Do's and Don’ts for Living with a Narcissist (Part 1 of Living with High-Conflict People)
You can learn to coexist with a Narcissist by following these and other tips. I’ll write about other difficult personalities in coming blogs, so stay tuned for the series on Living with High-Conflict People.
ARE YOU INVOLVED WITH THIS PERSON?
- Comes off as being superior/entitled
- Lacks empathy & shows disdain for people
- Insulting & defensive
- All-or-nothing thinking
- Oblivious to consequences
The NIH estimated 6.2% of the population has a Narcissistic Personality Disorder.* If the above describes your spouse, sibling, boss or other person you cannot easily divorce yourself from (or won’t), it pays to learn how to manage them for your own sake.
UNDERSTAND THEM & YOUR ROLE
There are many studies into Narcissistic Personality Disorders (NPD) and why someone with it acts the way s/he does. The general idea is that it may stem from some harm suffered in childhood and it results in an unconscious fear of being seen as inferior, or it may stem from being raised “entitled” and expecting the world to treat them as “special.” As such, the chances of a Narcissistic Personality (NP) being able to recognize his/her bad behavior or control it are roughly zero without intensive therapy (and since they don’t see anything wrong with themselves, therapy rarely happens). See the article Why Healing is Hard, for more on that. What’s important for the purpose of this blog is to remember that it’s unconscious behavior, so forget about trying to convince your NP to behave differently because s/he won’t get it and s/he’ll go on an aggressive offense (See Forgetaboudit article). Your role is learning to manage the behavior as best you can.
DON'T DISS THE NARCISSIST
As belligerent as an NP can be, they are one of the most insecure of the High-Conflict Personalities and are constantly on guard from feeling disrespected. An NP will lash out at you when you least expect it because a good offense is a great defense, right? For example:
Sara was in the car with Jake going to a sidewalk art exhibit. Jake was driving and someone forgot to use a turn signal before getting into Jake’s lane.
- Jake: Did you see what that a-hole just did to me? (Speeding up to now to tailgate).
- Sara: Yeah. You should back off a little, though.
- "Jake: You saying I’m going too fast? The speed limit on the Autobahn is like 100 mph.
- Sara: I beleive we’re on the I-5 and I don’t want us landing in that guy’s trunk.
- Jake: WTF! I know how to drive. I’ve been driving since I was 14. Just because you drive too slow doesn’t mean everyone else has to (driving faster now). Stop backseat driving! You always f’ing ruin everything. Forget it. I’m going home.
Sara knew Jake could be reactive and was expert at blame shifting but this happened before she’d heard of NPD, the BIFF Response(SM) technique or anything related. She didn’t know that an NP is virtually incapable of thinking: “Am I too close? Is this dangerous?” The Narcissist comprehends little about cause and effect or consequences, so the thought “me tailgating = accident” rarely comes into play. For the NP, it’s always someone else’s fault so even if he had recognized danger by himself, it would have been along the lines of “That driver cut me off, so I’ll show ‘em.”
The unconscious defense mechanism is so strong, in fact, that he actually sped up and got closer in some misguided effort to get back at the driver and to show Sara that her “attack” on him was wrong. She felt that it was her right to say something for safety reasons (I agree), but she directly challenged his driving and was sarcastic to boot. We call that negative feedback, and when Sara did it, she left herself wide open for targeting and the feedback made him angrier than the non-blinking driver had.
WHAT DO YOU DO WITH A NARCISSIST?
Narcissists are tricky to manage because, as above, they don’t see themselves as being the cause of their own upset and are generally blind to the need to change anything - especially if you suggest it. You can read Bill Eddy’s book It’s All Your Fault: 12 Tips for Managing People Who Blame Others for Everything for a detailed discussion and 7 methods specifically for dealing with an NP, including setting limits. For this short post keep these three tips in mind:
1. Give the NP some positive attention. Before you think I’m batty for suggesting that, remember that your goal is to end to a difficult situation for your own sake, if not theirs. As the name implies, Narcissists thrive on compliments so find something to say that appeals to their sense of self-worth. Even minor praise helps them avoid the aggressive reaction you will get from giving negative feedback. Be sincere, though. We can all spot a phony compliment.
- Sara could have tried: “I’m glad you suggested going to the art show. How did you hear about it?” or “You know a lot about cars – what kind is that one over there?” Either of these would have helped him re-focus on something pleasant about himself and away from aggression toward the driver or her.
2. Resist putting them in their place. Tempting as it is, if you tell a NP he’s being a jerk, be prepared for the backlash. Think of a time when you know you were being a butthead and someone called you out on it. I’ll bet you got defensive, at least for a while. Remember, an NP is unconsciously very vulnerable, so they’re never going to think about it and become less jerky. They will respond with a very personal attack on you.
- In the above example, Sara’s witty retort backfired in a big way. She should have left it out altogether.
3. Put an indirect spin on what you want. If you find yourself in a situation where you simply must change the current behavior, do it indirectly without a hint of criticism. This takes practice! What you think is common-sense advice will not be well received by someone with such a fragile ego. If possible, cite a reason that is outside of your relationship or control. If you can work in a face-saving aspect or make what you want his idea, that’s icing on the cake.
- Sara made it worse by flatly suggesting he back off (it was a white-knuckled ride home!). She could have said, “I saw a cop a second ago. He must not have seen him” or “Mom got a ticket yesterday. She thought they’ve started to crack down around here.” Both imply that the police will enforce traffic laws, but she wasn’t. Either one plants the seed that slowing down might be a good idea without using the word “you” so he could save face.
You may be thinking that it’s unfair for Sara to have to go through these gyrations, so think about it this way: the negative feedback compelled a no-win situation. Jake got enraged and he blamed Sara. His driving got worse, not better and she missed the art show. How did Sara benefit from any of that? I do not advocate an eternity of walking on eggshells with an NP but if you are not ready to end your relationship, you may want to invest some time in learning these skills to help you get control of what you CAN manage. You can learn more about dealing with NPs from the book BIFF: Quick Responses to High-Conflict People at the High Conflict Institute (developer of this concept and information) or feel free to send us your questions in the comments section below.
* NIH study: Stinson, R. S., Dawson, D. A., Goldstein, R. B. Chou, S. P., Huang, B., Smith, S. M. (2008). Prevalence, correlates, disability and comorbidity of DSM-IV Narcissistic Personality Disorder: Results from the Wave 2 National Epidemiologic Survey on Alcohol and Related Conditions. Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, 69, 1033-1045
© 2014 High Conflict Institute