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Knowing how to deal with a narcissist involves letting go of the expectation that you will ever have a normal, healthy relationship.
Your boundaries will be crossed.
You will be given intermittent and inconsistent attention, love, and support.
Worse, in your attempt to survive the bond, you may blame yourself, isolate yourself, and become entirely emotionally dependent on someone who is not equipped to emotionally sustain themselves, much less you.
At this point, it’s indisputable that the only sane advice related to this subject is: leave. But maybe you are in a relationship with a narcissist and cannot imagine leaving. Or maybe you co-parent with a narcissist, live with one, or are in the presence of narcissistic family members, friends, or coworkers.
Like many people, maybe you find yourself routinely surrounded by narcissists despite recently dumping a narcissistic friend or partner. I would never advocate staying in an abusive relationship.
This is not a post about how to grit your teeth through abuse.
The purpose of this post is to help you protect your own emotional ground until you can untangle your own triggers from the actions of a toxic and person in your life.
Survival in the midst of this kind of relationship involves creating your own emotional empire.
This does not just mean giving yourself “self-love.” This is about coming to terms with the fact that you will never receive the type of emotional support that you should be able to expect from this person.
Building your own emotional empire means grounding yourself in a steadfast belief that this type of person cannot truly know you and see you because they never developed the emotional maturity to do so. They cannot even know or see themselves. This is very hard to come to terms with. And it requires constant maintenance or you will fall back into old patterns of assuming that there is something wrong with you (or that you don’t deserve consistent love and support).
The only way to remain sane when dealing with a narcissist is to face reality, grieve what you thought the relationship was, and stay grounded in the reality of the relationship you are actually dealing with.
In order to know how to deal with a narcissist, you must first accept a few baseline truths:
- Narcissism is a coping mechanism developed at a very young age.
There are various reasons why this might occur, some of which have to do with severe emotional trauma, but narcissism can also develop in well-intentioned and loving homes. Narcissism is an adaptation to surviving what seems to be a subjectively impossible situation.
No matter the type, recognize that people develop narcissistic adaptations in order to protect themselves.
This adaptation is not finely tuned, nuanced, or selective.
It does not respond to logic or love.
It is old and instinctual.
It will not change.
- The adaptation does not discriminate.
Narcissists are people, with different personality traits, just like other people. They do, however, have a pattern of thinking and behaving that remains constant. This pattern is triggered no matter who is around when the narcissist is triggered.
You may assume that a narcissist will treat someone else – someone who is better looking, smarter, cooler, or richer – with more respect.
You may assume that they will suddenly combust into the good person they are underneath it all (or that they presented themselves to be in the beginning).
While a narcissist will make you feel worthless, unloved, and ignored, know that you are only in the path of the storm. Given the right conditions, a hurricane will engulf any home on the coast. This pattern of behavior does not discriminate, even though it purports to act upon “worth.” If narcissism is a hurricane, it will hit a perfect, newly renovated, celebrity home the same way that it would engulf any other home. It is only a matter of time.
- Narcissists cycle between seeing themselves as (1) completely worthless or (2) more deserving than others.
This is the pattern. These are the only two options. It is either one or the other. It is a pendulum, swinging from one end to the other, without end.
- Negative thoughts and emotions are intolerable.
Negative thoughts trigger narcissists back into believing that they are completely worthless. This is experienced beyond their level of awareness. Just like for any other human, negative thoughts and emotions can strike at any time.
- Ego is everything.
In order to cycle back to feeling good (versus worthless), narcissists will incorporate various measures to feel better about themselves which will come off as unbelievable, selfish, and repulsive to others. This includes devaluing and demeaning anyone in sight; betraying partners, friends, and coworkers in order to get a validation hit elsewhere; and punishing those around them who have accidentally (or purposefully) triggered the worthlessness they feel.
The ego requires constant maintenance or their self-esteem will plummet back to an intolerable state. Even if you are important, protecting the ego will always, always, always be more important than you. This means that narcissists can only really deal with themselves. They cannot be bothered with the emotions of others, when all of their energy is required to regulate their own self-esteem. Again, this is part of the adaptation and has nothing to do with you.
