respond with questions and stay as calm as possible.  Focus on the pain that he is projecting onto you and practice compassion.  This is the only remedy for violent behavior and the narcissist is not able to continue a fight if there is no reaction.


Narcissism is an extreme lack of empathy and self-love within an individual.  It’s a highly traumatized person with an insatiable desire for power an recognition, the very painful conditions they never received as a child.

Dealing with a narcissist is not fun, but it can be the ultimate empowering experience. When you meet narcissists with love and compassion there is no fuel to continue the raging fire within them and it’s bound to eventually die out.

What will you choose?  Revenge or compassion?



Photo by Olivier Fahrni on Unsplash

With more than 20 years experience in the software development industry, Kate specializes in helping teams get unstuck, communicate better and ultimately be more productive. She believes in efficiency through fun implementing lean, agile and playful design as tools for process improvement and organizational change. Her goal is to create more happy, healthy and whole workplaces where each person thrives and productivity soars.