How to live with a narcissist

December 21, 2018

Narcissists are addicted to feeling special and struggle to (or sometimes even can’t) feel empathy for others.  Not surprisingly, this makes being in relationship with one extremely challenging.  In Part 1 of this series on narcissism, I gave you some characteristic traits to help you identify a narcissist.  Statistically, most of us are in a relationship of some kind with one, whether it be with a spouse, parent, sibling, co-worker, or friend.  So, in this segment, I want to teach you how to live with a narcissist and the inherent risks of doing so.

Build your ‘ego strength’

Because a narcissist has too much ‘ego’, they most often end up in relationship with someone who is lower on the narcissism scale, someone who may stand down and keep quiet when in conflict with the narcissist.  If this is you, know that your silence creates an unhealthy balance, a breeding ground where the narcissistic behavior can thrive. Without showing them the mirror or telling them their behavior is offensive, it allows them to continue to behave badly without any consequences.  Step one for you is to build your confidence, your core strength. Increasing your own self-esteem allows you to more effectively deal with being in relationship with someone who has an excessive amount of it. Learn to speak respectfully but speak up and take your equal place at the table. This includes being able to communicate who you are and what you need in the relationship when the narcissist tries to minimize or diminish your feelings. Yes, it will cause tension; but learning to sit in that healthy tension is part of your work.  Individual therapy is a good place to start if you want to build your core ego strength.

Know what your limits are

To live in relationship with a narcissist, you also need to be crystal clear on what you won’t live with. Set limits on what behavior you will or won’t tolerate.  While you can’t fight every single battle, you absolutely must know what is non-negotiable for you.  Emotional abuse, raging, compulsive lying, serial affairs, and unaddressed addictions are examples of behavior that may indicate the narcissist in your life is unwilling or unable to change.  And always, if you or your children are in a physically abusive or unsafe environment of any kind, I recommend you leave it.

Surround yourself with a support system

When you live with a narcissist, you end up keeping a lot of secrets, with few on the outside really understanding how difficult life inside your home can be.  It’s important for you to find a strong confidant, someone who can support you and remind you that you aren’t crazy, selfish, or too sensitive ….and who can help balance what you may be hearing from the narcissist.

Neutralize the narcissist’s leverage

Being dependent on or in debt to a narcissist, gives a narcissist key leverage to be used to influence or control you. Financial dependence is a great example. If you’re a stay at home parent married to a narcissist or have a narcissist parent who is financially supporting you, exert your independence and begin making plans on how to support yourself. Your independence will minimize the narcissist’s leverage.

Catch them doing good

Telling a narcissist they are being narcissistic simply doesn’t work.  Rarely is a narcissist self-aware enough to recognize their true motivation or how their behavior impacts the lives of those around them.  So instead of focusing on the behavior you don’t like, catch them being good. Catch them in the softer moments, where they display just a touch of empathy, and then make a big deal of it. Should you have to do this?  Of course not. But the goal is to help them see that feeling special (remember they are addicted to this) comes through connection, not through attractiveness or being powerful, successful, loud or by winning.  

Change how you respond to wounding

When someone hurts us, most of us respond in one of two ways – we either go silent and swallow it, or, we go on attack.  While both are understandable, neither is helpful when dealing with a narcissist. Silence empowers a narcissist and by attacking, you contribute to a cycle of increasing intensity that is toxic for everyone, and especially so the kids.  Instead, respond to the wounding from a place of vulnerability. Focus on how their behavior made you feel. For example, “Mom, when you told me I’m a complete disappointment to you, it was devastating to me. I felt shame and it hurt me.”  And then watch how they respond. Do they show any empathy for your pain? If so, this is a good sign they can change. But if they flip it around and make it about how you’ve hurt them, or if they get defensive, angry and minimize, you have your work cut out for you. You may be dealing with a narcissist who will not change.

Use the pre-emptive strike

When you are dealing with a narcissist, you quickly learn to anticipate situations that may be painful or cause you wounding. When you know these situations are coming, it’s time to be proactive in establishing your boundaries and put the narcissist on notice that you will not tolerate unhealthy behavior.  For example “I would like for us to be able to both enjoy our daughter’s school play on Thursday but it you choose to yell or call me names as you have chosen to do in the past, I want you to know now I will end the conversation and will ask you to leave.” Narcissists do not like to be predictable so do not expect your narcissist to appreciate your up-front frankness and boundary setting.  But this is where you even the playing field and find your true empowerment. Set healthy respectful boundaries and follow through on your promises.

Your biggest risks

Being in a relationship with a narcissist comes with risks.  The two biggest are a broken heart and the loss of your self-esteem. I believe we are created for connection, something extremely difficult for a narcissist whose primary motivation is to make themselves feel special. It can be a very lonely existence, full of criticism and lacking in empathy, so you must be prepared to grow your own ego-strength and set firm respectful boundaries.

It’s a tough road to navigate.

Professional help

It often takes a skilled therapist to help a narcissist understand the impact their behavior has on those around him/her, and to build the ego-strength of their partner to stand up and show the narcissist the mirror when appropriate.  If you need this kind of help in your relationship, please contact us.

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