Skip to Content

Book Summary: Surrounded by Narcissists – How to Effectively Recognize, Avoid, and Defend Yourself Against Toxic People (and Not Lose Your Mind)

Surrounded By Narcissists (2022) is a guide to recognizing narcissists and understanding how they operate. Erikson suggests simple, effective methods for dealing with any narcissists you know, whether it’s your partner, a relative, someone you work with, or possibly all three – you may be surrounded.

Introduction: Protecting yourself from narcissists.

These days, narcissists are everywhere. In addition to politicians and social media influencers, there might even be a couple of narcissists you know personally. Maybe you’re sick of a self-obsessed friend or losing patience with your partner’s manipulative tendencies.

[Book Summary] Surrounded by Narcissists: How to Effectively Recognize, Avoid, and Defend Yourself Against Toxic People (and Not Lose Your Mind)

Luckily, behavior expert Thomas Erikson has identified some helpful strategies for dealing with narcissists. We’ll cover a few of these techniques, which you can use in any egocentric-driven situation.

You probably won’t be able to change these individuals. But if you can recognize certain behaviors and learn how to respond, you’ll avoid getting manipulated or hurt.

In this summary, you’ll learn:

  • how to recognize narcissistic behavior;
  • how to respond when you feel you’re being manipulated; and
  • when you should walk away – or even cut someone out of your life.

You probably know quite a few narcissists.

When you hear the word “narcissist,” what qualities come to mind? Vanity, perhaps? Self-obsession?

As you may know, the term comes from a Greek myth about a handsome young man. Narcissus was so beautiful that everyone who saw him fell in love with him. But no one loved Narcissus more than he loved himself.

In one version of the myth, Narcissus sits by a pond, gazing lovingly at his own reflection. He’s so obsessed that he stays there until he starves to death.

So yes, self-obsession is part of it. But narcissism is a complicated personality disorder. There’s more to it than just liking yourself a bit too much.

Also, in real life, the victims of narcissists are usually other people.

Thomas Erikson, the author of Surrounded by Narcissists, wants to help us to avoid becoming victims.

First, he says, we need to know how to recognize narcissists. The ones you encounter won’t be handsome young men staring at their reflection in a pond.

Instead, it might be a coworker who’s quick to criticize others – but blows up if you offer them honest feedback.

Or it could be the friend who only wants to talk about themselves.

It may even be your partner or someone in your family. Perhaps you’ve noticed that this person can be deceitful – even manipulative – at times.

Think about it for a moment. Do you know someone who behaves like that? Thought so.

Narcissists hurt people, and are very unlikely to change.

As you reflect on the egocentric people you know, you might be wondering, Are narcissists really that bad? They’re annoying – but it’s not like they’re violent psychopaths. They’re not dangerous . . . right?

Well, it depends on how you define “dangerous.” Narcissists can certainly be psychologically dangerous. Cheating, lying, manipulating, gaslighting, love bombing, playing mind games – all of these harmful behaviors can damage people’s mental health.

And it’s especially damaging to those of us who have close emotional relationships with narcissists. Individuals who were once romantically involved with a narcissist sometimes refer to themselves as “survivors.” The person who initially seemed charming, showering them with gifts and affection, later turned out to be cold, critical, and manipulative.

So yes, to go back to that question from earlier – narcissists really are that bad. And unfortunately, there’s not much we can do about it. They can’t be “cured.” That’s because narcissism is a personality disorder, not an illness. In fact, 1 to 2 percent of the population are estimated to have Narcissistic Personality Disorder, or NPD.

Although there are various types of treatment for NPD, including psychotherapy and cognitive behavioral therapy, there’s no evidence that any of them actually work.

True narcissists – people who actually have NPD – can’t be cured. There might be some hope for other narcissists – people who display narcissistic tendencies but don’t have the disorder. But it’s doubtful. In order for a person to change, they need to want to change. Ask a narcissist if they want to be cured, and their response is likely to be, Cured from what? After all, they benefit from manipulating other people.

You may be able to ask, or encourage, someone exhibiting narcissistic tendencies to improve their behavior. But if you aren’t seeing any change, this might end up hurting you. So save your energy for a different strategy – which we’ll get to next.

Use self-awareness to deal with narcissists.

Maybe you’re still not entirely convinced of the risks posed by narcissists. As long as you don’t let yourself get manipulated, what’s the problem?

The problem is this: to a certain degree, everyone is susceptible to narcissists. They’re masters of manipulation, and even experts get taken in.

Erikson tells a story about a researcher. For some reason, this researcher decided to lend his Mercedes to a narcissist who’d just been released from prison. Unsurprisingly, the researcher never saw his car again.

