Does Your Boss Try To Put You Down All the Time?
Do you know that friend (or thesis supervisor) who always wants to be the center of every conversation, and try to prove that they are better than you in every area of life, including academics, sports, and social life? Narcissists are on a constant pursuit to convince others to admire their accomplishments.
The term, “narcissist” originated from the Greek mythology, where the young hunter, Narcissus, fell in love with his own image reflected in a pool of water. Some people confuse narcissism with narcissistic personality disorder (NPD), but there is a crticial difference between the two terms.
NPD is a mental illness, where the person really believes that they are superior to others and have little empathy for the feelings of those around them.
A narcissistic person does not have a mental illness, but they are in constant pursuit of admiration and affirmation from those around them. It is not surprising that narcissists often seek leadership positions, although they are not necessary good leaders because they are more apt to promote their own ideas than to consider the needs of their team.
I often hear from graduate students that their thesis supervisor “only cares about his or her needs”, and has little consideration for their students’ time. If your supervisor seems self-centered, does that mean that they are a narcissist?
Professors usually have a packed schedules booked with teaching assignments, research, travel, and committee meetings. If they are untenured, they probably put a lot of effort into proving promoting their research in every way they can. Your thesis is just one of the hundred things on their minds, and you may feel neglected and frustrated if you get little guidance from them.
However, a busy professor is not necessarily a narcissist. A true narcissist is on a constant mission to show that they are superior to those around them and they frequently trample on the ideas of others so they can feel good about themselves.
How do narcissist end up in leadership positions, or get graduate students to work for them?
Narcissist are usually great at making first impressions because they are very charismatic. You may have thought that your professor would be a fantastic mentor the first time you met them – but after a few months your relationship may have turned negative if you get little support or empathy from them.
5 Signs That You May Have a Narcissistic Thesis Supervisor
1. They are always trying to prove themselves right.
Is your thesis supervisor a know-it-all expert? Know-it-all experts fall into two categories: those who actually are experts on the topic (these types of people are also known as “bulldozers”), and those who are just full of hot air (also known as “balloons”).
Most know-it-all professors fall into the bulldozer category – they do know what they are talking about, but they are very unpleasant to work with because they focus on proving themselves right, rather than listening to you and trying to help you with your project.
I have heard of a few cases of professors who were “balloons.” They pretend to know the answers, but they actually do not have sufficient expertise on the topic to mentor you properly. I will share suggestions on how to deal with both types on know-it-all professors below.
2. They always make the conversation about them
Whether you are talking about your research or your hobbies, a narcissist will always try to direct the conversation to be about them: their new ideas and projects that they want to share with the world. Almost all conversations you have with a real narcissist will end up being about all of their great accomplishments or how they became victims in a certain situation.
3. They are always name-dropping
This can be especially common for young professors who are trying to show that they are associated with the “big names” in the field. However, this can also occur with tenured professors, who are still trying to prove themselves despite their seniority.
4. They are averse to criticism
Underneath their “know-it-all” cover, narcissists frequently have a fragile self-esteem. At the slightest hint of criticism, narcissits will get angry and self-defesive. Since they take everything personally, you may notice that you have to continuously flatter them just to keep a peaceful relationship.
5.They blame others for everything
Narcissists love excuses, and they blame on everyone except themselves. If you have worked (or lived) with a narcissts before, you know they are experts at when making excuses and not admitting their mistakes. This can be especially frustrating if your thesis supervisor gave you misleading advice, and he or she is not putting the blame on you.
What can you do when you are stuck with a narcissistic boss?
7 Strategies to Cope with a Narcissistic Thesis Supervisor
1. Do not take their attitude personally
You have probably heard about Eleanor Roosevelt’s famous quote “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.” This advice can be especially encouraging if you have a hostile or narcissistic thesis supervisor who tries to put you down all the time.
Remember, their constant need to put prove themselves right is about them and not you. You may need to work with them, but you don’t have to believe everything they tell you, and you can certainly stand up for yourself and seek support from others (see more below).
2. Listen and try to understand where they are coming from
While narcissists are frustrating to work with, they might be right when they critique your work. Underneath their unpleasant manners, they may be very knowledgeable and have good reasons for their opinions. Since narcisstis like others to think highly of them, a very simple way to cope with them is to just listen, and ask questions so they have an opportunity to explain themselves.
3. Focus on the problem and not your emotions surrounding the problem
Since narcissists tend to get defensive, it is important to stay calm during meetings. You may be very angry and stressed, but your boss (whether or not they are a narcisst) will not respond well if you get emotional during the meeting.
If your supervisor does get emotional or tries to direct the conversation to be about them (their need to meet a deadline or put a talk together), stay focused on the problem but also be empathetic to their needs. It may be possible to come up with a mutually beneficial solution if everyone puts all their cards on the table and you have a good understanding of your boss’s needs.
4. Prepare well for meetings
If your boss is a know-it-all expert type of narcissistm you need to prepare particularly well for meetings. Narcissistic bosses will critique your work very harshly, or “shred it pieces.” You need to be ready to give references or a very detailed account of your work so you can confidently stand up for yourself.
Always have a clear detailed agenda and stay focused on the problem, so you do not get side-tracked if your boss tries to make the conversation to be about them.
5. Set reasonable limits
A narcissists boss may be violating other people’s boundaries, by insulting them or demanding their attention. You cannot change your boss, but you can set reasonable limits such as “I know this project is really important to you, but I need to take Sundays off so I can be refreshed Monday morning and do high quality work for you.”
This approach may work particularly well for supervisors who are micromanagers (in addition to being narcisstis), and they try to control every aspect of your life and have no respect for your personal time. I know graduate students who wrote down their requests in writing (e.g. no calls after work hours) and their relationship with their thesis supervisors actually improved, because the expectations were clarified.
6. Seek support from others
If your supervisor is a particularity difficult person to deal with (does not respond well to reasonable requests and keeps demading more of your time), it may be a good idea to get support from others.
Most universities have counseling deans who are accustomed to mediating conflicts between professors and their students. If you feel comfortable with another professor or your department chair, they may be able to help you deal with your professor and also give academic advice on your research.
7. As a last resort, switch groups
Switching groups is always a difficult decision because it will set your thesis project back, possibly by multiple years. However, if your thesis is not going anywhere and you don’t see a way to pull your thesis together, consider getting a new thesis advisor.
The graduate students whom I worked with who decided to switch groups did not regret their decision. The only thing they regretted was not switching sooner.
Changing your thesis supervisor (which frequently means changing your thesis topic) should be a last resort. I recommend trying the other approaches first (listening carefully, preparing well for meetings, getting a mediator to help you resolve a conflict) because many professors will respond well to your requests if they feel that you understand them and you are trying to develop a mutually beneficial solution.
If your supervisor is a “balloon” (someone who pretends to know all the answers but they don’t have the technical expertise to mentor you), then you will most likely benefit from getting a new thesis supervisor who can get you the support you need to graduate on time.
If changing supervisors is not an option, get as much academic support from other more knowledgeable professors as you can. Your thesis committee members, or other professors who have a background in your field and are easily approachable, will be excellent resources for you to drive your research and finish your thesis.
Do you (or did you) have a narcissistic boss and how did you cope with them? Please be specific in your answers because we have readers from around the world who are looking for inspiration.