If you have that person in your life who drags you into their unending drama, games or conflicts, there may be an answer.
Become a “gray rock.”
Gray rocking is a strategy to deal with narcissists — those who depend on feeling important or special — and it essentially involves responding to them in bland, boring ways until they lose interest, said Dr. W. Keith Campbell, professor of psychology at the University of Georgia.
“There is no real research on this, but I’ve talked to a lot of women in these relationships, and I’ve heard from people I really trust that this is something effective,” Campbell said. “And it makes theoretical sense.”
Narcissism is complicated, but this technique is simple, said Dr. Craig Malkin, a lecturer in psychology for Harvard Medical School and a licensed psychologist based in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Here is what you need to know about narcissists and how to gray rock your way out of conflict with them.
What is a narcissist?
Everyone thinks they have an ex who was a narcissist — but were they really?
It depends on what you mean by narcissist, Malkin said.
Like neuroticism or agreeability, narcissism is a personality trait, and so everyone is somewhere along the narcissistic spectrum even if they are very low, Malkin added.
“Narcissism in general means having an inflated view of oneself, kind of a lack of closer, emotionally warm relationships with other people, and also needing to be validated, or at least wanting to be admired or be loved,” Campbell said.
Often when someone is called a narcissist, that means the trait is more prominent in their personality than it is for most people.
To be considered a narcissist, a person needs to be determined by a clinician to score in the upper 10% of the population in narcissism levels. That means 1 in 10 people could be classified this way.
What is rarer is narcissistic personality disorder, a condition in which the effects of narcissism generally go far beyond making a person unpleasant to be around, Campbell said.
“Clinically, if it destroys your marriage, it ruins your business relationships, your overconfidence at work has you kind of falling apart … then it becomes a disorder,” he added.
And that is rarer: About 1% of the population has the disorder, Campbell added.
Narcissists are divided into three categories: overt, covert and communal, Malkin said.
The overt narcissist is what you might typically think of: an openly arrogant person whose sense of self revolves around feeling better than others.
Covert narcissists behave differently. What they believe makes them special is how greatly they suffer. Often this will manifest as pulling you in to listen to their woes while completely ignoring your concerns, Malkin said.
Last is the communal narcissist, who feels special by being the most helpful. “This is the person who whispers to you at a party about all the exceptional things they are doing for the neighborhood,” he said. “They want you to understand that you’ve never met anyone more caring or committed to causes than they are.”
How narcissism can hurt you
It’s hard to say what exactly makes someone become a narcissist, but generally, narcissistic people tend to have a weak sense of self and use their ego to prop them up and supply them with attention and admiration, said Deborah Ashway, a licensed clinical mental health counselor based in New Bern, North Carolina.
Getting that attention is so important — and feeling vulnerable so scary — that narcissists will often do whatever it takes to get it, Malkin said. That could mean using behaviors from the different categories of narcissism, he added.
Sometimes, to get that feeling of importance, narcissists will use anger, threats, put-downs or playing the victim against people to whom they are connected, Ashway said.
“Sometimes, very subtly, over time they become almost like deprogrammed from their (sense of) self,” she said.
While ideally one would disconnect from narcissists in their lives, sometimes it isn’t so easy. People can go for years without detecting narcissism in someone, and when they recognize it, they may already share children, work together, or have other close ties that make seeing each other unavoidable, she said.
In conflict, or even just in conversation, it is important to protect your sense of self and independence from narcissists, Ashway said.
What is ‘gray rocking?’
What does it look like to gray rock?
Imagine you are stuck in a conversation at a party, dropping off your child with your ex, or on the phone with a difficult parent.
They may look to get your praise, sympathy or outrage with charged comments. Instead of defending, explaining or asking for elaboration, you keep your responses as concise and bland as possible, Malkin said.
“OK,” “You’re entitled to your opinion,” and “Sure,” are all responses that address the person without inviting more or allowing yourself to be pulled in further, he added.
“They’re going to let go because what power do they have? They’re not charming, they can’t manipulate you, they can’t make you unstable,” Campbell said. “You’re just kind of doing your thing.”
For some narcissists, they may chalk that up to you just not being good enough to engage with them and move on. Others may initially get upset that you aren’t giving them the attention they are looking for, Malkin said.
It is important to know whom you are dealing with, Ashway said. If the person is likely to just be a jerk, gray rocking may be very helpful. If you think they could get physically abusive, it may be good to seek the help of a professional, she added.
Important to remember, though, is that gray rocking is not about changing the behavior of the narcissist, Malkin said.
“It’s not about them having some amazing insight,” he added. “It’s about protecting yourself.”
Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated the term for communal narcissists.