There are many circumstances requiring you to engage personally with others. In some, the relationship is merely functional, but in many you have the opportunity to build bridges of friendship and more. Naturally you hope to experience pleasantness, trust, helpfulness, encouragement, affirmation, cooperation, and a whole host of other good ingredients.
But let’s suppose you detect that the other person doesn’t seem to engage with you in a trustworthy manner, and over time you realize you are dealing with one who has strong narcissistic leanings. You recognize the telltale signs of narcissism: persistent control issues, chronic agitation, little or no empathy, entitlement, strong defensiveness, self-centeredness, need for superiority, manipulative behaviors, lack of accountability, and more. And furthermore, as you attempt to address these matters cleanly, you are met with strong resistance.
What do you do? How do you proceed?
Often when you learn that a person is a strong narcissist, the best coping response is to bring the relationship to a close, connecting instead with people who are committed to healthy traits. And if that is possible, it usually works out well to do so. Narcissists are toxic, and they tend to have very low (if any at all) inclinations to make healthy adjustments.
But sometimes, going no contact with a narcissist is not possible. Whether it is within a marriage, a family system, a circle of friends, the work setting, organizational meetings, and more, you may be stuck with that person…at least for a season. Extricating yourself from a dissatisfying relationship is not always a simple, cut and dried process. You may be able to go no contact in the future, but you still have to determine what to do in the present tense.
So if you are going to have recurring encounters with a narcissist, you will need to know what you’re up against. Narcissists do not operate with a good code book in mind. They are manipulators who seek what is best for one person, and that one person is not you. But even if the narcissist persists with difficult initiatives, you can chart your own separate course. Narcissists want you to enter into and stay inside their orbits, but that can only happen if you allow it. You are under no obligation to play by the rules established by an unhealthy person.
So let’s look at some strategies for dealing with a narcissist by identifying six common themes you will encounter with the narcissist, then focusing on your reasonable responses to their wily efforts:
Theme #1: The Narcissist Has To Be The Final Authority
In the mind of the narcissist, authority is an obsession. These individuals have a strong need to be in control, meaning they feel entitled to declare what is correct and what is not correct. As you engage with these individuals, you quickly learn that their word is supreme, and your separate preferences are a nuisance. Rather than recognizing how “gray” life can be, they feel most comfortable in the world of black/white thoughts.
Narcissists think in imperative terms. They frequently use words like must, have to, had better, need to, should, supposed to, and ought. When you refuse to go along with their version of The Truth, not only do they not seek to understand you, they double down on their commanding attitudes.
Inevitably their authoritarian mindset is conveyed via insistent, commanding communication. This is their way of implying that there is no need for you to entertain any notion other than the one they are attempting to peddle in that moment.
Begin with the simple question: “What makes sense to me?” Whereas the narcissist wants to eliminate your ability to think autonomously, you do not have to comply with that notion. You get to be you. In fact, it would be improper for you not to be you. You are not required to filter your preferences, opinions, or decisions through the self-appointed authority. You have a reasonable mind. Use it.
Furthermore, when the authoritarian narcissist insists that you drop your autonomy, you can think: “No, I plan to keep it.” You do not have to rationalize or plead your case. There is a high probability that the narcissist will pressure you to collapse, but it does not nullify your legitimacy to have your independent thoughts. With no further justification, act and prioritize as you deem responsible.
Theme #2: You Will Be Placed Into An Adversarial Position
In healthy relationships, people feel no need to think in terms of win/lose. A spirit of equality is present as one person is considered to be of equal value to the next person.
Narcissists, being determined to maintain an upper hand, cannot think of you as an equal. When you have a separate preference, emotion, or idea, the narcissist thinks of you as a saboteur. They are driven by the notion: “How dare you defy my logic or my preferences.” To narcissists, differences become an indication of insubordination, something they cannot tolerate.
Once triggered, they act toward you as if you are the enemy. It does not cross their minds to seek understanding or clarification. They simply want to win, so the goal of their communication is to vanquish you. They may withhold favors, punish you for being unique, shun you, speak words of criticism, or become forceful. And there is one “delight” you can give them: You can take the bait and act as the adversary in reverse. That serves to validate their belief that you need to be taught who is boss.
Regrettably, there is nothing you can do to draw the narcissist out of the adversarial mindset. It just is what it is. But once you see the narcissist’s ploy for what it is, you can choose to opt out. You won’t lose a game that you do not play.
This means you will not debate, nor will you need to win the narcissist over to your way of thinking. Likewise, you can let the narcissist feel “superior” even as you go about the business of tending to life as you deem appropriate.
Theme #3: Your Confidence Is Fake, Mine Is The Real Deal
A direct byproduct of the narcissist’s self-impressed attitude is the belief that only those who think similarly to the narcissist can and should feel confident.
Narcissists can appear supremely confident, and indeed they present themselves as such. And yet, it is the confidence of one hiding behind a False Persona. True confidence is built upon traits like: self-reflection, reasonable vulnerability, objective thinking, steady emotion, willingness to hear separate perspectives, accountability, and self-restraint. In other words, confidence is anchored in inner calm, solid character, integrity, and reasonableness.
Narcissists build their confidence upon external criteria. They find confidence via: status and status symbols, knowing the “right” people, achievement, public acclaim or adoration, being “better than,” looking attractive, and excellence of performance. These matters by themselves are not necessarily wrong, but they can be separate from matters of character and integrity.
