8 Smart, Simple Steps For How To Deal With A Narcissist

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narcissist looking at himself in the mirror
Heartbreak

Before you can learn how to deal with a narcissist, you need to be able to recognize when you are already in the midst of dealing with one. Personally, I didn't realize I was in a relationship with a narcissist until I divorced him.

Before our marriage was finally over, I'd never connected the narcissistic dots between my husband's manipulative behavior, emotionally-avoidant communication style, lack of empathy, and inability to compromise or put anyone's needs before his own. I did feel there had to be some pathological reason for his behavior, but I didn't know what it was.

What is a narcissist?

In today's society, the term "narcissist" is used (and misused) in a variety of ways. In casual conversations with friends and family, this term is often used to describe someone others perceive as selfish, conceited, and self-involved.

In the realm of clinical psychology, the term is shorthand for someone with narcissistic personality disorder (NPD), a valid mental health condition marked by self-centered thinking and behavior, a lack of empathy for others, a need for excessive attention, feelings of grandiosity (an arrogant sense of superiority), and a sense of entitlement.

Signs of a Narcissist

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM–5) defines NPD as "a pervasive pattern of grandiosity (in fantasy or behavior), a constant need for admiration, and lack of empathy, beginning by early adulthood and present in a variety of contexts, as indicated by 5 (or more) of the following" nine criteria*:

  • A grandiose logic of self-importance.
  • A fixation on fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, or idyllic love.
  • A belief that they are extraordinary and exceptional and can only be understood by, or should associate with, other extraordinary, high-status people or institutions.
  • A need for extreme levels of admiration.
  • A sense of unrealistic expectations and unwarranted entitlement.
  • A pattern of exploitative interpersonal relationships in which they take advantages of others for their own benefit.
  • A lack of empathy and unwillingness to recognize the feelings or needs of others.
  • Feelings of envy in relation to others and/or a belief that others are envious of them.
  • Displays of egotistical and conceited behaviors and/or attitudes.

*Important note: Only a licensed clinical psychologist, psychiatrist or other qualified mental health professionals can diagnose someone with narcissistic personality disorder or any other mental health conditions.

RELATED: 20 Extremely Brutal Signs You're In Love With A Narcissist

Differences Between Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) and Narcissistic Tendencies

While dealing with someone who has narcissistic personality traits can be extremely difficult, it is important to recognize that there is a significant difference between someone who is narcissistic and someone with pathological narcissism (narcissism caused by a diagnosable mental illness).

Narcissism falls on a spectrum, and all of us have narcissistic traits and tendencies to a certain extent.

"What distinguishes certain narcissistic behavior from pathological narcissism are frequency, intensity, and duration," explains Preston Ni M.S.B.A. "While some people may exhibit narcissistic traits occasionally and mildly, a pathological narcissist will routinely use destructive narcissistic tactics in order to gain false superiority and exploit relationships."

Dealing With a Narcissist

Because people with NPD are incapable of regulating their emotions and considering the impact their actions may have on others, it can be difficult to deal with them. But clarity is powerful — and understanding how narcissists feel and think differently from you will be your best defense against a bully. And make no mistake about it, narcissists are bullies.

"When you’re with someone who’s narcissistic, it can often throw you off because initially, because they’re so good at putting on that admiration seeking show," says licensed clinical psychologist Ramani Durvasula, Ph.D., author of “Should I Stay or Should I Go: Surviving a Relationship with a Narcissist.”

"[They] can be charismatic," she continues, "often quite smart, charming and very gripping. But over time, all of that superficial facade is met behind with a real lack of empathy, often a lack of compassion, they often don’t listen very well, they’ll be prone to patterns like deceit and lying. It’s not the stuff that is good for very connected relationships.

Unless your narcissistic partner is willing to do a lot of work in therapy, life is never going to get better and you will continue to be emotionally abused.

Despite my best attempts in my own relationship with a narcissist, I couldn't pinpoint an effective way to deal with him that would sustain our marriage.

My husband would give me the silent treatment when he didn't get his way. He'd declare himself right and would simply move into the guest room until I changed my mind and apologized. It brought me to tears every time, but there was no empathy, reasoning, or compromise with him.

On the flip side, people with narcissistic personality disorder can be charming, using tactics like love bombing (showering you with massive amounts of attention and compliments) and hoovering (attempting to suck you back in after treating you like dirt) in their manipulative efforts to gain your undying devotion.

"The tough thing about a relationship with a narcissist," says Dr. Durvasula, "is that they often run on hope."

There is a reason flight attendants remind passengers to secure their own oxygen mask first, before helping others. For most people, our instinct is to reach out and help our family members and loved ones first. As parents, we have to fight our instinct to put our child's safety before our own.

