I write a lot on this blog about the importance of getting psychological, emotional and physical distance from a narcissistic abuser. Some viewers of my Youtube Channel have wisely pointed out that sometimes this isn’t possible. A viewer recently asked:
“As an adult, how to handle living with a parent who has strong narcissistic and controlling behaviors, when you have no other living option available (at least for a period of time)?”
In today’s post, I’m going to offer 6 strategies for dealing with a narcissist when distance is not an option. The goal of these strategies is to protect yourself first and foremost in these interactions. I encourage you to take time to deliberate how you are going to approach interactions with the narcissistic parent or partner, what you are going to do if they mistreat you, and how you can maximize your sense of safety while you have to be in the midst of a narcissistic abuser. These keys are designed to help you think through these questions.
My name is Jay Reid and I’m a licensed psychotherapist in California who specializes in helping people recover from narcissistic abuse. Narcissistic abuse can leave us feeling lost and estranged from our sense of who we are. In individual therapy and my online course on recovery from narcissistic abuse, I try to offer a map that allows them to come back to the quality of life they know they deserve. Of course, each survivor must travel this path themselves but a map can be tremendously important to do this with. And there are 3 features on this map that I call the 3 Pillars to Recovery:
Pillar # 1: Making sense of what happened,
Pillar # 2: Gaining distance from the narcissistic abuser, and
Pillar # 3: living in defiance of the narcissist’s rules.
Lastly, one can’t do this in a vacuum. It is also essential to find and participate in communities of people who can get, validate, and support you on this path. Today’s blog post falls under Pillar #3: Gaining distance from the narcissistic abuser.
If you were a scapegoat survivor of a narcissistic parent or partner then I encourage you to check out my free e-book on this topic. It’s called Surviving Narcissistic Abuse as the Scapegoat and goes into other important aspects of what it’s like to be in the shoes of the scapegoat child or partner of the narcissistic abuser. From self-limiting beliefs about yourself that you must adopt to survive to why the narcissistic personality is so geared to put those closest to them down. This e-book can help you realize how none of this abuse was your fault but the product of the narcissist’s psychological and emotional problems. You can find the link to the book here.
Key #1: Surrender the wish for the ‘come to Jesus’ conversation with the narcissistic abuser
As I’ve discussed in greater depth in other posts, there can be a tremendous pull for the survivor of narcissistic abuse to get the narcissistic abuser to see things from your perspective. When we have been injured by someone whom we very much want to believe is a good person at their core, then there can be a strong hope that if only they could see what they did then they would acknowledge their transgressions, offer a sincere apology, and you could enjoy a real relationship with them. I think this instinct serves someone really well in relationships with safe people because it helps you repair minor ruptures in those relationships. When you’re dealing with a safe person the logic I just laid out actually applies. However, someone with narcissistic personality disorder who has not been in psychotherapy for several years is unlikely to change when confronted with such information by the person they’ve been abusing. The more likely outcomes may be a complete dismissal of your claims and counterattack at worst or a hollow apology and “let’s just move on” type response at best.
So, if you are forced to be in close quarters with your narcissistic abuser then I would encourage you to commit to yourself that you will not seek to have reparative conversations with this person. By relinquishing this hope that they could see things from your – very reasonable – vantage point, you can protect yourself from the emotional pain and stress that can result from having such ultimately unsatisfying conversations.
Key #2: Plan and rehearse your what you will do if or when you feel mistreated
The 3 components of a boundary
I think of boundaries as having 3 components: 1) know what you want from others, 2) know what you don’t want from others, and 3) know what you will not accept from others. Then, you get to determine the consequences for when someone falls into one of these 3 buckets. So, when you know what you want from others and you find that then the consequences are typically to move towards those people and sustain those relationships in your life. When you meet people who offer what you know you don’t want from others then the consequence is typically to move away from such people in favor of the first bucket of people. These two consequences can typically happen within yourself.
There is no need to inform someone else of the consequences. It’s when someone’s treatment of you feels unacceptable that things change. If you cannot move away from this person then it may be necessary to inform the person about your reaction to their mistreatment and the consequences you will apply going forward if they do it again. I would emphasize that the consequences are not retaliatory but cause and effect.
“I expect this behavior not to continue but if it does then I will choose to limit my interactions with you to just the bare minimum. I am doing this for myself not to punish you.”
So, let’s say that you are in a position where you have to have nightly dinners with a narcissistic parent and two siblings. If the parent makes a derisive comment towards you, like:
“You never seemed to get along with the other kids in your high school. You were always so sensitive and took everything so seriously. I think the other kids just didn’t like being around someone like that…”.
