Okay, this is what he won’t do. But can you tell me what I should be doing?
That was one plaintive response I got to my last blog post “9 Things a Narcissist Will Never Do.” In case you missed it (and feel free to switch up genders) they are: Own his feelings, stop playing games, care about emotional consequences, stop one- upmanship, tell the truth, apologize, make peace, let you go, and change. But it’s a fair question: What should you do if you recognize the close person in your life—it could be a lover, a spouse, or another intimate—is high in narcissistic traits? Well, the short answer may be “Run!” but that’s not always emotionally easy or, if you’re married, even feasible; if you have a child or children with the person, it is incredibly complicated. So, the reality is that you need a game plan, not a pair of running shoes. (This piece is aimed at peer relationships; while some of the tips may apply to having a parent high in narcissistic traits, it’s not meant to be one-size-fits-all.)
Why dealing is so hard (and emotionally confusing)
Because narcissists in popular culture are portrayed as bad guys and gals, many people expect a straightforward scenario—like being locked up in a dungeon by someone who acts like a thug or being derided or humiliated publicly front of other people. Nope, that’s not how the narcissist plays it. Because he’s a master manipulator (and focuses on knowing where your buttons are and how to push them), the dynamics are much more subtle. Because he relishes controlling you, he may reel you in when he needs to with a flurry of gestures which appear on the surface to be caring or thoughtful, for example. (Dr. Craig Malkin calls this stealth control.) Because he doesn’t own his feelings, he may convince you that A) you are one who’s angry (this is what Dr. Malkin calls emotional hot potato) or B) he’s angry because you made him angry.
Emotional and psychological confusion—because he’s committed to keeping you off-balance and in the relationship—is often a given.
You may not recognize what the patterns add up to
Whether you credit Oprah Winfrey for giving the culture the AHA moment or the human need for the power of the epiphany doesn’t matter but the truth is that the recognition of what’s really going on—that you’re dealing with someone high in narcissist traits—is usually not immediate. Securely attached people are generally pretty good at smoking out narcissists at the very beginning and are unlikely to find themselves in serious or long-term relationships with them. Nope, the privilege falls to the 40-50% of us who are insecurely attached.
The chances are good that, instead of an epiphany, it was more like a slow trickle of information—a kind of drip, drip, drip—that made you start to connect the dots as you began to assess your own unhappiness. Your awareness might have been sparked by something you read, a comment by someone or perhaps your therapist, but it starts as a small but persistent stream of thoughts and observations. Even so, caught up in the dynamic, you may be inclined to second-guess yourself, especially if you’re still actively being played, still in love, or emotionally invested in the relationship.
9 Things You Need to Do
Unless you’re ready, willing, and able to just head for the door, leaving the relationship and then recovering from it are often complicated by the game-playing going on. Recognizing how you’re been played—the slow dawning of realization as the dots start connecting—can also impede your ability to cope effectively and put you in a loop of rumination. Alas, the red flags may only be obvious in hindsight which can make you feel stupid and not a little ashamed.
- Stop doubting your feelings and judgments
It’s true enough that humans generally are inclined to stay put unless they are genuinely miserable—we think about what we have invested in a relationship (the sunk cost fallacy) and worry more about what the future holds than the cost of staying put—but it becomes more complicated when the narcissist actively works at increasing your self-doubt. Pay attention to how you are being manipulated, asking yourself whether gaslighting or blame-shifting is going on.
- Stop making excuses or being hopeful
If you really want to leave but somehow can’t, you need to pay attention to what’s keeping you stuck. As the work of B. F. Skinner famously showed, intermittent reinforcement—getting what we want or need some of the time—motivates us more than actually getting what we want all of the time, and that’s likely to be the case when someone high in narcissistic traits is in charge. He needs you, if not in the ways you hope for.
- Don’t blame yourself
Thanks to 20/20 hindsight, the patterns end up relatively easy to spot; once you understand what motivates the narcissist, it all becomes depressingly crystalline and blaming yourself for your stupidity is astonishingly easy. Try not to; there’s nothing to be gained. These people are very good at what they do and don’t want to be discovered.
- Don’t expect “answers” or “closure”
Alas, it usually turns out that when you look back at the emotional history of the relationship, nothing it is what it seemed. Usually, when a break-up or divorce happens, what Daniel Gilbert has identified as the psychological immune system takes over after a relationship rupture. At first, it’s the loss of the good things that we remember after a breakup but then as the psychological immune system kicks in, we recall everything from the annoying to the truly dreadful—the way he always interrupted you mid-sentence, how he was always too busy to run errands, how he would lose his temper in public —and that helps us recover. Then, over time, we can return to recalling the good times with a certain amount of fondness. That doesn’t happen when you’ve been involved with a narcissist. All you’re left with are the lies, the manipulations, the trashing of your reputation, and more.
- Do not engage
Even though a part of you might want to show off how strong you are or play tit-for-tat, it’s vital to your own well-being that you don’t, especially if you’re in legal proceedings. Remember that the narcissist thrives on power and will seize any opening or opportunity afforded him. Don’t answer the goading text. Don’t react to the lies he’s spreading. He wants you in his orbit but your job is to stay out of it.
- Stay cool and focused (especially in a divorce)
Don’t forget that the narcissist is on the run from his own inner shame, according to Dr. Joseph Burgo; he needs to win and look like a winner so he can think well of himself. In his chapter on the Vindictive Narcissist, Burgo notes that avoiding conflict is the best avenue but “because we usually don’t recognize we’re dealing with a Vindictive Narcissist until it’s too late,” he advises that “the best approach is a legalistic one.” Keep notes and records. If you must communicate, do it in writing. And heed #5: Don’t engage.
- Get the right help if you’re getting a divorce
Because the narcissist is skilled at self-presentation and may seem believable and commanding, it’s really important that your attorney understand what you’re up against before you find yourself drowning in a sea of motions, allegations, and other dodges aimed at making you give up and throw in the towel. The narcissist won’t negotiate—he has to win—so know that going in and make sure your attorney understands it too. Getting the support of a therapist is also a good idea.
- Recognize why the recovery is difficult
Because the narcissist has impaired empathy and is oblivious to emotional consequences, there’s no hope of salvaging any part of the relationship. It’s like seeing the devastation wrought by a hurricane or tornado. This is a terrific emotional blow, especially to a long-term relationship; add in vindictive behaviors and it makes for a soul-searing experience. Feeling stupid—excoriating yourself for not seeing the patterns sooner—makes it even harder. Give yourself time, and seek help if you need to, especially if you have children who have been part of the experience.
- Look forward
Yes. There’s not much to be learned looking back other than to remind yourself of those nine things a narcissist never does and stay aware, very aware.
READ MY PREVIOUS POST:https://blogs.psychcentral.com/knotted/2017/05/9-things-a-narcissist-will-never-do/
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Malkin, Craig. Rethinking Narcissism: The Secret to Recognizing and Coping with Narcissists. New York: Harper Perennial, 2016.
Burgo, Joseph. The Narcissist You Know: Defending Yourself Against Extreme Narcissists in an All-About-Me Age. New York: Touchstone, 2016.
Campbell, W. Keith, Craig A. Fogler, and Eli J. Finkel. “Does Self-Love Lead to Love for Others? A Story of Narcissistic Game Playing, “Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (2002), vol. 83, no. 2, 340-354.
Gilbert, Daniel. Stumbling on Happiness. New York: Vintage Books, 2007.