A narcissist on an airplane? They don't need a reminder. They're probably thinking, "Why would anyone need a reminder to save yourself first?" As sad as it sounds, narcissists often see their children not as separate beings, but as an extension of themselves. A narcissistic parent is likely to feel that whatever makes them happy will also make their child happy, like it will rub off on them, as opposed to a parent considering what their child's needs are first, then thinking about how to structure their own needs around that.

RELATED: 5 Tips For Surviving Co-Parenting With A Narcissistic Ex

To disarm a narcissist, you have to be more prepared than they are. So expect the charm, know it won't last, and follow these steps to protect yourself from their wrath.

How To Deal With a Narcissist: 8 Steps To Help You Cope

1. Disengage from communication with the narcissist.

Don't be taken aback by a narcissist's angry indignation when you cut them off. Do not try to reason with them, and avoid engaging with them at all if possible. Focus on what you yourself can control (and that will not be them), and focus on your own needs. If that feels selfish, good. Your life has been all about them for too long now. This is about taking care of yourself.

If you have no choice but to remain in contact with them because you must work out the details of a divorce or co-parenting, limit your conversations to logistical matters only.

Helpful tip: If they try to bait you into a fight, try saying something like, "I understand you are feeling hurt and angry and a lot of other powerful emotions right now. I need us to make a decision about this particular issue right now."

2. Let go of any need or expectation for them to see things your way or acknowledge that they've hurt you.

The only way a narcissist will ever comprehend they've done something wrong is when you refuse to accept it. Even then, it won't be that they will care about having you hurt you. but rather that they will be concerned about having lost whatever it is they believe you provide for them.

If a narcissist does apologize, rest assured that are only say what they believe will get them what they want. It may feel like you are treading water as they shift their approach from charming to snake-like to pathetic, but don't fall for any of it.

Helpful tip: Give yourself permission to pause as often as necessary if you need to buy yourself time to think, but do not take the bait. Repeat this phrase in your head, "It doesn't matter if they get it. I get who they are and what's important is that I will no longer allow myself to be treated this way."

3. Remind yourself why they are the way they are.

There is nothing that you have done or could do that would make it justifiable for someone to treat you in an abusive way. When you are trying to calm yourself down after experiencing a narcissist's unacceptable behavior, remind yourself that they act this way because it is literally how they are wired, and not because of anything you did or did not do.

Helpful tip: When a narcissist gaslights you — an abuse tactic in which they try to make you think you must be crazy in order to deflect rightful blame from themselves — remind yourself, "Their brain is wired to protect themselves at any cost, even at the cost of my sanity. What they are saying about me isn't true, it's what their lack of empathy and sense of entitlement needs them to believe."

4. Set — and insist on maintaining —clear, firm boundaries.

In my situation, my ex-husband didn't understand boundaries until the police showed up on his doorstep. So yes, set boundaries, whatever yours are, clearly communicate them to the narcissist in writing and keep a copy posted somewhere easily accessible for yourself.

When (not if) the narcissist in question attempts to cross your boundaries, immediately send a warning, in writing, and outline the next steps you'll take should the boundary be crossed again. If they do it again, send no warning and execute the steps you outlined.

Be careful that you never suggest something you are not actually willing to do. This is another key aspect of what differentiates a person with a narcissistic personality disorder from someone with narcissistic tendencies: they will bluff and bluff until their house of cards falls down. Your strength is in your adherence to protecting the boundaries you set and in the swiftness of the actions you take, not against the narcissist, but to protect yourself from them.

Helpful tip: If the narcissist shows up at your home without your permission, rather than opening the door to let them in, send them an email clearly stating that they did not have your permission to be on your property, as you have previously told them they must before coming by, and that if they do that again, you will immediately call the police. If they show up a second time without your permission, do not open the door and do not email them. Immediately call the police as you said you would.

RELATED: 5 Forms Of Narcissistic Abuse That Narcissists Use To Get Inside Your Head

5. Eliminate the words "fair" and "I'm sorry" from your vocabulary.

Life is not fair, so we have been told. In the eyes of a narcissist, fair isn't even a real concept. Rather, fair means getting what they want. That's fair. Anything else is unfair and thrown back on you as something you've done to them. It's not rational, so don't even try to make sense of it from your own perspective, and instead accept that it sucks but it is what it is.

Not only should you stop thinking of things as fair or unfair with a narcissist, but you need to stop apologizing to them. What a narcissist hears when you apologize is that you are wrong and they are perfect. Do not apologize to a narcissist in an attempt to reason with them, to get on the same page, or because you think they will then apologize in kind. This will only backfire on you.

Helpful tip: If you find yourself want to argue that something about your relationship wasn't or isn't fair, remind yourself that the concept is meaningless to them, and that this is yet another reason the most fair thing you can do for yourself is to move on.

