Coping With A “Know-It-All”

Medically reviewed by Melissa Guarnaccia
Updated February 19, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Most of us know someone who is convinced that they are an expert at everything, regardless of their actual knowledge. You may have heard people like this referred to as "know-it-alls."

Many know-it-alls can be challenging to be around, but they may not mean any harm by their behavior. However, there are some know-it-alls whose behavior can be a symptom of a deeper problem. These individuals can sometimes be judgmental, harsh, and overbearing. They may take pleasure in acting smarter than you during conversations, especially when there’s an audience. 

So, what can you do if you can’t avoid a know-it-all completely, such as in cases where you work with people who have these traits or you’re forced to interact with them in family gathering situations? The answer may depend on the circumstances, but there are some strategies you can use to try to neutralize the behavior and, in turn, avoid confrontation.

Getty/AnnaStills
Relationships with a know-it-all can be emotionally draining

When being a know-it-all may be a symptom of mental illness

Some people may behave like a know-it-all to cover up feelings of insecurity or overcompensate for past failures. In some cases, people who act like know-it-alls might have a superiority complex.
 

While people with superiority complexes may not necessarily intend to cause pain to others, some people act like this to convince others of how intelligent and important they are with the added intention of humiliating them.

In these cases, a person may have a cluster B personality disorder, such as narcissistic personality disorder (NPD).

People with NPD commonly display traits that belittle others to make them feel better about themselves. According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), a person must have at least five of the following characteristics to be diagnosed with NPD:

  • Requires excessive admiration and adoration from others
  • Displays an over-inflated sense of self-importance by exaggerating one’s intelligence, achievements, and talents
  • Believes they are unique and only those high in status can understand them
  • Displays arrogant behaviors and attitudes
  • Has grandiose fantasies about their superior intellect, beauty, power, and success
  • Displays a sense of entitlement, expecting special treatment or automatic obedience from others
  • Feels excessive jealousy toward others and assumes that others are jealous of them
  • Takes advantage of others for their own personal gain
  • Is unwilling or unable to establish empathy for others

Why do people behave this way?

According to the Mayo Clinic, there is no official known cause of narcissistic personality disorder, experts believe that genetics, neurological challenges, and childhood environment may play a role. In more innocuous cases, one who behaves like a know-it-all may be overcompensating for feelings of insecurity and inadequacy. They may be masking feelings of mediocrity, or they may even be in denial about the limitations of their intellectual abilities.

Handling a know-it-all

Being around a know-it-all can trigger complicated feelings. People who pose as superior can make us feel annoyed, angry, inferior, or insecure. There are usually little to no benefits from these challenging interactions, but there are multiple ways to prevent them from derailing your good mood.

Maintain peace of mind

While anger can sometimes serve as a catalyst for change, this may not be the case if you're dealing with a know-it-all. When you’re tempted to feel angry or upset after interacting with someone like this, you might try to remain in the present moment and avoid reacting.

Letting feelings of irritation or anger pass may help you focus on the reality of the situation. When you calmly pay attention, you may be able to see more clearly the tricks and strategies they may use in their effort to make themselves appear intellectually superior while making you feel small. Noticing these subtle behaviors may give you more power to deal with them appropriately.

Getty/MoMo Productions

It may sound easier said than done, but it typically takes time and practice to be able to control your reactions. When it comes to a person who acts like a know-it-all, you may find that it helps to physically leave the space, take a deep breath, and reset. During a conversation, when you feel the urge to react, you might try to redirect your attention to the physical sensations in your body, such as where you may be holding tension or discomfort. This may help deter you from reacting and illuminate your understanding of what specific things elicit your reactions.

Understand it's not about you

It may also help to understand that know-it-all behavior may not be meant as a personal slight against you. People who behave this way may be doing so to cope with their own feelings or internal challenges. This may be a long-standing pattern in their life that preceded your interactions with them. 

While it may seem like these people are out to get you, they may simply be unhappy with themselves and feel the need to tear others down to make themselves feel better. This does not necessarily excuse the behavior, and it’s acceptable to set boundaries in these cases.

However, setting boundaries can be challenging, especially if you're not used to implementing them or if the other person has a strong personality. When setting boundaries, you’re letting that person know how you will and will not be treated. Although there’s no guarantee that setting boundaries will make a person change their know-it-all behavior, it may help to make your voice heard.

Avoid debate and arguments

People who think they know everything about you, your situation, and the world in general may be skilled in debate and seem to have an answer for everything. People like this may have learned how to construct arguments that suit their purposes. They're often forceful in presenting their own arguments yet seldom open to other ideas.

Although it's natural for us to want to defend ourselves when we hear a person say something that's false, it may be better to avoid arguing with a person who demonstrates know-it-all behavior. You may not be able to really "win" with such a person, and you may find yourself falling into the trap of an endless debate.

If possible, you might consider ways to respond with kindness. If this person's illusion of superiority translates into a personal attack, you might consider employing strategies to remain unaffected or at least have a swift exit available so you can remove yourself from the conversation.

Remember your own strengths

Self-assuredness may be an effective weapon for coping with a know-it-all. If they try to make you feel lesser, consider your strengths and the things about you that are unique. The know-it-all isn’t an authority on everything, and if you take an honest inventory of your life, you may find that you don't need to worry about their thoughts and opinions. Instead, you might recall your own strengths, intelligence, and sound judgment. Recognizing what makes you valuable to yourself and others may help you avoid feelings of inferiority and inadequacy in these situations.

Getty/AnnaStills
Relationships with a know-it-all can be emotionally draining

Interacting with a know-it-all can drain your energy and even leave you feeling unsure of yourself and your abilities. In these situations, it may be helpful to remember that people who behave this way usually do so because they are trying to cover feelings of insecurity. They may not even consciously realize that their behavior makes others feel bad; they may be simply reacting to the feelings they have inside.

However, if you suspect that a know-it-all in your life has a less innocent motive for their behavior, it may be best to take measures to safeguard yourself. If your mental health is at risk, you might avoid contact as much as possible, prepare to remain mindful and avoid reacting, and cultivate healthy self-esteem by remembering your own strengths.

Talk to a therapist about handling a know-it-all

Sometimes, when people in our lives tear us down to build themselves up, it may help to seek support from a counselor. If you feel hesitant about going to a therapist’s office to discuss your feelings, you might try online therapy. Research shows that online therapy is as effective as in-person treatment, and it tends to be just as affordable. Platforms like BetterHelp allow you to connect with a licensed therapist via phone or video chat without leaving home. You can also contact your therapist in between sessions via in-app messaging if a no-it-all is causing you stress, and your therapist will respond as soon as they can.

Read below for reviews of BetterHelp counselors from individuals experiencing similar concerns with difficult people.

Counselor reviews

"She does such an amazing job with introducing new ideas and solutions to cope with particular attributes. She has helped me tremendously and it is because of her that I have the tools to help me control my mental thoughts. Thank you so much!"

"Jodi Nelan has encouraged me to explore my relationships with people and allowed me to overcome obstacles in my decision making."

Takeaway

If you’re experiencing difficulty interacting with a know-it-all, know that you are not alone. Many people experience this at some point in life, and there are ways to bolster your sense of self so that know-it-alls don’t affect your mental health and well-being. You may find it helpful to enlist the help of a licensed therapist to deal with this person more skillfully. Take the first step to managing a challenging relationship with a know-it-all and reach out to BetterHelp today.

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