Similar to a vampire, a toxic narcissist is great at sucking and can’t see their own reflection when a mirror is turned to their face. (And that’s kind of weird, because you’d think a narcissist would be all about reflections, right?) But while you can confront or cut out most toxic narcissists from your life, there is one nearly unslayable version: the toxic narcissist boss.
Look, we all have issues with our managers from time to time, but the toxic narcissist boss is a special breed of messed up. Their sense of crazed vanity will drain the life from you and everyone else in the room. At the same time, though…well, we all need to keep those paychecks coming.
But first, how do you differentiate a toxic narcissist boss from a regular boss who’s sometimes just kind of shitty and self-absorbed? And more importantly, how do you proceed once you identify this Dracula haunting your nine-to-five? Read on to get expert-informed tips.
Check out 4 signs that your boss is a toxic narcissist—and what to do about it.
1. They put you down
“If your boss puts you down, especially in front of other people, it can be painful and could be a sign they are getting off on it,” says relationship therapist Tammy Nelson, PhD. It’s one thing for them to take you aside for a one-on-one chat so they can tell you they’re disappointed in you for handling a situation poorly, or whatever. Discretion is a kind and professional means for delivering feedback, and resolving problems collaboratively is the marker of trust and cooperation. Verbally abusing you in front of others? That’s a power play for establishing dominance. “Try mirroring back what they say; don’t get defensive, and try not to get emotional. It won’t help,” Dr. Nelson suggests for handling a situation of public criticism. “If you do try to argue, they’ll just turn things around so it appears to be your fault.”
“If your boss puts you down, especially in front of other people, it can be painful and could be a sign they are getting off on it.” —relationship therapist Tammy Nelson, PhD
Because the unfair behavior can mess with your self-esteem, try to surround yourself with friends who will keep you from being gaslighted into thinking you’re a bad employee. “[Toxic narcissist bosses] can be so confident that it’s easy to assume that they’re right about things, especially their critiques about you,” says clinical psychologist Aimee Daramus, PsyD. “Use your support system to help you reality-test anything the boss says about you.”
2. They can’t take criticism
The extent to which your manager seems closed off to criticism makes you feel like you can’t offer any kind of feedback at all. Of course you’re allowed, but it’s kind of like approaching a snake in your path: Proceed with extreme caution.
“Narcissists overreact to being seen as equal or less than, so be careful how you phrase things so you avoid unnecessary trouble,” Dr. Daramus says. “Try to stay solution-focused when you’re bringing up a problem. When they genuinely do well, compliment them or thank them, but don’t fan the flames with shallow flattery. You don’t want to be the one they come to when they need to put someone down to feel superior.”
3. They constantly talk about how well they are doing
We should all feel proud about of our accomplishments, but constant bragging can quickly become a nag on our nerves. When your toxic narcissist boss does it though? Consider just grinning and bearing it.
“Let them brag,” Dr. Nelson says. “Nod and smile and say ‘oh, wow, good for you.’ You aren’t going to change them, and they need the reinforcement for their own ego.”
4. They take credit for everything—even work they haven’t done
As someone who always likes to share the wealth when it comes to credit for wins, this feature of a toxic narcissist boss is especially infuriating. To think of someone not only being unwilling to share successes, but to also steal credit for someone else’s work is wild—but there are steps you can take to make sure it doesn’t happen to you.
“If this happens, try to put your name all over your work,” Dr. Nelson says. “Don’t correct them in front of others, but sign off on what you do with your email, write everything down, and take credit where credit is due.”
What to do when you’ve had enough of the toxic narcissist boss
If your boss is being an antagonist to the point that your mental health is in question, it may just be time to explore other gigs. While you could take steps to remove your toxic narcissist boss from their post, it may not be the most expeditious way to handle the situation. “Sometimes a narcissist will sabotage themselves, and you just have to wait it out, but then you’re playing office politics and you risk getting toxic yourself,” Dr. Daramus says.
No matter what you decide about how to handle the awful manager, there is a real silver lining to appreciate that comes from dealing with one of these people: You now have a blueprint for exactly what you don’t want to become. “One of the best things you can do is learn how not to be that kind of boss,” Dr. Daramus says. “That way, you’re better and stronger for the experience.” And, no doubt, far more popular with your co-workers.
With additional reporting by Kells McPhillips.
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