Many people enmeshed with narcissists ask themselves whether the person they care about or need to deal with and who is treating them in some rather weird ways really is a narcissist.
Once we read upon narcissism, narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) in particular, two things happen. The light bulbs start flashing and all the pieces of the puzzle start falling into place. But at the same time, we really don’t want to believe that the person we have emotionally invested into could be THAT.
We cling to hope, keep searching for excuses for their behaviour and blaming ourselves – maybe if I said it differently, maybe if I didn’t get angry, maybe if I didn’t say that … maybe, he/she wouldn’t act like this.
I believe that it is OK to have doubts but it’s also quite important to be able and willing to face the truth. To understand that someone is a narcissist and adjust the way we deal with them is quite crucial for our own sanity and can have significant consequences in our life (I have described how a covert narcissist makes you look like a crazy person in this article).
Handling a conflict with a narcissist versus a non-narcissist
Handling a conflict with a narcissist is very different from handling a conflict with a non-narcissist. We all have our issues. We all can act irrationally, even stupidly, sometimes. We can say and do things that are hurtful, not well thought through, coming from our own insecurities. In short, even a non-narcissist could sometimes act like a narcissist.
But there is a big difference – the non-narcissist would calm down eventually and would be able to change his or her perspective, if approached in the right way. He or she would be able to see your point and if not accept and understand it, then at least consider it. The non-narcissist would have the capacity to doubt himself or herself.
A narcissist will never be able to do any of that (though they might be able to pretend) and many of us who are still enmeshed with them will waste a lot of time and energy trying to make them see, validate and understand us – something that is never going to happen.
Conflict resolution skills and boundaries
I believe that the truth about a narcissist comes up when you replace your old dysfunctional communication patterns with healthy constructive communication and conflict resolution techniques. The truth comes up when you start firmly asserting your boundaries and require the narcissists to be accountable for their actions.
In this article, I want to share with you some insights from my personal and pretty dramatic quest to reach a peaceful closure with a narcissist that discarded me after a four year relationship, which he originally led me to believe was the most serious thing ever. (You can find my earlier articles about the various stages of the narcissistic relationship cycle here, here and here to get a better idea about what I went through).
It was a pretty mad and emotional time for me – a relationship that I used to consider my future faltered in a way I couldn’t comprehend, the man I used to consider the love of my life started behaving like an utter jerk, and I had absolutely no clue what was going on. I was lost. Ripped apart emotionally by the sudden withdrawal of the perfect prince charming. At that time I was aware of a tonne of my own issues and wasn’t handling the situation well. I embarked on an intense journey of healing with meditation, psychotherapy and various self-help approaches such as Inner Bonding.
For as long as I remained lost and confused, the narcissist was sort of willing to engage with me post-discard. The whole situation escalated paradoxically, much later, after I had achieved a considerable amount of healing and started replacing my original non-constructive communication patterns with healthier ones..
There was a time when I realised that my original way of communicating about what was going on was not right and I felt I myself had aggravated the situation.
I read some of the works of relationships psychologist John Gottman and realised that I certainly was guilty of some of the behaviours that he describes as the horsemen of a relationship apocalypse. I thought that the narcissist’s abrupt cutting me out of his life had to do with the fact that I started criticising him and giving him negative feedback about his behaviour when he stopped acting like the perfect prince charming I knew in the pedestal phase.
I was desperate to mitigate the damage that I had done. I wanted to keep a positive connection to the man I had spent four years of my life with and wanted to remain on friendly terms. I didn’t understand why it wasn’t possible. At that time I already suspected that he was a narcissist but I was hoping that perhaps he just had some narcissistic traits and wasn’t a fullblown NPD.
The first book on narcissism that I bought was Craig Malkin’s Rethinking Narcissism: The Bad-and Surprising Good-About Feeling Special. A best-seller at the time, the book presents a rather hopeful view on the condition. However, I have to say that implementing some of Malkin’s advice back-fired spectacularly. In fact, I would say, that what Malkin recommends, would help you establish with certainty that the person you are dealing with has no empathy and doesn’t care about your feelings (lack of empathy is characteristic of narcissists). But if you are not yet strong enough in yourself and don’t have your reactivity under control (I have described in this article why victims of psychological abuse frequently get into trouble because of their reactivity), you can get badly hurt by implementing this technique.
Be vulnerable? Really?
What Malkin recommends is for you to pluck up the courage to be vulnerable. To be vulnerable means that instead of snapping at the narcissist, you go to the deeper level and tell him or her how his or her behaviour makes you feel on the deeper level and that you care about them – sad, hurt, lonely – there are many difficult emotions that we are trying to protect ourselves from when dealing with someone who doesn’t care.
