In this show, I talk about how to deal with a narcissist when leaving isn’t your chosen option.
So often, we’re told to simply leave a relationship with a narcissist, but what if you have reasons for trying to make it work?
Maybe you have a narcissistic parent, or you’ve been married to someone for a long time before identifying their narcissistic traits.
Chris Neal, LPC
Chris provides counseling in Oklahoma City, OK. With a practice focus on adults, he works with individuals and couples on a range of concerns.
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How to Deal with a Narcissist – Transcript
Hi everybody and welcome to this week’s show. I’m glad to have you back with me if you’re a returning visitor. And if you are new here, then welcome. My name is Chris Neal. I am a licensed therapist and I’m also a teacher. I have a master’s degree in Marriage and Family Therapy, and I help people reclaim their lives through self-compassion, setting righteous boundaries and taking charge of their own happiness.
Now today we’re going to talk about how to deal with narcissism. And what I mean by deal with narcissism makes the assumption that you may have become aware of some narcissistic cycles in your life, in the interactions you have with someone in your life, but you’re also making a choice to remain in that relationship. And so we’re not talking about how to get out of a narcissistic relationship. And that’s the advice that a lot of people give is if you sense that you have a relationship with a narcissist, then you should just get out.
And you know, sometimes that’s your best answer. But I’m not going to offer a blanket bit of advice that says anytime you’re in a relationship with a narcissist, you should just get out. Because the truth is we choose our relationships for a wide variety of complex reasons and we stay in them for an even wider variety of complex reasons. You are built in certain ways that you need certain things in a partner and sometimes the person in your life actually brings a lot of those things to your life. And so on balance, maybe you feel like you want to maintain the relationship with this person.
Also sometimes you may wake up and realize, “Gosh, the person that I have in my life has all these narcissistic traits and they’re causing problems,” but maybe it’s a parent, maybe it’s a spouse and it’s someone that you’ve been married to for 20 years and you really are not in a place to make those kinds of changes. And so I’m a little suspicious when people say you should always do anything in most cases to be honest. But just because you’re in a relationship with a narcissist doesn’t mean that getting out is necessarily your, your preferred choice. So today we’re going to talk about how to deal with this person when you’re trying to preserve a relationship with them.
Now, like I said, there could be any number of reasons that you would choose to stay in a relationship with someone that you feel has narcissistic traits. If it is a longtime partner, then maybe on balance the good still outweighs the bad and you’ve got to decide that. But when the bad crops up with a narcissist, we really want to have some tools to how to manage that.
I think sometimes when we realize that we have a narcissistic parent, that’s its own particular brand of difficulty. The problem with realizing you’ve had a narcissistic parent is that growing up with a parent, when you’re a kid, parents are the ultimate authority. And growing up in a certain way, we just assumed that that’s… That’s how it is. And so we don’t really know any different. And so often a, we can be not only into our teens or young adulthood, but sometimes well in the middle-age before we actually identify our own parents’ behaviors as narcissistic and then be able to start figuring out what to do with those to have a relationship with them that we can tolerate.
We hear the term narcissist used a lot in many different contexts. And so let me just tell you what we’re talking about here. Of course there are people who have a clinically diagnosable narcissistic personality disorder but there are a whole host of other people who don’t meet the criteria for the clinical diagnosis, but they still have narcissistic features that crop up quite a bit. And so we just want to be aware of that and take note when those things become really present in the space between you and that person.
In terms of narcissistic features, we want to realize that narcissism is not simply a matter of just being kind of self-centered. What we often see with narcissistic people is a sense of grandiosity, kind of bigger than the moment, bigger than the experience all the time. Realize that people who are narcissists, whether we’re talking about the personality disorder or just someone with a lot of those features can be incredibly charismatic. Now we all have attention buckets that need to get filled up at some point in our, in our day. But the narcissist has an overwhelming need for admiration to be placed up on that pedestal. One of the most alarming, and I would argue destructive characteristics of a narcissist though, is a lack of empathy because when a narcissist lacks empathy then and honestly when anyone lacks empathy, but when we combine a lack of empathy with some of these other traits, it just becomes very toxic and very difficult to live with.
