Anyone with a narcissist in their life will at some point reckon with the need to set limits on, detach or take a break from, or completely cut ties with that person. In my experience, repetitive patterns of conflict with or manipulative behavior by the narcissist frequently culminate in a crisis or “last straw” episode requiring a firm, often agonizing re-examination of the value of the relationship. Complicating the situation, the narcissist will accept no responsibility for the problem. You, and only you, will be to blame.
In our online culture, we are daily inundated with articles and self-help posts about the “toxic” people in our lives, including the ways they annoy us or undermine our self-esteem. Foremost among the toxic, we are told, are narcissists, people who in extreme form (or under stress) tend to lack empathy, be self-absorbed, and exhibit grandiose fantasies about their importance and the level of appreciation to which they are entitled. They can be manipulative and cruel.
In my practice as a clinical psychologist, and among friends, colleagues, and family, I encounter narcissists and the people who orbit around them. And orbit they do—the narcissist tends to take center stage, not only in their mental world, but also in relationships. Because of my interest in the shame emotion and the ways that we manage, experience, and respond to a deflating sense of shame, I have developed a particular lens when viewing narcissism. If we understand the narcissistic personality as a structure adapted to ward off entrance into dreaded shameful states of mind, we are able to view narcissism as other than a diagnostic laundry list of unpleasant human traits (Narcissism: The Shame-Negating Personality, Zaslav, 2017).
Of course, in clinical psychology the focus is necessarily on psychopathology, with diagnostic categories organized around dysfunctional clinical syndromes or vulnerability to distress. But there is more to a person, even one who comfortably fits relevant narcissistic diagnostic criteria, than a description of negative traits. The reality is that narcissists can enrich our lives. They can be charming, intelligent, charismatic, loyal friends, appealing romantic partners, and valuable resources in our lives. For those of us who have difficulty appropriately valuing ourselves or our efforts, narcissists model and remind us of the potential for positive self-regard. We can be simultaneously envious and put off by the friend who thinks only of themself, readily finding ease as the center of attention. Cringing, we might also think, “Why can’t I be more like that?”
Based on years of clinical experience, I have developed some guidelines to help patients or colleagues negotiate relationships with these self-preoccupied people who generally lack the empathy or reciprocal interpersonal skills we expect from others. To help you assess the value of the relationship, the following are some questions to ask yourself about the impact the narcissist is having in your life.
Do you have contact with the narcissist primarily out of a sense of guilt or obligation?
Because narcissists feed off self-enhancing attention or appreciation from others, they have learned to cultivate a cohort of people upon whom they rely for a sense of self-enhancement. If you have become a source of these ego supplies for such a person, you will need to be prepared to be reproached with anger or criticism when you attempt to break out of this role.
Often, after listening to patients complain about the ways that a narcissist exploits and controls them, I will ask why they continue to have contact. Generally, the answer is something like, “But I feel guilty every time I see their number pop up on my phone, and I just want to get the interaction over with. They make me feel that I owe them so much, and it is hard to say no.”
Do interactions with the narcissist sap the life out of you?
It can be exhausting to cope with the overt neediness of another person who depends on you to pump them up. The narcissist often turns to you when feeling depleted and empty. They tend to view you as an endless supply of narcissistic resources, rather than a human being with your own needs. Because their fragile sense of self depends on a view of you as inferior to them in some important way, you will be often be treated accordingly. Over time, this treatment will take its toll on you.
Does the narcissist seem envious rather than happy when you succeed?
A crucial test of the relationship comes when you succeed in love, work, or wealth. If the narcissist responds primarily with envy, either covertly or overtly expressed, it can be a sign that the relationship has run its course. Envy is a core trait in the shame-vulnerable narcissist. In envy, as opposed to jealousy, the focus is on an external object both idealized and degraded. Envy motivates a need to take your accomplishment or achievement down a peg. In the narcissistic mind, your success triggers a sense of shameful inadequacy. The narcissist thinks, “Why do they get what I deserve?” As a result, the narcissist cannot fully give you your due. Over time, this can rob you of a sense of deserved accomplishment.
Does the narcissist tend to distort the nature of what has transpired between you?
Conflict is baked into the nature of a relationship with a narcissist. No one can consistently provide the level of support and admiration a narcissist requires. The result will be that the narcissist may engage in episodes of bitter complaint about your behavior, distorting what actually happened between you. You will think, “But I never said that,” “Weren’t you the one who did that?” or “That didn’t happen at all.” Because the projection of blame outward is a major defense for the narcissist, you will be blamed for problems of the narcissist’s own creation. Pointing this out may only fuel angry attacks against you.
Does the narcissist make inappropriate demands on you?
An inflated sense of entitlement is one of the diagnostic criteria for narcissistic personality disorder. As a result, narcissists feel they deserve special treatment in life and may expect you to be at their beck and call. If you don’t respond favorably, you will be met with anger and criticism for being “selfish.”
If, after reviewing the above, you feel that you need to set limits or cut ties altogether with “your” narcissist, my follow-up post will be titled: “How to Cut Ties With the Narcissist In Your Life.”
Zaslav, M., 2017. Narcissism: The Shame Negating Personality, The Neuropsychotherapist, February 4, 2017.