How to deal with a narcissist when you can’t avoid them, according to a psychologist

How to deal with a narcissist when you can’t avoid them, according to a psychologist

While it’s always advisable to give narcissists a wide berth, it’s not always possible. Stylist asked the experts how to manage narcissistic behaviour when you can’t avoid it.  

In an ideal world, we’d be surrounded only by those who respect our personal boundaries. There’d be no berating bosses, overstepping friends or manipulative relatives, and we’d be able to sense any toxicity a mile off and cut it out immediately.

But sadly this isn’t always the case, and we can find ourselves in situations that we feel like we have to ride out rather than run from. Even if someone close to us exhibits behaviour we know is bad, it’s not always viable to quit a job, move out, cut someone off or end a relationship.

This is particularly the case when it comes to living in close proximity to a narcissist. According to Psychology Today, narcissists are categorised as people with an incredibly inflated view of themselves, which often leads to a significant sense of entitlement and behaviours that disregard the needs, wants and feelings of others around them.

However, narcissistic traits, while seemingly easy to identify, exist on a spectrum, and the truth is that we all make mistakes and act in ways that are less than ‘healthy’ sometimes. But dealing with repeated toxic behaviour is a different story altogether, and something that requires careful navigation for the sake of our sanity, safety and mental wellbeing.

So, how do you deal with a narcissist you can’t avoid? One that is so firmly cemented in your life that you feel your only option is to endure them?

The key is first to understand what kind of narcissist you’re dealing with.

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The two main types of narcissist

While there is plenty of speculation on the types of narcissist out there, the bulk of research suggests that there are two main variations. The first, grandiose narcissism or overt narcissism, is defined as when a person has a superior image of themselves, and has a desire to maintain that image, gain admiration and attention from others, and demonstrate a sense of dominance or power.

The second, known as vulnerable or covert narcissism, is categorised by fragile self-confidence, of which an inflated self-image is often a coping mechanism for low self-esteem.

Both types of individuals can be extremely exploitative, employing often subtle but coercive methods to put others down.

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How to manage a narcissistic partner

“Navigating a romantic relationship with a narcissistic partner is not always easy, but it doesn’t mean that the relationship can’t work with a few small changes,” Michelle Begy, founder of Ignite Dating, tells Stylist

“If you’ve decided to stay in the relationship, you need to recognise that due to the traits of the narcissist’s behaviour, it is unlikely that your partner will change. This means that the majority of the work will be on you to recognise the triggers and most importantly establish clear boundaries – but it is still possible to have a relationship, it might just look slightly different to how you envisioned it.”

Narcissistic behaviour can be both overt and covert
Narcissistic behaviour can be both overt and covert

“Setting boundaries in any relationship is healthy, but when you are in a romantic relationship with a narcissistic partner it can be vital. Good mental health is vital and while a strong support network or therapist may help you manage with the outbursts, setting boundaries can help to protect your sanity and help you manage the situation in a healthier way,” shares Begy.

“Think about what is important for you and your mental health. Maybe it’s having time with your friends or walking away when a conversation turns nasty; by setting these boundaries and making them clear from the start sets a precedent for what you expect. Be aware that they may try to make you feel guilty when the boundaries are put in place, but it’s important to stay strong and stick to them because if you relent then they may never learn to respect the boundaries or you.”

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How to manage narcissistic family members

When preparing to encounter a narcissist, reminding yourself of your own self worth and understanding that the person you are dealing with might trigger you can be helpful, says Dr Houda Ounnas, a psychotherapy trained GP.

“Narcissistic people care about their image more than anything, so avoid one-to-one contact wherever possible,” continues Dr Ounnas. “They might be horrible to you in private because that’s what they do to the people closest to them who have already seen the mask fall off. They will, however, most likely act polite and lovely in public because they want to impress strangers and increase their “fan base”. Use this to your advantage. If you can, meet them somewhere public and with another person present.”

Dr Ounnas also stresses the importance of responding – but not reacting – to narcissistic behaviour. “Narcissists love emotional reactions. They perceive them as supply and feed on them to fuel conflict and create confusion and chaos which is the atmosphere in which they thrive. You can take that away by adopting the “grey rock” method: short, unemotional, very objective answers, even if they bait you.”

Both Dr Ounnas and Begy agree that it’s important to take care of yourself and prioritise your own wellbeing in these situations. So whatever the circumstances, protect yourself, be firm with boundaries and seek extra support when and where you need to.

For more help and support in a difficult relationship, seek support with Relate or contact Refuge for help and guidance with control issues.

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