Someone recently asked me to write a post to share my perspective on how to find a measure of balance in life, love, and relationships when you have a narcissist in your environment.
Before I share my perspective, I’m going to share a summary of my story to put my perspective into context.
I am the only child of two narcissist parents. My parents had been married for over a decade before I was born. Their relationship was a battlefield before my birth.
Their main way of communicating with each other was through screaming, shouting, fighting – and they could start a fight over a nothing, anything and everything. They once had a screaming match over being unable to hail a taxi – that particular fight had been brewing all day and finally the pot exploded. A fight/drama was always on the brew, the air was always full of tension. When they weren’t fighting they were giving each other the silent treatment – which is not silent at all, especially if you’re their child and both of them have decided to use you as a weapon against the other.
One of the regular ‘games’ a narcissist will ‘play’ is – Let’s You and Him Fight – where they wind someone up and set them up to fight someone else. The people who have been wound up and sent off to fight someone else by the narcissist are sometimes referred to as Flying Monkeys (anyone can become a Flying Monkey when they have a narcissist in their life). Sometimes they wind both people up against each other. Sometimes both sides think they’re fighting an enemy of the narcissist. Sometimes one side is the new best friend of the narcissist and they’ve been sent to fight the narcissist’s ex-best-friend-now-new-best-enemy (who may have decided to Go No Contact with the narcissist). If you’re caught in this kind of scenario, first you have to recognise what is happening and then you need to step out of the equation, preferably diplomatically. It is easier said than done and will require practice. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes, and don’t be too proud to apologise to someone you fought with because a narcissist wound you up and set you up to fight them – you two could become allies in dealing with your narcissist (unless the other person is also a narcissist – don’t go there if your Machiavellian Intelligence quotient is low as things will get even more complicated).
Even though my parents’ relationship was a battlefield before I was born, I was often told that everything had been perfect in their relationship and lives until I was born and ruined it all. I was also regularly told that my father hadn’t wanted children and that my mother had to use deceptive tactics to conceive me – she kept her pregnancy a secret until it was too late to abort mission.
The ‘mission’ was to magically fix my parents’ unhappily ever after with a baby – the mission failed and my parents were stuck with a baby. To be more precise – my mother was stuck holding the baby because she was the one who had wanted it. My mother often told me that she would have left my father had it not been for my existence – she stayed with him for my sake = it was my fault she was miserable, stuck with my father, wasn’t living the life of her dreams. My mother also told me that she had wanted to leave my father after one year of marriage, but she had stayed with him for the sake of the cat.
You will be told a lot of things by the narcissist in your life. They love to talk even when they tell you that they’re a person of few words – that’s usually an introduction to them talking non-stop about themselves, their life, their history, their personality, their dreams, their ambitions, their feelings, their view of the world, and so on. As the narcissist gets to know you better (aka not bothering to get to know you at all, but deciding who you’re going to be for them – your role in their life) they will also love to tell you all about yourself, particularly what’s wrong with you, what you did or said which was wrong, what you didn’t do or didn’t say which upset them, and so on. Learn to listen selectively and with detachment, don’t take what they’re saying personally as it is never about you and always about them particularly when they’re talking about you (they tend to reveal more about themselves when talking about you or others). Notice the inconsistencies in their narrative – their story changes regularly, those changes can be diametrically opposite to what they stated before – the point of noticing the inconsistencies has many uses. You can call them out on it, but you need to know when to do that and when not to do that, and how to do it. Mainly it serves the purpose of shifting you out of their reality and back into yours. Even if your reality is unstable and messy, it won’t be anywhere near as unstable and messy as the narcissist’s, and, most of all, it’s yours – don’t underestimate the personal power of what is yours (it may be what the narcissist admires/envies and wants from you).
My parents were wealthy by the time I was born. One of the myths of human life is that wealth will make us happy, we believe this partly because it can solve many of the problems which cause us to be unhappy. It can also cause new problems, the kind which come with having money. One of the many reasons my parents used to fight was over who had been responsible for my father’s success which lead to his wealth – he thought he’d done it alone due to his talent and hard work, my mother was convinced he couldn’t have done it without her due to her talent and hard work. They both wanted the credit for the good stuff, but they both blamed the other for the bad stuff – when my father’s career took a turn for the worse, and their wealth started to dwindle, my father saw it as all my mother’s fault, my mother saw it as all my father’s fault. They fought over money when they had it, they fought over money when they didn’t have it, they fought over whose money it was and whose money it wasn’t.
