They're on a spectrum, an expert says, and some are far tougher than others.
You hear the narcissist label used quite a lot these days—in ordinary conversation, in news articles, on television. Most people use the word to describe men and women who think a little too well of themselves and don’t have much regard for the feelings of others. It’s often deployed as a put-down and in the realm of politics, an attack weapon.
Listening to the way narcissist is commonly used, you might get the impression that all narcissists conform to a consistent pattern. But narcissism actually occurs along a continuum of expressions, with healthy self-esteem at one end and narcissistic personality disorder at the other. Even men and women who demonstrate its more toxic forms—those I refer to as “Extreme Narcissists” inmy new book
don’t act alike. They have differing personality types and different modes of shoring up a grandiose self-image. They also affect your self-esteem in different ways when they interact with you.
From least to most toxic, here are five types of Extreme Narcissist you might encounter, with some advice for ways to handle them (and yourself) when you come into conflict. (Each type can, of course, be of any gender.) Bear in mind that Extreme Narcissists always need to prove that they are “winners” in comparison to other people they view as “losers,” though their methods vary.
The Know-It-All Narcissist
This person is always eager to give her opinion, even when unsolicited, and believes she knows more than anyone else, no matter the topic under conversation. She likes to lecture, and she has a hard time listening because she’s too busy thinking about what she wants to say next.
- How to Cope: If possible, ignore her “helpful” suggestions, or offer polite thanks and move on. A direct challenge will most likely lead her to escalate her efforts in order to prove herself as more clever or better informed. You might also try modeling humility and expressing a flexible point of view. Be open to her views without necessarily endorsing them. It also helps to have a sense of humor. If you’re not triggered by her superior or condescending manner, you might find the Know-It-All Narcissist a bit absurd and ultimately harmless.
The Grandiose Narcissist
This type more clearly demonstrates a familiar kind of narcissism we all recognize: He sees himself as more important, and more influential, than everyone else. He touts his own accomplishments, exaggerates their importance, and wants to elicit your envy or admiration. He believes he is destined for great things. When charismatic and driven, his achievements may actually match his ambition and you may find yourself drawn into an admiring orbit around him.
- How to Cope: His assertions of superiority might make you want to stand up for yourself and compete. Don’t. Any challenge will only cause him to escalate his efforts to appear superior. On the other hand, you may find yourself drawn to a Grandiose Narcissist with charisma because you want to share in his superiority. He might strike you as a sort of celebrity, a person you’d like to submit to and serve. Be careful not to give too much: The Grandiose Narcissist won’t feel grateful and will do nothing to help you unless there’s something in it for him. If necessary, he will discard you without a second thought.
The Seductive Narcissist
Unlike the other types of Extreme Narcissist discussed here, this one manipulates you by making you feel good about yourself. At first, she will appear to admire or even idealize you, but her ultimate goal is to make you feel the same way about her so she can use you. She wants your support and admiration and will flatter you in order to get it. But when she has no further use for you, she’ll give you the cold shoulder.
- How to Cope: It helps to be humble. Don’t be swayed by flattery or excessive admiration, as wonderful as it may feel to receive it. Watch how she treats other people who may be her rivals or cast-offs. Seeing them suffer under her callous indifference might give you a glimpse into your own future, once you’ve outlived your usefulness.
The Bullying Narcissist
This is the man who builds himself up by humiliating other people. Though he may share common traits with the Grandiose or Know-it-All Narcissist, he is more brutal about the way he asserts his superiority. He often relies on contempt to make others feel like losers, proving himself a winner in the process. He will belittle and mock you, and when he needs something from you, he may become threatening. At his most toxic, he will make you doubt yourself and your value as a human being.
- How to Cope: As cowardly as this may sound, the best thing to do is avoid ruffling his massive ego. Don’t fight back in obvious ways to stand up for yourself: A direct challenge will only escalate his assault on your personality. In the face of his attacks, you’ll need a very strong belief in your own self-worth, without having to prove it, and if you find you can’t bear such treatment in silence, you might want to put as much distance between you two as you can manage.
The Vindictive Narcissist
While it’s possible to co-exist with a Bullying Narcissist, provided you don’t pose too obvious a threat, once you become the target of a Vindictive Narcissist, she will try to destroy you. You may have challenged her superior status in some way you don’t even recognize, and as a result, she needs to prove you the ultimate loser by destroying you. She’ll talk trash about you to friends and family. She might try to get you fired. If she is your ex-wife, she might try to turn your children against you and spend years tying you up in family court.
- How to Cope: Whenever possible, distance yourself before the damage to your psyche and your reputation has gone too far. More so than with the other types of Extreme Narcissist, your approach here must be legalistic: Vindictive Narcissists often know how to disguise their true nature from people other than their victims, so your survival will depend upon having hard evidence. Preserve everything, especially toxic emails, texts, and other communication. Get witness statements from any friends who may have been spectators to the behavior. If necessary, hire a lawyer.