Now that we’ve answered the question, “What is a narcissist,” let’s get specific about ways to manage these interactions on a regular basis. Below are several practical strategies to disarm a narcissist.
Interacting with someone who exhibits features of narcissism can create a tremendous amount of stress and pressure. Not knowing what to expect is difficult, since narcissists can have sharp mood swings. Their strong need for power often drives them to develop new and creative ways of getting what they want. This often leaves people around them feeling confused, diminished or devalued. You may have asked yourself:
- “Do I have ‘doormat’ written on my forehead?”
- “Why can’t I just speak up and tell him . . .”
- “What’s my problem? Am I a masochist?”
It’s very normal to blame yourself after a distressing interaction with a narcissist. However, self-blame is almost always counter-productive. Self-blame perpetuates the imbalance of power and keeps the dysfunctional communication patterns entrenched.
HOW TO CHANGE THE PATTERN:
The first step to disarm a narcissist is to identify your own “hot buttons.” These are areas that are particularly sensitive for you that automatically send you into “defense mode.”
When we are in defense mode, we are operating from the belief that we are being threatened in some way and need to protect ourselves. This instantly triggers the fight or flight response in our brain, but simultaneously shuts down the logical, rational part of our brain. While the fight or flight response is critical to survival, it is usually not necessary in simple face-to-face interactions. If we slip into this “defense mode,” we are unable to empathize with the other person or think through possible solutions to the current situation. Narcissists are in “defense mode” almost all of the time, and they often trigger this same “defense mode” in those around them. The unfortunate result is usually an escalating conflict in which both people are so busy “protecting” themselves that they lose sight of the original issue.
Take a look at these “hot button” themes to identify which ones are most sensitive for you:
Defectiveness/Shame -- the feeling that you are bad, inferior or not good enough. The concern that if others saw the “real you,” they would find you unlovable and unworthy and reject you. This hot button often shows up as hypersensitivity to feedback or criticism, insecurity around others or a reluctance to develop close, intimate relationships (for fear of being hurt).
Abandonment – the pervasive fear that significant others cannot be counted on to be there for you. The sense that others will not consistently provide emotional support because they are unstable, unreliable or self-absorbed.
Negativity/Pessimism – a prevalent view of all the things that are wrong with the world and/or your life. The inescapable belief that life is full of pain, disappointment and betrayal. This “hot button” is most often coupled with the inability to recognize the positive aspects of life. This view is often characterized by an exaggerated fear of making mistakes and/or the catastrophic consequences that might result.
Self-Sacrifice – the belief that it is better to sacrifice your own needs, feelings or desires for someone else. This may be in an effort to prevent others from feeling pain, to maintain a connection with someone who seems overly needy or to avoid guilt from feeling selfish. This generally leads to a build-up of anger and resentment which can result in angry outbursts, withdrawal of affection or even addictive behavior.
If any of these “hot buttons” are familiar to you, they probably make it difficult for you to be objective during tense or high-conflict interactions. To disarm a narcissist, you must begin by identifying your own “hot buttons.” In so doing, you are diminishing the power a narcissist may have had in the past and gaining more control over your own emotional responses.
When your “hot button” gets pushed, try to pause and take a deep breath. This will interrupt the automatic “defense mode” reaction and give you a moment to regain control of your emotions. Choose a realistic, empowering thought like:
- “Even though I feel bad right this minute, this situation is not all my fault. I am capable of being an adult and finding my voice. I deserve to be heard and respected, even if I’m not perfect.”
- “I feel very defensive right now, but I know I’m safe. I can take a moment to calm myself down. Then I can respond assertively and clearly.”
- “(S)he seems like (s)he is feeling pretty threatened and defensive right now too. Maybe it would be helpful to revisit this issue after we’ve both had a break.”
Try to keep in mind that a narcissist almost always feels like his/her worth is in question, and therefore (s)he needs to prove his/her worth and defend him/herself. This is NOT a personal attack on you (even though it feels that way). It is a reflection of the narcissist’s avoidance of feeling vulnerable, weak or not good enough. Picture the narcissist in your life “shadow-boxing” with something invisible. This will help remind you that (s)he is truly fighting against the not good enough beast, and not against you personally.
Now that you’ve adjusted your own mindset, you are more able to respond to the narcissist in an assertive, productive way. Below are some phrases that can be helpful in diffusing a situation in the workplace while drawing boundaries (they vary in degree from gentle to firm):
I can see you feel very strongly about this.
- You’re entitled to your opinion.
- That could be.
- We see things differently.
- I wonder how we can do this better.
- I’m troubled by . . .
- I’m concerned . . .
- I’m disappointed . . .
- I’m uncomfortable . . .
- We seem to have an issue . . .
- I really enjoy what I do, so I hope we can deal with this in a way that allows us to continue working together.
- I’m willing to work this out, but I am not willing to be insulted or yelled at.
- I’d like to maintain a respectful working relationship.
- You may not be aware of how damaging your behavior has been . . .
- Yelling doesn’t resolve anything and it doesn’t work for me. Let’s talk when you’re feeling calmer.
- I want you to know that I find your behavior unpleasant and childish. I’m not sure why you feel a need to speak to me so disrespectfully, but if it continues I will take further action.
- I have no idea why you feel a need to try to intimidate me but it’s unacceptable and I will not tolerate it.
If you are living with or in a relationship with a narcissist, you have several choices. You could end the relationship, stick with the “status quo” or learn and practice newer, healthier ways of communicating. As you’ve probably guessed, the third option does require a great deal of energy and commitment. But it is a fact that we as human beings are capable of change.
Here are some phrases for interpersonal situations:
- I’m happy to consider your wishes and preferences, and I would like the same from you. In order for this relationship to work, we both need to feel like we matter, like our feelings and opinions are heard and honored. It sometimes feels like there are different rules for each of us, and that really doesn’t work for me.
- I recognize how important your work is to you, and I appreciate your dedication to our family. But I miss you and I’m concerned about how hard you’re pushing yourself. This is really important to me. I want to come up with a solution that satisfies both of our needs.
- I understand that you’re upset and disappointed. And I’m willing to listen to your thoughts and feelings. But I can’t hear what you’re saying when you’re being hurtful. I don’t think you intend to hurt me, but you sometimes come across as overly critical. It upsets me and it doesn’t help the situation.
- I know you are used to taking charge and making things go your way, and you take pride in that. It’s great to have that kind of savvy in certain situations. But it’s not OK for you to dismiss my opinion or my feelings. I know you may be too upset to talk about this right now. I suggest we postpone our conversation until you’ve had a chance to calm down.
Learning how to disarm a narcissist is a process that takes time and practice. Having a supportive therapist to provide guidance and feedback can be very helpful. Call us at the Center for Growth at: 267-324-9564 to set up an appointment.
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