Security professionals face a lot of challenges, whether dealing with adversaries trying to breach networks or employees who may be malicious or negligent when it comes to security policy. It's vital that your team and organization feel confident in your ability to do your job and trust your professional intentions so that you can lead — and that hard job gets harder if you have to deal with a narcissist.
Narcissism — more specifically, narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) — is a serious problem, and I don't mean to imply people who have it are inherently mean. While I'm not a mental health professional, I have been the target of a narcissist more than once, both personally and professionally. Through those difficult experiences, I've learned a few things about how to handle a narcissist. Although this isn't exclusive to security, it is an important career topic, and I'd like to share those tips with you in this piece.
What Is Narcissistic Personality Disorder?
First off, if you aren't familiar with narcissism and NPD, there is plenty of reading material from a number of reliable and reputable sources on the topic. I encourage you to read about it to better educate yourself. In particular, I have found articles explaining manipulative tactics used by narcissists to be the most helpful. You may recognize certain behaviors you've experienced in the past and begin to wonder whether you were dealing with a narcissist.
It might surprise you to learn that somewhere between 1% and 5% of the general population has NPD. That means that most of us likely know someone who has it. If that is the case, you might ask, why are so many people unfamiliar with the issue? There are many reasons why, though the narcissist's ability to present favorably in public, recruit and co-opt support, lie without thinking of it as wrong, manipulate situations, and punish their targets privately behind closed doors is a big part of it.
Before we get into how to handle a narcissist, it is helpful to familiarize yourself with a few of the tactics narcissists may use:
- Gaslighting (deliberately presenting false narratives to someone, leading them to doubt their perceptions and question their sanity)
- Impression management (charming others in an attempt to recruit and co-opt support)
- Vilifying the victim/playing the victim (attempting to make it seem like the victim is the aggressor and vice versa)
- Projection (projecting what they do onto others and accusing them of doing it)
- Abusive tactics (belittling, bullying, attacking, criticizing, raging, ridiculing, and mocking, among others)
- Burden of proof (you need to prove your statements, but they do not need to prove theirs)
- False compromise (presenting the idea of compromise when there are clearly sensible and nonsensible choices)
- Future faking/empty promises
- Slogans (catchphrases intended to shut down all discussion)
- Deflection, diversion, and evasion (when cornered, caught in a lie, asked a difficult question, or confronted with a difficult situation)
- Emotional blackmail (leveraging something you crave, such as praise or acknowledgment, and withholding it until you do what they want)
- Silent treatment (a form of rage that involves complete withdrawal from the conversation)
- Moving the goalposts (no matter how much you do or how hard you work, you can never achieve anything or be good enough since the metrics keep changing)
There are many more destructive tactics that narcissists employ, though these should give you the general idea.
5 Ways to Deal With a Narcissist
Now that you have a better idea of what you're up against, what can you do when you become the target of a narcissist? Unfortunately, not as much as you might hope. That being said, here are my top five tips. (These tips work when you're targeted by anyone who intends you harm, but they're particularly vital when that person might not even see what they're doing as wrong.)
1. Document everything: Write everything down. Narcissists are skilled liars and manipulators. They have no problem telling you something and then later denying they said it. They also have no problem telling others that you said something you didn't, quoting you out of context, or twisting your words. It is preferable to communicate with a narcissist in writing only, though if you need to communicate verbally, ensure there are witnesses and send out written summaries immediately afterward.
2. Disengage: A narcissist wants you to engage emotionally. That is one way they get you to lose focus on what is important and drag you into an argument. Do not engage with them emotionally on anything. Nothing good will come of it as they lack true empathy, even though they might be good at faking it.
3. Stay on topic: Ignore the bait thrown at you continuously. Stay focused on the topic at hand and do not respond to tactics designed to get you off topic and drag you into (yep, you guessed it) an argument.
4. Know you are not alone: You are far from the only victim of a narcissist. Unfortunately, it is difficult for victims of narcissists to network and share experiences, as the narcissist and their co-opted accomplices will work tirelessly to shut down any public or semi-public dialogue around the topic. Others who have been the victims of narcissists will see your struggle and will often approach you privately to share their stories and offer support. You can do the same when you're ready.
5. Do not expect support from the masses: I have seen narcissists easily fool psychiatrists, psychologists, therapists, social workers, clergy, and others to the point where those individuals aren't even interested in looking at objective facts and written documentation on the situation.
You Can Survive
The sad reality is that when a skilled narcissist is intent on harming you, there is no winning. But if you focus on the points above, you will survive being the target of the narcissist. While there will be pain along the way, you will emerge from the experience stronger and better for it.
Narcissism and NPD are dangerous forces in both your personal and professional worlds. They create difficult situations that are hard to remedy. Narcissists tend not to seek therapy because they generally lack the self-awareness required to know that they need mental help. At the same time, those recruited and co-opted by narcissists are, by design, unable to see the narcissist for who they truly are. As such, you may find that outing a narcissist is nearly impossible and will most often result in you getting harmed rather than the narcissist.
When you find yourself the unfortunate target of a narcissist, it is much more effective to familiarize yourself with the narcissist's tactics and learn how to survive their slings and arrows. This too shall pass.