The things they do to maintain their self-esteem will not make sense to you. You will be too hurt in the moment to even identify them as methods of maintaining self-esteem. They may be abusive. They are very likely to make you feel worthless, unwanted, ignored, or discarded. Other people, including someone the narcissist loves and may not intentionally want to hurt, are secondary to survival.
The underlying key to all of these truths is this: the love, attention, validation, credit, or support that you seek from this person will never be consistently given to you, for reasons that have nothing to do with you. You are simply a volunteer in the person’s all systems go, business as usual, way of life.
Pumping the system full of love, loyalty, understanding, and communication only distributes those through the system, to the extent that the system is sophisticated enough to understand and value those qualities. They cannot change the way that the system functions. The system is limited. It is built to protect itself in a very specific way. It is not fair, and it is not capable of returning what you input in kind.
Once you accept these truths, the surprising, hurtful, or counterintuitive behavior of people starts to make more sense.
You can separate your own worth from the deeply rooted patterns of others.
Read those truths again. Without accepting those truths as FACTS (and building an emotional empire that is fortified with those facts), the below ways to deal with a narcissist will never ring true for you. You will be lost and clinging to someone who does not have the self-love, self-awareness and emotional maturity to support themselves or you.
If a narcissist doesn’t feel good, YOU are not good. This does not mean the narcissist feels an emotion that has some deeper meaning about you or the relationship. It can simply mean the narcissist is tired, hungry, hot, gassy, annoyed, stressed, impatient, sick, too drunk, not drunk enough, etc. This is especially true in the case of boredom, which for narcissists, is pervasive. If you are around, you will also be identified as “not good” by association. Narcissists always fail the “which of these things is not like the other” kindergarten test. When in a dark mood, all things get circled as the same, and all those things are all indiscriminately devalued.
This will make you feel confused and attacked. It will make you feel like it is your responsibility to turn this mood around. It is not. Know that this is just part of the system and emotionally extricate yourself from this moment, if you can.
Along the same lines, in the moment when you are devalued (which can be at any moment), you may feel like everything this person has ever known or loved about you is suddenly GONE. You are back to square one, and square one feels like HATE or DISGUST. Narcissists draw conclusions and make decisions based on what they perceive to be “gut feelings.” In our culture, “gut feelings” are king, and there is no use in talking someone out of what they perceive to be an intuitive truth.
This can be very traumatizing. It will make you feel like you have to do a tap dance montage of everything you have ever done, felt, and contributed to the relationship on 3X speed. You will feel like every intention you have had has been misunderstood. Again, this is a function of the fact that to a narcissist, the only reality is how the narcissist feels NOW. Do not tap dance. You have nothing to prove. This moment will pass. Your feelings of hurt and betrayal will not pass.
All humans need love and affection to be healthy. Narcissists are addicted to attention because they feel they need it in order to survive.
Without it, they feel worthless, and that feeling is intolerable. Your energy is valuable. Other people’s energy is valuable too. Try not to take this personally. A hoarder will bring home a case of discounted toothpaste to put in their vault, no matter how much toothpaste they already have – even if the new case is of much lower quality than the other toothpaste they already have. No offense to hoarders. Or you.
Dealing with a narcissist takes “pick your battles” to a new level. Blame triggers a narcissist back into feeling worthless, and when feeling worthless, they are likely to retaliate and make things worse. All of the advice out there about proper communication and problem solving does not apply to this kind of relationship. The onus is on you to deal with what you do not like.
You can communicate your drop-dead/absolutely cannot be crossed boundaries, but understand that those boundaries are more like promises to yourself that you will remove yourself from the relationship completely, if crossed.
They have little to do with the other person because the other person is not good with communication or boundaries. In the meantime, provide positive feedback when it is applicable. Use “we” and “team” statements when having any kind of talk, so that the narcissist doesn’t feel attacked and triggered. Get some eggshells. Practice walking on them. Good luck.
This inner critic is awful and abusive. Sometimes what you will hear is the narcissist’s inner voice being projected on you. When this happens, understand that however hated this makes you feel, the narcissist also feels this toward themselves.
This isn’t to say you should feel sorry for this person. Or that you should accept this type of behavior. It just means that you don’t have narcissist ear muffs/selective hearing. You will inevitably overhear and become integrated with something that feels very cruel.
