Psychologist Stephen Johnson writes that the narcissist is someone who has “buried his true self-expression in response to early injuries and replaced it with a highly developed, compensatory false self.” This alternate persona to the real self often comes across as grandiose, “above others,” manipulative, self-absorbed, and highly insensitive.
It’s not easy when you’re negatively impacted by the machinations of a chronic narcissist, especially if that individual is your romantic partner, parent, child, relative, friend, coworker, or supervisor. How do you tell someone that he or she is behaving narcissistically? Here are four effective communication ideas, with references from my books How to Successfully Handle Narcissists and A Practical Guide for Narcissists to Change Towards the Higher Self. The first two tips are indirect, and the second two are direct. Use them as appropriate depending on the situation.
1. Ask Clarifying Questions
A good way to diplomatically call someone’s attention to his or her narcissistic behavior is to ask clarifying questions. For example, when you observe the narcissist making unreasonable requests or demands (such as expecting you to always do things their way, or manipulating you to cater to their selfish needs), put the focus on the behavior by asking a few probing questions to see if the narcissist has enough self-awareness to recognize the inequity of the scheme.
- “Does this seem reasonable to you?”
- “Does what you want from me sound fair?”
- “Do I have a say in this?”
- “Are you asking me or telling me?”
- “Are you really expecting me to…?”
When you ask the above questions, you’re putting up a mirror so the narcissist can see the true nature of his or her ploy.
2. Use Humor and Wit
Humor and wit are powerful communication tools. Years ago, I was at a friend’s dinner party when one guest, known for inconsiderate self-absorption, was consuming a disproportionate amount of an appetizer. When the host commented that the appetizer, a delicacy divided evenly for each guest, was meant to be shared, the narcissist said dismissively, “I’m OK,” and helped himself to even more. “Of course you’re OK,” the host replied with good-natured humor, “because that’s all that matters.” The guest finally got the hint, and behaved politely the rest of the evening.
When appropriately used, humor and wit can shine light on the truth, disarm difficult behavior, and show that you have superior composure.
3. Separate the Behavior from the Person
An often effective way to point out a person’s narcissism, while at the same time allowing the individual flexibility to change, is to separate the behavior from the person. For instance, instead of stating “you’re a narcissist,” say “you’re acting like a narcissist,” or “this [specify the behavior] is narcissistic.”
“You’re a narcissist” implies that this is just how a person is, and that there’s no way to change. On the other hand, saying “you’re acting like a narcissist” or “this behavior is narcissistic” suggests that the person has the ability to change by making different, better choices.
4. Ask Directly Whether the Individual Is a Narcissist
The final tip is simply to ask a person who’s showing a clear pattern of narcissistic traits, “Are you a narcissist?" or, “Do you consider yourself a narcissist?" These blunt questions may seem surprising, but research indicates that many narcissists, when confronted on the subject, not only openly admit to their narcissism, but take pride in it. Since narcissists often feel inferior within, bragging about their egocentric exterior provides temporary distraction from their deep sense of inadequacy.
Of course, it often takes more than an indirect or even a direct reminder to compel a narcissist to become more reasonable, to reconsider his or her actions, or to treat you with respect.
For more tips on how to deal with narcissists, see my books How to Successfully Handle Narcissists and A Practical Guide for Narcissists to Change Towards the Higher Self.
© 2017 by Preston C. Ni. All rights reserved worldwide. Copyright violation may subject the violator to legal prosecution.
Carlson, E.N. Honestly arrogant or simply misunderstood? Narcissists' awareness of their narcissism. Self and Identity. (2013)
Konrath, S., Meier, B.P., & Bushman, B.J. Development and validation of the single item narcissism scale (SINS). PLoS ONE. (2014)
van der Linden, S., & Rosenthal, S.A. Measuring narcissism with a single question? A replication and extension of the Single-Item Narcissism Scale (SINS). Personality and Individual Differences. (2016)