Workplace bullying is painful no matter how to slice it. But for those with narcissistic mothers, workplace bullying can both trigger open childhood wounds and affirm feelings of unworthiness.
In her book Will I Ever Be Good Enough?: Healing the Daughters of Narcissistic Mothers, author Karyl McBride, Ph.D., says that some high-achieving daughters aka “Mary Marvels” focus on achievement as a way to prove to the world (and to their mothers) that they’re worthy. Struggling with feelings of inadequacy and growing up having to be doers to feel accepted and approved by their mothers, these daughters often didn’t receive validation in early years and don’t learn to validate themselves. “She [a high-achieving daughter] often succumbs to the lure of doing more and trying harder in ways that bring validation from others. This is an unconscious seduction because Mary Marvels are almost highly skilled and competent…. The praise appears to fill the emptiness, but relying on external praise can create anxiety,” explains McBride.
It’s important to note that it’s the narcissism from both the mother and then later a boss or co-worker that cause the problems. While addressing feelings from childhood surrounding maternal narcissism with a trained therapist may help you unravel unhealthy thought patterns, the bullying is not your fault nor a result of personality flaws. Many people with healthy upbringings also experience health harm from workplace bullying. These insights are simply tools for taking back your power.
Don’t worry – we’re not about to blame you for being a workplace bullying target. Just the opposite. It’s narcissism that’s the root of why bullies bully. And when those in power operate on jealousy and insecurity, their biggest threats are the ones with targets on their backs.
Your strength is a threat
“Targets’ strengths threaten bullies,” says the Workplace Bullying Institute (WBI) based on findings in their 2012 poll. “Technical prowess and personal popularity posed a threat to their bully (chosen by 34.5 percent of respondents).”
Other reasons why you’re a target
Nearly 39 percent of respondents — around the number of respondents who said target strength was the reason they’re targeted — cited factors outside of targets’ control as the reason for the bullying: personality of the bully, instigator of a mob, and organizational incentives.
About 28 percent of respondents said that bullies perceive a vulnerability in targets. Bullies consider targets weak and not political game players.
These other reasons might cause you to feel flawed and weak. But don’t let them. Vulnerability is never a weakness. It’s a strength. Narcissists are terrified of vulnerability. And while a certain level of political game-playing may be necessary at work, focusing entirely on politics detracts from your greater purpose at work: to work together toward a common vision as a team.
The bottom line
Narcissists view work differently than you do because they’re insecure. That’s it. There is NOTHING you can do to change them. While we may post articles about how you can react to a bully, we simply suggest coping strategies to address the problem: the bully. Whether or not our suggested tactics work have nothing to do with any flaws in you and everything to do with getting you to a healthier place when dealing with these abusive bosses. You are not the problem.
Their insecurities are not your flaws.
Simply put, to end workplace bullying, we focus on the actual root of the problem: the bullies. Why? We keep the focus on the bullies as the problem — not how targets react or what personality traits might be flawed (especially since it’s the strengths of the target that puts him or her at risk).
Why bullies bully
Sociopaths can’t empathize (put themselves in others’ shoes) because they’re so completely cut off from their own emotions — particularly fear, hurt, and vulnerability, which they see as a shameful weakness. “If you can’t feel your own emotions, you can’t resonate and empathize with the emotions of other people,” says Joseph Burgo, Ph.D., a psychotherapist and author of The Narcissist You Know: Defending Yourself Against Extreme Narcissists in an All-About-Me World.
More on why a bully bullies:
The world changed on November 9. Regardless of how you voted, we can likely all agree on a few takeaways from the election that will help us further anti-workplace bullying legislation:
- The ideas of dignity and respect now have the nation’s attention. The election put bullying in the national spotlight and made bullying tactics crystal clear — during the debates, in speeches, and on social media.
- So does narcissism. We saw what narcissism, the root of workplace bullying, looks like: lack of accountability, belittling, and lack of empathy. Yet empathy is vital in addressing differences and collaborating.
- People are ready to act now more than ever. Those against the election results realize they need to act to preserve social progress and demand the culture we fought to live in. A friend said “don’t give up. Never give up. Be kind to each other, look out for one another, for those struggling. Don’t tolerate hate in your community. Now more than ever. Become a more active supporter of causes important to you. Sign petitions, donate money, volunteer time, contact representatives. As Patti Smith said, people have the power.”
What we can do to keep the dignity and respect conversation going
- Use #empathyalwayswins in all of your election postings. Let people know you demand empathy, not narcissism, in our culture.
- Hold signs. No matter where you live, buy some posterboard and a marker and hold signs in your area against workplace bullying. People are paying attention to the dialogue right now.
- Demand that all conversations about the election be respectful and promoting dignity. Keep conversations focused on dignity and what happens without it.
- Call (more than email) your legislators about workplace bullying and other issues important to you. We have insight that legislators get inundated with emails. But they ignore a phone call.
We can pass anti-workplace bullying legislation. And we will.
“Excellence isn’t usually what gets you up the greasy pole. What gets you up is a talent for maneuvering. Kissing up to the people above you, kicking down to the people below you,” says leadership speaker William Deresiewicz. Most of us who find ourselves bullied at work wonder how on earth the incompetent bullies get ahead while the competent and ethical targets stay at lower ranks with less pay and responsibility.
