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What to do if you are working with a narcissist

Q: Anonymous, Deckhand, 26:

“I joined a yacht three months ago, and the First Mate really has it in for me. He’s always insulting me, taking credit for things I do, and blaming me for his mistakes. Everything I do is undermined. But it’s always when we’re alone, when other people are around he behaves like he’s my best friend. Recently he said to me ‘I’m so sick of lazy idiot Deckhands’, and when I called him out on it he said, ‘You’re so sensitive. Of course I didn’t mean you, I meant all the other lazy Deckhands out there’ (I’m the only Deckhand onboard). When I told the Captain he called the First Mate in, who totally denied ever having said it, and said I must have misheard him. He was so convincing it was incredible, I almost believed him myself! So now the Captain thinks I’m a troublemaker, and the First Mate is seriously out to get me. I’m really struggling with it. I find myself questioning everything I do and getting really nervous – I’m even having difficulty sleeping. I need to serve out the year onboard as it’s my first job. How can I get this guy off my case? I know I can’t make a complaint, as this guy is really well known and respected in the industry, and the Captain clearly isn’t on my side.”

A: The Crew Coach:

I’m afraid it sounds very much like you’re dealing with a narcissist – and his bullying and vindictive behaviour indicates that it’s quite possibly someone with the extreme, pathological form of narcissism, called Narcissistic Personality Disorder. If he is a true NPD rather than just having some narcissistic tendencies, I’m afraid that the evidence shows that there’s very little chance his behaviour will ever change. This may initially seem like terrible news, but in fact, it’s a bit of a relief: there is nothing you can do to change the way he is. All you can do is change how you react to him, and this, thankfully, is entirely under your control.
This quiz might be able to help you identify whether the person you are dealing with is a narcissist. It’s designed to be taken personally but also helps to ‘diagnose’ narcissism in someone else.
What is Narcissism?
The American Psychiatric Association defines Narcissistic Personality Disorder as ‘an all pervasive pattern of grandiosity, need for admiration or adulation and lack of empathy, usually beginning by early adulthood’. Narcissists believe they are special and above the rules, but also deeply insecure and need constant admiration to fill that void. They are controlling, jealous, manipulative, and enjoy power, and are generally intelligent, charismatic, and excellent communicators.

A few common traits include:

  • Blaming others for their mistakes
  • Lying to get ahead
  • Taking credit for others’ work
  • Insulting co-workers, often personally
  • Hypersensitivity to criticism
  • Sabotaging other people’s work
  • Gossips heavily and then uses information gained against others
  • Gives backhanded compliments (insults disguises as compliments)
  • Aggressively tries to get people fired or demoted
  • Cannot admit fault or apologise.

It’s particularly difficult to work with a narcissist on a yacht because they dominate your home life as well as work. Which is why it’s so important to develop an action plan which allows you to identify the person’s behaviour, dis-identify from it personally, and create firm boundaries to protect yourself. You’ll need to put on some emotional armour to deal with this toxic person. Here’s a few tips on how to deal with a narcissist.

1. Ignore his jibes and taunts. Don’t take them personally and react to defend yourself; doing so only plays into his hands. He loves seeing you react! Ignoring him takes away that power and fun for him, and he’ll eventually move on to a new target.

2. Flatter him. A narcissist is deeply insecure, and desperately craves praise and attention. While it may stick in your teeth to do so, ask for his expertise and flatter his ego. Give him options when you ask a question, so he can remain in control.

3. Avoid criticising him in any way. If a mistake has been made, use the word ‘we’, even if it was wholly his mistake.

4. Create some boundaries and stick to them firmly. He’ll always be trying to get in your face and push your buttons, and at other times he’ll probably be quite charming in order to put you at ease, so you’re going to have to enforce some boundaries with him. Learn to walk away or ignore him. If he’s going out for drinks, don’t go with him, even if you’re dying to get off the boat and have some fun. Remember, you showed him up when you went to the Captain; a vindictive narcissist will never forget that. Do not spend any more time with him than absolutely necessary. And do not feel bad about sticking to those boundaries, even when he’s being nice!

5. When you do have to talk to him, maintain an aura of confidence and make eye contact. Just like animals of prey, bullies will always attack the weakest, so keep things short and breezy, and only discuss work matters. Be careful to avoid any sense that you’re ‘standing up to him’, as this will only escalate his behaviour.

6. Keep a log of all insults and incidents with him. It’s a good way of tracking what’s going on so you don’t have to question yourself or think you’re imagining things. Needless to say, keep your evidence secret with password protection. As I mentioned recently in a blog to another bullying victim, you could also surreptitiously record your conversations to use if you do decide to make a formal complaint. Which you have every right to do, with or without the Captain’s support.

7. Don’t offer personal information in a bid to get him to like you more. He’s really not interested in anyone but himself, and he is quite likely to use this personal information against you in the future.

8. Do not get involved when he tries to lure you into his complaints about other people. Narcissists delight in drawing out others’ opinions, then telling the third party what you said to turn them against you too. Be on the extreme lookout for this common tactic of a narcissist. If he’s bitching about someone to you, be noncommittal and change the topic, or walk away. Do not give him ammunition to use against you.

9. Watch out for ‘gaslighting’. This is where the person tries to get you to doubt your own memory or conclusions. Him telling you that you must have ‘misheard’ him is classic gaslighting. Now you know it’s one of the narcissist’s favourite tactics, it won’t work on you anymore! (This is also where a log comes in very handy.)

10. Don’t think you can appeal to his human side. A pathological narcissist is without empathy and can only see things as they relate to them, so it’s pointless and will only aggravate the situation.
If this all sounds too hard, (and it is undeniably hard), I suggest you find another job. A year is important on your CV, but it’s not crucial—and certainly not at the expense of your mental health! But if you think you’re up for a challenge, you could also look at this as an experiment: one that will make you smarter, tougher, and brilliantly equipped to deal with narcissists when they crop up in your career again, as sadly they may well do. Good luck and let me know how it goes!