Most of us do not want to have to diagnose our friends. However, it is hard to escape all the warnings floating around the internet about people with narcissistic personality disorder. So, what are we to do when we realize that we are already friends with a narcissist or that someone with marked narcissistic traits wants to be our friend? Do we move closer or do we stay away?
There is no one-size-fits-all answer to this question. Whether you can be friends with a person with a narcissistic personality disorder depends on multiple factors: your definition of friendship, how realistic you are about the other person, your ability to maintain your boundaries, your level of tolerance for “bad” behavior, and whether what you both want from the friendship is a good match.
If you decide that you want to be friends with someone who is very narcissistic, I suggest that you think about why you want to be friends with them. By that I mean: What are you getting out of the relationship?
Note: In this article I am using the term “narcissist” or “narcissistic” or “narcissistic adaptation” as shorthand ways of describing a person who qualifies for a diagnosis of narcissistic personality disorder.
The 3 Basic Narcissistic Friendship Patterns
Most of the people with narcissistic personality disorder can be divided into three general categories based on how much they are willing to contribute in support of a friendship.
Group 1: Takers
This group is basically out for themselves and will shamelessly ask for inconvenient favors, loans that they will never repay, and will waste hours of your time complaining about their problems.
Example: Mi casa es su casa!
Kenneth is the type of “friend” who calls you when he plans to visit your town and asks to stay at your house for a week to save money on hotels. You once made the mistake of saying, “Mi casa es su casa,” a gracious Spanish term that welcomes a guest ("My house is your house") and he took that quite literally.
When he stays with you, he never brings a host gift or offers to help with chores, or picks up a single dinner bill. In fact, he is likely to spill wine on your sofa, leave a water ring on your favorite wooden table, and drop his dirty dishes in the sink for someone else to wash. Between visits, you rarely hear from him unless he wants something or is incredibly bored.
If you try and plan a visit where you stay with Kenneth, he always has some excuse why it is not possible at that moment—his in-laws are visiting, the guest room is being painted, he has to work late every night. You eventually learn not to ask.
Upside: There is no upside unless you are very lonely, and any company is better than none at all.
Downside: Takers create a lot of extra work, are careless with other people’s belongings, and they do not reciprocate.
Group 2: Givers
These are narcissistic friends who are overly generous. They come in three basic varieties:
Sincere: I have had a number of closet narcissist friends who compensate for their low self-esteem by giving too much. One of my friends, who is of modest means, always brings the most lavish gifts and foods when she comes for a holiday dinner. She is extremely thoughtful about what she chooses, goes to great trouble, and often arrives with twice as much as expected.
I appreciate her gifts, but I sometimes feel uncomfortable about how much she gives me. Often, she arrives so exhausted and laden down with packages that I feel guilty, even though it was her choice to do all of that. Basically, I think she genuinely enjoys shopping and takes great pride in finding perfect gifts for everyone. Her face lights up when others praise her gifts and she basks in the glow of gratitude.
Upside: Givers are very generous friends. They give lovely, thoughtful gifts.
Downside: I worry that they are spending more than they actually can afford. I know that I would not give as much if the situation were reversed. Being on the receiving end makes me feel a bit guilty.
Victims: These are often people with closet narcissistic disorder as well. They also overgive, but they exercise very poor judgement in who they give to and how much. They expect you to be extremely grateful for everything and to reciprocate at the same level of generosity, even though you never asked for anything.
Lorena offered to loan me her cabin in the woods for a weekend, even though we barely knew each other. She also offered to chop wood for my fireplace and drive 50 miles to get it to me. I was very uneasy about accepting any of these generous gifts because in the past Lorena had frequently complained about how badly she has been treated by people with whom she had been overly generous. She always painted herself as the innocent victim who ended up abused. I explained that her company was all I wanted and that she definitely should not chop that wood because I did not intend to do anything so labor-intensive for her.
Upside: Victims are generous to a fault.
Downside: They tend to expect too much in return. This group will make you regret taking anything from them because something always goes wrong and they end up feeling victimized in some way. You are being set up to fail as a friend.
Controllers: This group is made up of wealthy exhibitionist narcissists who are very generous with their “toys” as long as you let them call the shots.
Example: Rich Ray
Ray has a lot of money and uses it to make sure that he is in charge of whatever is going on. He is extremely generous. He always has extra basketball tickets to share, will invite you for a day on his new boat, or will host a lavish dinner for someone’s birthday. Unfortunately, Ray is also a bit of a control freak. He likes playing host in part because he gets to orchestrate the evening and have everyone do whatever he has planned. Ray is totally uninterested in joining in any activity where he is just one of the group.
Upside: The members of this group have nice toys and share them with their friends.
Downside: It is their bat and ball and others either play their way or do not play at all.
Group 3: Fair Exchange
I have a small subset of narcissistic friends who have no issues about reciprocity and fairness. If I pick up a check, they will remember to pick up the next one. Giving and taking is not an issue. They are pretty easy to be with as long as I say enough complimentary things when I see their self-esteem dipping.
Veronica is a beautiful woman in her 50’s who is also a very talented artist. She is clever, knowledgeable about art, and a fun companion. I enjoy her company as long as we are engaged in some activity together. She is my favorite person with whom to go gallery hopping or to visit the latest museum exhibit. But… Veronica needs a great deal of reassurance that she is still the most attractive woman in the room and not yet over the hill. I know when I am with her that she will be more fun if I compliment her on how she looks or what she is wearing (and that is quite easy to do as she is very attractive), and point out things about her that impress me, such as how much she knows about modern art.
Upside: This is my favorite type of narcissistic friend. I don’t feel guilty or taken advantage of or in danger of being accused later of not being adequately appreciative.
Downside: Because this group has narcissistic issues and insecurities, you will need to monitor their self-esteem and give them compliments from time-to-time to keep them fun companions.
Other Issues: Setting Boundaries, Lack of Empathy, and Sensitivities
Most narcissists are not very aware of other people’s boundaries or when they are being intrusive or expecting too much. They are focused on getting what they want and doing things their way. You will need to be very clear in your own mind about what is acceptable behavior to you and what is not. It is quite likely that at some point, your narcissistic friend will cross one of your boundaries. It is important that you let them know in a very nice way that what they are doing is unacceptable to you.
Be prepared: You could find yourself in a fight where you are accused of being oversensitive or too controlling. This is when you find out if the two of you can make a friendship work. If they accept your limits, even if they complain or need to be reminded occasionally, this is a good sign that they are not too selfish to compromise as long as you hold your ground.
If you are not very assertive by nature and hate confrontations, you may find yourself giving in and doing whatever your narcissistic friend wants. Later you are likely to feel resentful. If this is the case, you might want to back away and find other more agreeable and less narcissistic pals.
People with narcissistic personality disorder have little or no emotional empathy. They can also be devaluing about other people. Eventually, your narcissistic friend is likely to say something that hurts your feelings, offends you, or embarrasses you in public. If you are the sensitive type who cannot brush these things off or who worries what the people at the next table are thinking when you friend insults the waiter or loudly tells you about the ugly dress the woman at the next table is wearing, you probably do not want many narcissists as friends. You will find their behavior too jarring and insensitive to other people.
Bottom Line: If you want to be friends with someone with a narcissist personality disorder, you need to be realistic about what to expect and whether the upside of the relationship is sufficient to balance the downside.
This is an expanded version of my Quora.com post “How can you be friends with a narcissist?” (November 28, 2018)