When you are a healthy person relating with another healthy person, the rules of engagement are simple and straightforward:
- I’ll show you respect just as I know you will in reverse.
- I’ll listen to you, and I know you’ll do the same.
- You can help me, and I can help you.
- Let’s remember to be an encouraging presence to each other.
- I’ll tune into your feelings and respond accordingly, just as you will.
- When we disagree, we can still communicate in an agreeable fashion.
- As difficult circumstances arise, we will each have the other’s back.
- Making plans will be done with the other’s needs and preferences in mind.
- When we make mistakes or show insensitivity, we own it and adjust.
- We’ll make no attempts to one-up each other since we operate as equals.
We could add more to this list, but you get the idea. Healthy relationships are guided by conscientiousness and a willingness to create a mutually gratifying experience. It takes concentration, but with maturation, this form of engagement is possible and quite rewarding.
But with a narcissist. . .
Narcissists are neither healthy nor mature as they approach you in relationship. Keep in mind that these people are defined by the need for control. Specifically, this makes them prone to criticism, stubbornness, bullying, defensiveness, and arguing. They lack empathy, which means that affirmation from them is fleeting at best, and they do not anticipate how to blend with you because you are supposed to cater to them. They can be master manipulators, which means they carry a self-serving agenda, causing them to become exploitative and secretive. Attempts to manage conflict almost always end poorly, and you are blamed for the perpetual strain that exists.
Over time, the narcissist’s presence in your life can become toxic, bringing out the worst in you. Their mannerisms can prompt you to become argumentative, defensive, guarded, and tense. Your attempts to make the narcissist “see the light” will inevitably fall short since narcissists feel no need to listen, to accommodate you, or to blend with your unique inclinations.
Simply put, narcissists are not good candidates for long-term rewarding relationships…at all.
An Awakened Mind
Knowing this, you will need to operate with an awakened mind. You cannot afford to presume that the ingredients you share with healthy people will be present in your exchanges with a narcissist. These are individuals who are emotionally scarred, yet unwilling to admit their troubles or to make the necessary adjustments. Their fragile egos require them to live behind the façade of a False Self that must appear superior and unblemished.
Does this all sound rather bleak? Actually, yes, it does. But knowing this, if you are in a situation where you cannot completely exit the relationship, you will need to build in a certain amount of pessimism, which will inform your mannerisms with that person. While you may have wonderful ideals for a positive relationship, reality indicates the need to temper your enthusiasm.
So with that in mind, let’s look at ten rules (or watch Dr. C’s video) to guide your interactions with a narcissist:
1. Do not ascribe normalcy to the narcissist.
If you are a normal person seeking normal goals, hoping for normal relationship outcomes, it is only natural to want (or even expect) the other person to reciprocate. You can live with the simple philosophy, “I’ll scratch your back, and you scratch my back.” Normal people operate with the presumption that simple courtesy and decency are not that difficult, nor do they require strenuous effort.
Narcissists, however, are not normal, at least in their relationship goals. In short spurts they can appear friendly and cooperative, but it does not take long for their true colors to show. Wanting to stay in the control seat, they are manipulators looking for the next chance to get what they want from you. To them, you are part of their supply chain, and they expect you to defer and acquiesce. Reciprocity is not part of their game plan.
So drop the illusion that they will join you in your healthy pursuits. They are limited in their people skills, and any efforts from you to help them grow will turn into an opportunity for them to squash you.
2. Stay neutral in your self-revelations.
In healthy relationships the participants like to learn about each other for the purpose of knowing how to coordinate life. As strengths and weaknesses become evident, each can determine to be an encouraging presence. In close family relationships or friendships, knowing each other’s pluses and minuses can become building blocks for deepening intimacy. Self-revelations are a springboard for deepening connections.
Narcissists are exploiters. They like knowing about your strengths and weaknesses but not for healthy reasons. As they learn of your various ups and downs, they are thinking of how that knowledge can ultimately be used to their advantage. What they learn about you can and will be used against you when conflicts arise or when the narcissist seeks a controlling advantage over you.
