It’s not great when you have to deal with someone suffering from narcissism. A large part of the difficulty is the level of psychological manipulation that goes with it, as well as the self-doubt and the damage to your self-esteem that can result.
If narcissists looked and sounded like the wounded animals lashing out that they are, we’d all be saved a lot of time, effort and heartache. But unfortunately for us, they are often charming, intelligent, in positions of influence and are well-thought of by many people. This makes any situation where you have to stand up to one, or prove your side of the story, a real challenge.
I’ve experienced the hardships of dealing with narcissists first hand and supported many clients going through it too. I’ve both witnessed and felt the emotional, physical and mental impact of prolonged abuse from them, and one of the most effective self-defence weapons we can add to our arsenal is getting informed. So in this blog article I’m going to talk about what I’ve learned about recovering from difficult situations with narcissists and regaining your sense of self, agency and strength, I hope it’s useful to you.
Before we start I just want to remind you that I am not a psychiatrist/ psychologist and also I don’t recommend diagnosing others. I should also mention that we all have a bit of narcissism, a bit of “please delete that photo and post the one with the nice light where I look cute”. The difference is really the extent and whether or not you are leaving a trail of wounded people in your wake as you move through life. I’m taking an educated guess that if you’re reading this, you’re not.
With that said, let’s look at some of the main traits of narcissists:
They feel like they are entitled to what they want
They need attention, admiration and praise
They lack empathy for the feelings and suffering of others
They rarely take responsibility for their own actions
They see themselves as better than others, when not treated this way they can become rude or even abusive.
The last example reminds me of a time I went on holiday to Greece and this terrible (IMO) couple kept walking around the beach saying “boy, bring me my towel”, “boy bring our drinks” – and then to each other “he’s a good boy”. The “boy” was a Greek man in his 40s. When they finally settled, the woman waded into the sea and half a minute later started screaming really loudly – the water was full of biting fish that had surrounded her and were nibbling rather aggressively. If you’ve never felt the joy of a whole beach-full of people smiling silently at the same time, well, I recommend it. It feels a bit like a summer breeze.
A well-adjusted therapist would most likely tell you they could have been going through something etc. And perhaps that’s the case. But I thought if you’ve been having to deal with a narcissist you could probably use a little pick-me-up right now, like an example of instant karma.
Because dealing with them can be protracted and messy and difficult. If there is either: 1. no way for them to extract themselves from a situation with you while saving face or 2. they’ve been using you as a scapegoat and they have no better options, then you may be in for a rough ride. Sorry.
But it’s my aim to share what I’ve learned about how to protect and handle yourself through the self-development tools I’ve gained over the years. Again – not a therapist though – if you need one do go and see one, I can’t replace them.
OK, let’s start! These are the main issues I see people having:
1. The Person Suffering From The Narcissist’s Behaviour Believes the Named Issue Is the Issue
So many people (including myself) are so rocked by dealing with these people (which is part of their strategy by the way), that they’re desperate to right the situation. So the narcissist complains about X and you reply in a reasonable way, but somehow it gets worse and you become more confused. Perhaps you come up with more options, perhaps you spend a lot of time trying to figure out their point of view, or understand what they need.
What ALL my clients struggle getting their head around is – it’s not about X. Most of the time it was never about X. You’re trying to make everything better by fixating on X. But really X is, and has always been, a decoy.
The narcissist’s goal wasn’t fixing X. It was to get you to think about X while they cross your boundaries, make you doubt yourself, make you spend a lot of energy thinking about them, give themselves a power trip, take pleasure in your discomfort, discredit you, or boost their own ego by making you look incompetent.
If you see what their actual goal is you will manage to alleviate a lot of the confusion you are feeling. It’s not about X (or if it is, that’s only 1% of the story). It’s about the dynamic, the power struggle, the energy drain.
So, if you are dealing with a narcissist right now – what is X in your situation?
And what is their real goal?
You may need to go with your gut on the second question. If you are completely stumped you might be able to figure it out by looking at the effect they are having and working back from there.
2. The Self-Esteem Ship is Sinking and Sinking
This is one of the hardest aspects of dealing with a narcissist – that they love to see you suffer. It’s the polar opposite to being an empath.
I have seen clients get into really bad shape when involved for too long in a struggle of some kind with a narcissist. I mean, it’s not great to be around them in general – usually the health of the culture around them ends up suffering at least a little from their presence, or a lot if they are in a leadership position.
