Publicly, most narcissists maintain a favorable image by advertising their good deeds. Privately, it is equally as misleading. Often when narcissists set their eyes on a “prize,” they stop at nothing to convince the person that they are selfless and loyal.
However, when the narcissist steps in and insists on saving the day, they usually have an ulterior motive. Although their gesture may seem altruistic, narcissists often use the opportunity as collateral.
For example, say Sara works for a boss who is unfair and frequently takes advantage of his or her employees. Lisa may leap to Sara’s side, join her in dislike for the boss, and offer Sarah an esteemed position at her place of employment. Incredibly grateful, Sara feels as if Lisa “saved” her.
Yet, months later, Lisa begins to criticize Sara’s work. She routinely makes backhanded comments about Sara at meetings, and subtly sabotages Sara’s professional reputation. When Sara confronts Lisa, she denies it, and angrily turns on Sara, demanding Sara be grateful for her position. After the interaction, Lisa distorts the discussion and paints Sara as the ‘bad guy” to fellow co-workers.
In addition, immediately after Lisa assisted Sara with the new position, Sara was grateful and included Lisa in social gatherings with her friends. As the months progressed, Sara felt her friends pull away. When she asked a friend about it, the friend confessed that Lisa told unflattering stories about Sara when Sara was not present. Unfortunately, because Lisa had spent a great deal of time with the friend group, Sara felt awkward asking her friends to sever their bond with Lisa.
At first, a narcissist seems confident and kind. The realization that he or she is unscrupulous and controlling often arrives too late. The question many clients ask is “Why?’ Why does a person feel the need to control and destroy another person? The answer may be more evident than people realize.
Initially, a truly kind and open-hearted person is appealing to a narcissist. Yet, as the person and the narcissist get closer, instinctively the narcissist senses that he or she is not as good-natured as the person. Instantly, this threatens the narcissist. In order to combat feelings of insecurity, robust and unconscious defense mechanisms automatically kick in. Extreme and unconscious deflection and projection allow the narcissist to relieve himself or herself of insecurities by seeing “bad” in the other person. This allows the narcissist to feel entitled to control and dominate the “problem.”
Alternatively, an emotionally healthy person is aware of insecurities and has no need to bully in order to feel better about who he or she is. It is a narcissist who is unrealistic about his or her insecurities and unconsciously projects them onto another. In part, an emotionally healthy individual is a prime target for a narcissist because he or she is less rigidly defended. A person who has a flexible and malleable defensive structure has access to deep and sometimes uncomfortable emotions, such as: insight, self-awareness, remorse, accountability, empathy, and conscientiousness. Unfortunately, a narcissist often ruthlessly exploits these deeper capacities and uses them to his or her advantage.
Yet, a kind hearted person should never change who he or she is. A strong conscious, remorse, empathy, and insight are sophisticated emotional capacities which allow a person to be accountable and evolve. These capacities also help an individual maintain closeness with others.
There are four things a person can do to help himself or herself when ensnared with a narcissist. First, do not succumb to the guilt a narcissist wields. Second, diplomatically communicate to the narcissist that the treatment is unfair and needs to stop. Warning, this may not go well because a narcissist typically deflects responsibility and gaslights. If this occurs, a person may politely end the interaction by stating, “This conversation seems unproductive. Let’s revisit it later,” and excuse himself or herself from the conversation.
Third, a person may need to get some space from the narcissist. In Sara’s case, she may ask for a temporary transfer, establish plans with an alternate friend group, and spend some time in nature. The three “Rs” help; regroup, reflect, and recover. The dynamic is real, painful, and takes a toll on a person’s mental health, so recovering is critical. Fourth, resurrect healthy boundaries in relation to the narcissist. These barriers may protect a person from incurring further abuse.
Using the example, Sara decides to refrain from accepting any favors from Lisa in the future. Professionally, she calmly alerts a trusted superior about Lisa’s unprofessional tendencies and identifies herself as Lisa’s target. She asks for support. Socially, Sara spends one on one time with close friends but avoids the larger activities that Lisa attends. After time passes, Sara may feel ready to participate in the social gatherings that Lisa attends, but prepares to ignore Lisa’s attempts at gaslighting.
The situation is additionally complicated when a person discovers a romantic partner embodies narcissistic tendencies. Yet, applying the four strategies may help. If the partner responds in a healthy manner and respects the person’s new boundaries, the partner may be able to evolve and salvage the union. Assessing the narcissistic partner’s motivation to address his or her profound defensiveness is an equally critical factor. A highly motivated partner may seek the professional help necessary to soften narcissistic defense mechanisms.
No human being is required to endure emotional abuse. Remember the four tips; do not surrender to guilt inflictors, calmly take a stand, get emotional space, and resurrect strong boundaries. Having a golden heart is a gift. Protect it.