The Painful Catch-22 of Caring About a Narcissist

How to navigate the dilemmas inherent in relationships with narcissists.

Posted Dec 28, 2020 | Reviewed by Devon Frye

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Narcissists offer both an enticement and a warning to those who would get close to them.

The Enticement: Admire me and do what I want and you will be protected, elevated, and share in my specialness.

The Warning: Honor your own needs, values, or truth and I will ridicule, undermine, demean, and ultimately reject you.

These enticements and warnings may not be explicitly voiced. But because narcissists lack a solid sense of self, they are desperate to feel mirrored by those around them. Narcissists feel validated when others aspire to goals the narcissists like, agree with what they believe, and act in ways narcissists want.

On the other hand, if you hold values or behave in ways opposite to what narcissists want, narcissists will often rage, sulk, attack, or withdraw.

When you emotionally feed a narcissist, you may feel accepted, though that acceptance is generally conditional and temporary. Even when you feel liked or loved by a narcissist, that affection or love is not based on who you really are. It is based on what you do for the narcissist.

The Catch-22 of caring about a narcissist is, "Abandon Yourself, or Be Abandoned by Me.”

This dilemma can feel akin to the words above the entrance to Hell in Dante’s Divine Comedy: “Abandon All Hope, Ye Who Enter Here.”

If you care about someone with narcissism, it hurts to feel rejected or discarded, especially when the rejection comes as a result of honoring yourself.

It also hurts to know that another person wants you to give yourself up just to curry their favor. Yet being abandoned by a narcissist who is important to you can leave you feeling lonely.

Even so, while it hurts to be attacked or rejected by a narcissist, it also hurts to betray your own values. Self-abandonment can bring deep loneliness and regret.

Having to make such a calculation is a testament to the dysfunctional dynamic inherent in relationships with narcissists.

Dan Neuharth
Source: Dan Neuharth

Here are four steps you can take that can help you navigate the Catch-22s of relationships with narcissists:

1. Create a greater context for your dealings with a narcissist. If you must deal with destructive narcissists, you don't have to play their game or accept their rules. Rather than feeling you are battling for survival or just trying to get by, create a broader context for having a narcissist in your life.

For example, view dealing with a narcissist as an opportunity for personal growth or as training in how to hold on to yourself in difficult circumstances. Or see it as a learning opportunity to observe firsthand the kinds of behavior you want to avoid.

When you have something at stake that matters to you, it can give you a sense of purpose beyond just trying to survive around a narcissist.

2. Focus on process, not content. Narcissists distract and confuse others. When they are confronted or embarrassed, they will act out, blame, belittle, bully, and otherwise avoid responsibility.

Focus on what they do, not what they say. Their words are often designed to make you question yourself. Their arguments are generally distractions. If you refute one argument, they will come up with another, and another, and another. 

You don't have to take the bait. When narcissists start ramping up their array of defensive and offensive tactics, remind yourself: “They are most likely trying to evade responsibility.”

This gives you the opportunity to keep your eye on bigger issues, such as honoring individual responsibility or taking a stand for what is right.

3. Make friends with your feelings and desires. Narcissists are often uncomfortable with others’ emotions. Though narcissists demand lots of room to express and pursue their own feelings, they tend to shame and block others from expressing feelings.

Let yourself have all your feelings and desires. Check in with yourself, identify emotions, and tell yourself, “I don't need to justify my feelings. All my feelings belong.”

Emotions are the language of non-linear, non-cognitive aspects of ourselves. Their messages just want to be heard. You don't have to necessarily act on them.

4. Concentrate on intrinsic, not extrinsic, rewards. Narcissists fear looking inward, so they focus on external rewards such as wealth, status, attention, power, and approval. While these have their place, our most authentic motivations tend to come from within. Intrinsic rewards and motivations include qualities such as self-awareness, self-acceptance, love, authenticity, contributing to the greater good, spirituality, connection, and intimacy.

Narcissists may judge you only on how well you pursue and accumulate extrinsic rewards. Don't do the same to yourself. When you have a dilemma or feel stuck around a narcissist, ask yourself what your deepest internal motivations and values are, and proceed from there.

Copyright © 2020 by Dan Neuharth, PhD, MFT

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