What is Narcissism?
Narcissistic personality disorder is a diagnosis, though not everyone who displays narcissistic traits meets the criteria for having a diagnosable disorder. Individuals may only display some narcissistic traits, including: lacking empathy, being preoccupied with unlimited success, power, attraction, or beauty, being materialistic as a way to show off, appear charismatic on the surface, possessing a competitive flare, having a grandiose sense of self importance, exaggerating their talents and achievements, needing to be praised and admired by others, coming off as arrogant and entitled, and so on. Sometimes these characteristics are subtle because they are manipulative. For example, they may perform good deeds for others, but not out of altruism. Instead, these seemingly acts of kindness may be a way to show off and gain recognition for being viewed as important and respected. All of their actions are self-serving and for personal gain in order to enhance their outward identity as strong, special, and amazing.
Underneath that mask of confidence, individuals identified as narcissistic generally suffer from low self-esteem and low self-confidence. Their outward behavior is driven by the need to maintain an image of strength, not allowing their insecurities to be exposed. True narcissists struggle to self-reflect and admit or even realize they have vulnerabilities and insecurities (like all humans do). They often surround themselves with important people or those of high status to create an image of superiority. They are often envious of others who are wealthier, more knowledgeable, or more powerful while never exposing their insecurities to the outside world.
Individuals who are identified as narcissistic aren’t necessarily bad people. They may not be malicious or intentionally trying to hurt others. Their underlying beliefs and the need to protect themselves dictate their behaviors and decisions, which results in manipulating others in the attempt to meet their own needs. Healthy individuals learn how to let themselves be emotionally vulnerable with others at appropriate times and will give and take emotionally with reciprocity. Narcissists take, take, take from you emotionally and don’t give back, not out of malice, but out of what they perceive to be a necessity and an inability to empathize with others.
How to Communicate Effectively with a Narcissistic Individual
The most important thing to keep in mind when trying to communicate effectively with narcissistic individuals is to never argue, attack, or try to “one up” them. They are well-practiced in defending themselves often through verbal attacks in order to protect their image and avoid vulnerability. Keep in mind, they will win every time when it comes to a battle. Be mindful of how you are communicating and the tone of the conversation. If you sense it escalating into an argument, sometimes you’ll have to let them win. They’ll be more likely to cooperate with you if they feel they still have the upper hand. At the same time, you can’t allow your emotions to get in the way of communicating effectively. Don’t take what they say at face value. If they insult you, know that it’s their defense mechanism and not actually about you. Take their put-downs and insults with a grain of salt. Use humor as a way to cope and preserve your relationship. If you’ve spent enough time with this person, you can start to predict their chaos and destructive patterns. When you see it coming, take a deep breath and remind yourself that it’s not personal.
How to Maintain a Healthy Relationship with a Narcissistic Individual
If you don’t care about the relationship, it’s easy to walk away because narcissists often burn bridges. But if you want your relationship to work, you have to be very mindful of how you communicate, show emotion, and set boundaries.
Guard your emotions: If you overreact or are over-emotional, narcissistic individuals will feel like they have power over you. You don’t want to validate their power or false sense of control, or put yourself in a situation where you are vulnerable or easily manipulated. If narcissists feel like you’re on their good side, they’ll be charming, nice, and cooperative. But if you get too close and pose an emotional threat, which can be something as little as asking about their emotions or pointing out an insecurity, they will most likely become defensive and attempt to emotionally hurt you. Eventually they’ll come back around and charm you, keeping you in a vicious cycle of emotional abuse that can potentially lead to verbal or even physical abuse. Trying to change a narcissist to be more caring, empathic, vulnerable, and open is a never ending losing battle. You’ll be emotionally exhausted as they continue to remain the same, unless they have insight into how their behaviors impact others, which is typically rare.
Pick your battles: Remember that you have to let narcissistic individuals win sometimes. You will become mentally, emotionally, and physically drained if you try to win every argument. That doesn’t mean letting them have total control over you or giving up on yourself and your values. You still have to stand up for yourself and remain emotionally strong to not let them hurt you, but don’t let your determination turn into an argument. You’ll end up losing the fight and feeling frustrated.
Set clear boundaries: Determine what behaviors you will and won’t accept from the narcissistic person in your life and then clearly tell them. Follow through and be consistent with boundaries. The goal isn’t to change them, but to let them know what you will and won’t tolerate. The aim is to focus on your own emotional well being, not to focus on trying to make them cooperate or change. You can’t force a narcissist to change, nor do they want to. Set emotional limits to prevent yourself from damaging your own self-esteem, confidence, and emotional well being. Don’t let things get out of control to the point where your own needs aren’t being met.
Focus on yourself: Anyone, even strong people, who are in a relationship with a narcissistic individual for a long time become vulnerable and emotionally exhausted trying to feel fulfilled. If you want to preserve your relationship, stop focusing on the other person and look into yourself. Narcissists are not likely to come into therapy because to them, you and everyone else are “the problem.” They won’t necessarily change and, honestly, they don’t want to change just because others expect or ask them to. Therapy can contribute to a sense of emotional vulnerability and often results in clients feeling exposed, which is a narcissist’s worst nightmare. So now that you may realize that you don’t have the power to change a narcissistic individual and shouldn’t try, it’s time to focus on yourself and your own emotional needs instead. You have the power to change your direction in your life and make better decisions for yourself. You can be fulfilled and have positive, healthy relationships. You can practice self-care and find happiness that fits you.
If the narcissistic individual in your life is your spouse, you can make a choice to stay in or leave the relationship. If you ultimately decide to stay with your partner, remember you can’t change a narcissist. It’s important to consider your personal reasons for deciding to stay in the relationship and whether these reasons are valid if the relationship creates stress and turmoil that you may not be able to change despite your best efforts. Taking into consideration your own boundaries and if they are being enforced and respected is essential in determining whether or not this relationship is worth staying in and if it’s a healthy fit for your needs. Ask yourself if in the relationship you have been engaging in people-pleasing behavior, if you feel as though you no longer have a voice in the relationship, or if you feel vulnerable in any way. Perhaps you may ask yourself why you are choosing to stay in the relationship with a narcissistic individual who is not emotionally fulfilling or validating you and which aspects, if any, of the relationship are satisfying your needs. You may also ask yourself whether you feel emotionally drained from trying to change your spouse and whether you are the only person who is making any effort in creating positive change in the relationship.
It is now time to put yourself at the center of your attention. What do you want out of life? What do you want from your relationships? Ultimately your self-care and your needs should be your top priority. Therapy is a great way to learn how to improve your relationships with others and your self-esteem. If you need support and guidance, contact Dr. Heather Violante.