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Guide: How to Live with a Narcissist

What is a Narcissist?

Chances are, you’ve heard the term Narcissist.  If you live with a narcissist, it can be difficult, to say the least.  Words often used to describe them include: egotistical, arrogant, self-absorbed, vain, and condescending.  It may have come as a surprise when you first saw your loved one behave that way, or may have been eerily familiar if you’ve been involved with one (or more) before.  First, a brief explanation.

When you first meet a narcissist, you probably see a charismatic, confident person and feel quickly drawn in.  They can be charming and exciting, and when they find you charming and exciting too, it can be hard to resist.  You may feel euphoric, and it’s probably mutual.  A narcissist feels on top of the world when someone thinks they’re A#1, and it can be contagious.  You see, a narcissist feels that way when things are good.  When things aren’t as good, the picture can change very quickly and it can make your head spin.

Defend and Protect

For people with Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD), there is no in-between.  If they’re not top dog, they can feel lower than dirt.  The feeling is so intense; they are willing to “go to war” over it to “survive.”  Imagine soldiers on active duty.  There is no letting your guard down because your survival is at risk. When they’re off duty, they may be perfectly capable of laughing, joking around and “relaxing,” but at a moment’s notice, they are ready to fight.  For someone with NPD, the threat to their identity as a worthy individual is very real, and they never quite let their guard down.

This is how we can see people with NPD look different depending on the day, or the minute, in some cases.  They can appear confident, calm and happy then abruptly seem insecure, unkind, or enraged, like a storm that blew into town without warning.

The reasons why are numerous, but it boils down to missing the feeling of security that comes from consistent messages during formative years that they are “good enough.”  The pain of not being “good enough” cuts right to the core of their being and they need a shield to protect that core.  As the common saying goes, “sometimes the best defense is an offense.”  Keeping this in mind is the first step in managing a relationship with someone suffering from this disorder.

What it Looks Like

Some of the behaviors are easy to observe: Grandiosity, one-upping or belittling others, name-dropping or using uncommon words to impress others.  The Narcissist will try harder and harder to get the response he’s looking for, and in intimate situations, it can escalate to physical abuse.

Other behaviors can fly under most people’s radar: Claiming victim status, because of some superior personal quality, is common.  Using covert tactics to “attack” someone also happens.  In either case, someone with NPD is trying to make a point:  I matter.  I am important.  I am not nothing.   The “other person” in the triggering situation may not have meant to imply anything derogatory, but that’s how the narcissist takes it.  It’s always personal.  These feelings are so intense that it creates a filter through which they see everything.  Seeing things that way makes it almost impossible to see clearly what others think is obvious.  That filter is very hard to release since it would let their guard down and leave them vulnerable.  For the narcissist, the risk of pain is too great to do that.

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You Can’t Change Your Partner

  • The first rule in how to live with a narcissist is to remember that you can’t change him or her.  You will never “make” them understand your point of view fully and can’t “save” them from themselves.  An experienced sailor knows the waters will be turbulent periodically and knows how to work with it.  Nobody can control the sea.
  • The second rule is to remember that you don’t have to believe what they say.  Just because your partner insults you, it doesn’t make it true.  There’s no reason to spin your wheels trying to prove it wrong or change yourself.  This person wanted to be with you originally for a reason (probably many), and wouldn’t be with you if those things were true.
  • The third rule is to know that the good times don’t mean “everything’s going to be alright from now on.”  It can feel great when you notice improvement, but keep your enthusiasm in check.  Be glad when things are good and live in the moment, but don’t set yourself up for frustration and disappointment by assuming the person has changed.

How to Handle The Hard Stuff

If you were to look at the behavior of a narcissist regarding how it affects others, consider three levels:

Grandiosity:

When someone is bragging about a personal quality, dropping names to sound important, using obscure words to sound intelligent, it can be annoying after a while.  Does this stuff impact anyone else?  Probably not, he’s just puffing himself up, making himself feel good, and isn’t violating anyone’s boundaries.  Does this require a response?  You wouldn’t poke a beehive if the bees were happily making honey and not bothering anyone, would you?  It’s just “Sam being Sam.”  It’s his choice to be that way and doesn’t have anything to do with you.

Belittling:

First of all, don’t forget the second rule.  Don’t respond the way the narcissist wants; it’s not about you, so you don’t have to get your feathers ruffled.  If he’s belittling someone else, just don’t go there. You can’t change the behavior, but you certainly don’t want to encourage it either.  Keep in mind, when you don’t respond when a narcissist is used to getting a rise out of you, hold on tight, he will get rattled and try harder to get a reaction.  Your challenge is to stand firm and not respond.

Remember, it’s not about your personal qualities, it’s purely about getting the desired response from you.  Think about how people use slot machines.  If you get a little payoff once in a while, you’ll stand there and keep at it.  If you don’t get any wins, you will get tired of trying and go on to something else.  In some cases, you might want to throw or smash the slot machine, but you probably wouldn’t do it.

Abuse:

With a narcissist, belittling can escalate to abuse.  That is where you need to make a change in your situation. I’m going to remind you of the first rule – you can’t change a narcissist.  Nothing you do will make it get better.  Here’s where you need to draw the line, and firmly.  In some cases, doing it yourself isn’t advised, and you should seek outside help.  Whether this is verbal or physical, you don’t deserve it, no matter how you feel about yourself.

Considering that narcissistic behaviors can range from mildly annoying to physically abusive, you may have no plans to leave when there’s no danger.  Understanding why your loved ones do what they do can help identify how to make things work without sacrificing yourself.

 

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Susan Masterson, PhD Psychology
Susan Masterson, PhD Psychology

Susan holds a PhD in Health Psychology/Behavioral Medicine, an area focusing on the mental and psychological aspects of the wellness to illness continuum. She is a licensed Clinical Psychologist in Kentucky, with experience that has included physical rehabilitation hospitals, an EEG neurofeedback laboratory, and Federal Prisons for inmates with chronic medical and mental illnesses.

2 Comments

  • August 29, 2018 at 12:15 am
    Paul Heinowski

    I notice at one point you treated the narcissist as if he were male, but I assume there are also female narcissists.

    Reply
  • August 29, 2018 at 12:44 pm
    Susan Masterson

    Thanks for your comment. You are absolutely right. It was a choice to simplify the grammar, that’s all. It’s why I used the name “Sam”, since it could be either.

    Reply

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