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What Works and What Doesn’t

You may wonder if your partner, co-worker, or family member is a narcissist. While many people have what doctors call narcissistic traits, like self-importance and entitlement (thinking they’re owed something), people diagnosed with narcissistic personality disorder can be a bigger challenge.

“Living with a narcissist requires a different or more advanced emotional skill set,” says Kimberly Perlin, a licensed clinical social worker Towson, MD. She specializes in helping women in relationships with narcissists and also treats narcissists.

Having a narcissist in your life can be frustrating and emotionally challenging. Your relationship may revolve around them. You may feel judged and exhausted by their demands.

When she was a child, Carla Marie Manly, PhD, a clinical psychologist in Santa Rosa, CA, didn’t realize her older sibling was a narcissist. “Growing up with this highly controlling person was extremely challenging,” she says. “It was only in my adult years that I came to realize this sibling was a deeply troubled narcissist.”

How to Spot a Narcissist

Narcissists have a strong sense of grandiosity. That means they think they’re more important than others and often seek out admiration.

One of Perlin’s clients is a perfect example. “A client I worked with for years terminated therapy with me when he saw my new website and was insulted that the website didn’t talk about him,” she says.

Narcissists often:

  • Have a strong sense of grandiosity (they have high levels of self-esteem, self-importance, self-confidence, and often feel like they’re superior to others)
  • Are arrogant
  • Take advantage of others to get what they want
  • Believe they’re unique or special
  • Exaggerate achievements and talents
  • Need constant admiration
  • Feel envy toward others
  • Believe others envy them
  • Lack empathy
  • Are obsessed with fantasies of brilliance, power, or success
  • Have a sense of entitlement

Narcissists and Relationships

Manly learned a lot about narcissists from her older sibling and her experiences working with them. “I’ve learned that narcissists are the focus of their own lives. They often believe they’re perfect and blame others for issues that arise at work, home, or social situations.” she says.

Narcissists may do whatever it takes to get what they want. They generally don’t feel compassion and can’t connect intimately with others, even the people who are closest to them.

At work, a narcissist may seek admiration, even if it hurts others. They may take credit for other people’s work, undermine co-workers, or change their behavior to get approval from higher-level people. They may seem friendly and hard-working, but there’s often more to it than meets the eye.

At home, a narcissist can impact the whole family. If you’re in an intimate relationship with a narcissist, they may be highly critical of you, distant, and dismissive. You could feel invisible, disrespected, and lonely. If you’re a child of a narcissist, you may have been neglected or abused.

Sometimes it’s best to cut ties with a narcissist, especially if they’re abusive.

“For my own mental health, I’ve chosen to step back from investing in a personal relationship with my sibling,” Manly says. She accepts that her sibling doesn’t see their behavior as a problem and since her sibling has no desire for self-growth, an ongoing relationship will only lead to more frustration.

If you’re in a relationship with a narcissist, expect it to be challenging. “Buckle up, it will be a very bumpy ride,” says Forrest Talley, PhD, a clinical psychologist in Folsom, CA. “It will be an extraordinarily taxing relationship.”

What to Do With a Narcissist

Take these steps to handle a narcissist:

Educateyourself. Find out more about the disorder. It can help you understand the narcissist’s strengths and weaknesses and learn how to handle them better. Knowing who they are may also allow you to accept the situation for what it is and have realistic expectations.

Create boundaries. Be clear about your boundaries. It may upset or disappoint the narcissist, but that’s OK. Remember, it’s not your job to control that person’s emotions, Perlin says.

Speak up for yourself. When you need something, be clear and concise. “Make sure they understand your request, Perlin says.

Watch your wording. Narcissists don’t take constructive criticism well, Manly says. Try to make comments in careful, positive ways.

Stay calm. Try not to react if they try to pick a fight or gaslight you (making you doubt your own reality). If they lash out, think of them as a 3-year-old who feels rejected because their parent sets a bedtime, Talley says.

Create a support system. Living with a narcissist can lead to feelings of insecurity, confusion, and self-doubt. “Make sure you have a core group of people in your life that can support you,” Talley says.

Bring in a counselor. Therapy won’t cure your partner’s narcissism, but it may help you work certain things out. A counselor can show you ways to approach problem-solving with the narcissist.

What Not to Do With a Narcissist

Certain things may trigger problems with a narcissist, so it’s best to avoid them.

Don’t argue or confront. Manly finds it’s best not to confront a narcissist directly. As difficult as it may be to constantly tiptoe around them, it can be better to manage their need to feel in charge.

Don’t try to direct them. Narcissists like to have control and often fear losing it. “Efforts to lead or instruct a narcissist will often fail,” Manly says.

Don’t expect them to see your point of view. Narcissists don’t like to admit when they’re wrong or that they’re unlovable, so trying to make them see things your way could backfire.

Don’t expect deep, meaningful communication. “Narcissists have very little empathy, so honest, heartfelt communication often doesn’t get through and can even create an angry outburst or shutdown response,” Manly says.

Don’t go over past issues. Don’t try to make them see a long line of behavior dating back years — or how they’re just like their father, for example, Perlin says. Instead, stay in the present when you express requests or hurt feelings.

People with narcissistic personality disorder usually don’t change, so keep that in mind. Even if you learn to manage your relationship better, it probably won’t ever be a healthy relationship.

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