Even in the best of relationships, conflicts and disagreements happen. When the individuals involved are balanced and emotionally mature, they clearly express their thoughts, feelings, and needs. They listen and show respect. And they make every effort to manage potential strains with an eye toward harmony and reasonable coordination. Healthy people are assertive, which by definition means they stand up for convictions while simultaneously maintaining civility. They feel no need to play games of one-upmanship…mutual regard is in full play.

Now shift gears. Does that sound like the way conflicts and disagreements occur when one of the participants is a narcissist? By definition, narcissists are quite self-centered, controlling, defensive, manipulative, non-empathetic, and competitive. Whatever thoughts, feelings, and needs you express in a disagreement are not only not respected, they are summarily dismissed. What is worse, narcissists will often react with anger that rises to the level of abusiveness.

Narcissists are absurdly thin-skinned. They work so hard to project and sustain an ideal image that when you suggest they are flawed or that adjustments are in order, they respond, not as a mature team member, but as a victim, or more specifically, The Victim. Their mindset could be summarized with: “How dare you differ from me or suggest I should change. Look at how miserable you’re making me feel right now!” Then, as the conflict remains, they predictably think: “Game on!”

Even when tensions are relatively minor, the narcissist’s capacity for reason and logic is quickly lost as their impetuous emotions override your attempts to be objective. Inevitably they resort to childish tantrums, pouting, or stubbornness. Emotional maturity is not their strong suit.

In your attempts to be assertive, you can have multiple valid goals in mind. For instance:

  • You wish to be direct and unambiguous about your thoughts and feelings.
  • Even so, you also want to steer the conversation toward peak coordination.
  • You understand that variety is built into personalities, so you want to make room for a wide array of desires or interpretations.
  • In assertiveness, you indicate that you do not wish to be relegated to the role of insignificance or enablement, but as one whose opinions matter.
  • Sometimes you just need to remind the other person of your distinctions.

But despite the validity of your intentions, when you are in conflict with a narcissist, there are risks. Unwilling or unable to accept you at face value, they instead project their own unfinished business onto you, and it can become ugly quickly. It is essential for you to know that even when narcissists label you as the problem, they are misguided. They are a walking time bomb, and their inappropriate behaviors would emerge with anyone else who differs. The narcissist’s anger is not about you.

With psychological baggage intact, narcissists want to shut you down when you contradict them. Their responses reveal deep scars upon their psyches that have not healed. The severity of their anger illustrates their deluded presumption that controlling you will somehow cure their hurts. That being the case, they wish to turn you into a malleable puppet who will conform to them, giving them an odd feeling of superiority.

Among their tendencies they might:

  • Withhold helpfulness, becoming passive aggressive in their exchanges with you.
  • Hurl insults, spew threats, or become overtly abusive.
  • Offer inaccurate, self-serving depictions and interpretations of the disagreement in question.
  • Repeatedly talk over you, showing zero interest in knowing your heart.
  • Directly sabotage your initiatives and plans, “teaching you a lesson” you won’t quickly forget.
  • Run a smear campaign, playing nice to others as they explain how impossible you are.
  • Whine, pout, and complain about how unfair you are.
  • Refuse to speak with you or even be in your presence, especially when they know it will thwart your desires or needs.

As you feel the wrath of that immature narcissist, it leaves you with a significant question to ponder: Is it reasonable to remain assertive knowing the risks are not likely to abate?

To maintain your self-respect and to stand in your integrity, it is usually best to assertively hold your ground even as a narcissist goes into high conflict mode. That does not mean that you should take your cues from the narcissist by retorting with your own ugly arguments, responding to insults with insults. But it does mean that it is reasonable and necessary to stand upon your good principles.

Let’s incorporate some guiding thoughts as you minimize the risks for being assertive:

  • Know first and foremost that some people are beyond redemption and cannot be counted upon to follow the most basic fundamentals of mature conflict resolution. Despite their protests to the contrary, you are not an idiot simply because you wish to be true to yourself.
  • You should probably minimize your words, ceasing efforts to convince the one who will not be convinced. There is no need to become entangled in an emotional wrestling match.
  • But as part of your assertiveness, you can choose to apply reasonable stipulations and consequences. That might include your withdrawal from the relationship. It might require informing others about the improprieties you are experiencing.
  • And above all, resolve to move forward with your values, priorities, and standards intact. Remain true to yourself.

With or without the narcissist’s endorsement you can stay calm, steady, and firm in your determination to proceed with your own common sense leading the way. Your unwavering determination accompanied by civility is your way of letting the narcissist know that you believe in your viability. No further explanation is required.

Narcissists are not safe people. Conflicts provide an opportunity to showcase the maturity that is at the heart of your personality, but in the case of the narcissist the opposite displays. That being the case, it is wisest to invest your psychological energies only with people who have a similar commitment to integrity. And when the narcissist proves incapable of matching pitch with your clean assertions, it is a clear reminder that this is not one who is to be trusted as a companion in any fashion.

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~Dr. Les Carter