Narcissists prey on everyone – but especially their opposites, empaths. Empathetic people are easy targets because they’re more likely to respond to a narcissist’s call for help. An empath will believe a narcissist who’s playing the victim. And eventually, the empath becomes the victim. It’s a wolf-in-sheep’s-clothing situation.

So far we’ve been looking outward, focusing on the common characteristics of narcissists. But now it’s time to look inward and do a little self-reflection. Before you confront the narcissist in your life, you need to know exactly what your own strengths and weaknesses are.

For this, let’s use the color system. If you’re familiar with Erikson’s other books, such as Surrounded by Idiots or Surrounded by Setbacks, you might already know how this works. If not, no problem. We’ll go through it quickly now.

The color system is part of a behavior assessment known as DISC. Essentially, it’s a way of categorizing the different personality types. There are four colors: red, yellow, green, and blue. Each one corresponds to a different kind of personality.

Reds are fact-focused extroverts. They’re very driven and good at problem-solving, but they have to be in control. When they feel like they’re losing control, reds freak out.

Then there are yellows. They’re extroverts too, but they’re more focused on relationships. They’re optimists who enjoy interacting with others. Yellows don’t cope well with isolation or rejection.

Next are greens. They’re relationship-focused introverts who tend to be kind and caring. Greens are often averse to change and conflict.

And finally, there are blues. Blues are fact-focused introverts. They’re thoughtful and conscientious, but they also have a weakness – a fear of public humiliation.

Now, you may be wondering why all this matters. And what does it have to do with handling narcissists? Well, different colors tend to react differently when faced with narcissistic behavior.

Also, because narcissists are such skilled manipulators, they tend to take advantage of people’s weaknesses. If you’re already aware of your own weaknesses and how you’re likely to behave in certain situations, you’ll be better prepared.

So pause for a moment, and think about which color you identify with most.

Call out manipulative behavior, or take a break from the conversation.

Let’s say you’re a red. When you feel like you’re losing control of the situation, you can get pretty worked up. Narcissists know this – and they know how to use your emotions against you. It’s a form of manipulation.

As you talk to a narcissist about a problem with their behavior, maybe you start getting angry. You raise your voice slightly. Then they say, I knew this would happen. You’re always yelling.

Maybe you feel bad about this aspect of your personality. You don’t like how easily you’re triggered. But notice what the narcissist has just done – they’ve shifted the focus of the conversation.

Or, if you’re a sensitive green, you might react differently when talking to the narcissist. Instead of losing your temper, maybe you get nervous and tongue-tied. And they respond with, Ugh, talking to you is impossible. It’s like you’re too scared to have a proper conversation.

You were originally talking about something else – maybe something the narcissist did. But now, it’s all about your emotions and your weaknesses.

This is manipulative behavior. But how should you respond? In the heat of the moment, it can be difficult to know what to do.

Here’s something you can try. When the narcissist uses your emotions against you, call them out on it. Try to keep your cool. Calmly say, I feel like you’re trying to manipulate me. Of course, they won’t admit to being manipulative. But at least you’ll have made it clear that you see through them.

Here’s another technique that’s even easier. When you notice someone being manipulative, simply pause the conversation. It’s easier to do this if you’re talking on the phone. Say something like, Someone’s coming. Gotta go. Or, Sorry, my battery’s dying. I’ll call you back.

Don’t ask for permission, and don’t worry that you’re being rude. You’re not.

Pausing a face-to-face conversation is a little trickier. If you’re in the same room as the narcissist, make up an excuse. Maybe you have to go to the bathroom, or reply to an urgent email on your phone.

You can even directly tell the narcissist you need time. Say, I’m going to need some time to think about that. I’ll get back to you. Give yourself a moment to breathe – and some time to think. That way, you won’t get wound up or manipulated into doing what the narcissist wants.

If you’re an impulsive red or yellow, pausing may not come naturally to you. But it’s definitely worth a try. When you feel like you’re at risk of being manipulated, sometimes the best thing to do is take a break. Walk away, and the narcissist is no longer in control.

Set boundaries, and if necessary, cut ties to break free from a narcissist.

Now you know how to handle a conversation with a narcissist. Unfortunately, though, it’s unlikely to be a one-off. If someone has been manipulative once, they’re bound to do it again.

That’s why you’ll need some additional methods for dealing with narcissists. Let’s look at how to set boundaries.

Say the narcissist is your partner. They can be manipulative at times, but what really bothers you is how critical they are (another common trait of narcissists, by the way). You’ve had enough of your partner’s behavior, but you don’t want to break up – not yet, anyway. You’re going to give them another chance.

First, explain that you plan to put more emphasis on your own needs. Then, tell your partner how you expect to be treated: My needs matter too. I want to be treated with respect from now on.

Next, set boundaries. Give examples of unacceptable behavior, and make it clear you will no longer tolerate it: I’ve had enough of being criticized for every little thing. I won’t put up with it anymore.

