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Narcissistic Traits and Their Impact on Relationships

5 ways to cope with individuals who have narcissistic traits.

Key points

  • A narcissistic injury may occur when individuals with narcissistic traits encounter criticism, loss, or perceived abandonment from others.
  • Narcissism largely stems from a poor sense of self and feelings of low self-worth.
  • It is important to know yourself and your values and not to compromise for the person with narcissistic traits and how they choose to see you. 

All of us have narcissistic traits that help us form a cohesive sense of self. These traits exist on a spectrum, with most of us falling within the average range. However, when someone skews toward the more extreme end of this curve, it can make interpersonal relationships and attachments difficult.

What Is Narcissism?

If you have ever found yourself interacting with someone who consistently makes you feel “less than,” you may know a little about narcissistic traits. When these traits reach an extreme, they may indicate a diagnosable narcissistic personality disorder, of which there are two main subtypes.

The first, grandiose narcissism, is the more commonly talked-about subtype and is detailed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition. These individuals have a grandiose sense of self, exaggerating their accomplishments and having the need and desire to be in control. They tend to lack empathy for others and seek constant validation and admiration. They may become readily angry or withdrawn when they do not get what they want or when others do not immediately take on their values and perspectives.

The second subtype is referred to as covert or vulnerable narcissism and tends to involve a less obvious presentation. These individuals come across as self-deprecating, noting that they are not good enough, in the hopes that you will build them back up. They are hypersensitive to criticism, and you may feel like you are walking on eggshells around them.

It is important to remember that narcissism largely stems from a poor sense of self and feelings of low self-worth. These individuals must make themselves feel important to eliminate the idea that they are in any way inadequate.

The Narcissistic Injury

These traits usually stay dormant and nonproblematic until what's known as a "narcissistic injury" is triggered. A narcissistic injury occurs when individuals encounter criticism, loss, or perceived abandonment from others. During these times, these individuals may experience feelings of humiliation and rejection.

But rather than express these feelings of vulnerability, they lash out in anger. This can manifest in explosive arguments, gaslighting, physical violence, and emotional cut-offs, among other reactions. One dangerous example of this is in instances of domestic violence. The partner with high levels of narcissistic traits may perceive that their significant other is leaving them or cheating on them and may engage in physical violence to try to overpower them.

5 Ways to Cope With Narcissistic Relationships

  1. Learn the signs: People with narcissistic traits can be superficially charming. However, with time, you may start to notice that when you or others unintentionally criticize them, they may react in maladaptive ways. Know that this has nothing to do with you and everything to do with them and their feelings of low self-worth. It is best to walk away from these situations so you do not get drawn into an argument.
  2. Learn to deescalate: If you do find yourself in a situation where you have ignited a narcissistic injury, it is important to stay calm and create physical distance when possible. Use low, deeper tones, and avoid raising your voice or talking too fast. It is also important to be specific and gentle, but firmly directive about the behavior that you will accept. For example, “Please sit down,” “Please lower your voice and do not scream at me,” or “Please do not thrash your arms like that. Please keep them lowered.”
  3. Set clear boundaries: Individuals with these traits may believe they are entitled to treat you however they would like. It is important that you detail what is and is not OK when it comes to your personal, physical, emotional, sexual, and material boundaries. Be assertive, use “I” statements, and let your needs be known. If they do not respect these boundaries or fight back, it only reinforces the need for these boundaries in the first place.
  4. Know that poor treatment is not your fault: Someone with these traits will rarely admit their own faults or take accountability for their role in conflicts. They will never take responsibility for hurting you. Instead, they will project their own insecurities onto you. For example, if they feel they lack morals, they will accuse you of lacking morals. It is important to know yourself and your values and not to compromise for them and how they choose to see you.
  5. Leave: Although relationships are complex and rarely as easy as “just dump them,” physical, verbal, and sexual abuse often continue and escalate if the abuser does not get help. Reach out to supportive people around you and find help through your insurance or through mental health clinics. We can never change others, but we can choose with whom to surround ourselves.
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