We’ve all seen it. Despite a mask requirement in most places, many people don’t bother wearing them. They ditch them after the store employees lets them in. They expose their nose. They let the mask dangle under their chin. These maskless people also often refuse to respect social distancing guidelines, which makes them even more frightening. They may think they’re saying they don’t need a mask. But instead, their behavior signals a different type of thought: I am special. I do not have to follow the rules. They’re acting like common narcissists.
The Washington Post says this connection between masklessness and narcissism may not be a coincidence. In fact, several studies have shown that “narcissistic behavior” may be part of the reason people don’t comply with COVID-19 safety guidelines.
So What’s The Deal With Narcissists?
Along with psychopathy and a trait called Machiavellianism, narcissism makes up what psychiatrists and psychologists call the “Dark Triad”: “personality patterns often linked to a ‘lack of niceness,'” W. Keith Campbell, a psychology professor at the University of Georgia, tells The Washington Post. According to Psychology Today, narcissists share “an expectation of special treatment reflecting perceived higher status.” In other words, they think they’re above the rules. They also show a marked lack of empathy.
Basically, Campbell says, narcissists are going to do what they want — and if what they want means not following public health guidelines, well, screw public health guidelines.
Psych Central says that according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, used by psychiatrists and psychologists to diagnose mental disorders, narcissists are “unwilling to recognize or identify with the feelings and needs of others.” They’re only interested in getting their own needs (or wants) met, even if it means cheating or breaking the law… or not wearing a mask.
But there’s a difference between narcissistic behavior and pathological narcissism, says Psychology Today. People with pathological narcissism, or about 1% of the population, exhibit behavior that inhibits their ability to function in society. Common narcissists, while still dangerous, can still function: they can hold a job, for example. And remember, not everyone without a mask is a narcissist; they may have physical or mental disabilities that prevent them from wearing one, for example.
However, as The Washington Post says, studies have shown a correlation between a refusal to wear masks and narcissism.
Narcissists Don’t Empathize With Others…
So they don’t see the need to wear a mask to stop the spread of COVID-19. While most of us agree that we need to wear a mask to protect the most vulnerable people among us, and to stop the spread of the pandemic, these community-minded calls to action require empathy, which doesn’t work for narcissists. Their desire to get what they want (breathing without fogging their glasses, perhaps, or an escape from the discomfort of an ill-fitting mask) outweighs any public health guideline. No CDC recommendations, federal mask laws, or appeals to their sense of community will have any effect on their behavior. They’re above the law, so they think, and care less about others than normal people.
But it’s hard to find a better example of narcissism at work than the anti-mask rhetoric. In fact, Ramani Durvasula, a licensed clinical psychologist and professor at California State University at Los Angeles, tells The Washington Post that these diatribes are “one of the most stunning examples of lack of empathy you could see.”
So How Do You Deal?
First of all, you don’t become the mask police. Narcissism can “manifest itself as rage [and] oppositionality,” says The Washington Post, and when you confront strangers, you’re potentially putting yourself at risk. Experts say you should simply steer clear of rule-breakers. But that’s not always possible: narcissists are everywhere, and you may be forced into close quarters with them. Or you may be related to one of them.
Their defense mechanisms make confrontation especially difficult, according to the APA’s PsycNet. Remember, narcissists think they’re better than everyone else, and that “arrogance and contempt” shields them from taking you seriously. They’re champions at denial, so fact-based arguments may fall flat. They also use projection and blame: when I once confronted a woman about refusing to socially distance, she snapped that if I didn’t want to get COVID-19, I should stay home: i.e., the fault was not with her refusal to stay out of my bubble, but my presence itself. But more than any of that, narcissists tend to be aggressive, and it’s better to stay safe than be right.
But if you must, The Washington Post does suggest some ways to cope with narcissists’ refusal to adhere to COVID-19 guidelines. Use “we” language: Make the point that this person, specifically, plays a large role in keeping people safe, which appeals to their sense of grandeur and exceptionalism. A sentence like, “You can make a difference, because we’re all in it together,” may help if the person isn’t highly disordered (or actually pathological).
You should also “be respectful.” An eye roll or a snapped directive of “Wear a mask!” will only enrage narcissists and make them feel more justified, since their sense of exceptionalism is being attacked. Instead, “gently remind them of the rules” or offer them a mask instead. For family members, providing masks, especially ones that “flatter their appearance,” may help on the road towards compliance.
But most of all, don’t escalate. As experts in The Washington Post point out, if narcissists are screaming, they’re spraying droplets— which may contain the virus. Walk away or “gray rock”: i.e., become as uninteresting and inert as a rock.
If you’re dealing with family members, Psychology Today says, remember that you are dealing with a narcissist; keep your sense of humor; and don’t argue, explain, or try to justify yourself.
Your safety is more important than someone else’s adherence to the rules. Don’t be the mask police— the risks aren’t worth it, and it’s too difficult to cope with narcissists. Instead, stay away. Remember that if someone’s not wearing a mask, there’s a chance they’re already exhibiting toxic behavior. Don’t give them a chance to display more.