How to live with a narcissist, according to a therapist

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Struggling to live with a narcissist? Follow our 8 survival tips for dealing with narcissistic personality disorder.

By Navit Schechter – PGDip, BABCP (Accred), BSc (Hons)

If you’ve ever been tempted to unfollow certain friends on social media for posting excessive selfies, a colleague has taken credit for your hard work, or your boss has made condescending comments about your performance, you may have found yourself muttering ‘narcissist’ under your breath.

With 1,000 selfies uploaded to Instagram every 10 seconds, it can feel like we’re in the midst of a narcissism epidemic. But what exactly is a narcissist, and can we live harmoniously with these notoriously tricky people?

What is a narcissist?

The term “Narcissist” originates from Greek mythology – according to the legend, a handsome hunter, Narcissus, fell in love with his own reflection in a pool of water – and consequently died of thirst.

Nowadays, we commonly use the term to describe someone who has an over-inflated sense of their own importance, constant need for admiration and a lack of empathy for others. As a result, they are likely to experience problems with work, school and finances as well as difficult and turbulent relationships.

How does someone become a narcissist?

Showing narcissistic qualities is a normal and healthy part of a child’s development. But it is believed by some, that narcissistic qualities in adulthood are the result of the absence of a healthy attachment in the early years that leads to deep-rooted insecurities. According to psychotherapist Mark L Ruffalo, LCSW, having been let down in early relationships ‘the narcissistic person resorts to a defence mechanism known as splitting, where self and other are seen as either entirely good or entirely bad,’ he says. ‘The person becomes entirely self-sufficient and self-absorbed; he does not need others or needs them only to fuel his sense of superiority.’

It is believed that narcissistic qualities in adulthood are the result of the absence of a healthy attachment in the early years.

Most of us will likely demonstrate some narcissistic tendencies from time-to-time, healthy narcissism can actually be adaptive and beneficial. However if these behaviours are extreme and inflexible then Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) may be diagnosed. It is believed that only 1 – 6 per cent of adults in the UK have a diagnosis of NPD, which is more common in men than women.

How do you spot a narcissist?

It can be hard to distinguish a narcissist from someone who is simply more arrogant and self-centred than most, or those who experience problems due to low self-esteem or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th edition (DSM-5), for a diagnosis of Narcissistic Personality Disorder, 5 out of the following 9 characteristics need to be present:

• Over-inflated sense of self-importance

Narcissists will tend to think very highly about themselves and their abilities while putting others down and will commonly talk at length about their accomplishments and achievements while ignoring those of others’.

• Vanity and flamboyant behaviour

A preoccupation with fantasies around their own successes, brilliance, power, beauty and ideal love. Narcissists are often incredibly vane and will come on very strong, sweeping you up in how special their feelings for you are in the early days of a relationship.

• Sense of higher status

Narcissists often believe that they are superior and should only associate with, and can only be understood by, others who are also special or of high status. ‘Narcissists typically views themselves as special, different to others and unique,’ says Dr Annemarie O’Connor, Clinical Psychologist and Director at The Mind Works, a private psychology service in London.

• Needing constant admiration

Needing constant admiration, narcissists will often seek praise and exaggerate their achievements. Conversely, they may be extremely vulnerable to criticism and fear abandonment, which can lead to a constant push and pull in relationships.

• Normal rules don’t apply to them

Narcissists often have a strong sense of entitlement believing that the rules that govern ‘normal’ people, don’t apply to them. According to O’Connor this is because, ‘they see themselves as better than others.’

Narcissists often believe that they are superior and should only associate with others who are also special.

• Manipulation and control

Narcissists will do their best to manipulate and exert control over others. It is common for a narcissist to switch between being loving and being rejecting, verbally and emotionally abusive according to what they are trying to achieve.

• Lack of empathy

Narcissists lack the ability to empathise with another’s perspective and may completely disregard others feelings and desires.

• Overly competitive

Narcissists may frequently believe that others are envious of them and may envy others too which can make them competitive and dismissive of others’ achievements.

• Extreme arrogance

Narcissists can come across as arrogant and monopolise conversations believing their viewpoint to be the most important and superior one. According to O’Connor, they ‘see others as inferior to them and potential admirers. They can see others as functional and tend to use other people to their own gain’.

8 tips for living with a narcissist

Only a psychiatrist or other qualified expert can diagnose whether someone has NPD. However regardless of whether your partner has a diagnosis or not, any of the above qualities can be difficult to deal with. Here are 8 expert tips for living with a narcissist or someone who has narcissistic qualities:

1. Trust your own judgment

When a narcissist blames you for their difficulties, won’t take responsibility, manipulates you and tries to convince you that you need them to function and make decisions, it’s easy to start doubting yourself, ignoring your own desires, wants and needs and feeling like you are losing yourself.

The more that you nurture yourself, pay attention to your own thoughts and feelings and start making decisions according to what’s important to you, the more you will learn to trust yourself again.

2. Stay in your own lane

A narcissist can easily blow hot and cold, telling you how much they love you or how great you are together one moment, but then becoming distant and critical when they don’t get what they want. This can be confusing and create anxiety and it may not be clear what prompted this change. Narcissists will commonly expect you to fulfil all of their needs, using emotional blackmail when you don’t comply.

