How to deal with a narcissist at work

You may have noticed that pundits on both the left and right like to make fun of Donald Trump. They refer to him as a "narcissist" in one breath and ridicule his hair in the next.

Or they mock his bombastic style of speech.

Or they satirize his outsized ego.

Boss yelling at worker
John Lund | Getty Images

When someone puffs himself up so massively, we naturally want to poke a hole in that hot air balloon in order to deflate him. When he lauds himself as the smartest, shrewdest, wealthiest, and most successful person in the world, of course we'd like to cut him down to size. Satirical humor allows us to do just that, even if we've never met the person.

It's easy to poke fun when you are an uninvolved spectator watching from a distance, the way we are with Trump's antics.

But naricissism is a very real disorder that, when encountered up close, such as in the workplace, isn't so funny. It's much harder to laugh at a toxic colleague who poisons the workplace than when you're watching someone on TV from your couch.

Narcissism occurs along a spectrum of possible expressions, from healthy self-esteem on one end to narcissistic personality disorder on the other. On the pathological side, narcissists have a grandiose sense of self-importance and little or no ability to empathize with the feelings of others.

Extreme narcissists tend can have vindictive and bullying behavior. When we're drawn into their personal orbit, extreme narcissists typically build themselves up at our personal expense, making themselves into winners by turning the rest of us into comparative losers. Using indignation, blame, condescension, and contempt, they often force us into an inferior role.

When you work closely with extreme narcissists, you may find that their relentless self-aggrandizement wears you down. Especially if they've learned how to conceal their contempt from superiors, inflicting it upon you in private, you may feel trapped and helpless. If you find yourself the target of a bullying narcissist, you may feel anxious or depressed, even suicidal. Going to work each day might feel like an ongoing nightmare.

Your sense of humor is of little use when a vindictive narcissist is persecuting you. It might get you into even deeper trouble should you ever make fun of an extreme narcissist in his or her presence. Extreme narcissists have no sense of humor about themselves and will likely hear your jest as a personal attack requiring immediate and brutal retaliation.

So what to do should you find yourself working alongside one of them?

Defending yourself against an extreme narcissist in the workplace requires constant vigilance and self-control. As cowardly as the advice may sound, you must avoid ruffling his massive ego whenever possible. Don't fight back in direct ways in order to stand up for yourself, to prove that you're not the contemptible loser he makes you out to be. A direct challenge will only escalate his brutal assault on your personality and work product.

In general, your approach must be a legalistic one: Extreme narcissists often know how to disguise their true nature from people other than their victims, so your survival will depend upon having hard evidence.

  • Document everything, especially proof of your work product.
  • Preserve all toxic emails and other communications.
  • Get witness statements from your co-workers whenever possible.
  • Because the extreme narcissist can't bear defeat and will never stop trying to prove himself a winner and you the loser, you might want to polish your resume.

Making fun of Donald Trump's grandiosity might come as a relief, but coping with extreme narcissists in the workplace is no laughing matter.

Commentary by Joseph Burgo, Ph.D, author of "The Narcissist You Know – Defending Yourself Against Extreme Narcissists in an All-About-Me Age" (Touchstone, Sept. 22, 2015). Dr. Burgo is a licensed psychotherapist with 30 years of experience as a marriage and family therapist and clinical psychologist. Follow him on Twitter @jburgo55.