Now you want to be careful with the narcissist too because just because a narcissist may not have much empathy, doesn’t mean that they’re not perceptive. And so we can get a lot of what I like to call Faux Empathy from a narcissist because they are really good at figuring out what’s going on and other people, they just don’t necessarily always care. And so and so don’t confuse perception with true empathy. True empathy is usually tied to compassion, to loving kindness, to holding space for someone else in the condition that they’re in. And so if you sense that this person is really perceptive about what’s going on in you, but you don’t sense that you really get much empathy or compassion from them, then we might just have someone who’s really perceptive in your orbit and not necessarily someone who has a lot of actual empathy.
There are three fundamental behaviors in a narcissist that I think are the most destructive and the most difficult to live with. One is just inciting conflict. Realize that with a narcissist it’s all about that power balance. They want to be at the top of that power structure and when they sense that they’re not, they will often incite conflict to reset the power imbalance in the relationship. And so you can often find yourself being attacked or drawn into conflict about things that sometimes you think are either meaningless or stupid or not even relevant to what’s going on. And narcissists are really good at this and they are masters of conflict. They’re masters of drawing people into conflict. And so if you’re partnered with a narcissist in some way, you may find yourself kind of getting sucked into those kinds of squabbles and disagreements in ways that you can catch yourself arguing about things you don’t even care about.
And so if you kind of shake your head and realize you’re arguing about something that is even meaningless to you, then check yourself, check your relationship because that may be going on for you. Now related to insight and conflict is gaslighting. You may recall from a previous show that gaslighting is a concerted and ongoing effort to make someone else feel like they are not interpreting reality properly. Maybe they’re insane, maybe they’re stupid but gaslighting is a whole series of potential behaviors that will try to knock you off your center and gets you to question your own reality and your own perceptions. And it can be incredibly destructive to any individual. Usually you’ll see narcissist deploy those gaslighting techniques when they’ve incited some kind of a conflict. It helps them get the upper hand.
If you’ve already watched that episode, then you may remember my talking about the narcissistic cycle. There’s a three-part cycle that we see with narcissist in relationships: Idealize, where they make the other person feel like they are just the best thing ever. Then starts a process of devaluing, of knocking you down. A lot of those gaslighting techniques are a means of devaluing the other in a relationship and so idealize, devalue, and usually it’s “lather, rinse, repeat” on those two parts of the process, idealize the value, idealize, value, and so you feel like you’re awesome.
Then all of a sudden you feel like you’re not good at anything in this relationship and you’re the worst person ever. And it all comes from the commentary that you receive from this narcissistic person. They’re knocking you down again to gain the upper hand so that they feel powerful in the relationship. And so we get idealize, devalue, idealize, value and then discard. And so when for some reason the cycle doesn’t work for the narcissist, either you kind of get hip to what they’re doing and you put a stop to it or they get bored or they find an easier target, then they can often discard you and go on to another person.
But as I mentioned at the beginning, this show is not about all the ways that our relationship with a narcissist is not livable. But this show is about how do we deal with a narcissist when we are trying to preserve that relationship. Maybe it’s a parent, maybe it’s a long time partner. But there are all kinds of reasons why you might choose to stay in that relationship. And so you may be getting advice from other people that you just need to get out of there. And maybe it’s good advice. I, I can’t say because I don’t know your relationship, but if you don’t think that’s the answer for you, realize other people aren’t living in your life, their answers are not necessarily your answers. And I think you’ve got to remember that, that you’ve got to make the best choice for your life. So how can we deal with a narcissist in a way that we might be able to preserve ourselves and, and our personalities and our sense of self confidence in a relationship?
I’m going to be honest, it’s hard because a lot of the things I’m going to recommend narcissist will push back against. The first one is… I want you to make sure that you are in touch with any of your own personal codependent tendencies. Realize that a narcissist and a codependent are two personalities that fit together like a Rubik’s cube. And so the narcissist wants to be idealized. The codependent wants to idealize them. The narcissist wants to be done for and have and have other people put them up on a pedestal. The codependent tends to do that. And so for starters, just check into yourself and make sure you’re aware of any of your own codependent tendencies.
