(Narcissists are male or female. Please note that I have mostly used the pronouns “he” and “she” interchangeably to avoid the awkward “he or she”)
I have never had as many private messages as I did after posting part one of this blog series. Several people approached me who had not considered until they read the article that they had a narcissist in their family or were dating a narcissist. They have been wondering why it is always about the other person; they were looking for reasons with themselves, trying harder and harder to keep the peace and make the narcissist happy.
The narcissist treats others in a demeaning way, attacks verbally and has little or no respect for other people’s feelings or boundaries. For the other family members watching this from the outside, it can be hard to understand why someone would choose to continue dating or being married to a narcissist.
Let’s examine the options you have when you are indeed in a relationship with a narcissist. If the narcissist is a danger to your or your children’s safety, find professional help and get out. If his or her behaviour is destructive and toxic, yet doesn’t fall under physical or sexual abuse, you have different options. Lots of the books on the topic of narcissism simply recommend to “run, run, run and don’t look back”. If the narcissist is a friend, I agree that it is perhaps time to re-evaluate the friendship and its benefits versus its drama and emotional stress and let go of a narcissistic friend. However, in other cases, this advice might not be realistic or not that easy to follow. What if the narcissist is your boss and you don’t want to quit your job? Or the narcissist is one of your in-laws, or your own daughter or son, or your spouse, and you are not ready to divorce that partner or break the ties with that family member?
Don’t get me wrong; even in those cases you always have the option of “no contact” if the situation becomes too toxic. It might be worth finding a new job or not having any contact with the narcissistic family member. If you choose to go the “no contact” route with a family member, be prepared for a battle. Narcissists hate nothing more than to be ignored. They are energy vampires. They thrive on intimidating, controlling and manipulating others. Not to get a response out of others is the worst thing for them. They are afraid to be “invisible”. They don’t care when they hurt others, they care only about their narcissistic supply and any response from others will do.
Once you decide to go “no contact”, the hoovering begins: the narcissist will try to charm, manipulate or bully his way back into your life. Why do we fall for narcissists in the first place? Because they are very good at this strategic game of manipulation and they convince us that they are “not bad people” after all, just victims of the circumstances. If you are choosing the route to cut all ties, you need to be strong and consistent. The no contact option is a marathon, not a sprint.
Narcissists are often very charming and charismatic—until their mask slips for the first time and reveal their immaturity. A narcissistic personality can make you feel like you are the chosen one and that you must be special. “In return, you’re expected to hold the spotlight steadily upon him, nod affirmatively during his orations, laugh on cue, never appear to be bored, applaud loudly and frequently, and never, ever expect to join him on the stage” (Behary, Disarming the Narcissist).
Narcissists constantly project unwanted parts of themselves onto other people. You will be accused of being controlling, manipulative, selfish, arrogant, entitled, hurtful, untruthful, angry, distrustful, opinionated, unempathatic and so on. The mirror principle is at play. The narcissist points one finger at you while being completely unaware that three fingers point back at him. And unlike the narcissist, you might be more self-critical and wonder whether he is partially right. Remember that this is all part of the smoke tactic to distract from his insecurities and issues. Projection is the name of the game.
You do not need the narcissist to agree that she is projecting. You need to understand how shadows operate and how your buttons are being pushed. “It needs to be enough for you to know that you have put the projections back where they belong in your own mind, regardless of how the Narcissist sees the situation” (Sandy Hotchkiss, Why is it Always About You?) Do not get into a right and wrong discussion. Do not invest any energy in wanting the narcissist to understand and admit her issues. You do not need anything from her; you just need to be clear in your own mind who you are and that you love and accept yourself the way you are.
Being in a relationship with a narcissist can be addictive, confusing and utterly devastating, especially when we expect the narcissist to think and act like most people. We have to remember that due to their childhood experiences they have a personality disorder. They do not have the same perception and do not play by the same rules as most adults.
The diagnostic manual of the American Psychiatric Association defines a personality disorder as a pattern which manifests in two or more of the following areas:
- Ways of perceiving and interpreting self, other people, and events.
- Range, intensity, lability, and appropriateness of emotional response.
- Interpersonal functioning.
- Impulse control.
The narcissist sees the world differently than other people. Empathy comes with maturity, except in the case of a personality disorder like NPD. To the narcissist, other people are there to supply their needs. Their idea of fair is that they get what they want when they want it. It completely escapes them that other people have the right to say “no” or deny them something.
Their emotional responses of anger are unpredictable, intense and completely out of proportion. These responses resemble the temper tantrums of a two year old. After the narcissistic rage follows a period of the narcissist pretending nothing ever happened. The narcissist does not apologize or take responsibility. They almost make us doubt that something inappropriate occurred. They explain and defend. Their immature explosion of rage is always due to other people or circumstances. They see themselves as victims of fate and of other people.
