11/01/2013 05:54 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

The Narcissist in Your Life: The Best Teacher You'll Ever Have

It's a current national pastime to bash narcissists. They are easy targets. Despite their intense need for approval, those in the public eye can't help but mostly be seen in a negative light, and we all pile on a round of ridicule for fun.

And we all profess to be mystified: "What was he thinking!?" "Why did he do that?" "What kind of name is Carlos Danger?" The truth is, there's a good reason we are mystified. It's because we really don't grasp the way a narcissist thinks and operates in the world. Yet, they seem to be everywhere. Not just politicians and celebrities are narcissists (not all of them are narcissists, either). There are everyday narcissists in our offices, in our homes, in our lives. The statistics on the prevalence of narcissism are not an indicator of the reality -- studies estimate that 1 percent of the population are narcissists, but this doesn't take into account that most narcissists are never assessed as narcissists. Let me write that again and you can read it out loud, "Most narcissists are never assessed as narcissists."

And we must remember that the statistic doesn't consider that narcissistic behaviors abound in people who are not diagnosable as having the full blown personality disorder of narcissism. We may love to hate narcissists, but the fact is that we need to do better. We need to understand narcissists. Because we need to take care of ourselves.

We are confused about narcissism in our culture. It's not surprising -- it's a confusing disorder and it hasn't migrated out well from the professionals in the mental health world to the general public. People ask, What is it really? What is healthy narcissism? When does it become a disorder? How does it come to exist in the first place? How do you know if someone is a narcissist? These are just a few of the questions and the answers to them are not always as clear as one might like. Add to that, the advice about how to handle it seems somehow... light, contradictory, frequently snarky, self-gratifying and often just not appropriate.

Should I stay or should I go? The knee jerk reactions are "get away," "fire the narcissist," while on the other hand, you're constrained to "not talk bad" about anyone and "stick it out."

Of course, there's no one-size-fits-all solution when you realize you have a narcissist in your personal or work life. Narcissists are sly at claiming your attention for themselves. One of the most positive things you can do is shift your attention back to your own life, your own values, wants and needs. You can do this without fanfare or drama. As you do this, some of the habitual patterns of the narcissist in your life will be revealed to you. Seeing things clearly will set you on the path to relief.

I don't like to write about myself a lot. But I will say that I've found the narcissists in my life to be the ones who challenged me the most. They are the ones who caused me to grow up, to see things as they are, and to learn incredible lessons about how to take care of myself in work and personal relationships. I won't claim to be a master yet. I'm sure I'll keep learning. But truly, I give narcissists the credit for being the best teachers I ever had. I became a student of the narcissist, and you can, too. Once you are a student your awareness will grow. You'll come to understand that a narcissist has a way of being that is different from yours, and you'll find ways to interact or create distance that work for you, rather than exhaust you or put you at risk. At some point, you'll find that you're done with that class.

You can start now with this final thought: you may not be perfect, but there is nothing wrong with you.

For more by Melissa Schenker, click here.

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