To a narcissist money = power. They never have enough of it. They always want more of it. Even when they have loads of it, there is always someone else who has more of it. Other people have too much of it or not enough of it. Other people are always stopping the narcissist from getting it. Other people aren’t giving the narcissist what they deserve, what they’re entitled to, what is supposed to be theirs. A narcissist will use money as leverage to get what they want – whether they have it or not they will use it. If they don’t have it they will make you feel guilty, ashamed, and as though you owe them if you do have it (they’re a bit like those pop-ups which make you feel awful for using Ad-Block, or like those online phishing ‘security alerts’). If they do have it they will buy you with it – literally, or in figurative ways. With a narcissist in your life the issue of money will be a regular ‘problem’ in your relationship, more so than it can be in relationships without narcissists. It can become what binds you together and splits you apart simultaneously. If you’re trying to get away from your narcissist, money will be how they keep you attached if they don’t want to let you go. You can sometimes ‘pay’ a narcissist to go away, but paying a blackmailer usually means they’ll be back because you paid them to go away. You’ll have to rethink your relationship to money, your beliefs about it, what you’ve been told about it by society, and review what money means to you, how you use it, how it is used against you, how much power it has over you and your life and therefore gives others power over you and your life – what you’re willing to do to get it and what you’re not willing to do to get it even when desperate for it. Whatever power a narcissist has over you – you need to gain control over how that power affects you = how they affect you with it.
Since my parents were wealthy when I was born, they could afford to pass their child around like an unwanted parcel to others to care for. Those others came and went fairly quickly because living with my parents was hellish isolation and if you could get away you did. My mother liked to pick, pick, pick, pick, pick on people until she drew tears, while my father liked to seduce them then push them off of a cliff once he was done with them (not all of his seductions were sexual, but a few were). Neither of them seemed to be aware of why the people they paid to care for me left so regularly and often in tears. My mother always explained it away as them being ‘homesick’. My father saw them as ‘weak’. Weirdly enough I didn’t get blamed for my carers leaving – usually I got blamed for everything when possible and there’s no such thing as impossible when a narcissist assigns blame (unless it’s assigning it to themselves). Blaming me for my carers leaving would have been easy since I was labeled a ‘difficult’ child from the start. My mother found my crying ‘difficult’ when I was a baby – but she soon put a stop to that. My lateness in learning to talk was also viewed as ‘difficult’ because it was embarrassing. My glaring at my parents’ friends when they were being inappropriate with me was also ‘difficult’.
With a narcissist in your life – you will be given a long list of what’s ‘difficult’ about you. The items on this list will accrue over time – the longer you have a narcissist in your life, the longer the list will become. Remember how previously I mentioned noticing inconsistencies in the narcissist’s narrative and how it was useful to do that – what’s difficult about you is full of inconsistencies. One moment you’re difficult because you weren’t listening to them, the next moment you’re difficult because you were listening to them. One moment your ‘precociousness’ is charming and please do more of it, and the next moment your ‘precociousness’ is alarming and stop it. You will most likely try to please them and change yourself to suit them – it’ll never suit them because they can’t be pleased. They actually like being displeased and for you to be unsuitable, but they also hate being displeased and for you to be unsuitable. You can’t win this ‘game’ because it’s all about them winning a game no one else can win. What can you do – opt out of their game and play your own. Make things ‘fun’ for yourself. What’s ‘difficult’ about you may be something about you which the narcissist wishes they had, they will try to ‘steal’ it from you, if they can’t ‘steal’ it from you one way they’ll try many other ways – like getting you to get rid of it. Those people who sell ‘get rid of ego’ fixes… have they gotten rid of their ego? Or is it just your ego they want to get rid of?
By the time I was about 6 yrs old, I had a habit of packing a small green plastic suitcase, heading to the gate at the end of the drive and staring out at the road leading away. I knew that I couldn’t actually leave because I’d simply be caught and returned. And I’d most likely have to listen to a lecture from a stranger about how difficult I was being, what a spoiled brat I was, and how lucky I was to have such wonderful parents.
When I was a teenager and I received (usually thanks to one of my parents winding someone up against me when I was being ‘uncooperative’ and ‘difficult’) one of those lectures from a stranger, I would sometimes say to them: “If you think my parents are so wonderful and I’m such an awful ungrateful child to them, why don’t we swap places – you be their perfect child, live with them as your parents and become the lucky one.” No one ever took me up on that offer… I wonder why?
