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The Painful Catch-22 of Caring About a Narcissist

This is the dilemma of caring about a narcissist:  If you are true to yourself, you lose a narcissist’s approval. If you are true to what the narcissist wants, you lose yourself.

Narcissists are desperate to see themselves reflected in those around them. If you aspire to goals narcissists hold dear, believe what they believe, and act in ways they think are right, they feel validated.

On the other hand, if you hold values or behave in ways opposite to what a narcissist wants, the narcissist feels invalidated and will often rage, sulk, belittle, withdraw or reject you.

Narcissists seek to cultivate sameness. Follow what a narcissist preaches and you are told you will be safe, protected and will avoid rejection and wrath. But if you honor your values and truth, you are often told you are bad, wrong, defiant or weak. Follow your own path, narcissists warn, and you will be abandoned and disliked.

If you uphold what the narcissist wants, you may be accepted, though that acceptance is generally conditional and temporary. And even when you are liked or loved by a narcissist, their love is not based on who you really are. It is based on what a narcissist chooses to see in you.

This dilemma is akin to the words above the entrance to Hell in Dante’s Divine Comedy:  “Abandon All Hope, Ye Who Enter Here.”

With a narcissist the Catch-22 is:  “Abandon Yourself or Be Abandoned By Me.”

It’s a painful dilemma. If you care about someone with narcissism, it hurts to be repeatedly rejected and abandoned, especially when the rejection comes as a result of honoring yourself. It hurts to know that another person wants you to give up yourself to curry their favor. Being abandoned by a narcissist in ways large and small can bring a deep loneliness.

Yet while it hurts to disagree with a narcissist and have them accuse you of betraying them, it also hurts to betray your own values. That, too, brings a deep loneliness.

Only you can decide which path hurts more; which path has fewer costs and more benefits. That you have to make such a calculation in an important relationship is, in itself, testament to the dysfunctional dynamic inherent in knowing a narcissist.

If you do choose, as William Shakespeare wrote, “To thine own self be true,” here are four steps you can take to being true to yourself in relationships with narcissists:

1) Create a greater context for your dealings with a narcissist

If you must have dealings with destructive narcissists, you don’t have to play their game or accept their rules. Rather than feeling you are battling for survival or just trying to get by, create a broader context for having them in your life.

For example, view dealing with a narcissist as an opportunity for personal growth or as training in how to hold on to yourself in difficult circumstances. Or see it as a learning opportunity to observe firsthand the kinds of behavior you want to avoid.

When you have something at stake that matters to you it can give you a sense of purpose beyond just trying to survive around a narcissist.

2) Focus on process, not content

Narcissists distract and confuse others. When they are confronted or embarrassed they will act out, blame, belittle, bully or otherwise avoid responsibility.

Focus on what they do, not what they say. Their words are often attempts to make you question yourself. Their arguments are generally distractions. If you refute one argument, they will come up with another, and another, and another.

You don’t have to take the bait. When faced with a narcissist who starts ramping up his or her array of defensive and offensive tactics, remind yourself:  “They are most likely trying to evade responsibility.” This gives you the opportunity to keep your eye on bigger issues, such as taking a stand for what is right or for individual responsibility and accountability.

3) Make friends with your feelings and desires

Narcissists are often uncomfortable with others’ emotions. While they give themselves lots of permission to express and pursue their feelings, they tend to shame and block others from expressing emotions.

This unfair and destructive double standard isn’t healthy. Let yourself have all your feelings and desires.

Check in from time to time and notice what you might be feeling or desiring. Then tell yourself, “All my feelings belong. Feelings aren’t logical. I don’t need to justify my feelings with reasons. Feelings just are.”

Emotions are messages from different aspects of yourself. They just want to be heard. You don’t have to necessarily act on them.

4) Concentrate on intrinsic not extrinsic rewards

Narcissists fear looking inward so they focus on external rewards such as material possessions, status, attention, power and approval. While these have their place, our most authentic motivations tend to be intrinsic.

Intrinsic rewards and motivations include qualities such as self-awareness, self-acceptance, love, being who you really are, having a vision for your life, contributing to the greater good, spirituality and intimacy.

Narcissists may judge you only on how well you play their game of accumulating extrinsic rewards. Don’t do the same to yourself.

When you have a dilemma or feel stuck around a narcissist, ask yourself what your deepest internal motivations and values are, and proceed from there.


Photo Credits:

Swirling Illusion by Andrey Korshenkov
Abandon Hope marker by Zapomicron
Serpent Shadow by Chompoo

The Painful Catch-22 of Caring About a Narcissist

Dan Neuharth, Ph.D., MFT

Dan Neuharth, PhD, is a marriage and family therapist and best-selling author based in the San Francisco Bay Area. He has more than 25 years’ experience providing individual, couples and family therapy. Dr. Neuharth is the author of If You Had Controlling Parents: How to Make Peace with Your Past and Take Your Place in the World. He writes two blogs for PsychCentral: Love Matters and Narcissism Decoded. He is licensed as a marriage and family therapist in California, Florida, Texas and Virginia. His website:

Please note: Dr. Neuharth's posts are for information and educational purposes only. These posts are not intended to be therapy or professional psychotherapeutic advice, and are not a replacement for psychotherapy. I cannot give psychotherapeutic advice about your individual situation outside of a therapist-client relationship. The posting of these blogs and the information therein does not constitute the formation of a therapist-client relationship. Please consult your physician or mental health provider for individual advice or support for your health and well-being. If you are in crisis, please call your local 24-hour crisis or mental health hotline or dial 911.

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APA Reference
Neuharth, D. (2017). The Painful Catch-22 of Caring About a Narcissist. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 27, 2020, from


Last updated: 3 Oct 2017
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