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How to Deal With a Narcissist


man looking at a portrait of himself with admiration

“I honestly believe he’s a narcissist,” Suzy* says, her speech rapid and frantic. “That’s the only explanation for it.”   


“Oh wow,” I respond, a look of concern on my face. “What makes you say that?” 


“Well, he just couldn’t stop talking about himself! Who goes on a date and only talks about themselves? He has to be a narcissist right? I feel like he just has no idea that he has a personality disorder.” 


This. This was the exact moment where I started wondering what was in the water with the whole “narcissism” thing. Somehow, a word that seldom showed up during the start of my career as a psychotherapist was being mentioned constantly—at least that’s what it felt like. If someone didn’t think their date was a narcissist, they were convinced that their mother was. If their boss didn’t have this personality disorder, it was a mother-in-law or ex-boyfriend. According to the general public, it seems, every single one of us is dealing with a narcissist. 


As it turns out, people have become more fixated with the term: according to Google Trends data, searches for the word “narcissist” have more than doubled since 2015. 


So, today’s blog post is all about what narcissism actually is and how to cope with it. 


First thing’s first: what does it mean to be narcissistic—and is it really that bad of a trait to have?



When we describe someone as being narcissistic, it’s because we think they’re excessively interested in themselves. Typically, these are people who we experience as being entitled, selfish, cold, and obsessed with admiration. 


In many ways, I believe that we are all socialized to be narcissistic in Western society. We are taught to look out for ourselves first, be autonomous, and focus not just on achieving, but on winning. In fact, Jean Twenge, a psychology professor at San Diego State University, found that narcissistic personality traits have risen significantly since the 80s. While 15% of participants were labeled as narcissistic in 1982, 30% of participants were qualified as such in 2009. 


While some have criticized Twenge’s work, her findings intuitively make sense to me. Personally, I can’t help but blame social media. After all, it’s the very thing that has convinced us that our breakfast is so bloody special that we should take a picture of it to share with the world, or that people care so much about our trip to Spain that we should make a whole vlog about it. Yikes. 


That said, some say that narcissism isn’t something to be feared, but rather a natural part of being human. According to clinical psychologist Michael Kinsey, “not only is self-absorption universal, but it’s also a vital aspect of health.” In fact, Kinsey encourages survivors of narcissistic abuse to “own [their] healthy narcissism,” which he describes as the following: 


  1. Being able to admire others and accept admiration

  2. Believing in the importance of your contributions 

  3. Feeling gratitude and appreciation, rather than guilty 

  4. Empathizing with others but prioritizing yourself 

  5. Embodying self-efficacy, persistence and resilience 

  6. Respecting the self in health habits and boundaries 

  7. Being confident in being seen 

  8. Tolerating others’ disapproval 

  9. Creating goals and pursuing them with desire 

  10. Being attentive to the external world 

  11. Being aware of emotions 


Now, I might say that this simply describes someone with self-respect and emotional intelligence, but I digress: let’s change gears and talk about what differentiates someone who is narcissistic from someone who has Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD). 


Narcissism vs. Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) 



According to the most recent edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, NPD is defined as a pervasive pattern of grandiosity (in fantasy or behaviour), need for admiration, and lack of empathy. The DSM states that this begins by early adulthood and that 5 of the below 9 criteria must be met in order for someone to be diagnosed with a personality disorder: 


  1. A grandiose sense of self-importance (i.e. exaggerates achievements and/or talents, expects to be recognized as superior without commensurate achievements) 

  2. Preoccupation with unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love

  3. Beliefs that they are “special” and unique and can only be understood by or should associate with other special or high-status people or institutions

  4. Requires excessive admiration

  5. Has a sense of entitlement (i.e. unreasonable expectations of favourable treatment and automatic compliance with his/her/their expectations) 

  6. Interpersonally exploitative behaviour (i.e. takes advantage of others to achieve their own ends) 

  7. A lack of empathy (unwilling to recognize or identify with the feelings and needs of others) 

  8. Envious of others and/or belief that others are envious of him/her/them

  9. A demonstration of arrogant behaviours or attitudes


Now, here’s where things get complex: the above list might apply to a hell of a lot of people in your life. Hell, it might even apply to you. But does that automatically make you/someone else a narcissist? 


Not necessarily.


