To deal with a narcissist, you need a battle strategy. This means knowing the lay of the land, making necessary preparations, training, and using the field to your advantage. The strategy includes four levels:
1. Understand The Narcissist’s Game
A lot of personal development for healing narcissistic abuse goes beyond the mind, especially when you’re dealing with trauma and toxic shame. In such cases, the mind usually only gets in the way of progress and keeps you stuck in the same pattern. However, working with the mind and re-programming it can also be useful. This outside-in approach can help you deal with a narcissist.
A narcissist gains power over you by infiltrating your mind and changing how you perceive reality. They make shaming comments so that you question yourself. They act shamelessly so that you see them as perfect and can’t pin anything on them. They ridicule you so that your self-esteem drops. With a constant barrage, you eventually believe that they are high status, and that you are beneath them in every conceivable way.
To change this distorted reality field, you need to see it for what it is: an elaborate show. The emotions you feel are real, the concepts driving them are not. Whenever the narcissist speaks, you can begin to dissect the game. Pay attention to what they say, and then to how you feel. As you do, simply look on in a kind of bird’s-eye view. Connect with the watcher inside you, which activates when you practice mindfulness. Write down what the narcissist says afterwards, and share those words with a friend/therapist. Really get analytical. What purpose do the words hold? Are they intended to support the relationship, or do they have a darker purpose? How much truth do the words hold? Is that truth subjective? How would a loving, supporting person approach that same situation? Stay at it.
Most importantly, separate what is said and what is felt. Work on the level of feelings in your own time, but also stay in the realm of concepts. After a while, you will pick up the pattern. They say something, you get emotionally triggered, you respond predictably and sink deeper into the shit show. By being painfully aware of the first element of this game (what is being said and insinuated), you can short-circuit the entire process. Do this right, and contempt will build inside you.
To drive this point home, think of a live sports game. The crowd is enraptured, the tension is high, emotions are running wild, and the game can go anywhere. Now take those same people, and have them view the replay of the game where they already know the score. Would they be as invested?
You begin to deal with a narcissist by dissecting and disengaging from their game. As the madness of it all reveals itself to you, you will feel like you are watching the replay of a sick game. Contempt builds, and it won’t matter how long the narcissist remains in your face. You will be staring at a person who is ‘dead to you’ already.
2. Deal With A Narcissist Using Jedi Mind Tricks
The narcissistic abuse process always begins with the mind. The narcissist aims to infiltrate your thoughts, turn your perspective up-side down, and then re-program you from the inside. When you have to deal with a narcissist, the fight always begins here. Luckily, you have many deflection tools at your disposal. Basically anything that redirects or disengages energy from the narcissist’s attempts at getting narcissistic supply will help. The key is not to engage and therefore empower the game. The following tricks should be useful:
- Changing the topic: The narcissist is playing victim, judging you, ridiculing you, dragging your attention through a series of mind-bending yet empty concepts, or directing focus on you and your ‘hopelessness’. Halfway through the narcissist’s monologue or rant, simply change the topic to something completely mundane. Do it shamelessly and without warning. The weather. Which colour t-shirt would look better, black or green? When do the shops close? What was the score last night from the game? The key here is to de-personalise the conversation, short-circuit the narcissist’s charged topic and bring your interaction back to the surface. The narcissist will sense the shift, but likely will not say anything about what you did because that would disrupt the ‘game’ you two are playing.
- Interrogation: If the narcissist is poking fun at your workout routine, or how you’ve arranged your room, or the book you’re reading, stay calm and ask them exactly what they mean. Ask them how they would do things or what they would choose, and why exactly that would be better. Ask them why exactly that’s better than your choice, and finally, ask them what truth their perspective is based on. Would others agree? If so, who exactly? Have any studies been done on the best choice of book to read, or what workout routine to do? What were the parameters of that study? Would it be possible, just maybe, that different people require different solutions, and that such solutions might not be so clear until you’ve been in another person’s shoes? The possibilities to such a line of questioning are endless, but the effect is powerful: either you will take the wind out of the narcissist’s game, or you will force them into a dead-end. If you remain totally calm, they will find it hard to rage since they appear to be the crazy one, not you.
- Holding the line: When the narcissist says it’s all your fault, or tells you a deeply tragic story to gain your pity, or makes a veiled or overt threat to end the relationship, create space for it. Pay attention to the narcissist’s facial expression, look into their eyes, remain silent and pay conscious attention to their grotesque creation. Study it like a scientist, see how it sits between you both, how it penetrates you, and just let it linger there for a moment. Be conscious and mindful, and if you feel yourself being sucked in, breathe deeply and focus on a specific facial feature of the narcissist. Ground yourself in the moment, and no matter how awkward things start to feel, hold the line. This technique is powerful for dealing with a narcissist because it puts the onus on the narcissist to carry the emotional weight of the exchange, not you. As a result, a mirror is slowly turned toward the narcissist, and their attempt falls flat. They may even blurt out something like “I talk too much” or “Maybe it’s not so bad” or “You’re a strange person, you know that?” and walk off.
