A defining feature of narcissism is the need to be in control over others. Being self-absorbed, entitled, manipulative, and in search for superiority, narcissists have rationalized that it is reasonable, even necessary, to sustain the upper hand over those in their close circles. Of course, most narcissists would deny this truth, but evidence shows otherwise.

As part of their need to control, most narcissists argue easily, hold unbending opinions, respond stubbornly, feel no need to receive input, and press rigid expectations onto others. It comes with the turf.

Now, think carefully about your response to the narcissist’s attempts to control you.

Do you ever become pulled into a counter-flow of control? In other words, when they are stubborn, do you respond with your own stubbornness? When they are argumentative, do give it right back? When they speak with insistence, do you insist in reverse? As they are defensive, do you find yourself being defensive too?

Throughout my counseling career, I learned that this control, counter-control pattern was one of the most common, problematic patterns of interactions that inevitably brings out the worst in all involved. Simply put, it is abundantly clear that the more people try to control others, the more out of control each participant becomes.

So, let’s examine a much cleaner reaction. When you engage with a controlling narcissist, the best way to find control is to practice proactive non-control. Does that seem counter intuitive? Narcissists are the consummate competitors in the sense that they must win, they must convince, they must prevail. But what if you concluded: “I truly have no need to win, convince, or prevail”? What if you decided to opt out of their neurotic games altogether?

By practicing proactive non-control, you begin with the strong conviction that it is futile to take your cues from a self-absorbed manipulator who would rather be obstinate than cooperative. Instead, you can intentionally choose to be quite “other.” You could be quite purposeful, focused, and goal oriented in your responses. And that would include a determination to be independently minded as opposed to co-dependently participating in dysfunctional exchanges.

Here’s how it could work:

Become emotionally detached.

The detachment I describe does not presume that you would be completely apathetic or that you would feel nothing at all when a narcissist goads you. It does mean, however, that you have a strong understanding about who is responsible for what. Specifically, narcissists are responsible for their own emotional regulation, not you. And you are responsible for your emotional regulation, not the narcissist. You can determine not to match pitch with the narcissist’s emotions, nor do you require the narcissist to be appropriate so you can feel steady. You each are what you are. The narcissist will virtually never give you the coordinated response you seek, so you accept that as true.

Maintain calm firmness.

Being non-controlling does not mean that you cease being firm. In fact, as you excuse yourself from the control game, you can feel even more resolute to be mature. In calm firmness, you determine that you have a solid definition for a healthy way of life, which leads to appropriate relationship boundaries. When (not if) the narcissist insists you must be as they prescribe, your response can be a self-assured: “I’m comfortable with my decisions, so that is what will guide me.” No justification would be necessary.

Use plain talk.

As part of their need to control, narcissists will commonly go into a high-pitched or coercive tone of voice as they stubbornly press their opinions and priorities. That, of course, is their prerogative. That understood, you do not need to respond in kind. It is not necessary that they bend to your opinions and priorities. With a flat, steady voice, you can explain (once) that you feel as you feel and that you will prioritize as you deem appropriate. If they cooperate, great! If not, proceed anyway, no pleading is required.

Use patient listening skills.

In your exchanges with anyone, you wish to be heard, so fair play indicates that you can be willing to do so with the narcissist. (BTW, this does not mean that you have to subject yourself to rambling lectures.) With a curious mind, you can attempt to discern: Why does this person feel as he or she does? Why does that person think it is so important for me to conform? What is in this person’s history that predisposed him or her to respond this way? In no way does this mean that you have to acquiesce (remember calm firmness), but at least you can move forward with an informed mind.

Utilize descriptive thinking.

Narcissists make heavy use of judgmental thinking, which in turn feeds the presumptive need for control. They think in terms of right/wrong, best/worst, correct/incorrect, and so on. If you have a similar mindset, you are vulnerable to being drawn into an unnecessary game of one-upmanship. So, as an alternative, you can set aside judgmental concerns, describing objectively what you see, think, and feel.

For instance:

  • “I can tell you feel strongly about that.”
  • “You’ve mentioned this topic before. I’m aware that we think differently.”
  • “Clearly you are tense.”
  • “I have my reasons for prioritizing as I do.”

It may not always be safe to say everything you wish to say out loud, but the point is that you do not have to concern yourself with a narcissist’s need to pronounce judgments. That’s childish.

Above all, find your inner peace and live in it. Narcissists thrive when they elicit chaotic reactions from you. It is a twisted way for them to feel superior. (Never mind that they carry their own chaotic emotions in the meantime.) Nonetheless, you can focus on a very separate notion: “I am at peace with my core character.” Even if your self-examination reminds you that you have a history of mistakes or miscalculations, you can find solace in knowing you are a lifelong learner. Narcissists are truly vexed when you are peaceful, but that is not your problem to solve.

As you maintain a proactive non-controlling mindset, narcissists will continue in their high control mode, and in fact, they may panic and become even more controlling. When that happens, you will probably need physical distance, and you will certainly benefit by exposing yourself to people who are sane and supportive.

Your ongoing attitude toward the controlling narcissist could be summarized with: “I know your insecurity requires you to try to be in tight control, but that is not a requirement I will receive.”

The net result of adopting the proactive non-control mindset is freedom. And that provides a delightful way to proceed.

To watch the video version of this topic, click here.

~Dr. Les Carter