Narcissists follow different norms than most people. Once you recognize these norms and understand what lies beneath them, you can cope with narcissistic people more successfully.
Here are 10 “don’ts” for dealing with narcissists:
1. Don’t give them ammunition.
Narcissists need to feel superior. Anything you share with narcissists may eventually be used to humiliate or manipulate you, particularly when you are most vulnerable or in need. Be mindful about what you reveal.
2. Don’t take them at face value.
Image is everything to narcissists. Narcissists lie easily and often seem entirely convinced of even their most preposterous lies. They work tirelessly to present a perfect, shining facade. Yet underneath, people with narcissism often feel empty and illegitimate. We can have compassion for narcissists’ wounds yet not be taken in by their pretenses. All that glitters is not gold.
3. Don’t try to justify or explain yourself.
Narcissists often put others on the defensive with pointed questions or sarcasm, posturing as though you must explain yourself to them. You need not justify your feelings or explain your thoughts. The more you do, the more you are at risk for them gaslighting you to induce self-doubt. Defending yourself to narcissists is generally a waste of time. Narcissists tend to be interested in winning, not listening; self-promoting, not communicating.
4. Don’t minimize their outrageous behavior.
Narcissists’ self-absorbed behavior and need for attention can take up all the emotional oxygen in the room. Over time, people around narcissists may become inured and fail to recognize how unhealthy narcissistic behavior can be.
Let's be clear: Deceiving, manipulating, and humiliating others is unhealthy and wrong. At times it may be best to let narcissists’ immature or provocative behaviors pass without comment, but that doesn’t mean you should fail to note, at least to yourself, how dysfunctional it is.
5. Don’t expect them to own their part.
Narcissists take credit and give blame. They do not apologize or admit responsibility. Seeking to get narcissists to be accountable for unhealthy behavior can be a waste of time. Narcissists believe they have more rights than others and have little interest in introspection. They love to look at their accomplishments, successes, or "special" talents, but fear looking within or owning their mistakes.
If you want to hold them accountable, fine—but do so because you need to say it, not because you expect they will ever hear or validate your concerns.
6. Don’t try to beat them at their own game.
It may be tempting, but remember: Narcissists have spent a lifetime perfecting a campaign of self-aggrandizement. They carry out more manipulative actions in a week than most people do all year. Narcissists have a mortal fear of feeling humiliated or inferior. As a result, they devote massive energy to cultivating sources of ego-boosting, generally at others’ expense.
Trying to beat them in a war of words or adopt their techniques is akin to an amateur going up against a seasoned pro. It won’t feel good, and it rarely works. Instead, be you and be true to your values.
7. Don’t expect loyalty.
Many people are stunned at how quickly and easily narcissists cast off others when the narcissist feels his or her needs are unmet. Narcissists view others as sources of gratification, not as equals. They use language as tools and weapons rather than to convey truth. This comes from a shaky sense of self which gives their needs and fears a life-or-death quality. Expecting loyalty from people who are in it only for themselves is counterproductive. Depending on narcissists for important needs is a prescription for disappointment.
8. Don’t personalize what they do.
Narcissists tend to view others as either potential threats or potential victims. They seek advantage over everybody. While their worst mistreatment is often reserved for those closest to them, nobody is immune from narcissists’ manipulations.
If you take what narcissists do personally, you grant them real estate in your mind and psyche—which is exactly what they seek. Narcissists will target anyone who happens across their path. It’s not personal; it's just what they do.
9. Don’t expect empathy.
A hallmark of narcissism is a lack of empathy. Empathy is based on the assumption that others are worthy and deserve equal attention and compassion. Does that sound like something a narcissist would believe? Their sense of entitlement leaves them feeling little interest in playing fair or reciprocating. Their grandiosity leads them to see others as inferior and therefore undeserving of compassion.
Rather than expecting empathy and reciprocity from a narcissist, focus on respecting yourself and honoring your needs and rights.
10. Don’t underestimate the power of narcissism.
Narcissism is a deep distortion in one’s sense of self. A narcissist’s life is about gaining “narcissistic supply”: attention, wealth, power, control, sexual conquest, and more. They have a bottomless hunger and need to be endlessly fed.
Furthermore, while people with Narcissistic Personality Disorder or a strong narcissistic style may alter some behaviors over time, the psychological dynamics of narcissism generally last a lifetime.
Hoping narcissists will change is a setup. Recognizing that narcissists are caught in an endless quest for attention and approval can free you from false expectations and allow you to set healthy boundaries.
We can have compassion for the struggles and limitations of people with narcissism. Yet compassion does not mean allowing others to hurt or take advantage of you. It is up to you to take care of yourself. That is not narcissism; that is healthy living.
© Copyright 2019 Dan Neuharth, Ph.D., MFT
A version of this blog originally appeared on psychcentral.com.