This column offers mental-health and wellness-related information to the Massachusetts legal community. Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers bases the column on questions frequently asked by its clients and help-line callers. The information is general in nature and not meant for treatment.
Q:I am a senior associate, and was recently asked to work with a partner who I think is very narcissistic. I am finding it very difficult to deal with him. In particular, I am tired of having to manage things when he blows up at clients. His personality closely mimics my mother's and I was never good at dealing with her either. When he starts ranting, I become paralyzed and at a loss for words, which is not the norm for me. Then I go home and take it out on my family. Any suggestions?
A:If you're accurate in sensing that this person is narcissistic, then his personality can indeed be difficult to deal with. Lawyers with this profile may work well with certain types of clients, while with other clients and/or coworkers their behavior can be tremendously aggravating.
The person who qualifies for a diagnosis of narcissistic personality will have many of these traits:
• grandiose sense of self-importance, exaggerating his achievements
• preoccupation with fantasies of power and success
• believes self to be "special," and can only associate with or be understood by other high-status people
• need for excessive admiration
• sense of entitlement and unreasonable expectations of others
• interpersonally exploitative
• lack of empathy; cannot identify with the feelings and needs of others
• often envious of others
• arrogant behaviors and attitudes.
Obviously, certain struggles are inherent in working with (and in your case being raised by) someone with this personality type. It is common that the dynamics of the workplace mimic those of the home. That is, in the group environment of the job, people often reenact the same roles that they formerly played in their families of origin. You are more aware of this than many, in that you can see the similarity between the partner's style and your mother's, which accounts for why you feel stuck in your responses to him.
It may be helpful to realize that, at their core, narcissistic individuals actually don't feel very good about themselves, and that they work hard to prevent anyone (including themselves) from finding out. Often feeling a general sense of emptiness, they strive to fill themselves up, often with superficial, tangible trappings of success.
In your situation, we would offer the following suggestions:
• Be aware of the power differential (he is the partner, you are the associate), and don't over-play your hand.
• Recognize (and allow yourself to benefit from) his strengths, without being insincere or patronizing.
• Offer to interface with the clients to whom you are better suited, without diminishing his importance.
• Don't expect him to understand how he alienates others or hurts their feelings.
• Set some limits with him around behavior that is abusive to you; be matter-of-fact about it, and don't belabor the point.
• When he gets angry or explosive, remind yourself that you are not a child, he is not your mother, and that you need not be afraid. You don't have to feel responsible for his behavior or absorb it in a personalized way.
In your efforts to work with this partner, you might benefit from discussing this difficult situation with one of LCL's clinicians and working on strategies to deal with it.