The narcissist is a master of creating form, namely psychological and emotional form, and using it to manipulate others. The ‘trick’ to deal with a narcissist is to see this form for what it is, and to find creative ways to expose it and shine a light on it. The narcissist is playing a game, your job is to either completely disengage or to change the rules of the game in real-time. Just tread carefully to avoid narcissistic rage reactions.
3. Deal With A Narcissist’s Constant Shaming
Nobody consciously chooses to partake in narcissistic abuse. It slowly takes hold only if you are unaware of what is happening. Before the more overt abuse settles in, a shame imbalance is the main warning signal you will have to sense.
The overt signals are well documented, in the DSM-5 and in countless articles, so that is the place to begin to know what to look for in their behaviour. What’s often harder to pick up on, or rather, to sense, is the underlying dynamic that occurs when you start interacting with a narcissist. A snide remark, a back-handed compliment, a snicker, an ‘observation’ about you which causes you to question yourself and reassess your decision making. These are all tiny nudges to push you more and more into shame. This is how narcissistic abuse begins. Never admitting to faults, blaming scapegoats for what goes wrong, inflating themselves through story; this is how the narcissist creates an aura of ‘superiority’.
This apparent ‘superiority’ is merely shamelessness. It creates the illusion that the narcissist is a higher being. So by being consistently shameless while shaming you in the process, all without your awareness, they gradually grind you down and make you psychologically malleable enough to control and manipulate. You will know that you are feeling shame when you start to feel heavy in the mind, when your posture collapses, when you begin questioning yourself, when you are on the back-foot all the time and needing to ‘redeem’ yourself, and when your mind goes blank.
To deal with a narcissist, observe this pattern and practice sensing it when it begins. It can come from anywhere, a mutual friend at a party, a colleague or boss at work, a potential romantic partner. If this pattern takes hold without your awareness, narcissistic abuse will occur. Only by picking up on it and disengaging can you protect yourself.
An excellent analogy is the frog happily swimming in a pot of slowly boiling water. By the time the frog knows what is happening, it’s too late. It’s the same in a narcissistic relationship. In the beginning you are in the charm phase, and as you make yourself vulnerable you grow attached to the narcissist. When the attacks on your character and your psyche begin, they are subtle. Then the honeymoon period ends, and the narcissist must step up their assault on your mind, because without your rose-coloured glasses, you will be harder to manipulate and control.
By shaming you more and more within the flow of the relationship, they are effectively ‘turning up the heat’. Shame weighs you down, causes you to question yourself, and puts a dampener on your willpower and sense of pride. You lose sight of your potential. The hotter the water, so to speak, the less able you will be to act against your attachment and walk away.
So how do you know you are dealing with a narcissist? Check the water temperature. Are you constantly questioning yourself? Has your posture slumped? Do you constantly feel heavy, like a dark cloud has descended on your mind? Do you feel isolated and full of despair? Has your life gone from a dynamic dance to an oppressive ritual based around one person? Do you feel like you have no agency in the relationship? Do you feel like you’re walking through a desert (inner emptiness), desperately hoping that water (i.e. love) will appear over the next hill, only it never does? Then you are quite possibly dealing with a narcissist.
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4. Develop The Self
Beyond the mind, and beyond shame, lies the True Self. It is here that you can find real change to help you deal with a narcissist. Some pointers to begin this process are:
- Find your centre: The essence of spirituality is to be grounded in something deeper than your mind. This starts with being mindful in general, and really begins when you allow space for your centre to emerge. If you can successfully ground yourself and establish consciousness of your centre, you will gain a point of reference when narcissists try to manipulate you. When a narcissist ridicules you, shames you or tries to manipulate and control you with their words and behaviour, you will feel a subtle nudge away from this centre. This uncomfortable tugging feeling is your compass and greatest ally.
- Spend time alone: Each day, you should allocate some time to being alone. A narcissist will do everything in their power to consume your reality and throw you off centre by muddling up your thoughts and emotions. Time alone, in total mindfulness, will clearly reveal your inner state to you so you can understand it while giving it air to breathe. When you emerge from solitude in a re-centred state, you can use this clean slate to help you better deal with a narcissist.