If you have decided that this qualifies as an unacceptable statement for you then you might take time to sort out your reaction. It may be difficult to respond right away when treated this way. Next, you might tell the parent the consequences of their comment to you:
“I found your comment at dinner to be insulting to me. I will need you to refrain from such comments in the future and if I determine that you are unable to do this then I will not be joining the family for dinner.”
When you explain the consequence to the narcissist please know that it is not a discussion but rather a unilateral transmission of information. The goal is to calmly inform them what you will not accept and what will happen if they do this again. It can be important to remember that this is simply an act of self-care not an act of punishment of someone else for mistreating you. Although a narcissistic person may regard self-care as a transgression against them, you can know otherwise within yourself.
Key #3: Be practical
If you are stuck in the company of a narcissistic abuser then you might focus on obtaining very practical outcomes. That is, the goal can be to make your quality of life as passable as possible while in this situation. This is an extension of key #1. When you surrender the goal of having an emotional repair with the narcissist then you can focus on the day-to-day actions that you want to happen for yourself. So, if staying at your current job with your narcissistic boss allows you to earn a living that benefits you and your family, then reminding yourself of this is important. The goal then is to get your job done each day and becomes less about the narcissist.
Psychologically this key can help you shift your attention to what you are getting out of this situation. Any way in which you can emphasize yourself more than the narcissist’s impact on you, can be helpful. The goal is not to get the narcissist to change but for you to get what you need out of this situation until you can remove yourself from it and get to a place of more psychological and emotional safety.
Key #4: If conflict emerges with the narcissist then acknowledge their perspective and use “I” statements
If – or when – a conflict emerges with the narcissist then the goal should be de-escalation without accepting unacceptable treatment from them. With the boundaries you have in place from Key #2, you can navigate the conflict knowing that you can exit if things feel too unsafe at any point. If you choose to engage with the narcissist and want them to be able to hear what you have to say then you will likely have to work around their extreme sensitivity to shame. And a narcissist who is acting with hostility towards you may be experiencing break-through shame due to their fragile defenses getting punctured. So, they may determine that your tone of voice was not respectful enough when you responded to their question. You might say something like:
“I get that you feel disrespected by me right now. For my own sake, I am going to need a break so that I can think about this. I will return when I have something to say that I think can be helpful”.
This approach offers them some mirroring for their inner experience that may be necessary for them to hear what you have to say. It also focuses on what you need and leaves them out of that equation so that you do not risk further wounding their fragile self-worth further.
If the narcissist is in a bout of rage then your safety takes immediate priority. You have to get out of the interaction as quickly as possible because nothing good can come of it. They have to de-escalate to get out of their monkey brain fight response and you have to protect yourself.
Key #5: You don’t have to be friendlier than you feel
In surviving narcissistic abuse, you may have had to constantly monitor the narcissist’s moods and work extremely hard to keep them buoyant. This survival tactic can make it so that when they walk into the room all you can think about is them, what they need, and how you can provide it. This makes sense. When a predator is in the vicinity of its prey the preyed upon animal takes immediate and full attention to the predator. Imagine the antelope catching a scent of a lion, freezing, looking up, twitching its nose, and being prepared for anything. That, I think is a similar situation faced by someone who is being narcissistically abused and the narcissist comes into the frame.
With keys 1-4 in place, you now have other options. You can practice with being more matter-of-fact in your interactions with the narcissist. Give yourself permission to only be as friendly as you genuinely feel. If there is silence then you might experiment with not forcing yourself to fill it. You get to pay attention to your internal signals of how friendly to be towards the narcissist rather than your estimation of how friendly the narcissist needs you to be lest they attack. This is possible because if they do attack and then you know what to do when such unacceptable behavior occurs.
Key #6: Stay connected to safe people
This may be the most important key of them all. As best as you can, work to stay connected to safe people in your life while you’re in this situation. You do not want the narcissistic abuser to become the primary frame of reference in your life. By talking to people who value and respect you as often as possible then you get competing information about who you and what you deserve that serves you. Isolation is one of the main weapons of narcissistic abuse because the survivor’s only frame of reference is the narcissist. Once this happens then the narcissist gains too much power over the survivor. Whether it’s through online communities, friends and relationship partners in real life, etc., be sure to fill your cup with connections with safe people as often as possible.
So, those are 6 keys to dealing with a narcissistic abuser when distance is not an option. I want to add the caveat that the main goal here is to just survive this situation. So if some of the keys feel impossible to apply but you are getting by, then I hope you can credit yourself for this and not feel like you are coming up short. Every situation is different and you are definitely the expert when it comes to knowing what you can and cannot do with your narcissistic abuser.
Jay Reid is a Licensed Professional Clinical Counselor (LPCC). If you are considering therapy for overcoming a childhood with one or more narcissistic parents please contact me for a free 15-minute phone consultation.