By the time I was old enough to leave, I had what I now know is Complex PTSD.
Let’s shift gears a bit…
Generally when you ask or search for advice about how to deal with a narcissist, most people will advise you to cut a narcissist out of your life – Go No Contact.
For more about the concept and technique of Going No Contact – This Is What It REALLY Means To Go No Contact With An Abusive Narcissist
Going No Contact is good advice, but can be difficult to do for varying reasons (a narcissist is involved – did you think things would be easy?), and can take a long time and a lot of effort. You may have to make significant sacrifices to do it.
Sometimes Going No Contact is not a viable option.
For instance – If your narcissist is a family member, if you have children with your narcissist, if you work for or with a narcissist, if you share social contacts and have to socialise with them, if you live in a small community, etc.
In which case you will be advised to – Go Minimal Contact – and to adopt certain tactics when interacting with the narcissist.
Whether you intend to Go No Contact, Go Minimal Contact, or stay in contact with a narcissist, one of the most useful things you can do for yourself is to figure out what type of narcissist your particular narcissist is.
This can be complicated to do since different experts on narcissists may use different terms for the different types of narcissist (not all experts agree on how many different types of narcissists there are).
For instance – The ‘covert’ narcissist is sometimes known as a ‘vulnerable’ narcissist, a ‘sensitive’ narcissist, an ‘introverted’ narcissist, and most recently I came across the term a ‘closet’ narcissist (I’m sure I’ve missed other terms and conditions).
It’s worth reading the differing perspectives of the different experts (whether they’re mental health professionals, official experts, self-proclaimed experts, or people who are sharing their experience of a relationship with a narcissist and have dedicated a blog to their narcissist and their recovery from narcissistic abuse)…
This is a very interesting and informative site – HG Tudor: Knowing The Narcissist – the terminology takes some getting used to and may require some mental gymnastics – if you have a narcissist in your life mental gymnastics will become the norm for you and is a very useful skill. It may also cause some cognitive dissonance due to the bio/About of the person running it, as they claim to be a ‘Greater Elite Narcissist’. If you have a narcissist in your life, cognitive dissonance is also a norm, accepting the dissonance is necessary for the cognitive to function, and sometimes the info you need is that offered by someone who is (or thinks they ‘is’) the sort of person you’re dealing with.
…as, like with any subject, the more you understand about narcissism, the more it will build your confidence in dealing with your particular narcissist.
When choosing a tactic to deal with a narcissist – pick the tactic which goes well with your personality, your character, your principles, and which works best with your natural abilities. Choosing a tactic which is too different from your natural way of being, even if others claim it is necessary and awesome in its power, may cause more problems than it solves. Your aim should be to make your life easier not more complicated than it already is with a narcissist in your life.
My father was a cerebral overt narcissist – he had an awareness of his behaviour, he knew he was manipulative and was proud of the ability – he saw himself living in a dog-eat-dog world and if you didn’t want to get eaten you had to learn how to eat those who would eat you before they ate you and/or make yourself inedible, he would sometimes warn people about himself (knowing that they would most likely ignore the warning, the openly waved ‘red flag’), you could call him out on it – that sometimes made the ‘game’ more fun for him, and he would occasionally give you grudging respect for doing it. When I went No Contact with him, he let me go – he had no use for me.
Dealing with my father was very different from dealing with my mother. With him it was like playing chess – there was some level of logic to it. With my mother it was more like being sucked into and then trapped in a TV soap opera – finding a level of logic in it required a lot of illogical thinking and suspension of disbelief.
My mother was (and still is) a covert narcissist – she had zero awareness of her behaviour, she would regularly claim to not have a manipulative bone in her body (often before or during one of her manipulations which to her were not manipulations at all), she saw herself as the epitome of a good person, a saint, a martyr… it was everyone else who was bad, evil, the problem. You could not call her out on her behaviour as this would trigger a tantrum (you had pushed her over the edge with your thoughtlessness, it was your fault that she could no longer be nice, patient, and tolerant), followed by a lecture on the awful truths about you, and she’d go deep into victim mode. When I went No Contact with her, she even used the Samaritans to help her find her ‘missing daughter’ – the case worker I spoke to was one of the first people I encountered who understood what was going on without me having to say anything other than: “I am not a Missing Person”.