- Practice disengagement: When a narcissist is moving the conversation into uncomfortable territory which either makes you feel bad about yourself or entraps you, learn to abruptly steer the conversation back to the mundane. Share a random fact about the world. Ask what a mutual friend has been up to. Mention that you like their shirt or dress. Narcissistic manipulation carries a certain momentum, and having a contemptuous attitude toward it is a powerful way to short-circuit the effects.
- Get angry: Repressed rage is like undiscovered oil. It lies beneath the surface, it’s black, and it burns easily. Rage is also the fuel for boundary setting. You only need a little bit of it for the narcissist to sense that you mean business. On the outside, it will seem like you’re just being firm, but they will sense the tiny hint of rage behind your boundary. So get curious about anger. Be conscious of it in your body, and let yourself feel it. Explore it, and give it space to roam in a context which you can manage, i.e. in solitude, in therapy, etc.
- Meditate on shame: Shame is the narcissist’s ultimate weapon. If they can make you feel enough of it, they can trap you in a psychological cage of inferiority and sluggishness. Be mindful of it, explore it and own it. Toxic shame and shame attacks are horrible experiences, and you might need the help of a therapist when facing them. However, if you can learn to be with your shame, you can release it from your psyche and restore self-esteem. Once you have made enough progress, the narcissist’s ridicule and verbal attacks will lose much of their punch.
- Deal with trauma: Complex Post Traumatic Stress comes as a result of constant abuse for long periods. This leaves you in a hypervigilant state which weakens your resolve and keeps you trapped in a psychological cage. By facing and releasing your trauma, your body will begin to allow healthy fear to circulate, and you will be able to tackle the unknown with unimaginable bursts of energy. Stretching, breathwork, yoga, dance, somatic experiencing, and so on are all excellent therapies for healing C-PTSD.
- Reclaim your pride: Learn new skills, step outside your usual boundaries, embrace leadership and most importantly, learn to see failure as a stepping stone to growth.
- Keep this mantra with you: Narcissism is a lie. It is a psychological game which convinces targets to believe that they are inferior and worthless by using their shame against them when they are too vulnerable to resist. It can be unlearnt and healed, and you can break the cycle.
- Die before you die: When you wake up each morning, meditate for 10–20 minutes and bring your focus into the darkest, most unsettling parts of yourself. You may or may not brush against your centre, but your ego will be affected by the experience. This practice will give you increasing ownership over your insecurities and fears and will give you the inner strength to deal with a narcissist.
- Be kind to yourself: Years of abuse remain in our mind, body and spirit for a lifetime. Patterns play out which are beyond our control, and wrestling back control of our true self is hard work. You will slip up, and often. Forgive yourself, take a step back, and try again. If you are not your own friend, then who will be?
Never give the narcissist the benefit of the doubt
We are taught to forgive and forget, but when you deal with a narcissist who does not play by the same rules as you, then doing so will only open you to further abuse.
If a narcissist causes you hurt, you may rightfully be upset. They might then explain to you why they did so, explain that terrible thing happened to them, or that they had to do so because of such and such. They will throw explanations at you, many of which trigger your sense of guilt and empathy. Eventually this barrage of ‘remorse’ will wear you down, and you decide that maybe they messed up, but clearly they see the error of their ways. Perhaps I’m too cynical, you say to yourself. Maybe I brought this on myself. Plus it’s too tiring being stand-offish all the time. I’ll just let it slide this time. It surely won’t happen again.
When the narcissist sees this, they get a rush, a shot of victory. Your ‘weakness’ has been revealed, the limits of your resolve made obvious. Next time it will be easier to break you, because the precedent has been set. How annoying that you even put up this much resistance. In any case, the path toward abuse and subsequent forgiving and forgetting becomes well-worn, and you travel down the rabbit hole of continuous emotional abuse until the threads weave through your relationship and bind you to it.
In most cases, the benefit of the doubt is necessary for the health of the relationship. For example, a good friend or lover, who has been with you through thick and thin, slips up. They mistreat you. However, when you weigh up all the good and all the bad, you see that there is far more good, and that losing the relationship would be too high a price to pay. You accept the apology, and you make the necessary corrections and hope for the best.
In the early stages of a relationship, a narcissist will talk a big game, but will not back that game up with vulnerability and necessary action. Taking what they say at face value and giving them the benefit of the doubt at the same time is a recipe for disaster. In doing so, you tell them that if they just say the right thing, you can be manipulated and controlled.
The benefit of the doubt is only suitable for the battle-tested relationship, and only as an exception. Never offer it to the narcissist.
For a definitive guide on how to deal with a narcissist and begin healing from a narcissistic relationship, check out How To Kill A Narcissist.