Bill Eddy from the High Conflict Institute is an attorney, mediator, and former therapist. He is an international expert on high conflict people, especially those with personality disorders. He provides high-level training to court professionals, corporations, government officials, and other organizations struggling to deal with the chaos high conflict personalities can cause.

Bill is the author of many books about the topic, including the bestselling Splitting: Protecting Yourself While Divorcing a Borderline or Narcissist.  People in my Welcome to Oz family support group community say this book (available only online for now) saved their sanity and thousands of dollars.

Bill has allowed me to print this except about people with narcissistic personality disorder from his book It's All Your Fault! 12 Tips for Managing People Who Blame Others for Everything. While the tips in this chapter are geared for more general disputes than close interpersonal ones, the tips can be easily adapted if someone you are close to has NPD.

Don't Diss the Narcissists!

"Managing high conflict people usually involves using skills which are the opposite of what one feels like doing. Learning these skills takes time and practice, but can make an amazing difference in resolving, managing, and containing high conflict disputes."

Bill Eddy

People with narcissistic personalities think and act like they are better than everyone else around them. They constantly get into conflicts. Who wants to be around someone whose motto is "I'm very superior to you?"

Attorney, mediator, and former therapist Bill Eddy is uniquely qualified to give advice about High Conflict Personalities

For a person to be diagnosed with narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) he or she must meet five or more of the following symptoms:

• Has a grandiose sense of self-importance (e.g., exaggerates achievements and talents, expects to be recognized as superior without commensurate achievements)
• Is preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love
• Believes that he or she is "special" and unique and can only be understood by, or should associate with, other special or high-status people (or institutions)
• Requires excessive admiration
• Has a sense of entitlement, i.e., unreasonable expectations of especially favorable treatment or automatic compliance with his or her expectations
• Is interpersonally exploitative, i.e., takes advantage of others to achieve his or her own ends
• Lacks empathy: is unwilling to recognize or identify with the feelings and needs of others
• Is often envious of others or believes that others are envious of him or her
• Shows arrogant, haughty behaviors or attitudes.

A small dose of superiority is present in many professions, in business, and in politics. It can help people keep going when others would give up. However, too much narcissism is dysfunctional and can be a highly destructive force in any social environment. When a person has narcissistic personality disorder (NPD), he or she has significant impairment in social relationships and/or significant internal distress.

While it isn't obvious from their behavior, they are actually extremely vulnerable. The "I'm very superior" personality is a thin shell for a potentially very defensive and vulnerable person inside. But this is so far removed from their conscious thinking and tough-sounding behavior, that they (and, perhaps, you) may never believe it.

While narcissistic personality disorder is identified more frequently in men, a 2008 study says that 62% of those with NPD are male and 38% female, less of a difference than previously thought. NPs generally do not pursue mental health treatment, except for help with a separate problem, such as anxiety or depression. When they do seek therapy, narcissists are harder to treat than people with borderline personality disorder because they don't care as much about relationships.

High-Conflict Dynamics in Relationships

People with NPD (NPs) believe that they will achieve incredible success and that they have incredible personal qualities. Such persons can be very charismatic, as they catch the dreams of those around them and believe in their own fantasies in a compelling way. This doesn't always last, and those who have invested in them (emotionally and/or financially) often become very angry at them.

NPs often become involved in high-conflict disputes (including those divorce and custody related) because they are high risk-takers, disdainful of others and generally oblivious to the consequences of their own actions. They often feel like victims, when in fact their own behavior usually causes the events that now upset them. With these characteristics, compromise and respect for others are difficult or non-existent.

While conflicts with folks with borderline personality disorder often occur because they get too close, conflicts with narcissists happen because they are too emotionally aloof.

NPs cannot see themselves as contributing to their problems. They are easily triggered by anything that threatens their confident self-image and will attack those who confront them with their own behavior, thereby leading them to have a "narcissistic injury."  

We all have "narcissistic injuries" from time to time. This is the extreme sense of hurt we have when things feel personal--that there is something wrong with us. For example, we apply  for a job for which we are well-qualified, but don't get it. We may feel devastated, but given time we can depersonalize it and realize that given the odds, rejection was a clear possibility.

However, the narcissistic jobseeker may take it very personally, because he sees himself as a superior person--even superior to the odds. NPs see even routine events as narcissistic injuries. [Note from Randi: in my own life, someone with NPD was greatly incensed when I bought a car model he did not recommend. To him, this was a major narcissistic injury.]

