As a writer and journalist, I’ve been lucky enough to have a long, varied and exciting (and sometimes too exciting) career. A few years ago, I worked with a genuine, bona fide narcissist. The kind of man who once bragged about his diagnosis while dismissing the “asshole shrink” who made it.
Without going into too much detail, here are a few things you can expect from a narcissist in a position of power:
He won’t take responsibility for mistakes. At most, he will force himself to pretend to take responsibility, while scheming to shirk it in the end anyway. He will, however, hog credit for successes, whether they are his or not. This is why you absolutely have to stop being shocked when Trump says a nasty lie about the CIA and then doesn’t care about the consequences. He will never care. Consequences are for losers.
Everything is always someone else’s fault, and he’ll mess with your head to keep it that way. Here’s a classic exchange between me and my old colleague:
Him: … And let’s focus on that topic tomorrow.
***day goes by***
Me: …So I was writing about this topic and I think…
Him: [Screaming, interrupting] WHY AREN’T YOU FOCUSED ON THIS OTHER TOPIC INSTEAD? THIS IS A NIGHTMARE. YOU’RE A NIGHTMARE. WHAT’S WRONG WITH YOU? WHAT KIND OF A JOURNALIST ARE YOU?
Me: But you said…
Him: [More screaming, more interrupting] I NEVER SAID THAT.
Basically, you couldn’t have a normal conversation with my colleague, because every conversation was a battle he had to win. If he found himself in a corner, he just lied.
You can’t appeal to a narcissist’s morals and ethics. For them, morals are a weakness and you’ll lose their respect for trying. You’ll never persuade them with ethical arguments, but don’t let that corrupt your own moral compass in the process. When I was being verbally abused by my narcissist colleague, I worked hard to keep the moral high ground. When he insisted that the world was upside-down, it was necessary to keep right and wrong clear in my own head. Why should someone sick like that set the standard for my behavior, let alone explain my reality?
Don’t waste your time expecting a narcissist to change. Before Trump won, there was all this talk about how he’ll become more “presidential” should he win, because he will realize the gravity of his responsibility. Hahaha — what a joke!
Now people are telling you that it’s OK, Trump will be “presidential” when he’s sworn in. Those people are wrong. You know, sometimes it’s necessary to admit that things are exactly as bad as they seem. I did it. You can too. This doesn’t mean you get to sink into a deep, apathetic depression about the state of things, it just means facing what is happening to our country and society head on. The emperor is naked, but you won’t go blind looking at him.
Disengagement is always the best policy, but when you can’t disengage, remember to not let the narcissist play you off other people. Narcissists can’t form healthy bonds with others, and therefore do their best to destroy others’ healthy bonds through divide and conquer tactics.
My narcissist colleague would badmouth others around me, trying to make me feel like his special confidante. I realized he was badmouthing me to others simultaneously. I wasn’t important to him, I was just being isolated and used. Look at how Trump humiliated Mitt Romney. Trump didn’t do it because he’s some brilliant tactician, he did it because he pathologically dominates others.
Speaking of “brilliant tacticians” — don’t buy in to the image of grandiosity these people like to project. Narcissists fake it ‘till they make it. They bluster, and people give in to the bluster. This doesn’t mean that they are smarter than you, it just means that they’re better at the game of “chicken.”
I noticed that my colleague liked to surround himself with people who were conscientious and, in many ways, vulnerable to him precisely because they were conscientious. He enjoyed making people feel guilty and insecure. This kind of abuse is so rampant because it’s everyone’s best kept secret — those of us who have been abused elsewhere are perfect targets for further abuse.
Anarcissistic leader won’t inspire genuine loyalty in his inner circle, which is why he forces compliance. People have mercenary approaches to narcissists in power: “Oh, I just need the money,” or “Oh, let’s see what he can do for me,” that kind of stuff. Sadly, those who stick around too long get “Stockholm syndrome-ed” to the point of no return. Just look at Trump’s marriage. Melania acts like his well-coached prisoner, not his wife.
Meanwhile, does someone like Kellyanne Conway look like a true believer to you? Please. This lack of loyalty is precisely why narcissists are always working with incomplete information. It is their primary weakness and must be exploited.
These people have big plans they often can’t deliver on. They’re too bored, enraged or hysterical, which are not particularly efficient emotions. Or it’s because hard work is rarely glamorous and seemingly unrewarding at first. Or maybe it’s because they spend all their time hiring and firing their latest favorites.
You’re going to argue, “But Trump made billions.” Says Trump. We can’t check that fact because he’s shady and avoids all accountability. He won’t even make his tax returns public.
We do know he had his father’s support, and a narcissist’s knack for abusing others’ vulnerability. It’s why he’s such an effective sexist and racist, though maybe not such a brilliant businessman. In short, Trump succeeded because money makes more money, not due to his great ideas. Don’t let the lifestyle and the babes surrounding him fool you.
I remember how my colleague would say literally anything just to maintain the appearance of power and control. People who didn’t know him took him at his word. But observing him closely, I became disillusioned. Seeing his lies for what they were helped protect my sense of self from his verbal assaults.
Narcissistic leaders need adulation and refuse to listen to things they don’t want to hear (i.e., the truth). Besides vulnerable folks, my old colleague had to surround himself with incompetent people who made him the center of their universe (sometimes the vulnerability and the incompetence overlapped). He mistook empty praise for loyalty.
This is why members of the press should be wary about falling into Trump’s trap. He will seek to punish anyone who in any way deviates from him, because the truth is a betrayal of his worldview. And his worldview is the only one that matters.
If you’re a journalist who depends on access — you’re going to have an especially hard time. Use your access for good. Stockpile what you know. Stay organized.
Narcissists in power do everything they can to drain you of your energy. They are relentless. They argue, cajole, whip up hysteria, insult, demand that you please them, etc. It’s important to keep quiet about what you value, because they will go nuclear just to take it from you and force you into submission.
The bottom line with a narcissist is that they demand that all attention be focused on them, at all times. If you can’t disengage, don’t try and reason with them. You must learn to conserve your energy, pick your battles, and just. remember. to. breathe.
In summation, I’d like to be completely honest — You are not going to win with powerful narcissists when you play their games. The minute you’ve started playing, you’ve already lost.
But being realistic about the person you’re dealing with will save your mental health. Don’t let them into your head to prey on your insecurities.
I’ll be even more honest — these people do real psychological damage. This is why self-care is important, and why the Anti-Nihilist Institute will be focusing on self-care a lot this month, and in the months to come.
Stay tuned! And don’t forget to follow us on Twitter.
Originally published on December 15, 2016.