How to Cope With A Narcissist You Can’t Leave Behind
By Elizabeth Stone
Among the many thought-provoking emails and questions that came up about my article, 11 Signs You’re Dating a Toxic Narcissist (thank you as always to all who commented), there was this one:
Andrea Bell wrote:
Do you have a follow up article on how to deal with this person when it is someone that can’t be gotten rid of? I would really appreciate that!
Many of the commenters were people who had dealt with abuse at the hands of their narcissistic exes, mothers, bosses, husbands and wives. I realize that Attract The One is mostly about romantic relationships, but I couldn’t ignore all of the folks who are wrestling with this problem in their platonic relationships.
Without going into tons of personal detail, I have a few narcissists in my life who I’m stuck with, too. I want to emphasize that I’m still learning how to handle them myself, but I really want to help anyone dealing with those difficult folks who they have no choice but to tolerate.
Here’s exactly how I manage unavoidable interactions with the narcissists (N) in my own life. This is absolutely only reserved for the people who I would rather cut ties with completely but choose not to due to family or work obligations.
These suggestions are meant to help you both build a wall against being hurt and to help you maintain your sanity during these interactions. I’m aware this list is pragmatic and often brutal so don’t say I didn’t warn you. It is a guide to making it work as best you can while honoring your own needs.
1. Accept the fact that they are extremely unlikely to change.
It is incredibly rare for narcissists to change since they cannot understand the profound ways that they affect others. For empaths this can be difficult to understand, since it would never occur to an empath NOT to understand another person’s feelings.
The narcissist truly believes that their intentions are good and everyone who complains about their behavior is simply “out to get them,” “wrong” or “misunderstands them.” The N cannot change patterns that they completely and blatantly refuse to acknowledge in the first place. This complete lack of personal responsibility on the part of your N can be crazy-making if you let it be, which is why you must accept that you will never, ever convince them to change.
The first step to co-existing peacefully is to accept that because of the way their brain works, they are fundamentally incapable of suddenly realizing they are wrong and making changes. In any relationship with a narcissist, you must be the one who changes and manages your interactions.
2. Plan, plan, then plan some more.
When you’re considering spending any of your time with them, consider:
What expectations will placed on my time and attention? Are these expectations reasonable?
Is there a logical, timely escape route?
Will I be obligated to cater to their needs in some way? Is this okay with me?
Is the meeting in public or private? Public trumps private the vast majority of the time.
Will there be an activity?
Activities can be good distractions when they are short, in public and provide a logical end-time (like lunch). They can be bad when you must spend a lot of uninterrupted time together (like 18 holes of golf).
Who will be there?
I choose to bring an audience, explained further in the next section.
3. Bring your own audience.
The N can still say and do hurtful things with an audience, but they will have a much harder time claiming later that nothing happened. Depending on which witness(es) you choose, the N might still be in “impress-mode” and act completely differently than when you are with them alone.
If the N is particularly toxic, sometimes they will twist your words and try to smear your reputation to others. If you always have a rational witness there with you, that nasty situation is easier to protect yourself against.
4. Act cordial but non-engaging.
When you keep the amount of information that you share about yourself to an absolute minimum (while staying polite), it is much easier to avoid conflict. If you don’t give them anything to latch on to, they are forced to keep their criticism and judgement to surface details, which unfortunately, is usually more than enough for them to work with.
Avoid providing fuel for their fire in any way possible. Your personal details can and will be used against you, so confide nothing more than mundane details.
5. Refuse to be drawn into an argument.
If you’ve already accepted that the N won’t change, it’s easier to avoid getting sucked into their drama. Refuse to let them pick a fight with you and cycle your emotions. You can only win by refusing to get into a fight in the first place.
Provide bland responses, and don’t take the bait if they criticize you. Take a “ho hum” approach to their stuff. If they demand that you change in some way, provide no solid answer either way. Evade. Change the subject. Don’t agree nor disagree. A good response is, “I’ll have to think about that.” If it gets extreme, withdraw yourself from the interaction.
6. Take nothing personally.
This is easier said than done, but this quote is my mantra:
Whatever happens around you, don’t take it personally… Nothing other people do is because of you. It is because of themselves.”
― Miguel Ruiz
If you refuse to take the narcissist personally, you create your own protective emotional space to help insulate yourself from the toxic parts of your interactions with them. Do not give in to guilt trips or attempts to make you feel ashamed.
7. Expect nothing.
Oddly, one of the worst parts about dealing with a narcissist is the good times. The good times can be so good that you find yourself wishing with your whole heart that maybe the bad times are over.
This is crushing when you let yourself go through the emotional wringer each time the bad times circle back around. When an interaction with your N goes well, continue to practice the other self-protective actions on the list. Maintain your emotional detachment. Appreciate the good, but remain prepared for the bad.
8. Withdraw when you’ve had enough.
Remove yourself from the situation when you’ve had enough. Cut the meeting short if things are turning negative or if you’ve been as polite as you can handle. Have a signal to your witness (like a safe word) so they know you’ve had enough so they can prepare to get moving.
For example, my husband knows that if I yawn and say, “I have a few nagging chores to tackle,” I have reached the end of what I’m willing to do during that interaction.
9. Appreciate the good relationships in your life.
Enlist your partner’s help and try to work as a team. Interacting with a non-spouse narcissist can be really hard on your primary relationship, so it’s vital that you express your appreciation for their help in dealing with it. Remember that they are affected by the toxic stuff too. After you get through it together, demonstrate your appreciation and above all, try not to take in out on them.
10. Above all, self nurture.
The N cannot be trusted to say or do what is best for you, so you must put boundaries in place to take care of yourself. This means withdrawing when it’s time to withdraw and rewarding yourself for simply getting through it, no matter what happened.