If you decide to go with “minimal contact”—or “contact” in the case of actually living with a narcissist—you need to learn how your own childhood issues tie in with the narcissist’s issues and how to navigate the relationship. A good book which describes our childhood schemes and how they are related to attracting a narcissistic partner is “Disarming the Narcissist” by Wendy T. Behary.
In order to change the interactions with the narcissist in your life, it is extremely helpful to examine and change the beliefs you have learned about yourself and other people, for example, do you truly subconsciously believe you deserve respect and boundaries? What other limiting beliefs have you learned which hold you back from refusing unhealthy interactions with the narcissist?
Shadows also play a big role in the relationships with a narcissist. Have you for example disowned your own anger or sense of entitlement to a point where you are not able to be assertive and stand up for yourself and advocate for your rights and needs? What if you were able to respond differently to the aggression the narcissist has no trouble stepping into?
When we feel threatened, our survival instincts are triggered and the fight, flight or freeze response sets in. That is what the narcissist counts on. The narcissistic energy vampire thrives on aggression and intimidation. In order to have an effective communication you need to work on modifying your own instinctive responses.
If you typical response is to fight back, curb that impulse. Instead, calmly stand up for yourself without counter attacking. If your usual response is avoidance (flight), give yourself the gift of a “time-out” and distance from the upsetting exchange but remember that in order to resolve a conflict, you need to eventually return. If you tend to freeze or surrender, remember that the situation is not helped by taking all the blame. A bully cannot be pacified by submission; it only causes more abuse.
The narcissist typically is a show-off, a bully or the “entitled one”. Of the three, the show-off is easiest to deal with. He feels not good enough and therefore tries to dazzle and impress with his achievements or possessions. Focus on affirming his moments of thoughtful kindness instead of the outstanding accomplishments he wants you to admire. Let him know that you interested in him, not in what he does or has.
The bully has a great mistrust of people and their motives. She is afraid that others will try to control her, make a fool out of her, or take advantage of her in some way. She fears that nobody truly cares about her. Her unacceptable behaviour stems from a deep sense of shame and inadequacy. Her protective mechanism is to criticize and control others. When others feel small and powerless, she feels strong and secure. Whether the other person responds with anger (fight) or with fear (flight, freeze), she wins. The only place to defeat a bully is to stay in contact with the advanced part of your brain that is able to think clearly and rationally. Respond from that rational part.
When dealing with the entitled one, remember that he makes up his own set of rules and feels he should be able to do whatever he wants, whenever he wants. He takes but seldom gives. He has issues being on the receiving end of the word “no”. He has no interest in understanding the other person’s opinions, feelings, needs or boundaries. Calmly hold him accountable and consistently set and re-set those limits and boundaries.
Behay points out that in order to shift the relationship with the narcissist, “you need more than an intellectual literacy in his issues and life story; you also need an emotional literacy in his inner world. In other words, you need to feel what his experience of the world is like.” (Disarming the Narcissist) This is what is known as empathy.
“Empathy is a capacity to truly understand the experience of another, emotionally, mentally, and sometimes even physically. It doesn’t mean that you necessarily agree with, condone, or support the other person’s feelings and behaviour, simply that you understand it in a ‘felt” way.” (Disarming the Narcissist)
Having empathy does not mean you continue to allow the narcissist to bully you and others, but that you understand that a key aspect of narcissism is attempting to feel visible and that—like with young children—it is better to receive negative attention than no attention. Empathy allows you to stand your ground without taking things personally and to hold the narcissist accountable for her own actions, without anger, defensiveness or submissiveness.
For the narcissist to learn empathy himself, professional help from an expert in the field of NPD is necessary. Unfortunately, the narcissist does not see that he needs to change. Unless he is afraid to lose something of importance, like the relationship, he rarely agrees to therapy.
Independent of the lack of empathy of the narcissist, you can still be empathetic—while making sure your own needs are met. When the narcissist flips into one of his or her narcisstic rages, superimpose the image of him or her as a lonely and unloved little child over the grown-up in front of you. Being able to see his deep shame, loneliness and emotional emptiness will help you to respond calmly when you do not allow him to get away with being hurtful, condescending, selfish, controlling and destructive.
In your communications with the narcissist, make sure you differentiate between fault and responsibility. Fault and blame put us in a place of defensiveness. Make sure nobody is to blame but everybody is responsible for the effects or consequences of their words and behaviour. Respons-ibility is the ability to respond and create different outcomes.
Always be aware of and set limits and boundaries in the relationship with the narcissist. In order to do that you need to, be very clear in your own mind about what you are willing to accept and what is unacceptable and needs to change. Provide positive feedback when the narcissist is behaving in a more mature way. And last but not least, lovingly speak your truth. In order for the narcissist to feel connected in relationships, she must learn what she never learned as a child, that she is lovable for who she is.
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Relationship Coaching, Belief Changes and Shadow Work