Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


How Should I Deal With A Narcissist I'm Stuck With?

10 Tips For Dealing With Narcissists that You Cannot Easily Disengage From

Most of us, regardless of where we live and whether we know it or not, have at least one narcissist in our lives (Note: I am using the term “narcissist” here as an abbreviation for: “people who suffer from narcissistic personality disorder or sub-clinical narcissistic defenses.”). Because that person could be our boss, our friend, our parent, or even our spouse, it might be impractical, (if not impossible), to cut him or her out of our lives completely. Instead, we can learn better ways to deal with them without getting emotionally injured…or wanting to kill them.

Narcissists developed their maladaptive defenses as “strategies” to cope with emotionally painful, neglectful, and even abusive, childhood situations. Over time these emotional and behavioral patterns become so deeply ingrained that they can cause major interpersonal issues in adulthood. The most common narcissistic issues include:

· A lack of object constancy leading to an in ability to maintain positive emotional ties to someone when they are hurt or angry with that person

· Splitting - suddenly seeing other people, or themselves as being either “all bad” or “all good” depending on their feelings in the moment

· Externalizing blame onto other people around them for their own feelings and/or behaviors (”"It’s all his fault! He deserved it! He should’ve thought of that before he…”).

· Difficulties feeling emotional empathy for others (as this was unlikely something they got to experience as a child).

· Using external feedback from others – rather than internal recognition - to completely regulate their unstable self-esteem, emotions, and moods.

· Constantly ranking themselves against others based on whatever categories matter to them, (e.g. wealth, beauty, intelligence, skills, physical ability, career level, etc.)

It’s important to remember that there is a wide range in the level of functioning among people who share this diagnosis. There are also many people who may not meet the full criteria for the NPD diagnosis, but they may still present similar challenges in your relationships with them. Some narcissists may have some wonderful qualities that you value, while others can be incredibly cruel at the drop of a hat. Assuming a person is not abusive or doing harm to you in other ways, you might even decide that s/he person has enough good qualities to keep them in your life. Regardless of whether you choose to keep them in your life, here are the insider tips that I give to my clients for dealing with narcissists.

Top 10 Tips For Dealing With a Narcissist:

1. Narcissists are constantly reacting to the world based on their distorted view:

Everything they say and do, (both positive and negative), is a reflection of them, not of you. Having NPD is a lot like a person who is wearing narcissist sunglasses. Except, they have no idea they are viewing the world through distorted lenses, that they can take off the sunglasses, or even that other people are likely experiencing the same circumstances very differently. Their negative behaviors are most often due to their NPD sunglasses and interpreting their experience in a painful, debilitating, and threatening way. While they of course have control over their behaviors, they often have little to no awareness about why they may be assessing situations in the worst way possible.

2. Whenever possible, try to avoid narcissistically injuring them:

Narcissists are acutely sensitive to any perceived slights, competition, public humiliation, or any negative reflection of themselves. They experience these feelings as deep injuries that they are likely to defend themselves against. When a narcissist is feeling defensive s/he tends to be far more difficult, angry, hurt, passive aggressive, and even retaliatory towards the “cause of their bad feelings”.

Even if you are always on your best behavior, a narcissist may still perceive something you do as an affront. That being said, avoid doing or saying anything negative to them in a public setting as they are especially sensitive to feeling publicly humiliated (example: at a family dinner, in a board room meeting, at a party, etc.).

If you absolutely must confront them about something they are likely to feel criticized by, wait until they are calm (and the “iron is cold”). Sandwich the negative comment between several true and specific statements about them that you admire, and frame it in the most positive way possible. The less narcissistically injured they feel by you and your statement, the more likely they are to be receptive.

3. Try to be their admiring audience whenever possible:

Narcissists are desperate for the admiration and validation for people around them, even though they would probably not admit this to you. Try to be an admiring and non-competitive audience for them, make them look good in front of the people that matter to them, and avoid saying anything that could be interpreted as negative in their eyes in front of anyone. In other words, the less they see you as a threat to their totem pole ranking, the less likely they are to attempt to dominate you, in order for them to show you who is on top.

Example: Your boss

Recently you made an important sale, and instead of congratulating you, your boss told you that it was only a small sale, took too long, and he would’ve been able to close 10 deals in the time it took you to make this one. Remember that if your boss is a narcissist, he is feeling threatened by your success, and his fear that you might be better than he is, a threat to his job, and most importantly, to his self-esteem. His slights are not a reflection of you, and becoming defensive is likely to make him even less empathetic and deadlocked into his demeaning treatment of you.

What you should do instead: Regain your composure and find a way to compliment him on his specific talents in this area. Make sure your praise is honest and specific. You are also subtly letting him know that you are not jostling for his position (even if you are), and that he does not have to fight for alpha status with you.

For example: “Bob, I am continually impressed by your ability to juggle so many important deals at the same time, and close them so quickly. I’m learning a lot from you about what is really important to our clients.”

