When Dealing With a Narcissist, the “Gray Rock” Approach Might Help
Acting dull and uninteresting can undermine a narcissist’s attempts to control.
Posted November 3, 2022 | Reviewed by Gary Drevitch
- Gaslighting, creating drama, and manipulation are go to techniques for many narcissists.
- Narcissists generally don’t see their own behavior realistically and may be incapable of feeling empathy or compassion.
- In the gray rock method, a person does not respond emotionally to any of a narcissist's manipulation attempts.
In the past few decades, and especially the past several years, the term “narcissist” has become an everyday word used to describe a bombastic person interested in little other than themself and their personal desires. Gaslighting (a type of manipulation in which an abuser sows confusion and self-doubt in their victim), creating drama, and manipulation are go-to techniques employed by many narcissists. Perhaps because we’ve become more aware of these traits, it’s easier to derive when someone in our life displays narcissistic tendencies.
Recently, a new technique has emerged to help in dealing with narcissists. It’s called gray rock or gray rocking. But before we get into how it works, let’s refresh our knowledge of narcissism.
What narcissism looks like
The following are some symptoms of narcissistic personality disorder:
- Believing that you're better than others.
- Fantasizing about power, success, and attractiveness.
- Exaggerating your achievements or talents.
- Expecting constant praise and admiration.
- Believing that you're special and acting accordingly.
- Failing to recognize other people's emotions and feelings.
If you know someone with a narcissistic personality, or work with one, remember that they generally don’t see their own behavior realistically, and may be incapable of feeling much empathy or compassion. They may treat your good-natured concern as a hostile intrusion into their universe. To illustrate the point, following are some examples of how narcissists might think or react:
- Expecting others to go along with their ideas and plans.
- Taking advantage of others and wondering “What’s the big deal?”
- Expressing disdain for those they feel are inferior.
- Being jealous of others about any and everything.
- Believing that others are jealous of them because everybody wants to be them.
- Trouble keeping healthy relationships with family, friends, coworkers, and romantic partners.
- Setting unrealistic goals like being the greatest [fill in the blank] of all time.
- Being easily hurt and rejected and not getting over it for a long time, if ever.
- Having a fragile self-esteem and not understanding why people don’t recognize that they are a special, delicate person.
- Appearing as tough-minded or unemotional.
Think you're the narcissist?
There may be times in our lives when we display some of the traits shared above. Maybe we were raised in a life of privilege or with a sense of entitlement or had little or no contact with more diverse groups of people and so we have no reference to understand their points of view. Or maybe we were raised by a narcissistic parent and unintentionally developed some of their traits. If you are aware that you do some of these things and that bothers you, you probably aren’t actually a narcissist. Here are a few quick tips to help you get on the train to deeper understanding and greater compassion:
- Challenge yourself as soon as you notice your undesired behavior.
- Stop the behavior.
- Sincerely apologize if this behavior offended someone.
- Vow to do better in the future.
The gray rock method
In a nutshell, the gray rock method is a technique in which a person does not respond emotionally to attempts to be manipulated by someone who is controlling or narcissistic. Instead, one acts like a “gray rock”: dull and boring. By being emotionally detached from the narcissist, one weakens their attempts, causing them to become uninterested in the pursuit because it removes what the narcissist wants: full attention.
Many of us have experienced the challenge of having a narcissistic family member, friend, romantic partner, or coworker. The narcissist in our life may be emotionally, verbally, and/or physically abusive to some degree. Although terminating the relationship would be ideal, it may be difficult or impossible with this person at this time.
In the gray rock method, it’s important not to ignore the narcissist. However, decreasing conversations and answering in short replies can help limit additional conversation. If possible, exchanges should center on tedious topics; if queried, strive to use short answers without adding an opinion. When a narcissist tries to trigger an emotional response, deploy gestures like smiling and nodding to limit further discussion.
The narcissist in your life probably won’t give up easily. In fact, for a while, they might try harder to get your attention. But in time, they’ll likely move on to someone else because you’ve proven to be too difficult to engage—and too bland. The following tips explain how to use gray rock in greater detail:
- Disengage. A narcissist will work to get your reaction in order to try to control you. Instead of becoming defensive, be nonreactive, speak in a dull voice, keep a neutral look on your face, avoid eye contact, and respond with a few words, or with sounds like “mm-hmm." You may feel angry, belittled, or disgusted but don’t show it—that’s the narcissist’s goal. Instead, focus on disengaging from the interaction slowly and peacefully.
- Distract yourself. By being distracted—using your phone, carrying something like a book or file, or internally focusing on a loved one—you create a buffer of emotional distance. This is especially helpful if the person intensifies efforts to engage you negatively. You are undercutting their attempt to manipulate you, and they’ll soon grow bored with trying to engage you in their world.
- Keep it brief. When possible, keep interactions brief and limited. Your responses should be short. Avoid divulging too much, or anything positive or negative about your life. Also, avoid asking the other person about their life. Be aloof and disengaged. Remember: You’re protecting yourself and avoiding unhealthy behaviors.
- Don’t reveal that you’re using this method. A narcissist needs to control others and uses manipulation to get what they want. They crave attention and approval. So never tell the person what you’re doing, or that you’re using the gray rock method. If they find out that you’re purposefully trying to be boring, they might use this knowledge to try to manipulate you.
Using the gray rock method can be excruciating, especially if you’re using it on someone very close to you. But if gray rocking is appropriate, and it’s done well, it can create distance between you and the person trying to manipulate you. Gray rocking may mean you have to subdue your needs for love and attention, so make sure your other relationships provide healthy ways to fulfill your needs. If the burden is too great to bear, consider seeking help from a professional to learn additional coping skills and get guidance. A therapist can be an invaluable resource if the gray rock method isn’t ideal for your situation.
Your brighter future
Severing toxic relationships may be the best solution, but when it’s not an option, the gray rock method can help protect you from emotional trauma due to destructive exchanges. It removes the drama or attention a narcissist craves and reduces your unhealthy interactions. However, dealing with gaslighting and manipulation can be emotionally draining. Remember to focus on the good things in your life, like recent past positive experiences you’ve had. Start making plans for your brighter future, because it’s out there waiting for you. Finally, strive to live a fulfilling and more meaningful present with, or maybe without, the narcissist in your picture frame.
Smith, T. (2022). Gray Rock Method. Hollywood, FL: e-counseling.
Villinis, Z. (2022). What is the Grey Rock Method? Brighton, UK: Medical News Today.
Zimbardo, P., Sword, R. (2017). Living and Loving Better. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company.