01/26/2015 09:45 am ET Updated Mar 28, 2015

How to Spot and Disarm a Narcissist

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How often have you met someone new and been won over by their charm? Or perhaps there's a rising star at work who seems to do everything right and knows just what to say, never missing a beat in his or her flawlessness. Or maybe you have a friend who always seems to get his or her needs met through you, yet always manages to find a way to make you feel special. Although these scenarios can be taken at face value, they can also be indicative of someone's narcissism at play. Although a small dose of narcissism can actually be healthy, there's a very fine line between what is normal and what is pathological.

Here's what it is:

Narcissism in its purest form is a personality disorder that occurs more in males than in females and is found in approximately 6.2% of the general population. The disorder causes the person to look eternally for a view that will reflect him or her as Mr. or Ms. Wonderful. The Narcissist has a low self esteem, feels empty inside, and often lacks the ability to genuinely connect with people. This might be the result of an early trauma or a tumultuous home life early on. This then led to isolation and a false persona to protect him or her from people who may have been unhealthy. This persona may have taken on the form of the tough guy, the nice guy, or the charming life of the party. It protected the person then and continues to later in life. He or she attempts to gain a sense of self (usually pseudo) through external sources such as friends, family, colleagues, and lovers.

Another possible explanation is that little Johnny was doted on by his parents and always made to feel super special. His parents showed him off to people and the praise felt good. As an adult this doesn't come so easily so Johnny tries to recreate that experience.

The person measures his or her success by over-inflating his accomplishments. For example, salary may be inflated, as well as status, affiliation with successful people, likeability by others, and power. People are objectified and looked at by the narcissist as a means to success, e.g. "How can this person help me to reach my goals or make me look good?" Perfectionism is also common with a Narcissist. On the inside they feel worthless and insecure so they strive to undo that through keeping order and striving for the best.

The Essential Characteristics:

  • Has a grandiose sense of self-importance. This may be shown by an exaggeration of achievements or talents and his or her desire to be recognized as superior even though there's a lack of commensurate achievement or evidence to back up his or her claims. So, for example if the person took one law class as an undergraduate he may then think he's an expert and can provide legal advice.
  • Is preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love. He or she may spend more time than is healthy daydreaming about the aforementioned rather than taking steps to actually reach such goals.

  • Believes that he or she is "special" and unique and can only be understood by a select few, usually high status people or institutions. For example, the patient who will only see doctors who appear on television as an expert or who are world renowned.
  • Requires excessive admiration. He or she will get it at all costs.
  • Has a sense of entitlement. The person expects to be treated differently than others. His expectations are usually unreasonable.
  • Exploitative. Simply put: he or she takes advantage of others to achieve his or her own needs.
  • Lacks empathy. The person is unwilling to recognize or identify with the feelings or needs of others. They may appear as cold, aloof, or disconnected emotionally.
  • Envious. The person may be envious of others or feel that others are envious of him or her.
  • The person is arrogant and shows haughty behaviors or attitudes towards others.

How to Handle a Narcissist:

  • Recognize one and know what one is. Having this knowledge will be helpful. You'll be able to make a distinction between what is normal and healthy, and what is not.
  • Separate hyperbole from fact. Think about what the person actually delivers on? Are promises empty or does he or she come through with them? Keep your expectations in check.
  • Be careful with your language. Narcissists have a very low tolerance for frustration and are easily set off. To blame the person might trigger a rage. Instead make the person feel special, i.e. "Can you help me to understand this?" This will empower the person all while hopefully getting them to clarify for you.
  • Keep your cool. Showing that you're upset will likely reinforce the behavior of the narcissist. They will feel encouraged by your reaction and continue to behave in ways that elicit the same response by you.
  • Put your needs first. If you take care of what you want first, then there's less of a chance of you being taken advantage of. Know your needs and aim to fulfill them.
  • Protect yourself. Keep in mind and expect that there may be an ulterior motive.

For more tips on dealing with difficult people and situations check out my book BE FEARLESS: Change Your Life in 28 Days.