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6 Things You Need to Know About Dealing With Self-Absorbed People

Experts share tips on how to deal with self-absorbed people in your life.

By: Laurie Sue Brockway

I once watched a grown woman throw a tantrum at her daughter’s wedding because she was unhappy with the flowers. Instead of heeding the bride’s request to not make a big deal, and rather than quietly complaining to the wedding planner, she became disruptive and rude, shouting and blaming everyone around. She did not quiet down until she had the attention of a dozen staff members at the wedding venue, who ran around in a tizzy trying to appease her last-minute changes. It was like watching a 2-year-old trying to bend the world to her will.

This is one dramatic example of the kinds of self-absorbed people we all deal with. They are demanding, desperate for attention, and so wrapped up in their own needs that they never notice the needs of others. They overstep personal boundaries and common etiquette. They take, and never give, and tend to act out dramatically, or like children, when they do not get their way, making others feel uncomfortable and put-upon. It’s normal for babies and little kids to be self-absorbed. Some people never grow out of it.

“As we grow, most of us learn that we aren’t the center of the universe, that other people have legitimate feelings and needs, and that we can’t always get what we want,” says Dan Neuharth, PhD, a licensed marriage and family therapist. “Developmentally, self-absorbed people haven’t yet accepted these realities or their limitations and therefore often respond to frustrations with a child’s repertoire: sulking, blaming, avoiding, manipulating, throwing a tantrum, or acting out in other ways.”

We asked the experts how to recognize and deal with self-absorbed people.

1. How to spot self-absorbed people. Karen R. Koenig, LCSW, MEd, calls them Very Difficult People (VDPs) and says these are among the telltale signs:

  • Primarily turn every conversation back to them
  • Make you feel invisible and unimportant
  • Often grab the lead in discussions to share their views
  • Lack a sense of when they’re saying too much and when you’ve lost interest
  • Leave you with a feeling of not having been heard, understood, or valued
  • Do not take hints that you would like to say something

“Most are emotionally/socially deaf to how conversations should go -- i.e., that there’s a give and take,” Koenig says.


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2. How they got this way. Too much attention, or not enough, may be the culprit. “Generally, what they had to say growing up was too often doted on and they, therefore, didn’t learn to share air space with others,” says Koenig. “Or they rarely got heard so that now when they have the floor, they are determined to keep it.”

3. Why you feel drained. You’re not imagining it. “Self-absorbed people are playing a different game than most of us,” says Neuharth. “Their interactions tend to be about winning, being right, and avoiding feeling one-down or out of control. Empathy, listening, and learning are all absent from that equation, so it makes sense that interactions with self-absorbed people feel like a ripoff.”

More from P&G everyday: Teaching Kids to Deal With All Kinds of People

4. How to deal with them. Sometimes it helps to view self-absorbed people with compassion, says Neuharth. “Underneath their self-centeredness, they are likely afraid of feeling flawed, powerless, unworthy, or out of control,” he says. “Knowing this, you can take their actions less personally. You can humor them. Ignore them. Listen politely and move on. You can also choose what to share and not share. It may be a mistake to discuss personal matters or feelings with a self-absorbed person. You may be vulnerable to ridicule or being dismissed and you are unlikely to get meaningful dialogue anyway.”

5. Creating boundaries. You don’t have to allow them take advantage of you. Psychologist Ramani Durvasula, PhD, suggests working around them (not depending on them for their attendance or participation) and having clear boundaries. “The best vocabulary word to have with them is ‘no,’” she says. “You don’t have to be rude, but if they ask you for the 100th time to pick up their kids, come up with a cover story if you have to, but say ‘no.’ The resentment is not worth it and is not good for you.”

6. It may be a bigger issue. While some self-absorbed people simply have narcissistic tendencies, others may have a serious mental health problem. “Narcissism is a personality disorder where a person lacks empathy despite a sometimes charming facade,” says psychiatrist Judith Orloff, MD, an assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at UCLA and author of The Ecstasy of Surrender. “If someone does not desire to hear your needs or doesn’t have the ability to do this, you can’t really have a healthy relationship with them.”

Do you have a self-absorbed friend, coworker, or relative in your life? How do you deal with them?

Laurie Sue Brockway is a journalist and author who has written extensively on love, marriage, parenting, well-being, and emotional health. Her work has appeared in hundreds of print and online publications, including Everyday Health and The Huffington Post.

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