Today's guest blogger is Anonymous. Anonymous has a PhD in chemistry and recently completed a postdoc at an unnamed national lab. She is leaving science after realizing that her interests lie elsewhere, but it’s all good. She’s interested in community organizing, the bugs in our neural programming, and the ways we transform our painful experiences into growth and value.
We hadn’t been friends for very long. In retrospect, a few warning signs had been quietly visible, but I generally don’t go into friendships expecting toxic behavior. Which is why it surprised me when, over lunch, he explained to me how I’d gotten into college.
“Maybe it’s because you’re a female.”
Surprise and anger rose inside of me, but since we were friends, I decided to reply very carefully. “What do you mean by that?”
“I’m saying that soooometimes, women and minorities are held to a lower standard in admissions.”
I paused as various options flickered through my brain. What to say to this? Well, we were friends and my policy with friends was to be straightforward about my feelings, so I told him that what he’d said was hurtful and unacceptable in our relationship. He immediately interrupted with a monologue: just being honest, intentions were good, I am not sexist, and I’m sorry you were hurt.
That’s when I learned we were not friends.
The experience got me thinking about other times I’d spoken to people about their behavior: why does calling out bias work productively with some people, and fail so completely with others? I think that the answer often has to do a lot with the person at hand.
In some situations we have some power to stack the deck towards a positive response by carefully choosing what to say and how to say it. The person may get defensive, but is responsive because of a desire to maintain a positive relationship. In other situations, the deck is stacked the other way because the person is incapable of forming positive relationships. What I thought was my friend, I realized, was actually a narcissist.
The popular understanding of narcissism tells us that people with this disorder are in love with themselves and are vain to an extreme. But that’s not the whole story. The truth is that these people are running from a deep sense of hurt and self-shame. The grandiose self-image that they project into the world is a way of avoiding their true feelings: that they see themselves as worthless, damaged, and ugly at core. To even acknowledge these feelings would bring them great pain, so they do everything they can -- at any cost -- to avoid it.
What makes this unfortunate for everyone around them is that:
- Their strategy for building themselves up is often dependent on putting others down, and
- Because these people are so deeply invested in this false perfect image of themselves, anything you might do to contradict it -- such as suggesting that they’ve made a mistake -- is seen as an attack, and they will react with anger.
In the context of responding to biased behavior or comments, this often means that no matter what you say or how you say it, this person will do everything they can to deflect the problem back onto you. An emotionally healthy person might not agree with or immediately understand where you’re coming from, but will try to work through their natural defensiveness, and at the very least do their best to avoid the behavior in front of you. An unhealthy narcissist, on the other hand, can be expected to unflichingly focus on their own needs, intent, and right to do as they please.
Of course, this isn’t always black-and-white. There’s a spectrum of narcissistic behaviors, and healthy people aren’t necessarily at ‘zero’ all the time - we all experience and can react poorly under stress. What’s dangerous is when someone consistently exhibits a pervasive pattern of narcissistic behavior - this is when you need to be especially cautious about getting hurt.
Some warning signs of narcissistic behavior that I’ve seen in the lab include:
- Unprovoked attacks and negative remarks, sometimes subtle, designed to undermine your confidence
- A habit of proudly describing self as a jerk (Believe what people tell you about themselves)
- Highly critical of others; repeatedly puts entire groups of people down (“All PhDs are jokers.”)
- Overly concerned with appearing impressive to others
- Describes self as a victim of circumstance or relationships (essentially, “I’m wonderful and the only reason I haven’t gone further is because of other people”), particularly if they haven’t achieved high social status
- Uses their position of power to coerce you into doing things, just because they can
- Projects their own insecurities or faults onto you
- Gaslighting and sabotage: constructs lies so that you doubt your sanity or sets things up so that you fail (I once had a colleague say she was giving me supplies, then later claimed that only one item was intended for me and that I had clearly stolen the other.)
- Entitlement (to privileges, lab resources, people’s time, etc.) without a desire for reciprocation, or strong territorialism
- Unwilling to consider other people’s feelings, lives, and well-being (“Why are you complaining about the instrument being booked? It’s open at 3:30 am. ”)
- Lastly, don’t forget to check your instincts. Do you feel like you’re walking on eggshells around them? Do you constantly think about your interactions with this person when you go home at night? Listen to yourself.
How do you deal with a narcissist once you’ve identified them? Start by give yourself some space and time to think. Get away from the situation/person, go for a run to clear your mind, and remind yourself that you have the capacity to learn, to be brave, and to make choices for yourself. Then make a plan. The best course of action depends on several factors: the severity of the behavior, the logistics of your relationship, your emotional and professional needs, and what you can tolerate.
Can I end this relationship or minimize the frequency/range of contact?
If not, what are my bigger goals, and how can I achieve them despite this toxic relationship?
What do I have the emotional energy and skills to actually do?
Narcissists are geniuses at undermining others, deflecting blame, and emotionally harming others. They’re also very resistant to change. Not a party! If you have the option, I would urge you to consider cutting off the relationship. Remember that you’re not obligated to explain why or what you’re doing, and you can even just let the relationship fade naturally over time.
Sometimes that doesn’t seem possible. For example, you may have to work with this person in lab, or worse, they could be your boss(!). It’s important to take a step back and question whether you think it’ll be worth it, based on the severity of the behavior, your personal/professional goals, your ability to cope, and your alternate options. For example, if you’re just starting out in your graduate career and can expect to be there for at least 5 years, do you think you’ll be able to handle the other stresses of grad school while interacting with this person? If your professor is the narcissist, find out how has s/he treated past students. Is there a danger that you’ll finish, only to have them undermine you by refusing to write a recommendation letter? If so, are you willing to take that risk and find ways to mitigate it (e.g. by cultivating relationships with people who can successfully vouch for you?
If you have no choice or have decided that you want to stay, two ways to protect yourself are to set boundaries and practice self-care. This can take several forms.
- You can physically minimize contact and face time. If you can work in a different part of the lab, or at a different time, do so (as long as you don’t inconvenience yourself - remember that you have as much right to be there). Keep things professional and interact with them when you need to, but don’t feel obligated to engage them regarding matters outside of work.
- You can learn to emotionally disengage by lowering your expectations for this person and recognizing that the way they act is their problem, not yours. It is not your job to change them or to respond to every negative thing they say. If they upset you, that’s okay - remember that you can always leave the situation and share your feelings with someone you can trust.
- Focus your collaborative and social energies on positive interactions with other people, including some outside the lab, if possible. We all know that feeling of isolation and how incredibly draining it is, so fight it. Go look for allies and people who will build you up.
- Cultivate a life outside of lab that feeds your soul (hobbies, friends and family, exercise, volunteering, etc.) and make the time for it. Remember: you are not your career.
- Lastly, a trained counselor or therapist can often help you identify problems, sort out your priorities and options, and manage the emotional stress that comes from being in this kind of situation.
Dealing with and responding to other people’s misogynistic and racist behavior is never simple or easy, and protecting and being kind to yourself is, in my opinion, the best and most important place to start. The remainder of the series will address several strategies for responding to biased behavior, whether that person is a narcissist or not.