It’s important to keep in mind that someone can only get a diagnosis if they have fallen outside of the scope of “healthy functioning” and are experiencing consequences as a result. For example, someone might experience all of the symptoms of depression, but the degree to which they experience those symptoms might be quite mild. Further, they might be doing just fine in other areas of their life despite having those symptoms. If, however, the symptoms become more severe and start affecting their ability to go to work, for example, they’d be more likely to get a depression diagnosis. 


Additionally, for someone to get a diagnosis for NPD, the aforementioned symptoms have to be present in their life for at least six months and have to be stable over time. If someone has moments of being narcissistic but this is the exception rather than the rule, they likely won’t qualify for a diagnosis**. These symptoms also have to exist in multiple contexts.


Finally, even narcissism itself can exist on a spectrum, with some people being more overtly narcissistic and others being more covertly so. For the former category, this is the aggressive, unlikeable, in-your-face narcissist who has no shame about who they are and what they’re doing. For the latter, this is the “secret narcissist” who uses quieter, passive-aggressive tactics like gaslighting and emotional abuse. What both of these types of narcissists have in common, however—and what differentiates a true narcissist from someone who is narcissistic—is that they will almost never take accountability for their actions. Everything that happens to them is someone else’s fault, never their own. 


How Common is NPD, Really? 



According to the DSM-V, prevalence ranges from 0 - 6.5% based on community samples. Some other (not so) fun facts about NPD include the following: 


  • Of those diagnosed, 50 - 75% are male according to Behavioral Medicine.

  • NPD is often associated with substance abuse, according to the DSM. 

  • NPD has the highest genetic heritability among other personality disorders (such as Borderline Personality Disorder or Paranoid Personality Disorder) according to the Journal of Personality Disorders. That said, NPD can be—and often is—created through nurture and may be a response to childhood trauma or the result of having a parent who refrained from exerting any boundaries and/or continually inflated the child’s self esteem. 

  • People with NPD will often not seek treatment unless it feeds their own self-image or accomplishes some sort of task. If they do receive treatment, they often present themselves as having depression, anxiety, or suicidal ideation according to a wonderfully informative article in Issues in Mental Health Nursing



How Do Narcissists Struggle? 



Those who experience moderate to severe degrees of NPD experience the following issues with personality functioning, according to the DSM-V: 


  1. Identity


Narcissists are constantly comparing themselves to others. They need to know how they measure up, and they do this by constantly using other people as reference points. 


Interestingly, Brad Bushman, a professor at Ohio State University who has done 30 years of research on narcissism, believes that it’s myth that narcissists experience low self-esteem. Rather, he believes they’re more likely to believe that they are superior to others, which explains why they often lash out when they don’t receive the respect they feel they’re entitled to. (This is known as narcissistic rage.)


2. Self-Direction 


A narcissist often sets goals in the spirit of gaining approval from others: what goals do I have to achieve for other people to admire me? However, their personal standards may vary: while one narcissist might set unreasonably high standards in order to see themselves as exceptional, another narcissist might have expectations of themselves that are too low based on their sense of entitlement. 


3. Empathy 


Narcissists have an impaired ability to recognize and/or identify their own feelings and needs, as well as those of others. If they are attuned to the emotions of others, it’s only because they perceive them as relevant to the achievement of their goals. 


4. Intimacy 


With little concern interest for others’ experiences, they often struggle relationally. This might translate as having frequent difficulties with colleagues or co-workers, continually being fired, or being in romantic relationships that are fraught with abuse and toxicity. 


What is Narcissistic Abuse? 



Narcissistic abuse occurs when someone with narcissistic traits harms an individual through manipulative psychological techniques. These tactics might include the following: 


  • Manipulation 

  • Humiliation 

  • Belittling 

  • Gaslighting (check out my interview with Narcity to learn all about gaslighting) 

  • Blaming 

  • Never taking accountability for their own behaviour

  • Spreading rumours about the victim

  • Criticizing the victim to deteriorate their self-esteem and sense of self overall 

  • Giving the victim the silent treatment

  • Pathological lying 

  • Abuse amnesia, which occurs when the abuser says that they forgot the abuse happened or denied that it ever occurred in the first place to escape accountability and place blame on the victim 


Like other forms of abuse, narcissistic abuse greatly impacts its victims. Oftentimes, folks report feeling anxious and depressed and feel like they’ve lost touch with themselves. Additionally, they might experience guilt, shock, anger, and symptoms associated with PTSD, such as: 