In reality there is no one to blame, But the NP insists it "must be somebody else's fault;" it cannot be his. Thus, he finds a Target of Blame to attack. This approach can lead to legal disputes from breach of contract obligations to domestic violence and even murder.

Demands for special treatment and admiration often earn the resentment of others around the NP, who often characterize her as being obnoxious, self-centered and rude. While many people in daily life have these qualities occasionally, those who qualify for a diagnosis of narcissistic personality disorder do not succeed in important areas of their lives because of these qualities.

In employment settings, disputes may arise because the narcissistic person cannot accept feedback and being treated as an ordinary person. An NP may be sued for harassment in employment, because he is oblivious to the impact of his insensitive remarks and demands towards employees.

In business relationships NPs may be sued for breach of contract because they do not interpret their actions as negative or harmful when everyone else does. In criminal relationships, an NP may injure others because he does not feel he is being treated like the special person he is. On the other hand, others may seem to "injure" the NP because they can no longer stand the NP's attitude and behavior. NPs believe they are victims.

Narcissists and criticism

As I've said, narcissists seem driven to invite criticism. They are insulting, demanding, arrogant, self-absorbed, and lack empathy. It is natural to feel like "putting them down" as strongly as you can.

However, this negative feedback does not work as expected. They rapidly increase their aggressively defensive behavior with surprising intensity, because they were, after all, supposed to be treated as "superior" and beyond criticism.

Handling narcissistic people

If you are a Target of Blame and not in a position of power over a narcissist, then there are still things that you can do with the power you have:

1. Find their strengths and regularly compliment them. It doesn't cost you anything to give a narcissist a compliment, even though it may feel like the last thing you want to do. Compliments are like food to narcissists, and they are always starved for them. Make sure not to exaggerate or make false compliments. This will only set you up for future conflicts when the narcissist starts telling others of your compliment.

2. Prepare to set limits. NPs get themselves into trouble because they are generally oblivious to the likely consequences of their risk-taking behavior. They often can't stop themselves. It helps to prepare for quick action, because sooner or later they may inadvertently expose their patterns in a very dramatic way. [Note from Randi: my book The Essential Family Guide to Borderline Personality Disorder: New Tools and Techniques to Stop Walking on Eggshells explains step by step how to set limits with a high conflict person.

3. Resist the urge to "put them down." It is human nature to put down those who act superior without deserving it. In our democratic culture - whether in your neighborhood or in your workplace - no one likes those who put themselves above everyone else. Even highly successful people respect others and avoid seeking too much praise. Narcissists stand out in this culture and they make easy targets. Resist the urge, or the narcissist may come back to bite you.

4. Don't withhold your empathy, attention and respect. We are tempted to punish narcissists by withholding our empathy, attention and respect. They may be the ones who need it the most, and who are hammering you with obnoxious, self-defeating behavior, just to get this from you. Surprise them and just give It to them when deserved. It will save you time--and being hammered.

5. Keep a comfortable distance. Don't be too impressed at the start of your relationship, or the narcissist will come to depend on you to give him or her endless flattering attention. Also, avoid being too rejecting of a narcissist. They will take it as a personal insult and "narcissistic injury." Just find a reasonable middle ground that can help you contain the narcissist while going about your business.

6. Don't feel like you have to listen too long. Narcissists are eager for your attention and often won't let go of it. Practice setting limits on your conversations by having another activity that you need to do. Listen attentively for a few minutes, then let them know you have to go. Then, with confidence, get to your next activity. If you show ambivalence, they will keep you in their grip. However, if you are an official of some type and you are only going to have one meeting with a narcissist, it often helps to make it as long as possible, so that they can get everything off their chest and not feel rushed or cut off. With this openness to them, they usually relax a bit and don‘t need as much time.

7. Use indirect reasons for changing behavior. If you must try to get a narcissist to act differently, focus on a reason for doing so that is outside of your relationship. "The homeowners association has a policy that requires you to do XYZ..." "Our company won't allow us to do ABC" [Note from Randi: or, "I don't allow people in my life to XYZ."] This helps the narcissist save face.

Just focus on the new, good behavior, without saying that the prior behavior was bad.

8. Explain the possible negative consequences of certain behavior. Narcissists are often preoccupied with the moment and their perceived status and respect. They often overlook the consequences of their immediate actions. Sometimes educating a narcissist about the possible consequences is a surprise. "I hadn't thought about that," he or she might say. Pointing out positive consequences of planning may be helpful. Of course, much of this may have no impact. If narcissists feel that you are sincerely trying to help them, they might listen. Otherwise, don't bother lecturing or talking down to a narcissist - they can't handle it and they'll just attack you back.

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