4. Boundary setting:

Focus on subtly setting healthy boundaries for yourself. The goal here is to engage with their words and behaviors that you want more of, and avoid engaging with the ones you don’t.

Example: Your sibling

Your brother regularly calls and texts you at all hours of the day, every time he wants to vent about something negative in his life, or to complain about whoever has wronged him in some way, and gets annoyed when you give him advice or don’t respond fast enough. You’ve decided that this is distracting at work, and puts you in a negative headspace when you want to feel focused. You’ve decided that going forward you will only pick up the phone or wait to respond to his texts after 6pm. As a result, he will most likely find someone else to pay attention to him during the hours you are unavailable, and adjust his expectations of when he’s likely to get what he wants (your attention).

5. Disengage and calm down when you need a break:

When a narcissist is devaluing you, it can feel like a slap across your face. Remember your long-term goals of getting along with this person, and walk away or disengage temporarily if at all possible in order to avoid feeling further injured, becoming defensive, or even retaliatory towards them. Focus on why you are bothering to deal with this person and the benefits to you of maintaining the peace.

This is the time to give yourself a pep-talk reminding yourself of how their unpleasantness in this moment is a reflection of their emotional limitations, not of yours. You know better than they do, and you have a better handle on your emotions and do not have to get dragged into an emotional power battle with them. The more self-aware narcissists, will often calm down when they are left alone for awhile (even if they do not apologize or admit any wrong doing), and tend to swing back to viewing you in a more positive way when they are in a better mood.

6. Don’t call them a narcissist:

Most narcissists have little to no awareness that they are a narcissist, and truly believe that their negative feelings are the fault of everyone else around them. As a result, telling them that they are “a narcissist” is almost always interpreted as an attack. At best it is unproductive; at worst it is inflammatory.

7. Narcissists are unlikely to change:

Things usually go smoother once you accept that this person is extremely unlikely to change their narcissistic behaviors. Very few narcissists have the self-awareness, motivation, and tolerance for negative feelings to seek therapy to change their maladaptive patterns. While you do not have control over changing them, you can change how you feel and how you respond to them.

8. When to stick up for yourself:

Depending on your relationship with this person, there are likely to be times that it would be necessary to stick up for yourself, even if this person does not like it. It is useful to pick your battles on this one, and only focus your energy on the behaviors that are deal breakers, (as focusing on every unpleasant thing this person says and does will be counter-productive).

Example: Wife

You love your wife, but she is a narcissist and often acts out in an effort to gain your attention, as well as the admiration of other people. At your company dinners, she regularly sucks up to your boss, puts you down, and tells embarrassing stories about you to your colleagues. Your goal here is to address the behaviors that are most bothersome, while trying to avoid narcissistically injuring her. Stick to “I” statements about your feelings (rather than “you are doing x wrong”), what you appreciate about her coming to these dinners, using language that demonstrates you are both on the same team, like “we” and “our”, and what you would like her to do instead.

You might try saying something like, “I really appreciate how you make the time to come to all of my work dinners in order to support my career. It’s really important to me to make a good impression, and I would really like your help to keep our private stories, like the one you mentioned about me and my underwear at camp, just between us. Even though it’s not your intention, it makes me feel embarrassed and very uncomfortable when you share those kinds of things without asking me first. It means a lot to me knowing we are on the same team. Is this something you can do going forward?”

9. It’s not about you, it’s about them:

When a narcissist is acting out towards you based on their negative feelings in the moment, remind yourself that their words and behaviors are not an accurate reflection of you and whether or not you “deserve” their behavior. My personal mantra for co-existing with narcissists, that I often share with my clients who are dealing with this is: “You do not have feel the way they want you to feel.” Repeat after me…

10. Put Yourself First:

Meaning, you can choose whether or not to accept this person's words as an objective and negative truth about yourself, or you can choose to make a conscious decision to view this person as having emotional limitations, and to decide whether or not to continue your relationship with them. You may determine that this person causes you far too much emotional distress and that it isn’t worth putting up with anymore.

Try to make this decision when you are feeling calm, versus when you are in the heat of a hurtful argument. While I tend to recommend the path of least resistance, this does not mean that you need to take abuse, or sacrifice any shred of self-esteem you have left in order to try to make them happy. You will almost always have a choice about whether or not you choose to continue dealing with this person, but it may involve certain sacrifices for you, (like divorce or switching jobs). It’s important to give this a lot of thought when you are feeling calm and when you are angry or emotionally injured. If you do decide to end the relationship, make sure to keep this person’s behaviors in the back of your mind; so that whenever possible, you can work to avoid getting into a similar situation in the future.

Originally appeared in "The Altucher Report" Sept. 2017

More from Karen Arluck LCSW
More from Psychology Today
More from Karen Arluck LCSW
More from Psychology Today