“Treacherous, kindless, remorseless . . . !” – Hamlet
Narcisssus, so the story goes, was a beautiful young man who was cursed to fall in love with his own reflection. His life was a torment, so out of the pity the goddess turned him into a flower – the narcissus, or daffodil. So the narcissus can be found by pools of water, nodding and brooding over its own reflection.
The modern Narcissist is in some ways an equally tragic figure. They are trapped in a world where the only thing that matters is the affirmation of their own image of themselves. But they also suffer from a division of personality, so that they can switch instantly from vengeful, power-abusing bully to wounded victim. Beware: they are always manipulative, ruthlessly self-serving, and without empathy.
If you teach a student who is a Narcissist, the principles of management are much the same as those for other students: clear, consistent boundaries; specific, contingent praise; feedback and advice on both pro-social and pro-academic behaviours. This is because Narcissists will often be compliant and even charming with those whom they consider powerful (and therefore useful). The complications arise with those whom they consider less powerful than themselves. To put it another way, it is a great misfortune if you are a student with one or more Narcissists in your class.
Narcissists lack empathy, but have very high self-regard. As a result they can be dangerous bullies, often of a very sophisticated kind. Narcissistic aggression is particularly triggered by what Narcissists believe to be insults, or threats to their own narrative about how wonderful they are. In some cases, non-compliance with a demand, or refusal to accept dismissive treatment from a Narcissist, are enough to warrant fierce enmity. At this point all the tricks of the bully kick in: verbal threats, isolation from the group, the spreading of rumours, nasty messages on social media . . . the list is very long. More intelligent Narcissists are experts at recruiting those with power to serve their cause. Be warned: they will try to charm you into supporting them against another student, or even another teacher. Objectivity is essential.
The other complication of dealing with narcissistic students is that they have parents, and these are usually the people who have made their child this way. They will support their child regardless of the facts. They will tell their son or daughter: “You’re as good as any, and better than most.” They will encourage them never to let anyone ‘disrespect’ them. Only affirming statements must be made to their child. They will justify outrageous behaviour on the grounds that it was provoked. They are the principal source of worship for the narcissistic child, and the root of its self-obsessed narrative. To deal with such parents, the same principles apply as with the child: be objective, neutral, and choose your words carefully – but don’t adjust your standards.
The most dangerous embodiment of the Narcissist is actually the adult with whom you work. The risk is elevated further if they are your boss. Such colleagues are prepared to charm you in order to get what they want; they may offer you support, opportunities, career assistance – but ultimately, the only thing that matters to them is that their view of themselves is affirmed. They do not care about your feelings – indeed, despite appearances to the contrary, they are incapable of doing so. Once others are no longer useful, they are discounted, or even disposed of. Do you have a boss who flatters, showers favours publicly, and abruptly withdraws them? A leader who is ‘inspirational’, ‘ambitious’, even admired for their noble sense of mission – but who can dismiss staff and cut short careers without compunction? If so, beware. Keep your distance, do your job well, and keep your options open. If the Narcissist decides to make you their favourite, know that the arrangement is temporary until they get what they want. If they decide you are a problem, you may win a case on the objective facts – but you will never persuade them that they are treating you unfairly. They are always the injured party.
For an excellent overview of dealing with difficult personality types, read Albert J Bernstein’s “Emotional Vampires: Dealing With People Who Drain You Dry”.
For a discussion of the links between narcissism, aggression, and self-esteem, see Bushman, B and Baumeister, R (1998) Threatened Egotism, Narcissism, Self-Esteem and Direct and Displaced Aggression: Does Self-Love or Self-Hate Lead to Violence? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology Vol. 75, No. 1, 219-229