So if you are not as decorated or connected as the narcissist, you can be deemed second-rate. If your achievements are less impressive, or if you do not have access to decision makers, you (seemingly) have no right to puff your chest and proclaim yourself to be impressive like the narcissist.
You can build your confidence from the inside out, and when the narcissist sneers at you, you are under no obligation to gain that person’s favor. In fact, the narcissist doesn’t have a vote in the matter. Your self-esteem can be bolstered by your habit of treating others with respect, by helping others develop character, and by championing the dignity of each person you encounter.
So when the narcissist scorns you, you do not have to offer an answer. Just be.
Theme #4: Disclosing Personal Matters Becomes Dangerous
Ideally, as you connect with others, an esprit de corps develops…a feeling of harmony and a sense of moving together in a positive direction. Qualities like encouragement, empathy, cooperation, and friendliness emerge. You feel free to express yourself and to be authentic because you know you are in the presence of one who is moving with you in the direction of growth.
Do you get the sense that the narcissist is a harmonizing person?
Perhaps there are moments when the narcissist gives the impression of being a loyal teammate, but over time that adversarial attitude rises up and you realize how unsafe it is to be distinct. This is especially true when the narcissist learns personal, vulnerable matters about you.
It’s of utmost importance to understand that narcissists have a very low ability to blend and harmonize. Remember, a foundational belief of a narcissist is: “It’s all about me.” Rather than learning about you then loving you better, narcissists like to learn about you to gain an advantage. You are useful to them only in the ways you advance their need to be superior.
Narcissists are scorekeepers. If you help them “win” you might avoid their ire. But once your usefulness wanes, personal issues can and will be used against you.
Unfortunately, you will need to keep up your personal guard with the narcissist. You cannot afford to become too open or vulnerable, hoping to connect at the heart level, or hoping to blend as a fellow laborer. The narcissist, being entitled and self-impressed, does not and will not see you as a personal connection. You are a tool, and as long as the narcissism deems you useful, you will be free (maybe?) from that person’s worst qualities.
Reveal what needs to be revealed at a functional level. Be as natural as the situation allows. Act according to your good standards. But drop the illusion that you will know and be known in a trusting manner.
Theme #5: Narcissists Operate With Many Double Standards
As you engage with narcissists, you encounter their many expectations and requirements. Being needy (something they will never acknowledge), they want you to act in ways that makes them feel special and distinct. That means you are supposed to read their minds and prioritize life for the purpose of propping up their fragile egos.
And yet, as the relationship with the narcissist unfolds, it becomes apparent that the standards placed upon you are not standards that will be returned. For instance:
You have to be loyal, but the narcissist does not.
You cannot have a temper or express exasperation, but the narcissist can.
You have to be careful with money, but the narcissist is allowed free rein.
You are supposed to show interest in the narcissist’s activities, but it is not reciprocated.
You cannot have moments of frailty, nor can you be needy, yet the narcissist will demand that his/her needs be tended to.
You should disclose your activities and associations, but the narcissist doesn’t have to do the same.
The more time you spend with the narcissist, the more you realize that there is no fair give and take. Seeing this, you can be tempted to argue or convince the narcissist of the illogic, but you will not be satisfied.
Don’t let the narcissist establish your standards. Narcissists operate within an alternate reality. That is, they get to determine truth or they get to live with priorities that are not subject to scrutiny. Why? Because they are unique, at least in their minds.
You cannot make the narcissist appreciate your convictions, habits, or preferences, so drop the craving to be approved by the narcissist. Instead, live into your well-conceived standards. Act according to your common sense. Stick with your good priorities. And when the narcissist predictably whines, oh well.
Theme #6: You Are At Fault For Making The Narcissist Angry
Narcissist are so consumed with self-importance that they genuinely cannot believe you would choose to differ. They operate with the delusion that they are honestly a notch above you and anyone else, meaning you are supposed to lay down your mannerisms in deference to them. And when you do not, watch out. Here comes the anger.
A narcissist’s anger can take many forms: shouting, cursing, coercive speech, abuse, shunning, accusing, holding grudges, speaking ill about you toward others, and much more. A consistent message at the base of that anger is: “You have wronged me and you will either comply or I will make you miserable.”
It does not occur to narcissists that each person is responsible for his/her emotional comportment. Instead, narcissists insist: “You are responsible for making my anger go away.” They do not recognize the immaturity of such a sentiment.
First, do not take the narcissist’s bait by entering into a counter-flow of egregious anger. That only emboldens the narcissist. Narcissists resemble little children throwing a temper tantrum. So just as it is with a child, someone needs to act like an adult, and that person can be you.
Consider this analogy: You don’t talk to a drunk about being drunk while that person is still drunk. And you don’t talk with an angry narcissist about being angry while that person is still angry.
Set your boundaries. That is, determine what is right and wise in the moment for you. Remove yourself if necessary. Enact consequences if possible. Create accountability by whatever means possible. Find support with sane people. Unhook your emotions, knowing you cannot afford to let the narcissist establish your pace.
Clearly, narcissists are not healthy people. As you attempt to coordinate life with a narcissist, the single most common mistake you can make is to presume you can make the narcissist become normal and healthy. In most cases, it will not happen.
Instead, focus on the one person you can help and that person is…well, you know who!