We’ve all heard, and experienced, by now that narcissism is on the rise. We see bad behavior splashed on the front pages of our newspapers on a daily basis, are assaulted by unrestrained opinions on social media, treated callously in the professional workplace and “ghosted” in the dating and social scene.
While we may all act as if we can tolerate these behaviors with minimal annoyance, such actions wound our psyches and souls in ways we often don’t want to acknowledge.
For years now, I have been struck by how many clients seek out my services due to the pain of being in a close relationship with a narcissistic personality be it a parent, spouse, sibling, friend or co-worker. These relationships cause pain, confusion and human carnage. Sometimes the pain lasts a lifetime. It can often derail our health, finances, self-esteem, other relationships and overall zest for life.
How do we protect ourselves from the damage of narcissistic relationships and learn to thrive despite the rising prevalence of this phenomenon in our culture?
First of all, you need to learn about narcissistic behavior and be able to recognize it for what it is. A narcissistic personality is someone who is primarily concerned about their own wants and needs. They see you and everyone else as a means to get their needs met. They will manipulate, deceive, and charm you to get what they want with very little regard for how this affects you. They lack general awareness of other’s feelings and the conscience to monitor their hurtful behaviors. If you find yourself in a close relationship with a narcissist, tread carefully and be on guard.
As in any personality trait or disorder, there is a spectrum of behavior ranging from mild to profoundly damaging.
Here are some general guidelines for how to thrive as opposed to falling victim to this kind of manipulation and abuse:
1. Honor Your Own Feelings
If something feels “off” in one of your relationships, pay attention. Are you in a relationship that drains you, leaves you feeling wrong or bad for having your own thoughts, feelings, and opinions? Do you feel shut down, depressed, anxious, exhausted or fearful around this person? Does this relationship constantly center on the needs and wants of the other and leave you feeling somewhat invisible? If so, this may be a warning sign to back off and proceed with caution.
2. Set Appropriate Boundaries
You may want or need to speak to the person about what you are experiencing and ask for some behavior changes. But don’t be surprised if this does not go well. A true narcissist will often become upset and possibly enraged when confronted. They will skirt the issue, make you look like the problem and rarely take any personal responsibility. They may even retaliate if feeling threatened and seek to hurt you in some fashion. If this happens, your next step is to limit contact to a manageable level to protect yourself.
This may be difficult to do if the person is a family member, co-worker, boss or close friend. I strongly recommend seeking professional help here. We all have our own blind spots and often cannot see that we are being manipulated and abused in close relationships. If we see it, we rarely know how to handle it appropriately.
Even many therapists misunderstand narcissism and the insidious nature of these relationships. If seeking professional help, which may be necessary, find a counselor who understands narcissism. I have had clients tell me they saw 5 therapists prior to me and no one pointed out to them that the person they were dealing with was a narcissistic personality. These clients often feel they are going crazy until they find out the source of the problem and what to do about it. Don’t waste your time going from therapist to therapist, ask ahead of time if they are trained in personality disorders and, if so, do they feel confident they can help you.
3. Begin to focus on What You Can Change
Trying to change the behavior of a narcissist is a losing battle. You can be patient, kind, suggest books for them to read, give them the name of a good therapist, even make threats of ending the relationship, all to no avail. Focusing on changing their behavior is a recipe for depression, futility and fatigue.
Recognize sooner rather than later, that the only thing you can change is you! Seek out support and start to cultivate your own self-care, hobbies and interests. Find new friends. Limit inflammatory news and social media. In extreme cases, you may need to consider leaving the abusive marriage or job. Don’t despair, others have successfully done this. Get help to make these transitions with loving guidance. If you need to leave a relationship, there is a new life awaiting you. No one deserves to be manipulated and abused.
4. Move Beyond Surviving to Thriving
It is important to know that narcissists prey upon kind, empathic, sensitive people. They are attracted to them like a moth to a flame just as we empaths tend to feel we can fix or help them. Be aware of taking on this kind of “project”. It will drain your life blood. Put that energy and attention on your hopes, dreams and ambitions.
What do you truly want in life? What are your goals and dreams? Would you like to change careers, move across country, learn to paint, run a marathon, adopt a dog, learn to speak French and visit Paris? What are you waiting for? Put your focus there and watch how you regain your energy.
Focus on developing yourself not fixing someone else. As you become more aware of what lights you up, the manipulator in your life may look elsewhere for someone else to focus on. Let them go. Find healthy relationships that are mutually respectful, supportive and loving.
You can be more than a survivor of manipulation and abuse. You can chose to thrive and develop positive, loving relationships. They do exist! Honor yourself and chose what is life-giving, not energy draining.