Any healthy relationship requires ongoing efforts to coordinate and harmonize.  Being a two-way street, relationships thrive as there is a blend of self-restraint and free choice.  When narcissists are in the relationship, however, that blending is unlikely.  Not only do they not like to coordinate, they need to be different, if for no other reason than to prove that no one will make them fit a mold.  In other words, most narcissists are contrarians.

You may attempt to talk sensibly with narcissists, explaining how you have no desire to rob them of their distinctions.  You can assure them that differences can be tolerable.  You can assure them that you do not endorse one person controlling another.  You can remind them of your appreciation for individual uniqueness. 

Yet, even as you are quite rational, over time, narcissists will resist any notion that implies they should team up with you.  It’s not in their make-up.

Using binary thinking, narcissists frame relationships in terms of winners and losers.  When differences arise, one must be right while the other is wrong.  Therefore, when you suggest the need for occasional self-restraint and blending, you are introducing an unfamiliar mindset.  

Lacking empathy while being naturally selfish, narcissists are comfortable (at least in the short duration) when they are in total control.  The suggestion of them acquiescing to another’s needs is anathema to them.  If for no other reason than to put you on notice, they will become contrarian just to remind you how limited you are and how entitled they are.

With the contrarian attitude in place, they reason that conformity or coordination equals the loss of power.  They want personal freedom (which makes sense) without relational responsibility (which does not make sense), and any suggestion to the contrary brings out a combative attitude.

In their competitive defiance, they can think:

  • So, you think I’m going to fit into your system?  You got that wrong.  I am the system.
  • Your suggestion that I should harmonize is a veiled threat to silence me.
  • I’ve been controlled by other people in my life and you’re not going to be the next person to do that to me.
  • I’ll show you who’s in charge!

There are reasons narcissists are so easily contrarian, and as you are able to understand what drives them, you can gain insights about the wisest ways to respond.  For instance:

  • Narcissists have developed a penchant for cynicism.  Unable to objectively weigh beliefs and preferences in the pursuit of reason, they assume ill intentions where they don’t exist.  Somewhere in their deep history they learned that blending will bring personal pain and ruin, and they draw upon that assumption in their reactions to you.
  • They are driven by self-interest only.  Disinterested in knowing you at a deeper level, they approach relationships with an “all-about-me” attitude.
  • They struggle to see the good in people and circumstances, meaning they protect themselves by over-emphasizing personal independence.  When you seek a team mindset, they conclude: “I think you have ulterior motives.”
  • Narcissists are inclined toward a negativity bias.  That is, the mere hint of you wanting conformity can be interpreted as hostile.  They project their own inability to trust onto you, despite no evidence indicating your negativity.
  • With their binary thinking intact, they are inclined to closed-minded, ignorant thinking.  They have great difficulty managing complexities and differences.
  • To the narcissist, compassion and kindness feels confining, as if it will require some sort of refutation of their own needs in the process.
  • A narcissist’s need for ultra-independence is linked to raw anger.  They carry memories of other relationships that emphasized suppression, and they are determined never to allow that again.
  • Your pleas for them to drop their stubbornness are interpreted as irrational since they consider themselves as the keepers of Right Thinking.

Contrarian narcissists are so unwilling to join you in respectful connections that they virtually guarantee chaos and relationship collapse. 

When you remind them that your search for cohesion does not include blind obligation, nor are you on a quest for dominance, your words are likely to fall on deaf ears.

That being the case, maintain your commitment to your own independence balanced by a reasonable dose of conscientiousness.  And when the narcissist predictably misinterprets you, move forward with the understanding that you are in the presence of a broken person who does not possess the tools necessary for blending.  Regretfully, the narcissist will blame you, then move on with a bad attitude.  It’s pitiable, yet that is who they are.

~Les Carter, Ph.D.

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