If you have not read Codependent No More by Melody Beattie, that’s a terrific resource. I’ll put a link down below. That’s a great one, just to kind-of check in. Codependency grew out of the addiction treatment movement. Back in I think it was the 70s, but it’s not restricted to people in relationships where there is chemical dependency of any kind. So you can definitely be codependent and not have any relation with an addict.
One of the things we always aspire to do is speak truth to deception. Realize that narcissist incites conflict and they gaslight, which what that really means is they lie. Sometimes those are boldfaced lies and sometimes those are just little massages of the truth, sidestepping what actually is true or relevant. And so you’ve, you’ve really got to have your BS filters in, in good shape when you’re dealing with a narcissist and when you sense that they are stepping aside from the truth in any way, you’ve got to be willing to speak truth to that deception. And when you can do that, I’m going to be honest, it’s hard cause they push back pretty hard. But if you stick to your guns, sometimes you can at least make sure that you’re aware of what’s true, which is what’s really important.
Related to that. Stay on topic. Stay on target. If you’re having a conversation about a particular concern of yours, they’ll change the subject. They’ll try to make it about something that’s separate but maybe distantly related where they can kind of suck you away from the topic where they sense that they might not be able to manipulate or dominate, and get you into a topic where they think they can. So anytime you’re feeling those sands shift underneath you in a, in a disagreement with the narcissist, speak truth to deception and stay on topic. And sometimes you just have to remind yourself, you have to put a filter in there where you consciously ask yourself, they’ll say something and you have to say, “Is this, is this really true and is this even what we’re talking about?”
Ask yourself that. And if the answer is no, then you have to kind of re-right the ship and say, “No, that’s not what we were discussing. We were talking about this issue. And this is what you’ve said that is not factually true…” And you have to stick to your guns and it’s really hard because as I’ve said before, the force is strong in a narcissist when it comes to deflection and manipulation of the truth.
One important thing you can do when you have a relationship with a narcissist is for you to embody compassion in all ways that you can. Now, it would be nice to think that we could demonstrate compassionate behavior, demonstrate true empathy for a narcissist and they would go, “Oh, that’s what I’m supposed to do. Okay, I’ll do that.” So it would be nice to think we could model that behavior for the narcissist in our life and they would somehow sense that that’s a good idea and take those on.
That’s not likely to happen to be honest. Usually what a narcissist will do when you demonstrate empathy and compassion is that they will try to manipulate that. They will try to take advantage. If you’re demonstrating compassion and the narcissist is just going to try to take advantage or they might even be triggered by it, why would you do that? Well, the reason you would do that is because that lets you start to live into your own values because I think the key to surviving a relationship with a narcissist is making it not about them. You have to make your choices and your decisions and your thought processes and your emotions about you and your own value system. And when you can live into that and when you can embody compassion, embody empathy with others, then suddenly you’re less reliant on what the narcissist brings to the table and when you’re less reliant, then it’s a little easier to survive.
Now, to that end, the last suggestion I have for you is to become as emotionally self-sufficient as possible. Again, this kind of gets back to checking your own codependent tendencies. If you’re not sure how to do that, I want to encourage you to find a therapist that you feel good about and get into some regular sessions and just kind of unpack this. Because becoming emotionally self-sufficient is absolutely the Kryptonite for a narcissist and the power differential in a relationship. When you become emotionally self-sufficient, when you don’t need the accolades and the affirmation and that whole narcissistic cycle to feel good about yourself, then suddenly you can make decisions about “What I want to do with this relationship.” Maybe you decide to leave the relationship. That again is up to you. If you’re emotionally self-sufficient, it’s a heck of a lot easier to to leave a narcissist at that point.
Or if you’re emotionally self-sufficient, it at least lets you then speak truth to deception and kind of shut that down in ways that lets you hopefully live a life that you feel okay about. Okay, so guys, thank you very much for being here. I want to ask you, please subscribe to the channel below. I want to stay in contact with you and hopefully we’ll get future episodes in touch with you as soon as they come out and make sure you subscribe and click the little bell. And so thank you for being here and until next time, take care.