As a therapist who specializes in narcissism and narcissistic relationships, I’ve been asked hundreds of questions about how to cope with narcissists—from adults raised in narcissistic families; spouses and partners of narcissists; parents of narcissistic adult children; family members or friends of narcissistic people; and those who have to deal with narcissists at work.
Because dealing with narcissists can be confusing and frustrating, these questions often come with angst and urgency. Being raised by or partnered with a narcissist can leave a painful legacy that can include:
- Lack of confidence
- Excessive perfectionism
- Self-doubt and self-blame
- Difficulty feeling spontaneous
- Difficulty trusting or getting close to others
- Difficulty asserting oneself
- Difficulty choosing healthy relationships
- A harsh inner critic
- Emotional turmoil or numbness
- Drained vitality and energy
Those of us who have been close to narcissists want to understand why narcissists behave as they do. We want to protect and empower ourselves. More than anything, we want to move beyond any destructive aspects of the connection. Here are the six most-asked questions I have heard over the years, with answers I hope will be useful and aid healing.
1. How do you spot narcissists?
One test is how you feel in their presence. If you feel on equal footing, listened to, and valued for who you are, you are probably not in the presence of a narcissist.
On the other hand, if you feel belittled, not seen, or used as part of a command performance, you may be in the presence of one of the perhaps as many as 150 million people worldwide who have Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) or a narcissistic style.
Narcissists lack empathy. They tend to see other people as objects for their gratification. They need to win, feel superior and, more than anything, be the center of attention. They do this because they lack something vital to psychological health: a fully formed self.
If you know or care about a narcissistic person, you may feel as though you are walking on eggshells in their presence. You may feel dismay at repeatedly being put down for no apparent reason. You may feel that you are on an endless treadmill: trying to gain approval and avoid disapproval. You may feel righteous indignation. You may ask yourself: How can someone who is supposed to care about me show so little empathy?
Despite their air of superiority or aura of invincibility, deep down most narcissists feel flawed, unworthy, illegitimate and empty. Because these inadequacies terrify them, they seek to disguise, deny or fill the void. They expect others to admire and cater to them. If their expectations aren't met they can become enraged.
2. Do narcissists ever change?
Narcissistic Personality Disorder is a distortion of healthy norms for thinking, feeling, and relating. A “disordered” personality is still a personality. Though there is not universal agreement, many researchers believe that our personalities don’t change substantially after our teen years. What this means is that a narcissistic person’s basic style and tendencies are likely set for life. Some narcissists can, if sufficiently motivated, change some of their behaviors some of the time. Yet even if they alter some behaviors, the way narcissists tend to treat and view others is unlikely to change as they age.
3. Can you beat narcissists at their own game?
Narcissists focus on status, image, winning, and dominating. These pursuits often feel life-or-death to them as they defend their egos. Narcissists may be terrified of feeling flawed, powerless, ordinary or a failure. As a result, they become very good at their “game” of appearing perfect, powerful, special and successful. Is that a game you want to play?
Better to play your game. One area in which narcissistic people cannot compete is in the higher values of reciprocity, equality, empathy, compassion, or fairness. Whatever your deepest values, stand for them. As Michelle Obama has said, “When they go low, we go high.”
4. What are the worst things you can do in dealing with narcissists?
It may not work out well if you depend on them, try to change them, or expect reciprocity or enduring loyalty. With many narcissists, anything you get from them often comes with strings attached. (For more, see 10 Things Not To Do with Narcissists.)
5. How can you protect yourself against destructive narcissists?
There are many styles of narcissism. Some are power-hungry and domineering while others are charming, though they may possess an iron fist in a velvet glove. Some are obviously manipulative while others operate in stealth, using gaslighting and other subtle techniques to make you doubt yourself. Some portray themselves as victims or martyrs while others pose as larger-than-life and all-powerful.