Staying in your own lane by setting and sticking to your own boundaries, making sure that you continue to take care of your own mental health and wellbeing each day, despite what’s going on externally, can help you remain centred and balanced.

3. Spend time with people who care about you

Narcissists typically lack empathy or the ability to understand how another is feeling and it can be hard to feel important to a narcissist who spends a great deal of time talking about themselves and not taking interest in, or paying attention, when you talk about yourself or your day.

You can try and express how this makes you feel, however they likely won’t be able to change. Make sure to spend time with others who do show interest in you and what you have to say and who understand, validate and accept you.

4. Don’t take it personally

If you are a highly empathic person you may find that you are drawn to narcissistic types and try to help them with their underlying pain. However, in an attempt to feel superior, narcissists will commonly both seek out admiration and put others down eg picking on you, ‘teasing’ and criticising you and your choices. Over time someone simultaneously taking from you and putting you down can erode your self-esteem.

Remember insults, criticisms or attacks on you are not personal, a narcissist will do what they can to try and maintain their feelings of superiority and control. We are only responsible for our own thoughts, feelings and actions. However much they tell you otherwise, a narcissist’s behaviour is never your responsibility or fault. Putting time and effort into learning how you can build your own self-esteem can help to protect from the effects of this.

Spend time with others who do show interest in you and what you have to say and who understand, validate and accept you.

5. Maintain your friendships

Because of their difficulties empathising, many narcissists often struggle to maintain relationships with others. They may have very few (if any) real friends and as a result they might try and stop you from spending time with yours, protesting you don’t spend enough time with them or criticising your friends and family.

If you don’t want to find yourself isolated from your friends and family, make sure to frequently schedule in and prioritise time with them – either on the phone or in person.

6. Walk away from arguments

Someone with NPD is unlikely to be able to see your point of view or perspective and will likely always believe they are right as they ‘need to feel special and respected,’ says O’Connor.

It is your right to try and respectfully voice your opinion but a narcissist will often interpret disagreement as a personal attack. According to O’Connor, ‘Phrasing and explaining that you disagree with their point/being specific and being clear that you don’t disagree with them as a person can soften the impact.’ If they won’t listen or give you a chance to speak it is time to walk away and seek solace and comfort from others.

7. End the relationship

If your relationship with a narcissist has left you doubting yourself, walking on egg-shells and feeling anxious, and your self-esteem has suffered to the extent that you no longer feeling like yourself or you feel broken and like a failure, then it’s time to consider ending the relationship for good. It’s tempting to keep trying, hoping that he or she will change, especially if you are in a romantic relationship and there are children involved. However due to their constant need to feel superior and exert control, if you have a relationship with a narcissist you will inevitably feel this way. It is not a result of a flaw or defect in you.

Ending a relationship when your self-esteem is at rock-bottom and you no longer trust your own judgement is extremely hard. Remind yourself that you deserve better, strengthen your relationships with supportive friends, reach out to organisations who can help and seek the advice of a therapist when necessary.

8. Hold firm with your decisions

Part of the push-and-pull you will experience in a relationship with a narcissist means that if you try to back away they will do whatever they can to keep you in their life, saying everything they know you want to hear or conversely being cruel, harassing you and going out of their way to hurt you when you finally make a stand.

Rather than getting caught up in this game, once you have decided that your relationship is no longer working, stick to your guns and remember that their difficulties are so deep-rooted they are unlikely to change. Although it can be incredibly painful, cutting all ties, blocking numbers and giving no further chances can be the fastest route to moving on and starting to heal.

Narcissistic personality disorder treatment

Some treatment methods for NPD have been found to be successful. ‘Over the years, many psychological treatments have been developed to treat people with NPD with a particular focus on early life experiences and the development of relationships, and with an aim to shift current relationship dynamics, accept responsibility and tolerate perceived criticisms through learning new skills and ways of interacting and coping, such as Schema focussed therapy,’ says O’Connor.

It is important to realise that the narcissist is suffering from a disorder rooted in their unconscious.

Very often treatment will encompass Cognitive Behavioural Therapy and possibly some kind of family therapy if relevant. ‘Encouraging the person to seek therapy with a skilled analytic therapist is paramount,’ says Ruffalo. ‘Similarly, it is important for those involved in relationships with narcissistic persons to realise that the narcissist is suffering from a disorder rooted in their unconscious,’

Advice for family and friends

Living with a personality disorder can have a big impact on the person’s life, as well as their family and friends, but support is available. If you need advice for you or a loved one, to access mental health services in your area, visit the NHS website.

Alternatively try one of the following services:

·         Time To Change: personal stories from people with personality disorders.

·         Sane: a national out-of-hours mental health helpline offering specialist support.

·         Young Minds: help and support for young people with mental health problems.

·         Rethink Mental Illness: reducing the stigma of mental health with a focus on personality disorders.

·         Royal College of Psychiatrists: leaflet for people with personality disorders, and their family and friends.

Net Doctor

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