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How to Deal with a Narcissist: Lessons from The Devil Wears Prada

WARNING: This article contains spoilers from The Devil Wears Prada (2006)

People with narcissistic traits can show up anywhere – but in particular, they often end up in positions of authority due to their desire to signal their own importance and exercise control over others. Unknowingly entering the orbit of a narcissist can be very stressful and even traumatic, not least because it can often be difficult to identify a narcissist before getting closer to them.

The movie The Devil Wears Prada was based on the book by Lauren Weisberger of the same name, published in 2003. The plot is based on Lauren's own experiences working at a renowned New York fashion magazine, and it contains many lessons on how to deal with a narcissist as we watch the protagonist, Andy (Anne Hathaway), figure out how to work with her new boss, textbook narcissist Miranda Priestley (Meryl Streep), the established and highly respected editor of the fictional fashion magazine Runway.

Lesson 1 - Identifying a narcissist

As soon as Miranda walks into a room, her tone and body language signal “I’m in charge”, and she is quick to dismiss others with an air of condescension or even humiliation should they even subtly disagree with her opinions or fail to meet her demands. She is admired from afar and feared by those who work with her up close, evidenced by the below clip, where you can see how her staff’s behaviours change when she enters the building, to reduce the chance that they will become a target for Miranda’s toxic criticism

At the start of the film, Andy learns the hard way what happens if she opposes Miranda – at best, her input will be ignored, and at worst she will be humiliated, for example, her choice of clothing and her weight is scrutinised by Miranda in front of others when she questions one of Miranda’s opinions. At times, Andy even receives retaliation, for instance, after she was unable to find an airline willing to fly Miranda through a hurricane, Miranda threatened to fire Andy if she was unable to obtain a copy of the tightly guarded unpublished Harry Potter manuscript.

However, Miranda is not nasty to everyone she meets – she develops some more cordial and even friendly relationships with some of the more longstanding staff of her magazine, such as Nigel (Stanley Tucci), as well as top fashion designers and other fashion elites. However, later in the film we learn that this friendliness is often a strategic façade, as Miranda is quick to hurt others’ interests in order to serve her own. For example, she gives the promotion she promised Nigel to another editor who was a major threat to her position and image. Therefore, the best way to identify a narcissist is to observe how they treat people at the bottom of whatever ladder it is that they are climbing, rather than those whose connections strategically benefit them.

Lesson 2 – Narcissistic traits can be helpful

It makes sense that narcissistic traits can be observed in many highly influential people, as narcissism can protect people from the emotional toll of having a large amount of responsibility. Someone with more humility in such a role may experience more debilitating feelings of inadequacy and fears of failure when given a highly influential role. They may also be overwhelmed with the desire for universal acceptance and approval, which is impossible to achieve when needing to make tough decisions that will never be popular with everyone - an inevitable aspect of any high-powered role.

A lot of Miranda’s strengths as an editor overlap with her narcissistic traits, such as her commitment to her vision and high standards for the contents of her magazine, and her willingness to upset others in service of these. She can also remain calm and emotionally regulated in most of the high-pressure situations she faces throughout the film, from giving negative feedback to a well-regarded designer, to betraying Nigel in order to save Runway from a take-over.

Lesson 3 – The benefits of narcissism come at a heavy cost

Unsurprisingly, a narcissist’s strengths are also reasons that they usually struggle with close relationships. A narcissist often has no problem attracting people, as they project confidence and are quick to demonstrate their successes to others. They can appear to others like a shining beacon – as Miranda says to Andy before they face the paparazzi at the end of the film, “everybody wants this - everyone wants to be us”. However, once people get closer to them, it can be extremely difficult for a narcissist to maintain healthy relationships.

One reason for this is that a narcissist usually gets what they need from others through manipulation, rather than relating to others in a positive, healthy manner, which makes people meet their demands out of fear, but won’t foster safe relationships with them. For instance, Andy is motivated to meet Miranda’s needs due to the threats placed on her career if she doesn’t, not because she has a genuine connection to Miranda that makes her want to do a good job.

Those who have used their narcissism to achieve material success often have little time for close friends and family, as they will usually prioritise the maintenance of their success over the needs of those close to them. This can lead to the breakdown of important relationships. For instance, in the film, Andy accidentally overhears an argument between Miranda and her husband, who is complaining about another event he had to attend alone. Later, Miranda tells Andy that she is getting divorced again, which she anticipates will further damage her relationship with her daughters.

Narcissists can still be capable of empathy and respect at some level, but their mind de-prioritises it. We see glimpses of empathy from Miranda when she reflects on the negative impacts of her multiple divorces on her daughters, and when she gives Andy a glowing reference in spite of the abrupt manner in which she resigned from Runway.

These more vulnerable moments made me rethink some of Miranda’s prima donna demands from earlier in the film – such as trying to fly through a hurricane to attend her daughter’s recital, which may have been her desire to be a less absent parent and avoid criticism from her frustrated husband. However, these are some of the only moments of vulnerability for Miranda’s character in the entire film.

Lesson 4 – Don’t trust a narcissist

In spite of the glimpses of humanity that we may see in narcissists such as Miranda, the dangers of trusting a narcissist usually outweigh the potential benefits, as they will generally put their own interests first. If they ever do something to benefit others, more often than not, it benefits them at least as much, if not more.

Throughout the film, Andy develops more respect for Miranda as she witnesses how talented she is, and more empathy as she learns of the personal sacrifices Miranda has made for her magazine. This leads Andy to try harder to gain her respect, which lead her to get promoted and invited to more high-profile events where she can network. However, in the process, she sacrifices many of her own principles and her relationship with her partner Nate (Adrian Grenier) breaks down, which was previously fulfilling and healthy.

This does not mean it is impossible to collaborate with narcissists, and it also does not mean narcissists don’t deserve empathy and compassion – after all, these traits have often been forged in difficult, often traumatic, early life experiences, and mask deeply-buried personal insecurities (though this film does not explore these aspects of Miranda’s narcissism in any depth). However, collaborating with a narcissist should never come at the cost of your wellbeing.

Setting solid, consistent boundaries in order to escape the toxic cycles of a narcissist can be helpful not only for you, but, in the long-term, for the narcissist too, because it teaches them that their behaviours are not effective for connecting with or getting what they want from you. It is possible to set strict and solid boundaries with narcissists while maintaining a compassionate attitude – though it’s a skill that usually needs to be taught and practiced, due to the immense pressure narcissists place on others when they attempt to manipulate.

Unfortunately, because Andy did not set these solid, consistent boundaries up-front, the only boundary she could set with Miranda by the end of the film was to quit her job. In my experience working with clients who have been under the thumb of a narcissist, cutting them out completely is often the only realistic way to protect their wellbeing.

If you think you may have, like Andy, found yourself caught in the web of a narcissist, seeing a psychologist can be a very helpful way to unravel the situation and learn the skills you need to better protect yourself from the negative aspects of these types of relationships. There are also many useful online resources created by mental health professionals, such as this video.

All images in this post were taken from The Devil Wears Prada, 20th Century Fox, 2006


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