But going head-to-head with one, or being the punching bag of one… I’ve seen it have long-lasting detrimental effects.
Things that make it worse seem to be: a tendency to be self-critical already, being a people-pleaser, having been bullied in the past, having low self-esteem to start with, lacking emotional support and/ or a tendency to be hyper-responsible.
And if you identify with any of those points, don’t worry! It’s never too late to get therapy and/ or work on yourself to start feeling better. And it’s worth saying that a ton of people share these issues, so if you’re feeling alone at all – you’re anything but.
Things that make it better: having a whole rich life that is nothing to do with the narcissist, good levels of self-esteem, ways of finding self-fulfilment, a sense of being in a community, good levels of self-respect, being clear about one’s own “rightness” and boundaries, feeling good about yourself, having fun, feeling love, feeling connected, healing experiences (like being around kids/ animals/ water/ nature etc).
So if you find your self-esteem has taken a plunge I recommend plotting out a plan to restore your self-esteem and connection to yourself and to the world (and you know, to colours and fun and pleasantness) and putting into action.
3. They End Up in Places They Shouldn’t Have Access to
Boundaries are often more of a hypothetical to these people – well, unless you’re trying to cross theirs! And then it’s a very tangible concrete and barbed wire affair.
While they’re distracting you with other things, trying to disarm you with charisma or insults, using the element of surprise or coming at you over and over again to wear you down, they’re trying to cross a line. Holding the line is tricky, but it’s easier once you know that’s what they’re trying to do.
If you’re dealing with a narcissist right now – what is the line they are trying to cross?
And is there also another, less tangible one they’re trying to cross also?
For example, let’s say you’re in business with one and they broke a contract – that’s crossing a line in an obvious way. But underneath that, perhaps they have also crossed a line of where you feel safe. Say you used to trust in people to be professional, and now your trust has been shaken. In a way, they crossed a boundary into your inner life, making it slightly worse.
(let’s set aside the argument right now of: they didn’t make you feel anything – you decide how to feel. Let’s just keep it simple for now – a snake bites you and you feel pain. That’s actually a pretty good metaphor…)
So, considering that – what boundaries have they actually crossed?
As I mentioned in the self-esteem bit above, some of us are more vulnerable than others (and there’s no judgement there – we’ve all got stuff to deal with). If you start with a larger void inside you where ideally self-love and self-esteem would be, the more real estate a narcissist can try and take up. I mean, they’ll take up as much as they can when they’re interested in you, whether that is to be liked by you or to hurt you – or both. Either way they’re “space-invaders” and they’ll take as much as they can.
4. They Make Our Healthy Anger Seem Unhealthy
It’s natural to push back against boundary-invasions with anger but I’ve found narcissists tend to use this against us, either muddying the water by confusing the facts, or calling us “emotional” or “irrational” (more likely if you’re female, yay!), or insinuating to others that we’re unstable.
You might feel like reacting in the heat of the moment to a narcissist: shoot out an email, make an angry call, make a fast decision. But that is usually what they want and you often come off worse. If it is a situation where it is safe and sensible to wait, then I recommend writing in your journal, talking to a friend or a sympathetic co-worker, or anything else you can do to vent your strong emotions. Then take a step back and think about what you actually want.
Then, you can use your anger, but you should try and use it for controlled, purposeful steps that are well-thought out and logical.
5. They Often Steer Your Goals Without You Noticing
You’ll nearly never win an ego-battle with a narcissist. But your goal should never be to win that struggle – what’s the point in beating someone who is broken at being broken?
You have to think about what your end goal is. They will make you so angry you may think about them way too much, fixate on proving them wrong or stopping them from getting what they want. That’s all about them. It’s already way too “about them”.
What do you want? What is the best goal for you?
And what have they made you feel (reactively) like the goal is?
If there’s a difference – how are you going to shift yourself to work towards your real goal?
Keep coming back to what you want, how you want to show up in the world, the kind of person you want to be, even when dealing with someone suffering from narcissism. Especially when dealing with them, because it’s so easy to get blown off-course.
And even if your intention is “I don’t want to be anything like this person”, you’re still letting the narcissist dictate the direction.
Keep coming back to what is genuine for you.
OK, next week I’ll release the second half of this article. I didn’t realise I knew so much about them until I started writing! I will give you 4 more important tips for dealing with them, but until then try and use the information and tools above.
And if you have been adversely affected by this issue I recommend you reach out to your mental health provider and/ or find a local support group to help you (This article has advice on finding a support group).
As always, take care!