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Can a Narcissistic Boss bullying you make your work life a catastrophe?

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I could crap on about myself for days. But - I'd rather tell you that because of my own experience with Childhood Emotional Neglect and the work I've done on myself and others - that I'm passionate as hell about helping YOU.

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Narcissistic Boss

Estimated reading time: 13 minutes

You’ve just been the target of one of your boss’ self-absorbed self-centred and “I’m always right” tirades again.  It feels as though all the blood has drained from your body, you’re shaking, and you feel sick. Or angry. Or powerless. Or deeply humiliated.  Maybe all of these.

If this is the effect your boss has on you, they may be a Narcissist and, in this case, you must change your mindset and attitude towards them fast or you’ll get burnout in no time. 

Firstly, a disclaimer:

Not everyone who is bossy, or a micromanager, is a Narcissist. Not everyone you see as a “bad person” is a Narcissist. 

Don’t just label your egotistical boss a Narcissist.

There’s a difference between someone who’s an egomaniac and full of self-importance and someone who has a narcissistic personality or Narcissistic Personality Disorder.  And – yes, these are two different beasts too.

One of the fundamental problems with actual Narcissists lies in the fact that Narcissism is often mistaken for leadership potential during the hiring process. 

Narcissists can appear very charismatic – they have been fine-tuning this their whole lives.  When people are overconfident, unaware of having any limitations, and when they display grandiose and megalomaniac aspirations they often come across as competitive, tough, and leader-like even in the absence of actual leadership talents.

So – let’s start by identifying your boss’ particular brand of narcissism. 

Overt, or obviously domineering narcissists are easy to spot because of their shameless demands for attention and control.  But more covert, or hidden narcissists are passive-aggressive and often make a huge effort to conceal their selfishness and appear to be a do-gooder in public.

Covert narcissism often involves more internalized signs. People with these traits still feel unappreciated, need admiration, have contempt for those they consider inferior, and believe they should get special treatment. But instead of displaying outward grandiosity, they may privately fantasize about having their special qualities recognized or getting revenge on people they believe have insulted or wronged them in some way.

People with covert narcissism may feel superior to co-workers or supervisors, believe they’re the most intelligent or best at what they do and have fantasies of being elevated above others. They may envy peers who do receive recognition, believing others don’t understand or appreciate them. This may contribute to interpersonal difficulties or subtle bullying.

So – here you are with a Narcissistic Boss who has charmed their way into a management position – who management may support and be charmed by – but who has little respect for their peers – let alone anyone on their teams.

A great example of things you may hear is this little ditty called Narcissist’s Prayer:

“That didn’t happen and if it did it wasn’t that bad and if it was that’s not a big deal and if it is that’s not my fault and if it was I didn’t mean it And if I did you deserved it.” – Narcissist Prayer Anon – source unknown. 

  • Narcissistic bosses tend to only talk about themselves and rarely listen to other people’s ideas.
  • Narcissistic bosses take credit for other people’s work and blame other people for their own mistakes.
  • Narcissistic bosses can’t build meaningful connections with others.  Therefore, Narcissistic individuals can appear charming in short-term interactions but are crap at actually maintaining any type of relationship.
  • Narcissistic bosses appear vain.    They care a hell of a lot about how they look and a lot less about whether they’re polite or how they might appear to people on other character-based levels.  They will also purchase expensive items to make themselves look better and then mention these things a lot.  Like A LOT.
  • Narcissistic bosses are often offended and angry when their ideas or beliefs are questioned or criticised.  Therefore, they often retaliate or attack anyone who disagrees with them.  They see this as a threat.
  • Narcissistic bosses are incredibly self-absorbed, self-admiring, self-centred, and self-obsessed.  They often only work hard when someone’s watching.  They’re quick to claim credit and/or assign blame.  They will throw anyone under the bus, so they look good.
  • A Narcissistic boss spends an enormous amount of time thinking about achieving power, influence, and success.  As a result, there’s a tendency to lie and exaggerate the truth so they feel self-important.
  • A Narcissistic boss never EVER feels they’re the problem.  They have go-to scapegoats, or they may pick employees seemingly at random to be tagged with the blame when something goes wrong.
  • Narcissists create cultures that are toxic and workplaces that are poisonous.  Many don’t realise the damage they cause and the stress they create.  Some do realise and don’t care.
  • A Narcissistic leader lacks empathy.  Expect them to have a hard time understanding other points of view, relating to what people are feeling and communicating meaningfully.
  • Many narcissistic leaders have a short fuse that can be ignited quickly, at least some (and maybe all of the time).
  • The narcissistic leader is not an open person and listening to feedback is not going to happen.  They assume that feedback is grounded in either jealousy or just you are picking a fight and will devalue your opinion even more as a result.
  • May quickly swing from one extreme of treating you like the best employee on the planet and the next moment may threaten to fire you.
  • Narcissistic bosses often compare employees which may even look like pitting them against one another inadvertently or purposefully.  This creates tension, resentment and a lack of unity among employees who are often only focused on saving their own jobs.