Ask your partner to recognize that your needs or opinions may be different from theirs: You may not always agree with my point of view, but that doesn’t mean I’m wrong.

Explain that you expect the relationship to improve, now that you’ve set these boundaries: I think I’ve made my feelings clear, so things should get better, right?

Finally, ask your partner to confirm that they’ve understood – and to promise that they’re going to make an effort: Do you understand what I’ve just said? Are you going to try to change?

And that’s all there is to it. Basically, you’re establishing a framework. You’re telling your partner what has to change in order for the relationship to work.

After that, if your partner continues to treat you badly, walk away.

Remember, true narcissists can’t change. Do you really want to maintain a relationship with someone like that? You can pause the conversation or set boundaries as many times as you like, but the narcissist will always be, well, a narcissist. Maybe they can’t help the way they are, but that doesn’t mean you have to suffer.

Also, keep in mind that the boundary conversation only really works with partners, friends, and family. If you have a narcissistic boss, for example, it’s hard to dictate the terms of the relationship.

So, what are your other options?

Distance works. Distance yourself from the narcissist, both physically and emotionally, so you don’t get hurt. As a last resort, you may even have to cut ties. Quit your job. Break up with your partner. Stop responding to your friend’s messages.

And try not to feel bad about cutting a narcissist out of your life. You have the right to protect your emotional well-being.

Society is becoming more narcissistic.

You can break up with a partner or cut ties with a friend. But what if you feel like you’re literally surrounded by narcissists?

It’s not just the people you know personally. It’s politicians, fame-hungry Instagram influencers, reality TV stars . . . narcissism is everywhere.

True NPD may only affect 1 to 2 percent of people. But it’s been estimated that up to 20 percent of the population behave in a narcissistic way.

In The Narcissism Epidemic, published in 2009, psychologists Twenge and Campbell argue that narcissism is becoming dangerously widespread in American culture. Even people who don’t have NPD are behaving in narcissistic ways.

Narcissism has become normalized, and it’s on the rise. If you’re wondering why . . . well, so is Erikson. Most likely, it’s a combination of factors. Social media obviously has something to do with it.

Less obvious, perhaps, is the role of the self-help industry. For instance, think of the message of Rhonda Byrne’s best seller, The Secret, which was published in 2006. “You can have anything you want,” says Byrne, “as long as you want it enough.”

The idea of getting something for nothing is very appealing to narcissists. And when these kinds of beliefs are normalized, society becomes increasingly narcissistic.

Erikson thinks we should be worried not just about the narcissists we know, but also about collective narcissism. Any group can be collective narcissists. They might form around a political ideology, a faith, or a sports team.

Collective narcissists want their group to be accepted by others without question. They want people to not just agree with but admire them.

And if you’re not part of the group, watch out.

A decade ago, there was a scientific study on collective narcissism, which involved some participants from the US. These participants were asked to read an interview with a foreign exchange student. The student expressed a negative opinion of some aspects of the US.

After reading the interview, the American participants criticized the student’s nation. The group attacked an entire nation on the basis of a single individual’s comments.

And there’s a twist. After the study, the participants were told that the interview had been made up. The foreign student wasn’t real – and neither were his negative comments about the US. But despite this, some of the participants were still agitated. The truth didn’t seem to matter to them.

So, as you can see, collective narcissism has some troubling implications.

Culturally, there’s no quick fix. But what about protecting ourselves on an individual level?

The good news is that it’s easier than you think. If you’re dealing with a group of collective narcissists, you can use some of the same methods you would use with an individual narcissist: Take a break. Distance yourself.

In practical terms, that might mean a digital detox and staying off social media. Erikson also recommends keeping an eye out for – and avoiding – groups displaying disturbing behavioral patterns.

You may be surrounded by narcissists, but remember, you don’t have to engage with them.

Final Summary

The most important thing to remember/take away from all this is:

Narcissists cause psychological damage. And although they’re probably incapable of change, you can change the way you respond to their behavior. If creating distance or setting boundaries doesn’t work, don’t let yourself be hurt or manipulated. Say goodbye to the narcissist – and break free once and for all.

Here’s some more actionable advice:

Make sure there are other people around.

Narcissists have a weak spot: they want to be admired, and they care about other people’s opinions. So if you’re worried about being manipulated, try to draw other people into the conversation rather than talk to the narcissist one-on-one. You could even postpone the discussion until you’re in a group setting. The narcissist will find it harder to manipulate you if there are witnesses.


Psychology, Communication Skills, Personality Disorders, Psychology Personality Study

About the author

Thomas Erikson is a Swedish behavioral expert, active lecturer, and bestselling author. For more than twenty years he has been traveling all over Europe delivering lectures and seminars to executives and managers at a wide range of companies, including IKEA, Coca Cola, Microsoft, and Volvo.

Video and Podcast