Narcissists are people who want to be socially dominant. They want the power, property, and prestige that go along with having a high social rank. However, they don’t know good ways to get those things. So instead, they try to bamboozle or bully other people. For this reason, narcissists often play “mind games.”
Narcissists play to win, and they play dirty. If you are a sane and decent person, the only way that you can “win” these games is by refusing to play. Yet if you avoid conflict altogether, you will be chased away from the things that matter to you. For this reason, you have to learn to set and enforce boundaries.
King of the hill
Narcissists are obsessed with power and social rank. For this reason, they will try to turn practically everything into some sort of contest, especially one that is rigged in their favor. Nearly all of their games are variations on “king of the hill.” However, the hill in question is seldom worth the fight. So whenever a narcissist tries to embroil you in some conflict, ask yourself, “Is this the hill I want to die on?”
Of course, if you walk away from the conflict after it has started, the narcissist will declare victory, and you will lose ground. If this keeps happening, the narcissist will eventually take over everything that matters to you. There are two possible solutions to this problem. One is to disentangle yourself from the narcissist, so that you can avoid getting involved in any of those pointless struggles. If you cannot disentangle yourself from the narcissist, at least try to find a referee. If the narcissist is one of your coworkers, get your manager to set and enforce some rules.
Heads I win, tails you lose
Ordinary parlor games, like poker or chess, have clear, objective rules for deciding who has won and who has lost. Narcissists would much rather play games in which they can adjust the rules as they go along, so that they can always declare themselves to be the winner. From the narcissist’s perspective, the point of the game is to win by any means necessary. So in general, you should avoid playing any sort of game with a narcissist unless there will be a rulebook, a referee, and a prize that is so valuable that it is worth the price that you will pay for winning. Of course, narcissists tend to avoid those kinds of contests because they cannot ensure that they will win.
Mirror, mirror on the wall
Narcissists worship themselves, and they expect other people to worship them, too. In fact, narcissists love to surround themselves with submissive, co-dependent people who give them meaningless praise and unearned respect. These goodies are called narcissistic goods or narcissistic supply.
Like Snow White’s evil stepmother, narcissists want to hear you say that they are “the fairest of them all.” From the narcissist’s perspective, the praise that you provide is merely a sign of your submission. They really don’t care about your opinions. If you give any answer that is less than worshipful, the narcissist may throw a tantrum, to bully you into submission. These tantrums are called narcissistic rage. A raging narcissist may become dangerous to you or to somebody else.
From your perspective, giving any sort of feedback to a narcissist is a lose-lose proposition. If you praise them, you give them the impression that you are submitting to them. And if you criticize them, then all heck can break lose. So it is often best to avoid giving them any feedback at all.
If you do not provide the narcissistic supply that the narcissist so desperately craves, the narcissist may resort to a tactic called gaslighting. The term comes from the movie Gaslight. In that movie, a jewel thief marries an unsuspecting woman, so that he can steal jewels and other valuables from her late aunt’s estate. However, the woman starts to get suspicious when valuables start to go missing, when she hears noises from the attic, and when the gas-fueled lights in the home start to flicker. When she starts to voice concerns, her new husband keeps the con going by making her doubt her own sanity.
The criminal in Gaslight was a sociopath, but narcissists often do a similar thing. The narcissist might not be after your jewelry. Instead, the narcissist may simply want to dominate you, body and soul. To dominate you, the narcissist may have to convince you that you have a mental illness. If you let the narcissist erode your trust in your own memory and your own common sense, the result can be a form of madness called a folie à deux (the madness of two), which is when two people share a set of delusional beliefs.
This is the only game that you could possibly win, if you are playing with a narcissist. The trick is to keep away without being chased away from the things that matter to you. Thus, you must learn how to set and enforce boundaries. Often, you will need some help in enforcing those boundaries.
When you start setting and enforcing boundaries, you may realize that the narcissistic relative or coworker who is bullying you is not your only problem. You may realize that you are dealing with a dysfunctional family or a hostile work environment, in which the bully is being aided and abetted by his or her “flying monkeys.” Fortunately, you can go “no contact” with your abusive relatives. Rather than wasting your time and treasure on people who do not care about you, work on building deep friendships with people who truly care about you. If your relatives (especially your ex-partner) refuses to respect your boundaries, you may have to get a restraining order. At that point, the police should be on your side.
If you are being bullied at work, you might simply start looking for a better job. You might even be able to win a lawsuit if the abuse at work was based on race or sex. In other words, if your management is dysfunctional, the legal system might serve as the referee that you need.
Photo by Matthew Oliphant