In a word, keeping the peace with a narcissist is difficult. To begin, narcissism exists on a spectrum. While one person may present a few traits, another may meet the criteria for the full-blown disorder, Narcissistic Personality Disorder, as outlined by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (American Psychiatric Association, 2013). An inordinate number of books and articles address the core elements of this personality disorder in detail (outward grandiose sense of self, entitlement, lack of empathy and aversion to feeling emotionally vulnerable in any way). This article will focus on how to manage a relationship with a narcissist when you can’t simply leave the relationship. Whether it’s a boss, spouse, parent or child, some relationships aren’t ones that allow a ‘no contact’ policy. If you can gain a better understanding of what motivates the narcissist and how their personality is organized, you can save yourself a lot of frustration and anxiety.
Visual tricks to help you see narcissists for who they really are
Because the narcissist puffs up so much, trying their hardest to present to the world as strong and almost untouchable, it can be easy to believe their act. Many theorists and therapists have talked about how shame is the root of narcissism, but that has never quite resonated with my understanding of the narcissistic clients I’ve worked with over the years. Men and women who are severe narcissists are actually extremely angry individuals underneath, and most of the severe narcissists I have worked with experienced interpersonal situations when they were young where they felt victimized, humiliated, or subjugated. Did these experiences make them feel angry or did these experiences make them feel shame? Because personality is so complex and difficult to study, we may never truly understand the exact cause. It is fair to assume, however, that the root of narcissism lies somewhere in the family of dark emotions: shame, humiliation, rejection, or deep embarrassment. Because these feelings were so strong and intense in the child who experienced them, elaborate defenses got constructed. By “elaborate,” I’m referring to wrought-iron gates and motes designed to Keep Others Out at the risk of being hurt, subjugated, or victimized again. These boys and girls (unconsciously) made a pact with themselves many years ago: No one will ever get that close to hurt me like that again.
It’s because of these defenses – and the narcissistic adult’s attempt to overcompensate later in life by acting utterly superior – that it is very challenging to see the narcissist for who they really are in real time. How could the tyrannical boss who always acts right actually be insecure? How could the successful partner in the law firm prevail in the courtroom but secretly feel terrified of being taken advantage of or put down? What’s confusing: These people don’t act at all insecure, so how could they be?
The first visual technique
There are two different visual techniques you can use when the narcissist is either criticizing you, fighting with you, or somehow making you feel bad. To conceptualize the first technique, we will consider in a moment psychologist Erik Erikson’s stages of psychological development. First, however, it is important to review a few key characteristics of the personality. Remember that narcissists lack empathy and regularly violate basic social rules or conventions. Norms such as fairness mean nothing to the narcissist; they don’t care about that stuff. Life is a chess game for these individuals, and almost every behavioral overture in life is issued in the attempt to gain power and to win over others. By the time the average boy is a teenager, for example, he is already more mature than the adult narcissist. Narcissists are stuck, or developmentally arrested, at a much younger age. Considering Erickson’s stages, the narcissists is stuck in the stage related to the individual’s sense of competence, a stage defined by what Erikson called “industry versus inferiority.” Erickson theorized that children are between the ages of 6 and 12 years old when they go through this stage, and he argued that children will go on to have significant interpersonal conflicts and problems if they do not successfully internalize a sense of competence during this period. (Read: If they don’t feel “good enough” by the end of this stage, they won’t feel good enough later in life.) Because narcissists in many ways are stuck in this stage that is typically associated with children between the ages of 6 and 12, try using a visual technique that corresponds with that age range. Specifically, don’t visualize the narcissist as their actual adult age; visualize them between the ages of 6 and 12 which is the age range they are emotionally stuck in. When the narcissist is doing what they do to you, picture their same face – hair, facial expressions, beard on a man or makeup on a woman – and visually superimpose that head onto the body of a child aged 6 to 12 years. Try Visualizing the adult narcissist as two feet shorter as they are talking to you, because that is the height that matches up with the emotional maturity level of that person. Use this technique with the narcissist in your life when they are treating you the worst. No matter how superior, unempathetic, or exploitative they may act, visually cut them down to size by picturing them two feet shorter and your anxiety level can instantly decrease.
The second visual technique
The second visual technique you can use to keep perspective when a narcissist is talking irrationally or abusively to you is much simpler. I’ve heard people talk about how narcissists live in their own world. They construct their own reality from moment to moment so they are never really accountable to anyone. The sad reality is that narcissists live in their own trap. Sooner or later, everyone close to them who tries to have a consistent and smooth relationship comes to see the narcissist’s true character. People who have to deal regularly with a severe narcissist feel emotionally drained and grow tired of the machinations and games, and most people end up leaving the narcissist. Because narcissists live in their own reality, use a visual technique that reminds you how much they live in their own separate, distorted world. In essence, picture severe narcissists as tiny men and women who live inside a snow globe. When the narcissist is yelling at the top of his lungs at you, picture him clamoring at the tiny walls of his snow globe. When another narcissist is humiliating you, getting defensive, or making up ridiculous lies, pretend you have to strain to hear what she’s saying from behind the walls of her miniature snow globe. Even if this trick doesn’t work for you, the simple act of mentally distracting yourself in these heated moments can prevent you from emotionally engaging with the narcissist. You cannot emotionally engage with a narcissist as you would a normal person because severe narcissists are highly abnormal in their beliefs and expectations about themselves and those around them.