  • Recurrent, unwanted distressing memories of the traumatic event 

  • Flashbacks 

  • Avoidance (i.e. avoiding people, places, or activities) 

  • Negative changes in thinking and mood (i.e. negative thoughts about yourself, others, and the world, feeling hopeless about the future, losing interest in things you once enjoyed) 

  • Changes in physical and emotional reactions (i.e. being easily startled, having trouble sleeping, or engaging in self-destructive behaviour) 


How to Deal with a Narcissist 


  1. Run. 



If you’ve ever dealt with a narcissist, you know just how exhausting it is. They know the exact buttons to push to get a reaction out of you. You never know if your interpretation of events is real. You constantly wonder if you’re just being “too dramatic” and minimize your feelings. You find yourself in a perpetual conflict: do I love them or do I hate them? Are they a good person or are they a bad person? Narcissists confuse the mind, break the spirit, and drain the soul. 


Don’t use your energy to change the narcissist. It won’t happen. Use your energy to get out of the situation—to leave the relationship, to keep your kids safe, to find a new place of work, and to get super clear about what your boundaries are. 


I realize that all of this is easier said than done. Simultaneously, I’m reminded of the phrase pick your hard. Leaving a relationship is hard. Finding a new job is hard. But being with a narcissist is hard also and is a whole other level of torture. Pick your hard. 


2. If you must stay in the relationship, start by educating yourself. 



Become educated about narcissistic abuse by working with a health professional who specializes in this area. Learn what manipulation tactics narcissists often employ. Learn about the pattern of narcissistic abuse (love bombing —> devaluation —> discarding —> finding a new relationship & repeating). Learn how to cope. If you’re going to be with a narcissist, you must always be one step ahead, which starts with understanding what you’re truly working with.


3. Stop trying to change the narcissist. 



I’ve said this already but it bears repeating. As much as I hate to be the bearer of bad news, it’s important to know that trying to change a narcissist tends to be absolutely fruitless. 


Dr. Ramani Durvasula, a clinical psychologist and author in Los Angeles, explains why treating someone with NPD is so tough: “By definition, these are people who have low levels of self-awareness and, in tandem to that, an incapacity to recognize the needs and wants of other people.” In other words, how is someone to supposed to change a behaviour if they aren’t aware of it? 


Secondly, self-improvement isn’t really within a narcissist’s value system. Their life is oriented how to look successful, brilliant, beautiful, and accomplished. Everything revolves around how to achieve a sense of status and power. Questions surrounding how to be a better person or help people around them feel good about themselves is entirely irrelevant. 


4. Never take what a narcissist says at face value. Ever. 



Realize that every single thing that a narcissist says and does has an ulterior motive. They are always thinking about themselves and doing things out of a place of self-interest. As Les Carter writes in her book Enough About You, Let’s Talk About Me: How to Recognize and Manage the Narcissists in Your Life: 


Narcissists are not genuine. The ways they publicly present themselves are not necessarily true representations of what they really feel or believe. They are more interested in posturing for favourable reactions than being known as authentic. Rather than understanding relationships as safe havens where openness and transparency can be practiced, they enter relationships looking for ways to coerce others to do their bidding. Narcissists replace fair and honest exchanges with behaviors that manipulate other people so they can get their way.


In other words, if the narcissist in your life starts to suddenly treat you with kindness and respect, don’t trust it. Rather, realize that this must be part of some bigger strategy or scheme. Never, ever take what they say or do at face value.


5. Maintain your sense of self. 



Narcissists have an amazing ability to instil a sense of self-doubt and confusion into their victims. One form of quiet defiance is to focus on maintaining your own identity. Make sure you’re seeing your friends and family members and doing things you enjoy. Avoid spending one-on-one time with the narcissist and keep your schedule busy with things you like. Identify your strengths and find activities to honour those, such as volunteering at an animal shelter if you’re someone who loves animals. Remember who you are outside of the relationship and nurture yourself as much as you can. 


6. Don’t give the narcissist the supply they’re looking for. 



In the realm of narcissistic abuse, “supply” includes the emotional, material, or psychological resources that a narcissist seeks to validate their self-worth and maintain their inflated sense of self. For example, giving them compliments and praise could feed their narcissistic supply, as could buying them expensive gifts. 