Malkin’s idea, supposedly backed by some sort of research, is that the narcissist can be prompted towards empathy if handled in the right way.
To be fair, Malkin says explicitly that this technique doesn’t work on the more full-blown malignant-type of narcissists. But the reality is that at this stage you most likely don’t know how much full-blown or malignant your narcissist is. Especially covert narcissists are very skilled at hiding their true nature.
So what happens when you implement this technique? You wear your heart on a sleeve, you are honest about your feelings, your sadness, your desire to make peace with the narcissist and maintain a positive connection with them… An the narcissist spits into your face, laughs at you, tells you that you are unhealthy and that you never really meant that much anyway… wow… lovely. Not the outcome you hoped for. You certainly didn’t prompt the narcissist to any kinder behaviour. But guess what? Now you know for sure that it was not you. They really don’t care and don’t want to care. You exposing your feelings annoys them and they see you as weak. If they manage to make you snap, then that’s good because they will be able to prove to the world that you have always been the crazy one.
Another issue is whether this little experiment helps you to accept the reality or not (we sometimes really stubbornly cling to the illusions of the past, especially if we were raised in narcissistic families but that’s a subject for another article).
Another technique that I have studied originally with the purpose to sort out things with the ex narc was non-violent communication. Developed by American psychologist Marshall Rosenberg, the technique assumes that people want to feel heard, validated and understood and that if we learn to listen in the correct way and help them get in touch with their feelings, they will eventually be able to hear and understand us.
Non-violent communication is all about practicing empathy – the ability to tune into another person’s feelings and see a situation from their perspective.
It’s a lovely technique that includes several steps. Already the first step of listening presents a great opportunity to determine whether someone is a narcissist. And in fact, me implementing this step led to the narcissist giving me the ultimate silent treatment.
So what is this step about? This step is essentially about you trying to make sure that you understand correctly what the other person says. You are listening to them and essentially reflecting back to them what they say. This gives them the opportunity to either correct your understanding or explain more. It leads them deeper into what’s really going on on their side of the argument.
It works wonders with normal confused people. You sort of help them figure out what’s going on with them and make them feel heard.
Let’s have a look at what happens when you implement this technique with a narcissist. The important thing to understand is that a narcissist is deliberately manufacturing the conflict and doesn’t want to resolve it. A conflict with a narcissist is not a misunderstanding. It won’t go away by you explaining yourself better. They are deflecting blame, shifting goal posts, trying to make you feel like the problem. You never reach the feeling of a conflict successfully resolved with a narcissist. You will always feel sort of pressured to drop your case and accept their reality.
They frequently contradict themselves, twist facts and use stuff from the past that you have apologized for a thousand times.
When you start really carefully listening to them and reflecting their contradictions back to them, they can’t handle it. Their goal is not to be heard and understood. They don’t want to resolve the conflict. They want to muddle the situation and make it seem like you are the problem.
The key to establishing with certainty that it’s them and not you is really to stop emotionally reacting to the frequently hurtful nonsense they are spitting out and instead start to calmly reflect it back with all the contradictions and absurdities.
When I implemented this technique with the narcissistic ex (desperately hoping at that time to achieve a peaceful closure) he refused to talk to me further. He ended the conversation telling me that I was being resentful and that he would only talk to me again when I stop being resentful.
The problem for me was that at that time I still wasn’t ready to accept the reality.
Boundaries and non-reactivity
Another way to establish with a fair amount of certainty that someone is a narcissist is to get really clear on your boundaries. What is OK for you? What is not? What behaviours can you tolerate? What do you not want to tolerate?
Once you get your reactivity under control (a pretty tricky task for all of us raised in narcissistic families), you simply communicate the boundary and if the narcissist refuses to respect you, you simply withdraw yourself from the situation.
Be prepared for some shocking discoveries. They would rather not have you in your life than change their ways.
One example is you communicating that you are not willing to pretend that something didn’t happen. Narcissists rely on your willingness to forget about their outrageous behaviours, brush it aside for the sake of peace and be their ‘friend’ when it suits them. If you say ‘look, this happened and I am not OK pretending that it did not because it hurt me’, you most likely won’t hear from the narcissist for quite a while. The next time you’ll hear from them, they will be testing the water whether you have forgotten or are now willing to pretend you have.
Anyway, good luck on your narc journey. It is my mission in life to help as many people as possible to understand this damaging condition.