The Gray Rock Strategy for Dealing With Narcissists

A narcissist will rarely change their ways. When you can't distance yourself, you can change the way you interact with them. But, how do you do it?
The Gray Rock Strategy for Dealing With Narcissists
Valeria Sabater

Written and verified by the psychologist Valeria Sabater.

Last update: 11 January, 2024

You meet all kinds of different people throughout your life. There are those who are difficult and problematic and you deal better with some than others. In fact, in certain cases, in the kinds of relationships that bring you nothing but torment and trouble, you have no option but to keep your distance and break your ties.

However, what can you do in cases when it’s not possible for you to get away from these types of undesirable figures? This is one of the biggest challenges you can face.

Whether they’re a man, woman, boss, or even your mother, these are the kinds of people who aren’t easy to push away. Because people like this don’t usually change their attitudes and behavior.

This forces you to develop new coping strategies for managing their hostility. So, if you want to safeguard your mental health, you have to change the way you treat them.

Below, we’ll explain a basic resource that’ll act as a first aid kit.

Narcissists require admiration and respect. Completely withdrawing attention from them is the best possible strategy. In effect, you no longer contine to nurture their egos and needs.

Couple arguing over gray stone metaphor
The last thing we should do when faced with narcissists is to confront them.

The gray rock strategy

We all exhibit certain narcissistic behaviors. However, only a few of us suffer from the personality disorder included in the DSM-5 (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders ). The label is often open to abuse. 

Not everyone who undermines you with their selfishness will be suffering from a significant clinical condition. But people with a narcissistic personality disorder do exist. The condition is measured on a spectrum.

Therefore, some profiles are more problematic than others. For example, some of them might be complex, but not threatening. There are also narcissists who are really successful in their careers but who, on a personal level, exhibit harmful and dysfunctional behaviors.

You might find these kinds of personalities among your colleagues, siblings, boss, or even the professor who’s working with you on your thesis.

They can unexpectedly appear in your life, disrupt it, put it in check, and mean you have to develop certain daily salvation strategies to stay afloat. In this regard, the gray rock strategy is a great tool.

Try to keep your interactions with narcissists neutral. Show indifference to their demands and calls for attention. They’ll soon lose interest in you and look for someone different to use.

1. The gray rock strategy

The gray rock strategy aims to keep you strong by maintaining your indifference without, at any time, reinforcing the needs of the narcissist.

For example, what comes to mind when you imagine a simple gray rock on a road or at the bottom of a river? It’s just one more element that you don’t usually even notice.

Narcissists need ‘supplies’ from the environment around them. They crave attention, create drama and conflicts, and want to be the center of attention at all times. You need to be a neutral and resistant surface in which they can’t be reflected. By doing this, they’ll be unable to use you.

2. Attacking the narcissistic sense of entitlement

Entitlement is the characteristic that defines all narcissists. They think that the world owes them a favor. This perception is a bias that originates in their childhood.

It’s either due to an upbringing of excessive attention or the opposite, one that’s full of deficiencies. It’s common for them to grow up with the idea that the function of others is to serve them and do them favors in every area of their lives.

Research conducted by the University of Wollongong (Australia) highlights what it means to live with someone who needs others to reinforce their yearning for ‘grandeur’. The gray rock strategy proposes that we attack their sense of entitlement in really subtle, but effective ways.

  • Treat them like anyone else. Deny them any concession or demand that means putting them above others.
  • Respectfully tell them that you’re sorry to disappoint them by not meeting their demands, but that your standpoint won’t change.
  • Firmly set your boundaries. However, bear in mind that a narcissist will always try to get around them. So, make sure you remain indifferent to their criticism, mockery, and manipulations, and maintain your barriers.
  • Show them that their presence and words mean nothing to you.
  • Keep your interactions with them brief and be assertive.

The gray rock strategy proposes that you should be firm in your position of indifference so that their narcissistic behavior doesn’t escalate and overwhelm you.

3. Coldness and non-reaction, the rock that stands firm

One strategy you must remember at all times is to avoid antagonizing the narcissist. Because doing so also gives them power. After all, these types of difficult figures feed as much on confrontation as they do on admiration.

The moment you face a narcissist and react in anger, you’re showing them that they influence you. The gray rock strategy conveys the image of a cold, firm, and solid surface.

The best thing to do is not to react and to stay cold in the face of their actions so that they lose interest in you. Sooner or later, they’ll look for another victim to use.

couple applying the gray stone metaphor
It’s best to keep interactions with narcissists brief and respectful.

The importance of withdrawing your attention

By withdrawing your attention, the gray rock strategy diverts the narcissist’s behavior elsewhere. It shows them that you’re not an interesting target for them and that they won’t be able to get the reinforcements they need from you. However, is this technique 100 percent successful? Unfortunately, not.

In reality, narcissists are unpredictable, chaotic, and demanding. They’re often pathological profiles and it’s difficult to have the best armor at hand to protect yourself. The strategy we’ve described here can act as both a starting point and a lifeline.

Finally, if a narcissist circumvents your ethical and moral boundaries, you shouldn’t hesitate to opt for more drastic responses such as keeping your distance.

After all, at the end of the day, your mental health is far more important than keeping a job or maintaining a relationship with a narcissistic family member.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

  • Carlson EN, Vazire S, Oltmanns TF. You probably think this paper’s about you: narcissists’ perceptions of their personality and reputation. J Pers Soc Psychol. 2011 Jul;101(1):185-201. doi: 10.1037/a0023781. Erratum in: J Pers Soc Psychol. 2012 Aug;103(2):379. PMID: 21604895; PMCID: PMC3119754.
  • O’Reilly CA, Hall N. Grandiose narcissists and decision making: Impulsive, overconfident, and skeptical of experts-but seldom in doubt. Pers Individ Dif. 2021 Jan 1;168:110280. doi: 10.1016/j.paid.2020.110280. Epub 2020 Aug 14. PMID: 32834287; PMCID: PMC7427600.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.