The narcissist’s “supply” is often likened to an addiction: they have an insatiable need for external validation and attention, which often determines how they behave and relate to others. Receiving validation gives their ego a temporary “high,” and they’ll do whatever they can to get their next fix. Remember, however, that their supply will never be satiated, and trying to offer this to them in the hopes that it will help them “be better” or calm down isn’t going to work. 


7. Use the Grey Rock method. 



The Grey Rock method is about practicing safe detachment when dealing with someone who has a personality disorder. As the amazing website Out of the Fog describes, the Grey Rock method involves “becoming more and more outwardly boring, plain, and uninteresting.” Grey Rock is all about keeping things as mundane as possible in the hopes that the narcissist will lose interest and move on to a more interesting target (which might include them leaving the relationship altogether). 


Some ways to act like a boring, grey rock, include: 


  • Not getting emotional 

  • Leaving the room 

  • Not bringing up a new conversation 

  • Giving brief and/or boring responses

  • Refraining from sharing, keeping details from your life private, and/or avoiding talking about yourself in general 

  • Shifting topics if needed to something more “neutral” or “non-controversial” 

  • Refraining from feeding into any drama 

  • Responding with a simple “yes,” “no,” “I don’t know, or “mhm.” 

  • Being factual, concise, and impersonal 


8. Write things down. 



Keep a log of any narcissistic abuse that occurs. This will be important should you find yourself in any legal proceedings later and can also help you stay sane when a narcissist is trying to use abuse amnesia. 


9. Open up to others and have witnesses. 



Narcissistic abuse can be so insidious that it can sometimes be missed. Additionally, manipulative tactics like gaslighting and isolation can cause victims of narcissistic abuse to convince themselves that their relationship is entirely normal or that they’re the problem. 


As tough as it is, confiding in a health profession or trusted friend/family member is of the utmost importance. Oftentimes, this can allow victims to realize that their relationship is not healthy and remember that there are people who will support them if they leave the relationship. 


Spending time with others, especially those who have healthy relationships, can also provide new, more adaptive reference points and remind victims that what they’re looking for isn’t unreasonable or impossible to find. Rather, being in a healthy relationship is a basic human right. 


Finally, it can be extremely validating for victims to hear witnesses point out problematic behaviours. Hearing someone say, “Listen, the way that your husband/boss/mom acted at dinner was absolutely not cool,” reminds people that they aren’t the problem—something that’s of the utmost important when all they’ve been hearing is the exact opposite. 


The Bottom Line 


If you live in North America, chances are that, like me, you’ve been socialized to be a bit narcissistic. I believe the antidote to this more “typical” form of narcissism is to get off our phones, stop wanting recognition for simply being a decent human, and and start thinking more about others. How can I make someone else’s day better? How can I show up better for those around me? How can I give back? 


That said, we can’t go around saying that everyone has a personality disorder. Firstly, this simply isn’t accurate. Plus, most of the time I find that people who do this just come across as defensive and unaware. Just because someone talked a lot on a first date doesn’t mean that they have a diagnosable problem, it just means that they might not have a lot of emotional intelligence. 


Secondly, saying everyone has NPD only perpetuates misinformation in a way that stops people from accurately labeling narcissistic abuse when it’s happening. Instead, start saying, “That person is really narcissistic.” The point still gets across, I promise!


Educate yourself about what Narcissistic Personality Disorder is and learn what narcissistic abuse is as well. Only trust information from health professionals and legitimate resources. Just because your work friend says your boss has NPD doesn’t mean it’s true. 


Finally, if you’re in a relationship with a narcissist, come up with a strategy. Learn what to do and what not to do. Work one-on-one with a therapist who can help you identify how to safely leave the relationship and focus on your own self-worth and self-care. Stop investing any more of your energy into “fixing” the narcissist in your life; it won’t work. 


Please consider using the following resources as part of your healing journey: 


  • Book an appointment with one of our therapists 

  • Check out “Out of the Fog,” a website written and developed by people who have experienced a relationship with a family member, spouse or partner or suffers from a Personality Disorder 

  • Check out my recommended reading list to further educate yourself about narcissism 



*names have been changed to protect client confidentiality and anonymity 

** please note that as a psychotherapist, I am not legally able to diagnose any mental health issues; this can only be done by a psychologist, psychiatrist, or doctor. This post is meant for educational purposes only. 

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