Four Tips for Dealing with the Narcissist in Your Life
In the myth of Narcissus, an incredibly handsome youth ignores a young girl named Echo who has fallen in love with him. Rather than return her love, he spends all of his time staring at his own reflection in a pond. She becomes so despondent that she withers away until only her voice remains, hence the name Echo.
Centuries later, the term “narcissist” is still being used, although often incorrectly, to describe someone who is extremely egotistical. While egotism can be irritating, it doesn’t qualify as pathological unless the trait is pervasive and overblown. In fact, a certain type of self-centeredness, in moderation, can be healthy and desirable.
Clinical psychologist Dr. Craig Malkin coined the term “healthy narcissism” to describe people who are empathic, ambitious, confident, and capable of giving and receiving help. On the other end of Malkin’s spectrum are “extreme narcissists” who are manipulative, argumentative, approval seeking, and suffer from fluctuating self-esteem. If you are curious where you or someone else you know falls on the spectrum, you can take Malkin’s narcissism test and find out. Just type in your email address below and I’ll be happy to send you the link.
How, then, can we spot the narcissists in our life? How can we tell who is just a bit annoying, versus those whose narcissism is actively hurting those around them?
At a party, the narcissist is the know-it-all. No matter how obscure your reference may be, they will pretend to know all about it, thinking that this will make them look good. If you offer someone constructive criticism in a work environment, the narcissist will explode and you will never hear the end of it. In fact, they will be the first one to throw anyone else under the bus when blamed for any wrongdoing.
Narcissists are very rigid with their plans and hate to be under someone else’s control. If they start to feel that way, they are very likely to cancel at the last minute or suggest a complete change of plans. This is the narcissist’s way of exerting control because they don’t trust other people to meet their needs.
The most telling feature of a narcissist is their complete lack of empathy for other people. They are literally incapable of having any genuine interest in another human being, unless that person can assist them in their endless quest to assert their own superiority. Additionally, because of their lack of empathy, narcissists are generally recognized to be terrible listeners.
Sound familiar? It should: almost everyone has a narcissist in their life. The most difficult situation is when the narcissist is your partner. But don't despair — I've developed strategies to help you cope.
Please note: when narcissism reaches pathological levels, it often results in abusive relationships, either emotionally or physically. If your relationship involves violent abuse, then stop reading this article now and get help. These tips are not for you. Either seek the help of a mental health professional or call the hotline number for victims of domestic violence, 1-800-799-SAFE (7233).
Dealing with Narcissists
1. If there is abuse—get out fast
None of the strategies I’m about to suggest are likely to help if you are the victim of emotional or physical abuse. While not all narcissists resort to abuse, if you happen to be on the receiving end, your first move should be to try and find out what makes it so hard for you to leave. It doesn’t matter why your partner is abusive—that is 100% the abuser's problem—just get out and get help. Until you do, it’s not safe for you to try any other strategies suggested below.
2. Determine their willingness to change
If your relationship is not abusive and you have decided it is worth saving, the next step is to assess their willingness to change. This may seem obvious, but the first thing to look for is whether the person recognizes that there is a problem. They don’t have to say, “I’m a narcissist and I want to change.” They only have to admit that something is wrong or that they are not happy with their lives. If, despite alienating all of their friends and driving you to the brink of separation, the narcissist claims, “I’m just fine!” then they are exhibiting an extreme form of denial and change is highly unlikely.
On the other hand, if your partner agrees to go to counseling, either couples counseling or individual treatment, then there is a glimmer of hope. At the very least, your partner has agreed that something needs to change and that the relationship is worth saving. Once in therapy, however, be wary of the narcissist who tries to sabotage the proceedings by doing everything in their power to convince the counselor that it’s actually their partner who has the problem and needs to change.
3. Check your “fight or flight” response
Say you’re worried about the amount of time your partner is spending with an attractive coworker. You try to talk about it, but your partner responds with accusations of your jealousy and paranoia, trampling on your feelings. While you were trying to convey your need to be comforted and feel closer, you are met with a barrage of contempt and accusations. It’s natural to try and protect yourself from the onslaught.
For some, this means war. You have been deeply wounded and are going to fight back with everything you’ve got. But this gets you nowhere, and may be exactly what your partner wants. For others, with your self-esteem already diminished, you tend to shut down completely. You slip away into hours of silence, again resolving nothing.
The best approach—albeit the most difficult—is to stop taking the bait. Instead of reacting to the criticism as you normally would, check in with your deeper feelings and try to share them with your partner. Most partners will melt when they hear you speak this way because it reminds them why their behavior hurts the one person who matters the most.
4. Teach them empathy
If you are the long-suffering partner of a narcissist, having lived through years of emotional abuse, the last thing you feel like doing is reaching out to your partner with loving concern. I get that. But if you really want to mend the relationship and you’re willing to take a risk, this strategy could change everything for you.
Because your narcissist can’t possibly walk a mile in your shoes, you have to spell it out for them. Teaching empathy involves two parts. The first is voicing the importance of your relationship. The second is revealing your own feelings.
Voicing the importance of your relationship means saying supportive things like, “You mean the world to me,” or “I care about you so much.” Most narcissists don’t even realize they long to hear how special they are to you. It makes them start to think of “we” instead of “me.” Even more important, these words convey your willingness to offer the kind of secure love that is exactly what was missing from their childhood.
Revealing your feelings means describing your pain. This may be difficult if you are still seething with hostility and resentment over the way you have been treated. It will also be hard if you are worried about their reaction to you being supportive all of a sudden instead of angry. But remember you wouldn’t be so angry if you weren’t in so much pain.
The idea here is to describe how hurt you are and the deeper feelings are frequently ones of loneliness, worthlessness, and not being good enough. Say something like, “I’m feeling so criticized right now I’m afraid you’ve stopped loving me.” Or, “You mean so much to me. When you speak like that it makes me feel like I’m not enough for you.” Chances are, sharing your feelings like this will disarm your partner and make them see how much you are hurting inside.
An important consideration here is whether or not you are able to muster any remaining quantity of caring for your partner after all of this time of hurt and neglect. If you can’t, then any words you might use will not seem sincere. But if can dig deep and find the caring part of you and if your partner can hear your intimate sharing of your pain and be moved by it, then there may be some hope left for the two of you.
If you need more help dealing with your narcissistic partner, drop me a note or give me a call and we can set up a phone consultation. I’m available for couples counseling or individual psychotherapy. And remember, if you are the victim of violent abuse, get out and get help now. Call the national domestic violence hotline number 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) to get started.