Three of my favorite fables — The Wizard of Oz, Snow White, and The Emperor’s New Clothes — offer lessons on how to deal with the narcissistic people in your life.

The Wizard of Oz

The Great and Powerful Oz built an intimidating edifice, convincing the kingdom to worship him with unquestioning awe. After Dorothy and her companions risked their lives to find him, the Wizard initially bullied and shamed them.

When Toto the dog uncovered the man behind the curtain, the truth was revealed. Even then, the Wizard sought to maintain his facade, warning: “Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain.”

When Dorothy spoke up indignantly, the Wizard owned up to his deception and offered the Scarecrow, Tin Man and Lion the mind, heart and courage they sought. He offered Dorothy her fondest wish, a ride back to Kansas. But his inattention or self-absorption allowed his hot-air balloon to leave without her.

The Wizard, though perhaps well-meaning in the end, was a pretentious narcissist. He built an elaborate facade to fool others. If you have pretentious narcissists in your life, these tips may help:

  • Don’t take narcissists at face value. Like Toto, look behind the curtain. Ask yourself, “What might they be hiding?” “What don’t they want me to see or know?”
  • Don’t be taken in by displays of power or wealth. We are all human and we are all equal.
  • Speak truth to power. Doing so can free you and inspire others.
  • Even if a narcissist shames or intimidates you, don’t give up on your dreams. Follow your own “Yellow Brick Road.”

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs

Snow White lost her mother early in life. Her father married a new queen who consulted her mirror daily to be told she was “fairest of them all.” When the mirror announced there was another more fair, the Queen flew into a rage, ordering Snow White murdered.

By the mercy of her would-be assassin the Huntsman, Snow White was spared. When the mirror told the Queen that her plot failed, she tried three more times to kill Snow White, donning disguises and attempting to suffocate and poison her stepdaughter.

Like most narcissists, the Queen needed endless reassurance she was the best. But her behavior in this Grimm Brothers’ fable went beyond unhealthy narcissism. She was a malignant narcissist, prepared to kill any competitor, even her stepdaughter.

Through sheer luck and by making alliances with the seven dwarfs and a prince, Snow White survived and returned to claim her place in society.

If you have malignant narcissists in your life, remember:

  • Don’t underestimate their wrath. Their vanity can drive them to extreme actions.
  • Trust narcissists at your peril. Protect yourself by keeping your distance.
  • Narcissists try to isolate others, dividing so they can conquer. Don’t let them. You don’t have to go it alone. Get support and make allies. We can all use friends like the seven dwarfs.

The Emperor’s New Clothes

The image-obsessed Emperor’s measure of worth was the attention he gained parading in his latest outfits, changing clothes as often as every hour. Then two shady tailors appeared, promising to make the Emperor a magnificent outfit that would be invisible to those who were simple-minded or unfit for their station in life.

The Emperor could barely contain his excitement, tempted hourly to look in on the progress of his new suit. But he feared doing so, for if he saw nothing it would prove he was of low intelligence or unfit to be emperor.

When the tailors announced the suit finished, the Emperor saw nothing in their hands. He was shocked but could not show it, given what it would mean about him. Instead, he knighted the two tailors and put on another command performance, expecting his townspeople to admire his new suit.

A child said what others pretended not to see, “But he has no clothes!” Even then, the Emperor denied the truth and continued the pretense.

The Emperor was an image-conscious narcissist. In this Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale, the shallow Emperor did not seek positive attention from doing good for others or on his intrinsic value as a person. He ignored his kingdom’s needs to focus on his image.

Image-conscious narcissists deny unflattering truths about themselves and expect you to do so as well. Their fragile sense of self depends entirely on appearances. We can have compassion for their desperation but we do not have to join in their self-serving fantasies and lies.

If you have image-conscious narcissists in your life, keep in mind:

  • Don’t expect them to admit the truth or change their ways. While pointing out the truth may bring only denials from narcissists, speak your truth if it empowers you. Otherwise, let them parade naked.
  • Recognizing narcissists’ weaknesses can allow you freedom and perspective. Their actions speak volumes about them, not you.
  • Trust and honor your instincts, even if others initially invalidate you.

Authenticity, compassion, and transparency are rare among narcissists. Many people around narcissists choose the path of least resistance and go along with narcissists’ artificiality and pretenses. At times this may be the best approach, since narcissists who feel put down or ignored can lash out in an attempt to make others pay.

But authenticity, truth, and a greater purpose can be worth fighting for. Dorothy stood her ground, loving and fighting for her dog and trio of friends. Snow White earned the respect and alliance of her seven colorful allies. The child at the Emperor’s parade didn’t worry about saying the “right” thing, choosing instead to speak frankly.

When faced with a narcissist’s facade, intimidation or manipulation, remember:  You are authoring your life story. Courage and authenticity can empower you and show others the way home.

© Copyright 2017 Dan Neuharth PhD MFT

Photo credits:
Wizard of Oz by Insomnia Cured Here / Flickr
Poisoned apple by Denis Cristo / Shutterstock
Emperor by Alina Odryna / Shutterstock
Snow White and dwarfs by Loren Javier / Flicker