So here we are – at a crossroads.  Not everyone can just up and leave – maybe the actual job is a great stepping stone for your career.  Maybe you have a lot of great friendships there.  You might enjoy the work, or you may just not feel you have the courage to leave. Let’s face it – jobs in the climate of COVID are precious and you might just have to find ways to cope.

Let’s get some info under your belt so that we can design strategies to preserve your mental health. 

To cope with your Narcissistic Boss, you must understand them.  The odds are extremely high that they’re never going to change and they’re never going to be easy to work with.

So – Let’s assume you need to ride this out.  Grab a drink, sit down and listen carefully:

  • The worst thing you can do with a Narcissist is do anything to point out their bad behavior – they love attention.  Even negative attention. Instead, learn to respond in a way that keeps you in control of your options and choices.  If you feel yourself reacting, step away, take a minute and regain back your control.
  • Set clear boundaries.  Even if it’s in your head.  Set a firm boundary wherever you need one and stick to it.  This reinforces to your brain that you have your own back and that you are maintaining your personal power.  Remember, boundaries aren’t meant to control others; they’re a guideline for you to know what is and what isn’t acceptable.    Boundaries are a part of self-care – they’re healthy, normal, and necessary.  The Narcissist may not accept them – but remember boundaries are not to control other people but to show respect for yourself.
  • Narcissists thrive on getting a reaction out of someone – especially someone who they feel power over.  They will push you, shame you, call you out, embarrass you and humiliate you but you don’t have to allow any of it to get under your skin
  • Use Emotional Intelligence to manage your thoughts and actions.  And remember that any cruel behavior and words reflect badly on the Narcissist, not you. This is a toughie – but double-check with a good, safe friend if you, for one second, find yourself believing the criticism.
  • A Narcissistic boss has a constant need to be admired by others.  So, refuse to feed the beast. It’s also just as important to remember that the more you feed their bad behavior the worse it will become. Narcissists surround themselves with only two types of people:  those who enable them and who bite their tongue or fawn. Anyone who doesn’t fit into one of these two categories will certainly be fired or banished – and, if the Narcissist has their way, manipulated into thinking it was their own fault.
  • A Narcissist will always portray themselves as a victim who’s innocent in all aspects. When the truth offends them – which is often – they’re quick to lie and tell part-truths.  If you’re dealing with a Narcissistic boss, be ready to do lots of checking up.
  • Don’t argue.  The last thing you want to do is argue with a Narcissist because everything you say and do will be held against you in their own personal court of law (the workplace).  There is a high chance they will do it publicly. Don’t argue or engage but instead make them invisible – the last thing a narcissist wants. The best you can do is to take away their power by making them unimportant and invisible.
  • Stay focused on what’s important.  Working with a narcissistic boss means a constant pull to play by their rules and for everything to revolve around them, with no accountability or responsibility when things go wrong. It’s easy to feel angry and frustrated. That’s when you must take a step back and reconnect with your purpose in being there. So be clear on why you are staying.
  • It can be extremely hard to be extra kind to yourself and do the things that will help you feel better and maintain your self-esteem in this soul-destroying environment. These could include: positive self-talk, taking short breaks to breathe and re-group, coming in early or staying late after your boss leaves so that you can work in a more peaceful environment, planning fun things for yourself before and after work, finding time for exercise, playing music you love if you can, making sure you go outside on breaks and talking to a therapist.
  • Don’t get angry at yourself for not noticing earlier.  It’s easy to be fooled by a Narcissist – at least at first. A Narcissist comes across as charming, charismatic, and confident.  They seem like the kind of person you want to work for – it’s only later that you see the dark side.  Getting down on yourself – or trying to Hard The F$$k Up will not work and will only make you feel worse.
  • I’ve said it once, I’ll say it again. One of the most important things you can do in this situation is to take care of yourself.  After all, working for a Narcissist can be a demeaning and stressful experience.  You’re in self-survival mode and this is not only tiring on your mind and spirit but your body too.  You are in a constant state of fight or flight.
  • Don’t ever assume that they’re genuinely interested in you or your success or wellbeing.  If they are nice to you, read between the lines and work out what their ultimate motive might be.
  • If you want to create as little attention and fuss as possible – and this is perfectly alright – line up your success with your boss’ success. As unfair as it is, your boss only cares when there’s something in it for them and will take ownership of your good ideas and hard work. Find ways to line up your success with theirs, so they feel invested in you doing well.
  • Whether you want to lurk on the sidelines because you love your job or whether you want to be more vocal, consider your boundaries.  Narcissists violate boundaries as a matter of course. Whether your boss burdens you with responsibilities beyond your job description or asks you to do something unethical, think about what you are and are not willing to do for the job and be prepared to accept the consequences of holding those boundaries.