That being the case, you cannot afford to disclose deeply personal details about your life. Instead, keep your self-disclosures neutral. Stay bland and do not discuss deep needs, feelings, perceptions, or interpretations with them. Save your personal discussions for safe people who know what to do with them and who will be empathetic about your humanity.
3. Drop any assumptions about loyalty.
As you draw close toward those you care about, you feel an increasing loyalty toward each other. This prompts you to extend favor and availability toward them, and it stimulates you to convey an attitude: “I’m here for you when you need me.” As loyalty increases, so does your trustworthiness and reliability to one another.
Narcissists are loyal to no one beyond themselves. They wish you to be loyal toward them but time illustrates how mistaken you are if you assume they will do the same in reverse. Narcissists approach relationships in a similar way that addicts approach their addictive cravings. Specifically, they are addicted to favored treatment, to the seat of superiority, and to entitled privileges. You are a tool to assist them toward that end. Factor that truth into your expectations.
4. Don’t expect narcissists to uphold their end of a true relationship.
The more exposure you have to narcissists, the more you realize they are not interested in relationships. Connection, affirmation, goodness, and helpfulness are not their concern. They may give brief impressions that they are interested in developing heart bonds with you, but time and experience proves they are simply users seeking narcissistic supply. In other words, to them you exist to give them what they want. And that is not an indicator of being relational.
To a narcissist, you are a transaction, a means to an end. As long as narcissists believe they can get what they want, they will maintain associations (note: associations, not relationships) with others. But once a person becomes bothersome or no longer useful, narcissists will reject you. At that point, they will either increase demanding pressures, or they will discard you in favor of someone they find more willing to feed their needs.
Know that this person can only be someone you share activities or conversations with, but not one who has any desire or capacity to relate at the heart level.
5. Don’t become pulled in by their power plays.
As you know individuals over a long period of time, differences and disagreements emerge. Not only is that not something to dread, it allows the participants to delve more deeply into ways to of showing understanding toward each other.
In relationships with narcissists, however, differences become a battleground. Driven by the need for superiority, they are unable to speak as one equal to another. They cannot think: “I have my feelings and interpretations just as you have yours, so let’s hear each other out.” Instead, they argue. The narcissists invalidate. They demean. Stubbornness takes over. And when you express your thoughts and opinions, they talk over you. They become mean.
Your greatest mistake in those moments is to enter into the power game. Each time you argue back or push your agenda, you will be met with defiance. That is a guarantee. So, your task in those moments will be to stay true to your boundaries, to act upon your assertions, and to establish consequences when necessary. But instead of doing so with the hope that the narcissist will appreciate your “why,” drop the expectation that you can gain respect from the narcissist. It will not happen. Also remember, you will not win any argument, nor do you need to win. Being you is sufficient, despite the narcissist’s protest to the contrary. If the narcissist walks away from arguments feeling victorious, who cares? In those moments, your only concern is to stand firmly inside your boundaries.
6. Refrain from rationalizing or justifying.
Because of the narcissist’s controlling nature, you can frequently feel required to offer an explanation for why you think, feel, and prioritize as you do. Narcissists may not actually say these words, but they imply: “If you think differently from me, you’d better have a good reason.”
Instead of catering to the narcissist’s overbearing nature, let’s build upon a simple thought: “Why defend that which needs no defense.” Just because a narcissist is offensive toward you does not mean you have to join the fruitless exchange by becoming defensive in reverse. Explain yourself once, then if it is clear the narcissist does not accept your explanation, move on. No further words will help your cause.
7. Make room psychologically for “jerk” behavior.
Think about the many times in your interactions with a narcissist you have thought: “This person is being such a jerk!” And you are probably correct! Narcissists can be impossibly boorish and condescending in their mannerisms with you. Their raw egotism and inflated entitlement makes them ridiculously difficult to reason with, and you know the trend will not end. It is hardwired into their DNA.
