The Catch-22 of Dealing With a Narcissist
Going head-to-head with narcissists won’t work. So, just go along with them?
Posted Nov 01, 2017
Most pathological narcissism is born of serious deficits in a person’s self-image. If left unfixed, this pervasive sense of internal deficiency can easily lead to chronic depression. Yet if such a psychologically damaged individual develops an overcompensating, and all-encompassing, “better-than-thou” defense system, any emerging mood disorder can be successfully thwarted. Instead, it will be replaced — or blanketed over — by a personality disorder that’s experienced as much less distressing. But sadly, such a disturbance tends to be extremely toxic to those unfortunate enough to have to cope with such a self-obsessed individual.
The whole thing could hardly be more ironic. In instances where a person, however unconsciously, accomplishes this narcissistic takeover — or rather makeover — all of their most negative self-beliefs are miraculously transformed:
- Gnawing self-doubts are replaced by illusions of grandiosity.
- Feelings of non-deservingness are ousted by a powerful sense of entitlement.
- Qualities and behaviors identified as unattractive or unacceptable are fervently projected onto others. ("I'm not controlling; you're the one who's controlling!)
- Fears of failure and rejection are supplanted by fantasies of boundless success, whether that relates to personal riches, controlling or dominating others, or (with glorious status and renown) being the object of others’ envy or even worship.
- Feelings of inadequacy, shame, and humiliation are usurped by a prevailing attitude and demeanor of arrogance, haughtiness, self-righteousness, and boastful superiority.
- And so on...
In brief, the far-ranging defense system of those blessed or cursed with a marked Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) can be nothing short of massive and virtually impenetrable.
And this impenetrability is well worth noting. For it explains the immense frustration people experience when they have to interact with such an extreme narcissist — versus one who has some narcissistic traits, yet isn’t totally lacking in self-insight and the capacity for change. With the more destructive variety, however, the mere suggestion that something may be wrong with them can feel so threatening that they’ll be compelled to vehemently strike out, as though they’ve just been walloped with a searing poker.
And that’s almost inevitable when a narcissist has been so “bedeviled” by their Herculean defenses that their entire personality is reducible to them. As in, they’ve become their defenses. Which is why, once you get to know them, their reactions can feel so predictable. It’s regrettable, but like most sociopaths, many narcissists cannot be reached. Quite simply, they’re untreatable, their elaborate defenses preventing any external feedback or force from destabilizing their whole offensive manner of being.
And, strangely, when stressful interpersonal situations intensify their defenses (and, given their hyper-reactivity, it doesn’t take much provocation for this to happen), they just become more verbally (and sometimes physically) violent. They don’t deteriorate into some form of psychosis, despite their mastery in, to use the vernacular, driving other people crazy.
So here’s the dilemma, or catch-22, in trying to deal with narcissists successfully when it’s just not practical to avoid them completely. (Admittedly, freeing yourself from their manipulative grip is difficult when they’re your spouse, parent, child, boss, or business partner.)
If you directly confront a malignant narcissist, you’ll never succeed in puncturing their ironclad defenses. Plus, they’re notorious for counter-punching really, really hard. Whenever they feel attacked, they can be set aflame. Even a simple suggestion that they try doing something differently can make them, bare their teeth at you, cobra-like. It doesn’t take long for most people dealing with narcissists to realize they don’t take criticism well, if at all. And how could they if — just below their proud, dominant exterior — they’re frightened little children, trembling anxiously with vulnerability? That, after all, is what all their defenses are precisely designed to protect.
So, when approaching disagreements with a narcissist routinely results in feeling punished, you soon learn that to achieve any peace in the relationship, you’ll be required to keep your frustrations to yourself. And the manner in which most people accomplish this superficial harmony is through accommodating or pacifying them.