No matter the type, you nearly always have options in your dealings with them, though in many cases, there may be no perfect choices. Ask yourself, “At what cost?” What is the cost of going along with or standing up to a narcissist? Narcissists can be vindictive. Yet losing your sense of self is a high price to pay. You have to decide what you will and will not tolerate.
6. How do you recover from a relationship with a narcissist?
First, recognize that no matter how much you may feel betrayed, used, or manipulated, narcissists (like all of us) are just trying to get their needs met. Their needs may be more primal and they may use hurtful tactics to meet their needs but, in a sense, it isn’t personal. The closer you are to a narcissist, the more you may tend to see them at their worst, but few people can be close to narcissists without eventually being burned.
Because narcissists cannot provide for themselves a sense of worth and self-esteem, they must seek it from others. Their dysfunction sets them up to use others. If you get in their way, they will likely use you.
Second, do what narcissists did not and could not do for you: Honor yourself. Honor your feelings. Your grief, despair, anger, sense of injustice, and anything else you feel are okay. Feelings are not wrong, they are simply information from your psyche. Whatever you did to cope with or survive your dealings with a narcissist, honor that. If you had it to do over again, you might have done some things differently. But at the time you were most likely just trying to get your needs met, defend yourself, and survive. We have to honor what we do to emotionally survive.
Third, trust yourself to know the difference between healthy and unhealthy behavior and relationships. Ask yourself, “If I knew I was absolutely trustworthy, what would I do right now?” Choose from there.
Lastly, take care of yourself. Self-care is not narcissistic. It is essential to healthy living.
Copyright © 2019 Dan Neuharth Ph.D. MFT
A version of this blog appeared on PsychCentral.com.
Note on the estimated prevalence of Narcissistic Personality Disorder: The DSM-V estimates the prevalence of NPD in the general population at between 0.5 and 1 percent. Other studies have estimated a higher prevalence, most notably a 2008 study that conducted face-to-face structured interviews with 34,653 adults as part of the Wave 2 National Epidemiologic Survey on Alcohol and Related Conditions found that 6.2 percent of the study’s participants had a lifetime incidence of NPD.
These estimates are only for NPD and do not assess for the prevalence of a larger group of adults with a narcissistic style, i.e., some but not all elements of NPD. In this blog I use the word “narcissist” to include people with either NPD or a narcissistic style.
Given that, based on the research, I estimate an overall prevalence of between 1 and 3 percent of the U.S. general adult population of having NPD or a narcissistic personality style. With the adult U.S. population at 253,882,000 as of July 1, 2018, this would mean between 2.5 million and 7.5 million adults. Similarly, with the world population of 5.01 billion adults as of July 1, 2017, a corresponding estimate would be between 50 million and 150 million adults worldwide having NPD or a narcissistic style.
Of course, there are limitations to these projections. No measure of narcissism has been tested on the entire populations of the US or the world. Narcissism may vary significantly from country to country. Definitions of narcissism and NPD have changed over time. There is some evidence that narcissism may be increasing among younger people (Twenge and Campbell, 2009) though this has yet to be shown definitively.
American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.)
Stinson, F., Dawson, D., Goldstein, R., Chou, P., Huang, B., Smith, S. . . . & Grant, B. (2008.) Prevalence, Correlates, Disability, and Comorbidity of DSM-IV Narcissistic Personality Disorder: Results from the Wave 2 National Epidemiologic Survey on Alcohol and Related Conditions. J Clin Psychiatry. 2008 Jul; 69(7): 1033–1045.
Twenge, J. M., & Campbell, W. K. (2009). The narcissism epidemic: Living in the age of entitlement (1st Free Press hardcover ed.). New York: Free Press
United Nations Dept. of Economic and Social Affairs. Retrieved from https://www.un.org/development/desa/publications/world-population-prospects-the-2017-revision.html/
United States Census Bureau, July 1, 2018. Retrieved from https://www.census.gov/quickfacts/fact/table/US/PST045217/