The moment when you might feel closer or more connected to this person, is the moment they may pull away or say something so awful to you that it makes you reconsider the entire relationship. This may happen while on a blissful vacation with your partner, after a “deep” conversation with a friend, or after you complete a project at work, if the narcissist is someone you work with.
Counterintuitive, yes, but this will happen when things seem to be GOOD. Narcissists cannot experience intimacy with themselves. They cannot see themselves as having good qualities and bad qualities at the same time. They cannot conceive of the idea that another person has good and bad qualities at the same time. But intimacy inevitably involves opening up, accepting, and becoming bonded to the foibles, the things that make us unique, our shadows and our light. For a person who does not have the emotional maturity to withstand intimacy, this experience is like approaching closer and closer to a fire. Unfortunately, this may happen exactly at the moment when your guard is down.
Understand that this is a function of the way the system is built. People with this adaptation freak out when you reveal a vulnerable part of yourself. It does not mean that you are unlovable for who you are. It means the person you have revealed yourself to is limited in their capacity to be emotionally intimate.
Narcissists are pathologically jealous at their core.
Often, narcissists are pathologically jealous of the very things they purport to hate/assign a low value to. This constant state of triangulation and comparison will inevitably make you feel like YOU are not good enough. Sometimes this is deliberate. Sometimes this is the narcissist thinking out loud. In either case, pathological jealousy is only a symptom of the pendulum swing back to worthlessness and you are simply hanging onto the pendulum arm for dear life. Don’t let pathological jealousy consume you. It is contagious.
Narcissists will often stop talking to you or fall off the face of the earth with no warning. While this may make you feel like you are not important or forgettable, the truth is that narcissists use the silent treatment to communicate their displeasure.
You may have triggered their pathological jealousy.
You may have triggered any number of negative emotions.
Only they can decide when the silent treatment is over. Your natural reaction will be to try to figure out what happened, prove your value, and seek attention.
This will be viewed as annoying at best and pathetic at worst.
This type of retaliation will never make sense to you because it is not intuitive, logical, fair, or proportionate to the deed. It has very little to do with you, other than the fact that you were in the vicinity when this person assigned blame to a negative feeling.
In my opinion, this is the crux of the self-preservation you must commit to when dealing with a narcissist. You will feel awful when you are put down, ignored, and abandoned. This will occur in cycles – some short, some long. For some people, these cycles go on for an entire lifetime. Do not waste your life as you wait for someone to self-regulate back to seeing your value.
Put down the bottle of wine. You may be depressed, but consider using this time as a break. Parent yourself. Make a dentist appointment. When dealing with a narcissist, you will be worse for the wear, no matter how well you believe you are handling this situation. Your body absorbs the stress, and this will inevitably become symptomatic eventually. Take this as an opportunity to take care of yourself. Go through an inventory of how you feel. Address what you have been putting off.
Do not put your life on hold. Even if you believe that the relationship will undergo some miracle transformation, think about what you need to do today to take care of the future you – physically, emotionally, and career-wise. Take deliberate action, because you may be disappearing so much that this type of action may not come naturally to you anymore. Think of this as your insurance policy for whatever the outcome.
For a narcissist, perfection is the absence of pain. Even if the narcissist is laughably far from perfection themselves. Image is everything. You will know exactly how to maintain this image, because the narcissist will steadily feed you a diet of their expectations. But maintaining this image is a fast track to exhaustion and self-hate. You were put on this earth to be more than to be a 24-hour perfection concierge for someone else.
You are real, and if you stay in this kind of relationship, understand you must carry the weight of constantly reminding yourself that you ARE worthy, valuable, lovable as you are, despite how the relationship makes you feel. You must build your own emotional empire that supports these TRUTHS or you will feel like you are disappearing as you constantly compare yourself to some unattainable level of perfection.
People spend their lives cycling in and out of relationships with narcissists because they believe that the narcissist experiences a true change of heart after the narcissist comes “back” after a period of devaluing the person. While it can feel like an incredible relief to feel SEEN again after being mistreated, this cycle back to seeing you as worthy again has little to do with you. You have always been worthy. The swing back is just part of the system, which is constantly churning out value and devalue cycles. Narcissists don’t just value and devalue you. They value and devalue themselves too. See this for what it is before your life becomes a suspense movie on loop.
This is pointless. Just don’t.