You can make matters worse when you say something to the effect: “I want you to examine yourself and stop being so absurd!” Not once will a narcissist say: “Good point.” Not once.
That being your truth, accept the reality of the narcissist’s “jerkiness.” This does not mean you condone it, nor does it preclude setting boundaries. But it does mean that you realize that alligators will always be alligators, and narcissists will always be narcissists.
8. Don’t plead for or expect apologies.
As a normal person, when you err or miscalculate, you are willing to set the record straight. Healthy people own their blunders and make restitution. They apologize and make matters right.
It is tempting to presume that narcissists can and should have the same response when they too illustrate a proclivity to imperfection. After all, they are mistake makers just like the rest of humanity. But as you hope for apologies and restitution from a narcissist, you set yourself up for great disappointment.
Narcissists might (might) admit a wrong, but in the rare event that they do, any feeling of regret will prove fleeting, and they will change course quickly. Narcissists are too self impressed to believe that they have to make amends for wrongs. Being predictably critical, when flaws are exposed, they blame. They look for a scapegoat. The narcissists feign disappointment (“After all the nice things I’ve done for you…”). They will do anything but apologize sincerely. To them, offering an apology is akin to being a loser. And in their minds, you are that loser.
9. Try not to take a narcissist’s rejections personally.
When narcissists become insulting, rejecting, blaming, and disdainful, it is only natural for you to feel greatly offended and hurt. They want to bring you down, and their tactics sting. In those moments, it can be natural to ask: “Why are you doing this to me?” If the rejecting narcissist were totally honest, the answer would be: “Because that’s what I do. It’s my nature to demean. I need you to be less than me.”
Narcissists are not that honest nor are they that self-aware. Even when they are outrageously inappropriate, they are anchored in tight self-protective rationalizations about their superiority. And they genuinely believe everyone else is unenlightened. Their need to maintain a controlling edge guarantees they will find ways to reject you when clashes occur. In their minds, they decide what is right and what is wrong, and you stand no chance to convince them otherwise.
So when (not if, but when) they reject you, remember that you are merely a player on their stage. The script is already written, and you will lose. And even if you were never in the narcissist’s life, that person would still be rejecting. The fact that they cannot stop themselves indicates how they operate with irreversible internal patterns in place. They are trapped by their own addictive need to condescend. It’s not about you.
10. Plan in advance how you will manage your exchanges with the narcissist.
Clearly, the less contact you can have with a narcissist, the better. Narcissists are destined to be relationally deficient. But in the event that you must engage with them, anticipate in advance how you will conduct yourself.
Remind yourself that especially in times of tension or conflict they will become stubborn, scheming, insensitive, and non-empathetic. Then question: “Will I become the same in reverse, or can I choose to maintain my healthiness even as they do not?” Then be specific with your anticipatory thoughts. When faced with accusations, you can stand in calm, non-defensive responses. Once blamed, you can explain once, knowing that as the blame continues you will not participate in verbal repetitions. When there is insensitivity, you will move on with no worries that you’ve been insulted by an adult who thinks like a child.
You can fill in many other possibilities, but the point is that you can plan in advance and mentally rehearse how you will define yourself. That is not something you will concede to the narcissist.
Knowing about the nature of narcissism is of utmost importance so you can remain alert in your exchanges with the immature, unhealthy narcissist. Rather than clinging to ideals that sound wonderful but will never come true, be realistic about who you are dealing with. Rather than reacting to the narcissist with raw, unfiltered emotion, I am hoping you can respond with well-conceived ideas about who you want to be in the presence of an emotionally stunted bully.
Each time you witness the narcissist’s improper behaviors or attitudes, think of it as a red flag warning you: “This person is trying to lure you in, watch out!” Instead of responding to dysfunction with dysfunction, remember these 10 rules and stay steady. Narcissists are predictable creatures of habit, but you are not required to share their habits.
Don’t let the narcissist rob you of the privilege of being you.
Les Carter, Ph.D.