Calling narcissists “bad” people isn’t fair or accurate.
Despite the negativity, meanness, and abusive treatment, severe narcissists aren’t bad people. After all, what does such a word – or another word like “evil” – really mean? Narcissists are extremely wounded people who have a type of mental illness (a personality disorder). Like the vast majority of mental disorders, narcissism is a disorder that could potentially be treated fairly effectively, but the effective treatment we are talking about could be as extensive as psychotherapy sessions several times per week for at least a couple of years. First, who has the time, insurance, or money for that? Second, the very essence of the disorder – defensiveness and a false self – are at complete odds acknowledging vulnerability and seeking help, which further supports how narcissists lay their own trap.
Mourn the loss that you will never get what you really want emotionally from the narcissist.
Visual techniques can help you keep the peace with a narcissist, but also keep a few reminders in mind to help you cope as well as possible. The first relates to mourning the loss. Anyone in close relationship with a narcissist has spent far more hours than they would like to admit doing the following things: trying to get them to see what they do and their effect on others, and trying to convince them that they need to change or are wrong. To the reading audience, you have better chances of winning the lottery than you do of ever getting the narcissist to “come clean,” admit they often act like a jerk, and apologize for the anguish they’ve put you through. My perspective is that severely narcissistic men and women are so angry about the way someone mistreated them, humiliated them, or subjugated them in the past that they spend the rest of their lives making everyone else pay a price for it. The only way to keep the peace with a narcissist is to accept that you are in a relationship with someone who is very mentally ill and untreated. (If they committed to intense treatment, we could have more empathy for them). Someone who lives with a schizophrenic who isn’t treated (no medication or therapy) has to accept how mentally ill that person is; it is a similar predicament for anyone in close proximity to a severe narcissist who isn’t in treatment. To keep the peace as much as possible, get the bulk of your emotional needs met somewhere else. To offset the narcissist’s destabilizing influence, you must invest more energy in having phone calls or dinners with friends or other trusted family members who you can truly trust.
Don’t argue with a narcissist.
Challenging the narcissist about their behavior – really, holding them accountable – only fuels them and gets them more excited. Again, relationships and life overall are a game for the narcissist. The word “relate” is the root of the word “relationship,” but narcissists aren’t actually relating to anyone. They don’t want emotional intimacy because intimacy is for equals, and narcissisists are so terrified of being subjugated that they could never rest if they were in a relationship with an equal. Narcissists act they way they do – unsettling you, keeping things unpredictable, never giving you the empathy they know you are desperate for and deserve – as a means of keeping you subjugated. If you are kept down a notch, if you are subjugated, they tell themselves you are less of a threat and will be less able to take advantage of them or make them look bad. The most distorted part of all of this is that narcissists dreadfully miss the most crucial point: relationships are supposed to be a place of comfort and relief, not competition and power hierarchies. Sadly, they don’t even know how much comfort a good relationship could provide them.
The final message
The notion that narcissists are so dysfunctional that anyone involved with them should come to a place of no contact is not realistic. Too many relationships – and perhaps the ones that cause us the most grief – are ones that we need to some extent. Whether it’s an employer, fellow employee, family member or someone else, some people will simply need to figure out how to manage the narcissist. Most importantly, understand that there are ways to keep peace with a severe narcissist. No, the relationship will never be a trusted one; yes, you will always have to be on guard to protect yourself. One positive way to reframe the painful experience of knowing a narcissist too well is to say that you can use these ill individuals as symbols, reminders of much we must appreciate the others in our lives who treat us well.
Ultimately, severe narcissists are draining to deal with and impossible to consistently love because of their disturbed personality. They live their life always looking over their shoulder or rolling up their sleeves for another fight or to prove themselves to someone or something. Normal people have no idea what life is like in the mind of a narcissist, working harder than anyone would ever imagine to keep up the façade and the defenses. Behind closed doors, narcissists never have any true sense of peace. Simply put, they don’t trust others and others don’t trust them. It’s tragic that these personality disordered individuals add so much conflict and chaos to a world that is already so disordered and chaotic. At the same time, severely narcissistic men and women were once boys and girls who were neglected or mistreated themselves, and no children deserve to be as disliked or even hated later as adults because they are actually victims, too.
Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Publishing. The basic in-text citation should look like this: (American Psychiatric Association, 2013).
David L, “Erikson’s Stages of Development,” in Learning Theories, July 23, 2014, https://www.learning-theories.com/eriksons-stages-of-development.html.