No one is your “narc.” Using this kind of terminology is a symptom of being traumatized by a toxic relationship. There are a lot of terms that have surfaced when it comes to narcissists that add little value to your life.
Do not fall into the internet rabbit hole.
I’m not saying that you should not conduct your own research about narcissism, and I know people find it profoundly validating to understand that others go through a similar experience. But know that people also get profoundly stuck, mired in internet research, only to traumatize themselves over and over again.
Go back to the baseline truths about narcissism. Whoever is in your life is a deeply traumatized and toxic person. This is just my opinion, but while this person may be manipulative, they are busy taming their own monsters. There is little to gain from getting to the bottom of their inner world, because their inner world is very shallow. You will never build your own emotional empire from getting a Ph.D. in toxic people.
Being in the presence of a narcissist comes down to what you can objectively provide with regard to: image, resources, social hierarchy, sex, convenience, etc.
Narcissists may appear to “work harder” in some relationships over others during different times of their lives. At such times they may have an imminent need for a relationship “beard” to support an image of the narcissist as someone who can be a good partner, parent, friend, family member, professional contact, coworker, etc.
The need for different types of relationship beards will change over time, with age, status, along with a million other factors. It may seem like this person is having a better go with a different partner, friend, coworker, etc., but know the system remains the same.
Try to understand: why does getting love and attention from this person FEEL so crucial?
The answer to this question may lie in your own underlying history, trauma, or memory.
There is nothing wrong with wanting to be loved. Despite what we say about the importance of self-love, we are made to feel alive through connections with others. All humans need love, affection, and support. Including people with narcissistic adaptations who may be in our lives for various reasons.
The question is this: why do we choose to continually invest so much of ourselves, specifically to people who do not feel more alive with our touch, who shut down when it comes to intimacy, and who do not make us feel seen, heard, and loved?
The answer may be: because it has always been so.
Imagine yourself as a young child, riding on a carousel. You are gripping the cold metal bar as you ride around on the horse. You are having so much fun. You feel pure joy. You babble out loud to the horse to express your glee. The horse doesn’t respond to you or love you back because it is just an old wooden horse that only knows to move up and down to the rhythm of the carousel turning round and round. Soon the ride is over.
Now imagine, instead of enjoying this moment on the carousel and moving on to other things, you constantly come back to your old horse, later in life, looking for understanding, joy, and solace. Chasing that old feeling. Convinced that only on this carousel can you feel pure joy. During middle school, during high school, in your 20s, 30s, and beyond. Maybe you tell one horse all your stories, the ones that come from deep inside your heart, expecting a response. Maybe you try different horses on the carousel. You are growing up, wearing different outfits, expressing new ideas. You are beautiful, brimming with energy, love, and seeking connection, but all you receive in return is just another familiar spin around the carousel. You only feel lonelier because those wooden horses will never come alive with your touch.
They will never respond to you in kind, no matter what you do. It’s not what they know to do.
People become bonded to narcissists because they experience the relationship with a narcissist as something old and familiar. Something that reminds them of a relationship from some other time. Something that feels like home, like a ride on an old carousel.
They are stuck in a cycle of needing to be loved by a very specific type of person: someone who by definition is not equipped to love them back. Forever opening up and seeking joy from an old wooden horse that will never come alive, no matter how tightly you shut your eyes and wish for it to be so. Maybe you try with others of this same type of person who also cannot truly love you or anyone back, thinking this time will be different. Maybe you find yourself on the same carousel ride over and over again. Locked in the limitations of someone else’s revolutions.
Start to think about what it would be like if emotionally extricated yourself from your old carousel.
As you begin to think about this, you will feel awful. As if the carousel is still moving. In fact, the closer that you get to the edge, the faster it will seem like it is turning around. There will never come a time when you will feel good about getting off. You will feel dizzy and sick and you will want to hang on even more tightly.
Letting go will feel insane.
But know that if you jump off, waiting for you, within your reach, will be your very own, white, responsive, beautiful horse.
You won’t have to work hard anymore to make a carousel horse come alive, because your own real-life white horse is already there for you.
You will jump on your horse and feel the horse’s energy, pulse, and love under you.
You will ride away from the carousel to other experiences, where your love can be returned to you in kind.
This is possible for you. Just think about it.
This post was written by Natasha Adamo Team Member, Irena.
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