The Deflecting Narcissist:

Easily one of the most aggravating habits of a narcissist is the unwillingness to address differences and conflicts in a straight-forward fashion.  We call this the Deflecting Narcissist. Any ongoing relationship experiences moments when coordination needs to be improved, and healthy people are quite willing to participate in conversations to achieve that end.

But let’s think about what narcissists want most in their relationships.  Narcissists want to establish and maintain control, and they want the final word, which means you are supposed to fall in line with their preferences and proclamations.  They want affirmation of the exaggerated variety.  You exist to make them feel better about themselves.  They want conformity and agreement from you.  They must be in the superior position. 

And what type of situation brings out a narcissist’s neuroticism most easily?  Conflict.  Narcissists do not want to be challenged.  They do not want to be confronted, nor do they wish to hear that there is a path to take or an opinion to consider that differs.  Narcissists are pathologically defensive, and when you disagree, they are unable to discuss it at face value.  They consider you to be offensive, which means you must be neutralized.

In the midst of conflict or disagreement (or even mild dissension), deflecting narcissists are almost completely unable to say simple comments like:

“Help me understand more fully.”

“I hadn’t thought of it that way. Thanks.”

“You’ve given me some helpful ideas about I can manage this the next time we have the same circumstances.”

“You’re right, good point.”

“I like learning about how these matters can be addressed constructively.”

Instead, when difference or conflict emerges, narcissists deflect.  They already operate with an alternate reality, which causes them to interpret events in whatever way suits their life’s narrative.  Living behind a shield of self-protection, they learned long ago that they have to be the one who decides what truth is.  Your differences and input throw them off track.  It scares them.  They are threatened because they see the world as a place where acceptance is fleeting at best.  With a very fragile ego, they immediately assume they must eliminate dissonance, and they have many, many tactics at their disposal.

Remember, to narcissists, relationships are not a place where emotional and intellectual exchanges are welcome.  To them, relationships are competitions, and they must emerge victorious. 

Your Task:

Your task is to become aware of a deflecting narcissist’s tendencies (their “warfare maneuvers”) so you will not become unnecessarily entangled in their neurotic schemes.  Knowledge is power, and it can spur you find the freedom to live into your own separate, healthy coping skills. 

So let’s examine 9 of the tactics a deflecting narcissist might use when you attempt to address differences and conflicts:

1. Invalidation

Perhaps the single most common tactic used by deflecting narcissist is that of labeling you as wrong or defective.  If they can establish from the beginning that you are woefully uninformed, it sets them up to be the “keeper of truth” in that moment.  You will hear comments like:

“How can you possibly think that way?”

“You don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“You completely missed the point.”

“I can’t believe you’re suggesting that you are right.”

“That’s ridiculous, you’re ridiculous!”

2. Denial

At other times, you may have exposed a problem, blunder, or an irresponsible behavior, and the narcissist refutes what you say altogether.  You might hear words indicating a complete unwillingness to acknowledge the pertinent facts.  For instance, they may say:

“I never said that.”

“I can’t imagine where you got your information, but it’s wrong.”

“Nope, that has nothing to do with me.”

“I have no idea how you could have arrived at that conclusion.”

“Check your sources because you’re way off base.”

3. Character Assassination

Often, a deflecting narcissists will use the tactic of shooting the messenger (you) who is exposing uncomfortable topics.  They shift the attention from the issue at hand by attempting to make you look like a fool.  They will insult you, call you names, and deride your character.  It becomes their mission to smear your good reputation, so you may hear thoughts like:

“You may be the dumbest person on the planet.”

“I don’t even want to dignify you with a response, you’re such a loser.”

“You’re always finding fault.”

“Everyone knows you can’t be reasoned with.”

“I’m not taking input from someone as stupid as you.”

4. Reversal

A deflecting narcissist likes the spotlight when compliments are being dished out.  No problem there.  But their need for attention changes abruptly in conflict.  When the topic seems negative or unflattering, you become the one who gets the attention.  You may hear comments like:

“Let’s talk about all the times you’ve screwed up.”

“You’re one to be talking.  Don’t you remember when you…?”

“Do I need to remind you of the times when you’ve done things that are much worse?”

“Ok, why don’t we invite your friends here so we can let them know about the insulting comments you make behind their backs.”

“You’re telling me I’m defensive, but look at how impossible you’re being right now.”

5. Communication Shutdown

As deflecting narcissists show disdain for your comments, they may convey through passive aggressive means that they feel no need to discuss the circumstance in any meaningful way.  They want their silence or non-participation to create such a discomfort that you will cease efforts to find resolution.  This can prompt behaviors like:

Going into a punishing, silent withdrawal

Glaring into the distance as you attempt to speak

Promising to talk with you very soon, knowing it won’t happen

Refusing to respond to your invitations to talk, not returning text messages or emails

Simply disappearing for a long stretch of time.

