They were kind, funny, even loving — when they wanted to be. They had big dreams and seemed to sweep you up in them. But things never, ever turned out the way they wanted them, and they would explode in confusing bouts of anger, blame, or self-loathing (which, of course, required you to soothe them).
Sound familiar? If it does, you have probably had a narcissist in your life. Welcome to the club. And, sadly, for highly sensitive people (HSPs) it seems to be a pretty large club. Considering that less than one percent of people are pathological narcissists, you wouldn’t think HSPs would be any more likely to run into them than anyone else. But what if sensitive people are particularly prone to a narcissist’s needy, controlling behavior?
Let’s explore what makes a narcissist a narcissist, why HSPs might be a natural target for them, and what you can do about it.
Narcissists Are a Highly Sensitive Person’s "Shadow Self"
People who live with Narcissistic Personality Disorder have an unconscious belief that they are superior to other people. With that comes a craving for attention, respect, and often wealth or fame—and an almost total lack of empathy for the needs of others. The result is an individual who will manipulate or use others in order to get what they want.
Being a highly sensitive person, on the other hand, is perfectly healthy, and has nothing to do with ego. Highly sensitive people have nervous systems that process all input very deeply, from sights and sounds to thoughts and emotions. They tend to be creative, thoughtful, and caring. They can also get overwhelmed easily, because all that processing leads to overstimulation.
And, these two types are almost perfect opposites, in one key way: empathy.
You see, even though high sensitivity is primarily about how you process information, the reality is that most HSPs are extremely empathetic. In fact, the brain regions associated with empathy are much more active in HSPs than in non-HSPs, and HSPs, in general, tend to be giving, altruistic nurturers.
That makes the narcissist, who has almost no empathy, essentially the HSP’s “shadow self.”
Why Do Highly Sensitive People "Attract" Narcissists?
On the surface, there's no reason an HSP would want to spend time with a low-empathy person — but then, narcissists don’t exactly walk around holding a sign that says, “I Want to Use You.”
In fact, they do the opposite: Many narcissists learn to act charming, friendly, and flattering in order to mask their tendencies. Many will even “love bomb” the people they want to get close to, building them up to feel good around the narcissist, like an addictive substance.
And anyone, HSP or not, can get hooked.
What makes HSPs different is that their own high level of empathy means they are drawn to helping and caring for others. And the narcissist has an endless need to be cared for: a need for attention, compliments, special favors, and — above all — constant reassurance. Isn’t there anyone who can treat them the way they "deserve"?
Yes, unfortunately; and all too often it’s an HSP, the person who keenly feels the pain of others and takes a true sense of satisfaction from helping. This can quickly lead to a one-sided relationship in which the narcissist gets all the benefits of an HSP’s patience, compassion, caring, and love — and often, countless hours of their time. The HSP, on the other hand, gets only more and more exhausted. They may face a barrage of freakouts, pity parties, verbal abuse, and anger.
And, no matter how much they do, they will find out it’s not enough.
7 Ways to Protect Yourself from Narcissists
1. Question volatile or troubling relationships.
A telltale feature of narcissists is that all of their relationships are troubled relationships. They will have a shaky time in friendships, romance, and any career or school situation in which they need to work cooperatively with others.
This means it’s a good idea to really examine any relationship in your life that seems volatile. You may not know if someone’s a narcissist, but you know if you have a fight with them every single week, or if you always feel stressed out after seeing them. Make it a habit to simply notice these relationships, label them for what they are, and ask yourself what you get out of them.
2. Ask your friends for perspective.
It can be hard to see through the charm of a narcissist who’s buttering you up, and surprisingly easy to make excuses for their outbursts or bad behavior. However, while you may have a hard time seeing it objectively, to your friends, it’s often plain as day.
Getting an outside opinion (and listening to it, even if it’s hard to hear) can be a good way to check your own instincts about a person.
3. Expect the worst.
One useful mental exercise if you suspect someone is a narcissist is to imagine the worst-case scenario: If this person is a narcissist, they don’t believe they’re doing anything wrong, and they’ll never change. So what if their current behavior continues forever? Would I be okay with that? Would the relationship be worth it?
Framing it this way can make it much, much easier to pull back from a relationship.
4. Pull away from narcissists as early as possible.
Generally speaking, the right time to disconnect from a toxic person is as early as possible. That’s especially true with a narcissist. At the start of a relationship, there’s little at stake, and it’s only a small part of your life. But narcissists demand all the attention you can give them. Within months or a year, they could be the main focus of your life — especially if they’re your partner.
It’s much easier to back away at the start, although it’s never too late.
5. Practice setting clear, firm boundaries.
Narcissists hate boundaries because the world is supposed to be about them, not anyone else. At the same time, firm boundaries allow you the space and emotional clarity to take care of your own needs.
The best way to set a boundary to say it clearly, directly, and as a fact, not a request. For example:
Not clear: “I’m really tired tonight. Is it okay if we do this at a different time?”
Clear: “I’m not going to come over after 8 p.m. anymore, even if you’re stressed out. If you need to talk, we can set up a time on the weekend.”
Just be ready, because narcissists believe that every “no” can become a “yes” if they push hard enough. Don’t treat your boundary as something you’re willing to argue.
6. Get some emotional distance.
Narcissists can be infuriating, and they will bait you to argue with them, feel sorry for them, or try to help them. All of this just pulls you in further — which can be an especially dangerous place for HSPs because they may feel emotions more strongly than others in the first place.
Simply learning about how narcissism works can help create distance, and make it easier to resist engaging. For example:
- Narcissists don’t actually realize what they’re doing, so there is no point in arguing with them; you will never win.
- They’re incapable of seeing their own flaws, so there is no way to help them or “fix” them.
- Narcissistic personality disorder is an illness, and it’s likely been with them since adolescence. They aren’t going to change unless they get professional help.
7. Practice a different kind of compassion.
Something I find oddly comforting is that a narcissist’s behavior is motivated by — wait for it — extremely fragile self-esteem. Yep, all that self-aggrandizing is because they don’t love themselves—and that makes them seem a lot less intimidating.
It’s also a way to feel compassion toward them without engaging. It must be tragically hard to go through life never loving oneself, and it means that nothing will ever truly bring them happiness. Understanding that can soften your heart, even as you pull away. But do pull away; It's better for you, and it may be the only kind of wake-up call that pushes the narcissist to get help.