Years ago I had this friend. We both lived in a relatively small town on the east coast, were the same age, and had mutual friends. It was convenient for us to hang out together and for a while this seemed enjoyable. Before long, however, I began to notice something bothersome. Our conversations all seemed to be exclusively about her; her career, her ex, her child, her accomplishments, her, her, her.
I soon realized that whenever I was around this friend, who I was and what I wanted simply didn’t matter. I could have been a stand-up cardboard figure, as long as I could feed her with adoration and always agree with her. I had become invisible. I also noticed that many, if not all, of her other relationships seemed to be defined by how others could serve her needs and whims and not at all the two-way street that typifies good relationships.
My friend was a Narcissist. For her, it really was all about her and my only real use to her was as an approving audience. Narcissism is a disorder of the personality that is characterized by the following traits (per the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders):
- Takes advantage of others to reach own goals
- Expects to be recognized as superior and special, without superior accomplishments
- Expects constant attention, admiration, and positive reinforcementfrom others
- Envies others and believes others envy him/her
- Is preoccupied with thoughts and fantasies of great success, enormous attractiveness, power, intelligence
- Lacks the ability to empathize with the feelings or desires of others
- Is arrogant in attitudes and behavior
- Has expectations of special treatment that are unrealistic
It is easy to see from this list that being in a relationship of any kind with a person with Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) is at best challenging, and at worst can be soul destroying. What often happens to individuals who are in a close relationship with a Narcissist is that they become absorbed by that person and lose their own identity and sense of self.
Narcissists cannot tolerate people who do not participate with their need for constant adoration and approval; those people quickly become annoying to the Narcissist, who will begin to find fault with them in order to discount their opinions, and then move on to others who will play along. What this means for a person in relationship with a Narcissist is that they must suppress their own views, opinions, needs, wants, plans, and ideas in order to keep the peace.
This is how the gradual absorption of their sense of self occurs. Over time one forfeits themselves bit by bit until they have almost become like that cardboard cutout. They look like themselves, but they have lost their unique essence and identity; a casualty of a very destructive relationship.
So what do you do if you are already in a relationship like this? First, you must understand that doing anything other than the cardboard cutout thing will no doubt get a reaction from your Narcissist. And I’m not talking about the good kind. If you are in such a relationship, you probably already know that there is an unspoken rule that you can never say no to a Narcissist. Actually, I am here to tell you that you can indeed say no, but be prepared for fall-out.
When a person with NPD is confronted with the word no, it is perceived by them as a grievous injury; an injury that will be answered by anything from rage to an icy cold and manipulative distancing. Narcissists have a very difficult time understanding that other people have lives of their own, thoughts and opinions of their own, and plans of their own.
When you begin to assert yourself with a Narcissist, you have to give up on the notion that you can find a way to do so that will not upset them, and you must also decide that you will assert yourself NO MATTER WHAT THE RESPONSE IS. Does that mean you may lose that relationship? Yes, it does, but if you are already losing yourself, and that will only continue — isn’t it worth it? If it comes down to losing yourself or losing the Narcissist, which will you choose?
Individuals with NPD may be able to minimally improve, however that takes a strong commitment to long-term therapy with a qualified therapist who specializes in NPD, but most importantly it requires an ability to understand that they are flawed. This in itself is why Narcissists very seldom improve; in their eyes they are not flawed, everyone else is. If you are waiting for the Narcissist to change, stop waiting. Chances are they won’t ever change. Because this is a disorder of the personality, it is simply who they are.
So, if you are ready, begin to assert your own wants and needs into the relationship. Become aware of how often you swallow your own opinions and begin to express them. If your Narcissist asks for something you don’t want to do, say no firmly and stick to it. Do not try to convince them that they aren’t seeing things correctly, you won’t win. They cannot see things your way; that requires empathy and they are incapable of that.
If your Narcissist is able to tolerate your emerging self, they probably aren’t a true Narcissist. If they cannot tolerate your becoming and being your own person, they will either end the relationship on their own, blaming you all the way for everything under the sun, or you will need to decide whether you want to live with the fallout from what will be perceived as your problematic behavior.
Marriage counseling and family therapy can help if you decide you wish to stay in the relationship, however the help will likely be focused on coping with the behaviors related to NPD, not treating it. Remember, the Narcissist is prone to blaming everyone else for the relationship problems, so they are probably going to be focused on changing you back to your cardboard cutout self.
Individual counseling can help you to look at the relationship critically and determine what you want, and then support you in moving toward that. Individual counseling can also help you to end the relationship if you choose to do so, and to learn to identify the characteristics of Narcissism before you become entrenched in future relationships.
So what happened to my friend back east? I started to break the “no” rule. Icy silences and no-shows for get-togethers ensued, then blame because I was being unfriendly, then a raging “get out of my house!” It has been ten years or so since I have seen that particular person, and I am so grateful that I broke the rule. I don’t really look that good in cardboard anyway.
Chris Lewis, Ed.S., LPC is a therapist who specializes in Marriage and Family Therapy in Denver, CO. She provides individual, couples, and family therapy through Maria Droste Counseling Center.