6. Mocking and Ridicule

Keeping in mind that narcissists want to neutralize you in conflict, they reason that if they can make you sound irrational, irrelevant, or immature, it negates the facts you wish to put on the table.  They may sneer, roll their eyes, or take a condescending, haughty approach.  You might hear sarcastic comments like:

“Oh, the genius hath spoken.  Let’s see what Your Highness has to say now.”

“So I guess I’m the most impossible person to live with.  It just sucks to be you.”

“Can’t you even hear how absolutely absurd you’re being right now?”

“I suppose your next move will be to hold a news conference to tell everyone how awful your life is.”

(Huffing) “Yeah, sure, I’m so scared that you’re going to tell me how I’ve disappointed you again.”  (Eyes roll.)

7. Confusing Comments or Questions

Deflecting narcissists famously use the tactic of gaslighting, making comments or asking questions for the purpose of creating doubt about your truth.  They hope to introduce enough confusion that you will drop the confrontation altogether.  They may say things like:

“You’re misquoting me.  I didn’t say it like you just described.”

“Exactly where are you getting your information, because you’re way off base?”

“Once again, you’re making a mountain out of a molehill.  You’re talking way out of context.”

“Go ahead, call that person. You’re going to hear an entirely different story, and in the meantime you’re going to prove how foolish you really are.”

“Give me more specific details, because you’re leaving out quite a bit.  I’m not even sure what you’re trying to prove.”

8. Refocus

Sometimes a deflecting narcissist will take the topic you wish to discuss and reframe it to place the attention onto another person.  Deflective narcissists hope to divert attention away from the problem at hand by creating an entirely other object of discussion.  For example, they might say something like:

“If you want to discuss this, let’s talk about how your idiot brother handles these situations.  You never argue with him like you’re arguing with me.”

“You’re obviously still hung up about your break-up with the last relationship.”

“This isn’t about me.  You’re still unpacking baggage from your miserable family life as a kid.”

“I remember last week you were praising your friend for the exact same thing you’re criticizing me about.  What’s the deal?”

“I know your therapist is the one coaching you to say these things, but she’s got her own axe to grind, and you can’t see it.”

9. Circular Debates

As you attempt to discuss differences with a deflecting narcissist, plain talk tends to be the best path.  Say what needs to be said.  Allow the other to do the same in reverse.  Then discuss rationally the merits of what is presented.  Narcissists, however, like to keep you off topic with questions like:

“Let’s remember how helpful I’ve been with your parents the last month.  Don’t you ever consider things like that?”

“Are you willing to admit where you’ve gone wrong?  Why do you always have to blame me for your problems?”

“Why do you think I got mad in the first place?  Do you realize how impossible it is to coordinate anything with you?”

“Do you want to bring in the kids and ask them for their opinion?  I can guarantee you’ll hear something entirely different.”

“Can’t you see the illogic in your way of doing things?  Don’t you see how off base you are right now?”

Your reactions to the narcissist’s deflections:

As you can tell, narcissists are more than capable of keeping your emotions and ideas off balance.  Confusion, diversion, discrediting, debunking and blame-shifting are weapons in their arsenal, and there are more tactics they can use if necessary.

The major, primary mistake you can make when caught in such frustration is to follow the narcissist’s lead.  Remember, their goal is to maintain an upper hand over you.  So if they can make you look or feel foolish, they have accomplished that goal.  And if they can keep you talking about a topic (any topic) other than the one that matters to you, they are satisfied.

So your task is twofold.

First: Stand upon your truth without getting pulled into the deviations.  When the narcissist deflects, don’t make it your task to correct that person.  Instead, stick to the subject.  You may decide to openly acknowledge the reality of your differences, and you may decide that simple clarifications are in order.  But stop short of efforts to justify the reasonableness of your thoughts and emotions.  Narcissists will not tell you how appreciative they are for your insights.  It won’t happen.

Second: Explain your consequences and stipulations clearly, knowing it will not be received well. Deflective narcissist’s want conformity, but that is not your concern. You want decency, logic, common sense, respect, responsibility, and appropriateness. When you are convinced that you indeed are consistent with these matters, proceed. While it would be nice to have the narcissist’s approval or agreement, that is considered a luxury, not a necessity. Be and act as you deem proper.

Sadly, the deflecting narcissist treats differences as a competition, not as an opportunity to learn.  That being the case, step away from their invitation to compete.  The best way to “win” the game is to refrain from playing it in the first place.

Les Carter, Ph.D.

Do you think you may be in a relationship with a Deflecting Narcissist? Take the quiz here: