One Simple Way to Protect Yourself from Narcissists

How to preserve your self-esteem when leaving isn't an option

Posted Aug 19, 2015

No matter how gently we approach them—no matter how hard we work to set aside our own anger or silence—some narcissists won’t change. In that case, we might have to leave the relationship. That’s a perfectly reasonable choice and one we’ll get to in a moment. But in some cases, it’s not an option.

Cutting off all contact with your narcissistic parent may be difficult. Nor is it feasible to break all ties with a narcissistic ex-spouse if you have children together. You can’t ignore your father or the father of your child—not without paying a price. The cost includes overwhelming stress, painful loss, even escalating legal battles. But there’s also no safety in continuing to open your heart to someone who’s careless with it. So what then?

This is the realm of management, not change. Self-protection should become your primary goal. Limit contact if you can, just like you would with any toxic relationship. But you might also benefit from a few simple strategies and rules. I discuss some of these strategies in more detail in Chapter 9 of Rethinking Narcissism. But for now, keep in mind that the goal is to manage the narcissism, not foster closeness. In the meantime, you might try using a connection contract.

In a connection contract, you state clearly and simply what has to happen if the person wants you present. It’s a way of setting limits by providing rules and expectations.

This is the way a son could explain a connection contract to his mother:

I’m not comfortable with yelling and criticism. If I hear either, I’ll leave. I’d like to see you, but it’s up to you whether or not I’m able to stay in the house as planned.

A mother, explaining a contract to her ex-husband and coparent, might say this:

We need to stay focused on custody planning for the holidays. I’m happy to have that conversation tomorrow, but if I hear accusations, blame, or other attacks, I’ll take that to mean you’re not able to have the conversation and we’ll have to come back to it later.

A woman explaining a contract to her housemate:

We need to talk about the cleaning situation and how to set up a schedule. If the talk becomes another laundry list of my problems, that will show me you’re not ready to make the schedule yet and we’ll have to set it aside and take it up again at another time.

The goal of a connection contract is to explain which behaviors will end the conversation. The emphasis is on what keeps you present, not what makes you happy. If you’ve reached this stage, your presence is as much as you should promise.

Based on an excerpt from Rethinking Narcissism: The Bad--And Suprising Good--About Feeling Special. 

Like what you learned? Order Dr. Malkin’s book, Rethinking Narcissismtoday. 

"[A] fascinating book" --The Independent

HarperCollins/Shelton Interactive
Source: HarperCollins/Shelton Interactive

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