6. Accept that you will never change them.

By acceptance, I do not mean accepting the narcissist's bad behavior, but rather that the sooner you accept that you cannot change someone with a personality disorder, the easier things will be for you and the more clearly you will be able to see what you should do next.

Helpful tip: When, again not if, the narcissist attempts to charm you, gaslight you, hoover you, guilt you, or manipulate you in any way, in your own mind, thank them for reminding you of who they really are, that this is simply how they are wire, and that things will never be different no matter what you do. If it were that easy, they would have changed long ago. They haven't, and they won't.

7. Resist any temptation to try to "win" or outsmart them.

Whatever you do, don't try to win at their game or outsmart them — you will only add fuel to their fire. The anger and hurt you feel are understandable, and you should absolutely allow yourself to feel those emotions so you can eventually move past them, but not only do they not need or deserve any insight into your emotional world, showing them anything they may perceive as either weakness or justification for even more abusive behavior toward you will only come back to burn you even worse than it has before.

Helpful tip: When you're feeling furious about their mistreatment of you and want them to hurt the way you've been hurt, remind yourself that you are now free and they are stuck living with themselves forever. That in and of itself means you've won.

8. Move on.

The behavior we refuse to accept, by its very nature, should be quicker to extinguish than behavior we intermittently reinforce or allow. In other words, if you want the narcissist's behavior to stop, you must figure out in advance what you will accept and what you won't. Then respond (or choose not to respond) the same way every single time, until they get so bored with you that they'd rather move on.

Helpful tip: Every time the narcissist tries to explain why you need to take them back, repeat the phrase, "I understand you see things this way. I see them differently, and I'm done." Exactly that every.single.time. They may grow infuriated, frustrated, and enraged, but they will also eventually grow bored and move on.

All of the above is easier said than done. I get it — I live it. But it will get easier with time.

How To End a Relationship With a Narcissist

You can't change a narcissist. All you can do is protect yourself from the havoc they will wreak on your life. If you've decided you've had enough of your partner's narcissistic abuse and are ready to leave, take a moment to create an exit plan, which may include some or all of the following:

  • Identify a trusted individual you know you can go to, literally if you need some place to stay or figuratively if you need a emotional support. Let them know you've identified them as such and make sure they are comfortable in this role. If so, you may even want to have a bag of your belongings at their home in case you need to make a sudden exit from yours.
  • Tell them, in a clear, unemotional, and blame-free way that the relationship is over. There is no need to explain yourself, and as mentioned above, telling them they are to blame or that you are leaving because they are a narcissist will only come back to bite you. It's been all about them for a long, long time. This is about you, and you are telling them the relationship is over — end of story.
  • If you don't need to maintain contact with them, don't. Walk out of that door and never look back.
  • If you need to maintain contact with them, either because there are details of a divorce to work out or because you will need to co-parent with each other, let them know how they can and cannot be in contact with you, and under what circumstances.

Co-parenting with a narcissistic ex is complicated at best, enraging at worst. The problems you experienced during your marriage will not disappear after your divorce is final.

I shouldn't have expected any empathy from my now ex-husband during our divorce, but I did because that's just how my brain is wired — to think about what's fair and what's right. When it came to my ex, I had to reframe my expectations and learn to expect his ongoing attempts to hurt me, even at the expense of our children.

If this sounds familiar, consult with your attorney and/or therapist to learn more about your options.

What To Do If You Need Help

If you feel like you can't handle the situation on your own, please do not hesitate to get help. You are not alone, and there's no reason to think you can or should be able to deal without the support of family, friends, or professionals. You'll may just be surprised to find how relieved they are when you reach out.

If you think you may be experiencing depression or anxiety as a result of ongoing emotional abuse at the hands of a narcissist, schedule an appointment with your primary care doctor or a therapist.

And if you feel as though you may be in danger, there is support available 24/7/365 through the National Domestic Violence Hotline by calling 1-800-799-7233 or by texting LOVEIS to 22522.

You deserve a healthy relationship.

In a healthy relationship, both partners care for and are invested in one another. Both individuals treat each other with compassion, respect and empathy, supporting and rooting for each other. Yes, there will be times when one partner's needs outweigh those of the other for a time, such as during an illness or when facing particularly challenging professional or personal struggles, but there will be an ebb and flow of nurturing and support a narcissistic partner will simply never be able to provide.

Take the time you need to heal from the trauma you've endured.

Remember that none of it was your fault and you in no way deserved it, and trust your gut if/when a potential new partner shows signs of narcissism you'll now be able to recognize all too well.

RELATED: 10 Ways To Cope If Your Husband's A Narcissist

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June Grace is a freelance writer with a master’s degree in psychology who grew up traveling the globe. She writes about her adventures in love, motherhood, and the relentless search for balance.