With a narcissist in your life – your life can regularly take a turn into the bizarre. You may have the impression that you’re in a piece of fiction, a film, TV show or book, but even a fictional narcissist tends to be relatively normal compared to a real life narcissist. And in fiction the narcissist character usually (but not always, especially in more recent times due to popular trends) tends to get their comeuppance, just desserts, a karmic retribution kick – in real life, you’re the one more likely to get kicked by karma – your own or someone else’s, made to pay for the sins of your narcissist. Trying to explain your narcissist and how they’ve affected you and your life to others can make you appear to be the ‘crazy’ one – the more you point your finger at your narcissist and say they’re crazy, the more crazy you look to others especially when you’re doing it while stressed out to the max by your narcissist. Sometimes the best way to deal with this is to actively go with all the doors and windows which you being the ‘crazy’ one opens up for you. But to enjoy the benefits of that and how that can be helpful to you when you have a narcissist in your life, you have to give up getting hung up on proving that you’re the ‘sane’ one. The trick is – if other people feel comfortable around you, you’ll be viewed as the ‘sane’ one even if you’re genuinely crazy. What makes other people feel comfortable around you? Look into what is known as – Social Intelligence – and increase your quotient of it as this can make your relationships more enjoyable and less stressful.
For more on Social Intelligence – 9 Social Intelligence Principles Everyone Can Master
While all of us can be victims and feel victimised, most of us don’t want to spend more time than we have to in victimhood. We want to find our way out of it, even if that means dragging ourselves and crawling out of it. However the ‘victim’ narcissist will make victimhood their home. This can be what gives them away, but before you notice this ‘red flag’ you’ll have probably invested a lot of empathy, sympathy, worry, caring, time, effort, trouble, money, and emotional support in them, and they’ll be very reluctant to let you go as you’ve become what is often termed as – a source of narcissistic supply/fuel.
“The neurotic, as long as he must adhere to his illusions about himself, cannot recognize limitations, the search for glory goes into the unlimited. Because the main goal is the attainment of glory, he becomes uninterested in the process of learning, of doing, or of gaining step by step — indeed, tends to scorn it. He does not want to climb a mountain; he wants to be on the peak. Hence he loses the sense of what evolution or growth means, even though he may talk about it. Because, finally, the creation of the idealized self is possible only at the expense of truth about himself, its actualization requires further distortions of truth, imagination being a willing servant to this end. Thereby, to a greater or lesser extent, he loses in the process his interest in truth, and the sense for what is true or not true — a loss that, among others, accounts for his difficulty in distinguishing between genuine feelings, beliefs, strivings, and their artificial equivalents (unconscious pretenses) in himself and in others. The emphasis shifts from being to appearing.”― Karen Horney, Neurosis and Human Growth: The Struggle Towards Self-Realization
And you too might also be reluctant to let them go – you want a return on your investment. You want a happily ever after for them because you’re the kind of person who wants other people to succeed, live well, live long and prosper.
There is a type of narcissist who will ask you to help them change, they say they want to change, to grow, to evolve, to heal, to become a better person, etc, and they will appear to change (sometimes miraculously, especially during the honeymoon phase/golden period of their relationship with a new guru, or a new movement) until they hit a setback (such as the change requires dedicated practice to keep it going and that’s ‘boring’, the change needs for them to actually change, or the new movement didn’t magically make them immediately wealthy, healthy, wise, beautiful, superior to others, or whatever they thought it promised them), and then it’s rewind right back to where they began and press play again on the same story. This will happen over and over and over again.
We all do that a bit with our own changes. We fall in love with ideas and the people selling and spreading them, we wish there was a ‘magic pill’ for that, we try things out, get excited in the beginning, lose interest, hit setbacks, get disappointed because our Positive Thinking ran out of Power and didn’t bring about all those things we thought it would bring with it. We tell ourselves and others that this time we’re really going to change and then we end up repeating old patterns.
There are similarities between narcissists and non-narcissists. There are also differences – such as the ability to self-reflect, and put that self-reflection to constructive uses.
Time for a break…
Please feel free to share your perspective. I won’t take it personally even if you want me to. Feedback is always appreciated even when it is jarring.
I recently pressed ‘activate’ on the new WordPress editor – Gutenberg – this is the first post I’ve written with it activated. Please let me know what you think of the messy experiments I’ve made with it.
“If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.”― Sun Tzu, The Art of War
End of part one…