Here are two reasons why bullies get ahead at work:
- Our culture rewards narcissism and selfishness. We live in an oppressive culture where enough people believe those who think they’re more important and entitled than others — and allow toxic behavior. When a bully simply takes power and feels entitled to dictate, belittle, control, or manipulate the target by calling him or her “sensitive” or “emotional,” and we or leaders believe the dismissal of the target rather than hold the bully accountable, we help the bully get ahead.
- Incompetent people overrate themselves, and competent people overrate others. The phenomenon is called the Dunning-Kruger effect. According to Wikipedia, “the Dunning–Kruger effect is a cognitive bias in which unskilled individuals suffer from illusory superiority, mistakenly rating their ability much higher than average…. Actual competence may weaken self-confidence, as competent individuals may falsely assume that others have an equivalent understanding.”
How we can change the culture
We move the needle when we stop seeing the target as “sensitive” or “emotional” and instead recognize the real problem: the bully’s narcissistic behavior. We change the culture when we:
- Stand up to belittling, controlling, and manipulative behaviors.
- Stop giving people power who act entitled to it.
- Foster a collaborative environment in which we respect all opinions.
A key to understanding workplace bullying is understanding a toxic boss’ narcissism. While narcissistic personality disorder is rare, and we all have some degree of selfishness, most if not all workplace bullies fall on a spectrum of narcissism closer to narcissistic personality disorder than the average person.
What narcissism is
According to the Mayo Clinic:
Narcissistic personality disorder is a mental disorder in which people have an inflated sense of their own importance, a deep need for admiration, and a lack of empathy for others. But behind this mask of ultraconfidence lies a fragile self-esteem that’s vulnerable to the slightest criticism.
If you have narcissistic personality disorder, you may:
- Come across as conceited, boastful, or pretentious.
- Often monopolize conversations.
- Belittle or look down on people you perceive as inferior.
- Feel a sense of entitlement.
- Become impatient or angry when you don’t receive special treatment.
- Insist on having “the best” of everything — for instance, the best car, athletic club, or medical care.
At the same time, you have trouble handling anything that may be perceived as criticism. You may have secret feelings of insecurity, shame, vulnerability, and humiliation. To feel better, you may react with rage or contempt and try to belittle the other person to make yourself appear superior. Or you may feel depressed and moody because you fall short of perfection.
The American Psychiatric Association further defines narcissistic personality disorder as:
- Having an exaggerated sense of self-importance
- Expecting to be recognized as superior even without achievements that warrant it
- Exaggerating your achievements and talents
- Being preoccupied with fantasies about success, power, brilliance, beauty, or the perfect mate
- Believing that you are superior and can only be understood by or associate with equally special people
- Requiring constant admiration
- Having a sense of entitlement
- Expecting special favors and unquestioning compliance with your expectations
- Taking advantage of others to get what you want
- Having an inability or unwillingness to recognize the needs and feelings of others
- Being envious of others and believing others envy you
- Behaving in an arrogant or haughty manner
In a nutshell, you put yourself on a pedestal and value yourself more than you value others.
How narcissism starts
While the causes of narcissistic personality disorder are unconfirmed and complex, researchers link the disorder to:
- Biologically vulnerable children
- Parenting styles that overemphasize the child’s specialness and criticize fears and failures
The child may hide low self-esteem by developing a superficial sense of perfection and behavior that shows a need for constant admiration.
What this news means – and how it can help you
The three major conclusions are then that:
- A narcissist’s issues have absolutely nothing to do with you (even if he or she tries to make you think otherwise)
- Knowing the causes of narcissism can help overcome anger about the situation (for more on overcoming anger, including how to address your own triggers, check out The Cow in the Parking Lot)
- You’re worth more than being the target of someone else’s insecurities
That last point is key. On Oprah Winfrey’s Super Soul Sunday, one soul searcher asks “what’s the difference between the people who hurt you and what you’re doing to yourself (by staying in a toxic situation)?” (Nothing – they both hurt you.) You’ll know you’re in a healthy situation when you:
- Don’t have to compromise who you are
- Aren’t betraying yourself
- Aren’t emotionally drained
- Aren’t having your power compromised
- Aren’t losing yourself
You are worth protecting. Make sure you protect yourself against a narcissist’s baggage by removing yourself from a toxic situation and following your truth.
Some say there are two types of bosses: those who care about the company and the people who work there, and those who care about their own power and egos. Those who care about the company and bring out the strengths of their people create more success. But those who care about power and their egos more than their companies prove to struggle getting results, and 60% of managers are bad at their jobs says Business Insider reporter Drake Baer in the article “Narcissism and other reasons why more than 60% of managers are bad at their jobs.”
Narcissistic bosses manage people’s impressions of them and often rise to power because they’ve manipulated others all while displaying confidence and charisma. “Leaders who are too narcissistic are convinced they are right, sensitive to criticism, and may ignore valid warnings. Because they lack empathy, they are not sensitive to the impact of their behavior on others, and they may act out. Steve Jobs was known to berate and publicly humiliate subordinates,” says Claremont McKenna College leadership professor Ronald E. Riggio.