How do you deal with a narcissist?
For one, be gentle with yourself. Narcissistic abuse often causes a person to feel like they are going crazy—because narcissists have a knack for making everyone in their self-created circus swallow the blame. But, once you know, the less likely you are to be gaslighted.
Second, vow to stop getting sucked back into their charm—because remember that, on the other side of it, their toxicity holds strong. “Narcissists know how to put on a show—whether it’s a fun-loving one or one that will provoke you to feel sorry for them. They are often wonderful to be around initially, but when you truly get to know them, they are the opposite of charming,” says Dr. Ho.
Never underestimate a narcissist’s ability and willingness to keep sliding that facade back in place each time they have upset you or lashed out at you cruelly—especially if it means they can still use you in some way.
Finally, memorize the patterns of their vicious cycles and fold it into all of your interactions with them. “Oftentimes, the way you learn to manage them is to tell them how amazing they are—that they were right and you were, again, wrong. This may allow them to sort of reset and shower you with love all over again—but the dangerous truth still remains underneath it, and you will have then reinforced your willingness to forgive their self-absorption. They will be that charming person again, but only until the next conflict,” says Dr. Ho.
Is it wise to confront their behavior?
Confronting a narcissist will almost certainly result in a battle–at least initially. So the decision depends upon the severity of their narcissism, and if they currently exhibit any desire to self-reflect. But if you do opt to call them out, Dr. Ho suggests using the sandwich approach—which begins with affirming them. “If you’ve got someone who seems like they want to move the needle, have the conversation, but start it with something really complimentary. You could say something like, ‘I really love this about you, but you know what would make our relationship even more amazing?’ or ‘You mean so much to me and I appreciate you, and I know you may not realize how this comes across, but when you say this, I feel…’” she says.
Because a narcissist is only receptive to small amounts of negative feedback when they have been brushed with a fresh coat of flattery, ease into building your case against their harmful patterns. “Never go right into the conversation with criticism,” adds Dr. Ho.
Is a narcissist capable of falling in love?
They’re certainly capable of forming superficial relationships. In fact, they are masterful at superficial friendships and often have a broad collection of them. “Narcissists almost always keep lots of people around them, but it will be people who can benefit them in some way. Essentially, they’re users,” says Dr. Derhally.
Dr. Ho says it’s common for people with low self-esteem or poor identity to hang around the narcissists the longest—because they are the easiest, most impressionable prey. They can be trained to serve the narcissist’s glorification of themselves.
As for romance, Dr. Derhally says a narcissist is always the most charming person you’ve ever dated—well, initially. “It’s very romantic and wildly intoxicating. You’re so flattered at the lengths they’ll go to be with you. The narcissist romantic partner gets off on that—the pursuit and the chase, as well as convincing you to adore them. But once they become comfortable, bored or have won you over, the dynamic shifts dramatically to the devaluation phase, and perhaps the discard phase,” she says. “And it can be unbelievably shocking to their victims.”
What about narcissistic parents?
Lastly, narcissism in a familial dynamic is the most complex—and delicate. Dr. Derhally says that, when looking at narcissism in parents, one of two things generally happens: the parent will overindulge the child, or they will constantly force them into situations that the child badly does not want to be in. For example, the little girl who is forced into ballet or piano lessons for years, even though she sobs before every rehearsal. “The narcissistic parent generally sees the child as an extension of themselves. They don’t really care about the child’s needs, but that the child is meeting their needs. Sometimes this can even result in a dynamic where the parent goes through periods of ignoring the child and withdrawing love in order to punish them,” she says.
So is there any hope of a narcissist sustaining loving relationships? Of them being healthy partners, friends, sisters, or parents? “Possibly, if they are willing to self-reflect and honestly work through the damage they cause others. But, sadly, one of the traits of being a narcissist usually precludes that,” says Dr. Ho.
Still, while hope isn’t necessarily probable, it is possible, “If you have a person in your life with strong narcissistic traits and you truly love them, you shouldn’t necessarily give up. As they let their guard down more and more, and as you continue to affirm them through it, and as they are more receptive to owning their role in any conflict or chaos, you may begin to gradually make progress,” says Dr. Ho.
Okay, so it’s potentially treatable… at least somewhat?
Manageable is the more appropriate word, though not in the majority of cases. Dr. Ho stresses that narcissism is a personality disorder, as opposed to an actual illness. So it’s not treatable necessary. “If an individual genuinely seeks help for it, it’s not that it will ever go away, but the narcissist can become more cognizant. So, if you back that with a true desire to have better relationships, they can begin to catch themselves being entitled and self-absorbed,” she says.
With a narcissist, it is seldom ever a gentle, gradual awakening of self, but a life-altering impact that shoves them into a hallway of despair—and, hopefully, change. They usually have to hit rock bottom and suffer as a result of their entitlement and self-absorption—such as an extreme loss of assets or prestige, or being abandoned by someone who tired of their unrelenting abuse. “It’s usually a huge business failure or a relationship that goes awry. They may realize that they, in fact, did love that person, but pushed them away with their selfish, toxic behaviors. It takes something deeply traumatic to jolt a narcissist and cause them to realize that they need to heal and work on themselves,” says Dr. Ho. “It’s rare, but it can be done.”
Accept that fixing them is not your responsibility, but maintaining your sanity is your own.
If you’re going around in circles with someone who is especially high on the narcissistic spectrum, know that getting through to them is not going to be an easy, straightforward task. But what you can begin to do? Withdraw your energy and power from their boundary violations, demands, jealousies, and tantrums. “You have to remember that you are in control of your life, no matter how they may treat you or react to you. You have to start dictating what they can and cannot get away with, and own how you will respond to them,” says Dr. Derhally.
Dr. Ramani adds that, if you can find a way to avoid being a narcissist’s emotional punching bag, you may be able to channel some compassion for them—but never at risk of your own peace of mind. “It's really difficult to live life angry, contemptuous, victimized, disappointed, and forever needing validation, so compassion is the best path. However, that does not mean trying to rescue them, or remaining in a toxic relationship,” she says.
Have you ever sought therapy?
Sure, it's easier said than done, but try to remember, in most cases, it's not your responsibility to drive away their personal demons, or satisfy their cravings for admiration and praise. Stressing the importance of remembering that you are not the narcissist’s therapist, Dr. Ramani emphasizes that, when you rush to their rescue, in order to avoid their wrath, you risk chipping away at your own mental well-being. So, considering this, it may be wise to stop juggling their problems. Because, while you cannot change them, you can absolutely change how you respond to them. And, though you might benefit from professional help to guide you through the healing process, remember that your life is your own show to run—no one else’s. Because, narcissist or not, people only have as much power over you as you are willing to give them.