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Goodbye to the Narcissist in Your Life

Ways to adjust expectations and set limits with narcissistic people.

If you are reading this post, you probably feel that it is time to end a relationship with a narcissistic person in your life. Managing relationships with the difficult people in our lives often reveals our weaknesses as well as our strengths. As I pointed out in a previous post, dealing with a narcissist can be particularly challenging because such people excel at manipulation. Their desperate need for admiration, approval, and acknowledgment drives them to recruit people like you into becoming little more than ego-fueling stations. When you attempt to break out of this role you will be met with anger and blame. Below I outline some strategies for managing relationships with narcissists. These may be helpful whether or not you completely sever ties; at the very least they will help in making sense of behavior that often seems petty and bewildering.

In my experience, especially when under stress, people are best able to keep in mind three overarching themes or pieces of information. Hence, these are my three guidelines for managing relationships with narcissists.

1. Develop Realistic Expectations

We often cling to the hope that a challenging person in our lives will spontaneously “change.” Yet any experienced psychotherapist will tell you that it is difficult for people to effect meaningful behavioral change, even when highly motivated and paying a therapist for the opportunity. The personality disordered, especially those with narcissist personality disorders, tend to see problems arising mainly from the actions or motivations of other people. Rather than looking at themselves, they want you to behave as you have always done—by accommodating them. They tend not to see their part in their difficulties. Hoping that a narcissist will suddenly come to regard you realistically as a distinct person deserving reciprocal consideration will only lead to disappointment.

Whether you decide that the relationship can continue or not, It is you who must behave differently. Do not expect the narcissist to respond with appreciation or wholesale change. In short, expect little but change the way you behave with the narcissist.

2. Reduce Contact

If allowed to, narcissists will dominate relationships and demand your time. They will expect you to be on call night and day in accord with a generally exaggerated sense of entitlement. Because of their need to reduce or neutralize a lurking sense of shameful deflation, emptiness, inadequacy or outright badness, narcissists bring great psychic energy to maintaining the unequal relational status quo with you. Being right, admired, or feeling superior to you is simply more important to the narcissist than it is to you.

As you begin to set limits on contact by no longer responding immediately to demands for attention, or limiting the amount of time you spend, the narcissist may ratchet up displays of hurt or anger in an attempt to induce guilt. This will be a maneuver that has always worked in the past. My advice to patients enmeshed in such guilty codependencies is to avoid succumbing to these feelings and do what is needed for self-care. Any guilt you feel can be seen as a reminder that you have an active, functioning conscience that is merely miscalibrated in the present instance.

You will need to be resolute and clear about the amount of time, attention, or assistance that you have available. It is important that you stop explaining yourself or making excuses. As you begin acting in a healthier way, taking time for yourself and maintaining boundaries that promote your mental well-being, you will feel stronger and more whole when interacting with the narcissist. You deserve to take control of your mental health, and that is not something you need to explain or apologize for. It is ultimately none of the narcissist's business.

3. Set Firm Limits

The ultimate fate of your relationship with a narcissist will depend on your ability to set and maintain firm limits, and the extent to which the narcissist can tolerate and honor them. You can begin by confronting the narcissist when making disparaging comments or putting you in an inferior role. The narcissistic mind relies on an ongoing sort of score-keeping, constantly comparing themselves to others, frequently entering states of rage and envy when scales tip against them. Angry and insecure, narcissists commonly engender a form of ongoing abuse that is so insidious and free-wheeling that it is difficult even to notice. A clinical example from my practice was a narcissistic parent who, at each contact with an adult child, needlessly brought up various embarrassing childhood episodes. With treatment, the adult child began to confront the parent every time such a mention was made, clearly insisting that she would no longer tolerate such comments. After several reminders the narcissistic parent stopped making the comments.

It is important to give up any expectation that the narcissist will sincerely apologize for the behavior; to acknowledge fault would be to invite a sense of shame that must be avoided at all costs. The adult child in the above instance was likely seen by the narcissistic parent as unreasonably thin-skinned, failing to appreciate the narcissist’s charming, loving reminiscence of the events, which the parent reasoned was not, after all, meant in any way to embarrass or diminish her. By projecting responsibility for the issue onto the adult child, the narcissist is able to avoid conscious ownership of hostile, envious feelings toward the grown daughter.

As limits are set, they will require consistent reinforcement. This is where the prognosis for continuing the relationship with the narcissist will be revealed. You may need to cut ties entirely if limits cannot be maintained, or if the narcissist becomes so angry and accusing that limits are impossible. It is particularly in states of anger that narcissists will misinterpret and distort reality to the point where you may routinely find yourself being accused of things for which you were not responsible, and were actually the result of the actions of the narcissist.

Finally, a few caveats: Posts like this one can provide context and suggestions, but they are no substitute for professional counseling or therapy. If the narcissist in your life is an abusive or violent spouse or intimate partner, your safety (and that of your family) is your first priority. In my experience, having an excess of narcissistic people in your life may be a signal that you have important issues that could benefit from professional help. For example, people who grew up with narcissistic parents may unconsciously seek partners or friends who perpetuate family themes of control, exploitation, and diminishment.