  • Document everything and share details with someone you trust so you have evidence if you need to report abuse.  Communicate in emails.  Always. This is non-negotiable.
  • Do have an exit strategy.   Working for a Narcissist is awful for your self-esteem.  It’s tiring mentally and physically.  No matter how good you may become at managing the situation, it takes a huge toll on your emotional and physical health.  Let yourself dream.  It will tell your brain that you are acting on your physical stress cues.
  • Don’t expect fair play or reciprocity.  Narcissists ignore rules, violate ethics, steal ideas, conduct smear campaigns, deny responsibility, and project and deny their own behavior without a second thought. Instead of apologizing for their mistakes and taking responsibility for the consequences, they twist the facts so that they seem innocent.
  • They will often blame you for pushing them into acting irrationally.  Sadly, most of the time, they might succeed in convincing you it was all your fault.
  • Don’t expect loyalty. Narcissists expect loyalty from others without earning or returning it.  Your boss will not have your back, no matter how much they may tell you they do.
  • Don’t criticize.  The number-one rule about narcissists is that they dish it out but can’t take it. The Narcissist is the first to fault and blame others while being the last to accept critical feedback or take responsibility.  Even a hint of criticism, such as questioning an idea they have, can trigger rage or a host of passive-aggressive punishments.
  • Don’t show your vulnerability.  Narcissists view life as a war zone, with survival at stake and everyone out for themselves.  If you share your feelings or lower your guard, your boss will file the information and use it against you one way or another.
  • Don’t take things personally.  Things can feel very personal with Narcissists.  They inflate your flaws, use your vulnerability, play on your hopes, and always project their own issues and emotions onto you.
  • Don’t expect credit.  In the Narcissist’s zero-sum-game mindset, giving credit to others represents a personal loss for them.
  • Don’t expect credit from your boss and if someone else credits you, be prepared for your boss to take ownership of it. The bottom line with narcissists is that it’s all about them. They don’t see you, don’t think about your needs other than how they can manipulate them, don’t care about your life beyond their place in it, and ultimately relate everything back to themselves.
  • Don’t try to justify, explain, or excuse yourself.  Arguing a point or explaining why you’re late or missed a deadline is futile and likely to cause impatience or contempt.  The Narcissist does not care about your reasons and sees your defense as a weakness to be attacked.
  • Don’t fawn.  Your boss wants your validation and may look to you for bolstering and praise but be careful not to sound insincere.  They’ll smell it. Narcissists are hypervigilant and above all, can’t stand looking stupid or out of control.
  • Don’t put your self-esteem on the line.  We all need to feel a sense of purpose and competence in the work we do, but your worth as a human being should never be part of the equation.  Don’t let your boss make it feel that way.
  • Don’t give up on yourself.  You may come from a background with a Narcissistic Parent or other traumatic circumstances.  Children from these families often replay the dynamics they grew up in within their personal and professional adult relationships until they gain enough awareness to break the pattern.  Get some therapy to stop the pattern.
  • When talking with narcissists, the tone they use can reveal their true intentions.  Simple phrases can have different meanings. Learning how to distinguish genuine from mean intonation will help you tremendously in identifying toxic people.
  • When the conversation becomes serious, and they cannot come up with anything to make themselves seem innocent, they will attack you about irrelevant things such as the way you are talking, look, speak, eat even what you bring for lunch. This way, they will shift your focus from the major issues and will win some time to figure out a way to avoid being held accountable for their own actions. Within seconds, you will find yourself defending your own tone while being completely distracted from the initial problem you were confronting them about.
  • Make sure you never lose focus when it comes to confronting others for issues that they have caused themselves. If you notice someone is trying to distract you, stand up for yourself and don’t let them make you look like the bad guy when you were the one who got hurt in the first place.
  • Repeat one important phrase over and over so that it is understood and doesn’t overexplain. “I did not say that”.  “You have misunderstood me.”  “Let’s look at the email”.  You get my drift. Being judgemental 24/7 is toxic.  Anyone who intentionally ruins others’ self-esteem by making mean comments about them and talking shit behind their backs is toxic.  Let that sink in.

Your mental health is never worth compromising for someone else.  There’s help out there and you can develop coping strategies or even tactics for your exit strategy.

Unfortunately, this behavior in management is becoming more prevalent for people who see me, so you are not alone.

And that is exactly the way I want to end – you do not have to do this alone.  Reach out.  Get help.  Find safe places and friends and above all believe your intuition.  Your brain, body, and spirit will thank you.

 

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