That is, whenever feasible, you’ll acquiesce to their need to control and maybe even berate you. For it’s just easier than to attack back or try to reason with them. Unfortunately, though, this defensive tactic only feeds their narcissism. It can easily make them even harder to deal with, since, however inadvertently, you may be prompting them to further dominate you by no longer offering any resistance. And extreme narcissists can’t resist taking advantage of all opportunities to further strengthen or inflate their essentially fragile ego. Ironically, any placating role you adopt can actually end up further supersizing that ego.
So here again is the catch-22: It’s “damned if you do; damned if you don’t.” Assertively defending yourself or standing up to them in the face of their verbal aggression is a losing battle. But so is allowing them to walk all over you. For here, failing to honor your very personhood, you risk losing yourself. And that’s why therapists agree that getting out of such a relationship is your best choice. But if, for any number of reasons, that’s simply not viable, what's the best alternative?
If you can’t outright escape the narcissist, how do you evade the catch-22 you’re left with?
If the narcissist has dug their claws into you deep enough, you may need a few sessions with a mental health professional to muster the courage and determination to respond to them in a way that renders you less susceptible to their abuse. And emotionally extricating yourself from them mostly involves developing a keener understanding of how this relationship has negatively influenced you. Over time, have you ...:
- Unwittingly given their words more authority than your own?
- Not been able to help feeling intimidated by them?
- Allowed them to convince you that you couldn’t enforce any boundaries with them — couldn’t protect your “buffer zone”?
- Lost so much self-esteem that you’ve come to believe you may actually deserve the awful treatment you’ve received from them?
Can you now grasp that the narcissist’s harmful ways of treating you are all driven by their deep-seated insecurities, even self-loathing? That even when they’re appallingly offensive, it’s only one of their more desperate defenses? If you can discern the weaknesses that till now they’d effectively camouflaged from you (as well as themselves!), you should be able to start the process of emotionally detaching from them.
And that’s pivotal. Even as you may be planning your eventual escape, you can begin to shield yourself from their relational insensitivities or sadism. By no longer reacting to them, but letting their words pass over you like a harmless cloud, you’ll begin to protect yourself from their toxicity.
Moreover, if you want to keep things as peaceful as possible and stay clear of the “can’t win” battles that are their forte, you can simply “mmm-hmm” them and keep them flattered enough so they’ll be less inclined to get on your case. For narcissists are highly susceptible to flattery; they really can’t get enough of it. That gives you a strategic advantage over them.
Obviously, regularly expressing your adulation or admiration won’t feel particularly genuine. Nonetheless, in this relationship, it can be a highly useful tactic to safeguard your emotional and mental welfare. (And if you have any reservations about doing so, just recall all the manipulative, exploitative ways they’ve treated you.)
So, unless you feel your integrity is just too much compromised, compliment them and make them look good — even giving them more credit for something than they deserve. Given their rageful and vindictive bent, it makes little sense to be candid with them or try to put them in their place, regardless of how powerful that impulse may be. Much better to preempt their angrily acting out by repeatedly offering them the recognition they may have been so starved of while growing up. (Which is the one thought that might actually enable you to feel more empathy for them.)
Finally, it’s all about discovering how to protect yourself from not taking anything they say or do personally. In addition, you’ll need to grow your own adult authority to become the sole judge of yourself. And to do so with infinitely more compassion, understanding, and acceptance than the pathological narcissist ever could.
That’s how you reclaim your emotional equilibrium and self-esteem. So even if you need to continue your relationship with such a damaged, and damaging, individual, there’s no reason you have to sacrifice your honor and self-respect.
Still, you’ll need to spend a fair amount of time reminding yourself that how they treat you says far more about them than it does you. And to internally stand firm in the face of their ongoing abuse, endeavor to get as much support from others as you can.
© 2017 Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved.
At the risk of seeming terribly narcissistic myself, this reference section is composed entirely of other posts I've written for Psychology Today on narcissism. My thinking was that since there are literally 1000s of Web articles on the subject, readers who can closely relate to my descriptions here might want to have an easy way of accessing other, complementary pieces I've written on narcissism—in my own quest to better understand this most challenging, and sometimes "chilling," personality disorder.