Coping with a Narcissist

If you find yourself having to deal with a narcissist it is essential to equip yourself with tools for protection and self-defense. Knowledge is power and it’s crucial that you learn as much as you can about narcissistic personality disorder and what makes these people tick. Learn why they seem to suddenly turn against you and how to depersonalise their treatment of you during a narcissistic rage. Understand the narcissistic cycle of idealisation-devaluation and protect your self-esteem from the impact of being devalued. Finally, understanding why narcissists behave the way they do may even allow you to empathise (gulp) with their often intolerable behaviours.

Narcissists need a constant supply of attention and admiration in order to maintain a sense of self-worth. This is because their own self-esteem is so volatile. Most people who have a healthy ego can handle disappointment or disapproval with relative ease. However, for the narcissist, any form of negative evaluation is experienced as a threat to their very being. To criticise a narcissist will trigger their ego defense mechanisms, which serves the function of protecting their very fragile sense of self. When a narcissist rages it is akin to a child having a tantrum. Whilst narcissistic rage may be a frightening sight to behold, it may help if you try and visualise the narcissist as a toddler screaming for attention.

Let’s look at the narcissistic cycle of over-valuation (idealisation) and devaluation. Have you ever been told by a boss that you were “doing a great job” on a Monday, then by Thursday the same boss tells you they are concerned you “aren’t meeting expectations”? This is what psychologists refer to as splitting and it underlies the cycle of idealisation-devaluation. Splitting is a defense mechanism that enables children to make sense of the world and to help their fragile egos cope with disapproval. For example, it allows children to see mum as superwoman when she is nice, and as an evil witch when she yells or won’t buy that kinder surprise. For them the world can be divided into valued objects or entities that gain their affection, and devalued ones that are loathed. This is why children are so fond of stories where there is a clearly defined hero and villain. This is because they can’t comprehend the complexities of adult personalities and see the word in absolutes.

Whilst most psychologically healthy adults stop needing to employ the splitting defense mechanism, people with narcissistic personality disorder continue to use splitting into adulthood. This means that you are either seen as being “all good” ( the idealisation phase) or “all bad” (the devaluation phase). Narcissists will put you on a pedestal at one moment, only to knock you to the ground the next. If you are providing the narcissist with attention and praise then you are valued, but if you demonstrate a lack of respect for them or dare provide some critical feedback you are instantly devalued.

Understanding the narcissist provides you with some level of predictability regarding their moods and behaviours. You gain some insight into why they are so triggered by real or imagined instances of rejection and disapproval. When you recognise the underlying feelings of rejection and shame that trigger narcissists’ rage, you are better equipped to depersonalise and detach from their onslaught of aggression. Learn to respond to the narcissist and not react emotionally, as you are dealing with a person that is irrational and whose responses are disproportionate to your actions.

If you are dealing with a narcissist regularly and you can’t, or don’t want to, change your situation then seek out a psychologist and work on taking care of yourself. Learn how to build resilience from the toxicity in your life. Know that you can’t change the narcissist and learn ways of protecting yourself and practicing compassion where possible.

Dr Michelle McCormack is a Melbourne psychologist working at Person Centred Psychology on St Kilda Rd.

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