How To Lovingly Tolerate The Narcissist In Your Life, From A Psychologist
If you have a narcissist in your life, you'll benefit from learning how to navigate the land mines that come with this particular personality disorder. And, if you've had the misfortune of falling deeply in love with a true narcissist, you might even wonder if you're a glutton for punishment. After all, who would choose to stay with an individual (the narcissist) who is so self-absorbed that a loving relationship based on intimacy and mutual positive regard is nearly impossible?
In truth, many people choose to stay connected to narcissists because—in many cases—they have positive qualities that (almost) outweigh the negative elements of deep narcissism. This comes with an important caveat: Given that the narcissist's negative qualities often lead to abusive behaviors, it's important to have strong boundaries that keep you healthy and safe. Lovingly tolerating a narcissist's behaviors does not mean that you should stay in a relationship that is abusive. Your well-being is the most important factor; you deserve to feel safe and loved.
Narcissism as a personality disorder is far different from the life-sustaining narcissist behaviors that all of us naturally engage in from time to time. After all, if we didn't pause to consider our own needs, we'd neglect ourselves in the most foundational ways. True narcissism, however, is a different matter altogether. A person with narcissistic personality disorder is at the opposite end of the healthy narcissism spectrum. Their thought processes and behaviors are dramatically "me-oriented." Others' needs are generally unimportant or a mere afterthought.
Of course, narcissists can be charismatic, attentive, and even seemingly empathic when it suits their needs. But despite any charisma, a tape of self-interest is always running behind the scenes. This makes it difficult—and often unwise—to let down your guard with a narcissist.
That said, provided there is no abuse at play and you feel good about remaining in the relationship, there are ways you can learn how to lovingly tolerate—and even connect with—the narcissist in your life. By following the seven simple tips outlined below (and sticking to them even when it's tough), you'll feel better about yourself and your relationship with your "favorite" narcissist:
Give yourself loads of empathy and TLC.
It's not easy dealing with a narcissist. Although they seem strong and capable on the outside, they often suffer from low self-esteem and inner fears. At their worst, narcissists can be exhausting, maddening, and vicious. At their best, narcissists can be charming and interesting. Most narcissists vacillate between these poles—often erring toward the exhausting and maddening side. When you accept this truth, you won't suffer from ongoing disappointments—and you'll see the merit of giving yourself extra empathy and loads of TLC. Even outside of the unique situation of being in a relationship with a narcissist, having this solid foundation of self-care and self-love is part of what I call dating smart.
Find compassion for the scared and wounded aspects of the narcissist.
For all their blustering and willful, self-absorbed ways, at the core of most narcissists is an empty, frightened child who only wanted to be loved and supported in healthy ways. Although the narcissist in your life will likely never admit this, their inner world is a dark and scary void where self-awareness is almost nonexistent. They try—unsuccessfully—to fill this empty space with external success, control, and material things, and this only leads to greater unrest. The very things the narcissist really wants and needs—safety, trust, vulnerability, and emotional connection—are the very things they avoid with all their might. When you see the narcissist in your life through this lens, you'll have more compassion and understanding for the narcissist's plight.
Respectfully request accountability.
Although the narcissist often seems successful (and may have many achievements in the material world), a lack of accountability often keeps the narcissist mired in negative patterns. When dealing with the narcissist in your life, set clear and consistent boundaries around personal accountability. Although the narcissist may struggle with this concept, hold steady to ensure changes in the short term and long term.
For example, if the narcissist "forgets" to honor your birthday, you might say, "I feel very disrespected and unloved when you don't remember my birthday. Let's go out tonight for a belated birthday dinner and do a bit of gift shopping. In the future, I'd feel cherished it if you'd plan for my birthday in advance."
The narcissist counts on you not requiring accountability, so—even when it's challenging—you'll both benefit in the long term from staying strong in this area.
Watch for signs of a "let's fight" mentality.
Sadly, many narcissists love to fight for the sheer fun of it. Healthy individuals understand that conflict is a natural part of life, and they strive to work through issues honestly and fairly. The opposite is true for the argumentative, power-hungry narcissist. Although they may insist that they don't like conflict, there's a part of the narcissist that often craves the sense of power and control derived from interpersonal conflict. When you feel the narcissist in your life gearing up for battle, take a timeout; go for a walk or carve out private time so you can detach and unwind. The narcissist will learn, over time, that you're not going to be the punching bag in the relationship.
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Choose your battles carefully.
Given that narcissists (who are often bullies with very low self-esteem) enjoy the fuel they garner from fighting, it's important to learn to choose which topics are important to discuss and which you can let go over without fostering resentment. If the narcissist is being disrespectful, dishonest, or destructive in other ways, it's wise to address these issues with careful attention to timing. If, however, your narcissist is merely acting like a difficult child, it's often wiser to take a step back and let the narcissist have a tantrum in private. The narcissist's awful temper will often self-destruct if you're not present to give it fuel. It's not your job to fix the narcissist in your life, but it is important to make sure you are treated with respect.
Emphasize teamwork, not a "win or lose" mentality.
Narcissists love to win at any cost. Whether they triumph in an argument, "catch" (another) new partner, receive an award, or have the latest (and best) of everything, the narcissist needs to be the winner. Sadly, this "I must win" mentality puts the narcissist on a constant treadmill of accruing, competing, and succeeding. And, when this mindset is at work, others must lose in order for the narcissist to feel successful. Although the narcissist in your life may pretend to be a team member at work when finances and external success are on the line, it's generally a show.
When you emphasize teamwork in your relationship—a concept that is foreign to the narcissist—you'll make slow but steady headway. By gently calling out when your narcissist is on a "this is all about me" track, you can bring attention to the fact that you're focused on a "we can both win by collaborating" mindset that will serve you both well in the long term.
Stay curious and inquisitive.
Narcissists tend to not like being questioned due to their often low sense of self-esteem and inner shakiness. Narcissists would rather shut you down than feel the anxiousness that arises when asked to self-reflect or respond with authenticity. However, you can slowly connect with a narcissist by engaging in question-asking that builds healthy communication and connection. Start with low-level, extremely non-threatening questions (though narcissists may find any question threatening); over time, you can work up to questions that can actually build a bit of trust and intimacy.
Embrace a sense of humor.
Yes, it's easy to get angered by the narcissist's maneuvers; being very difficult is one of the narcissist's specialties. However, when you learn to step back to see how downright ridiculous the narcissist can be, you might actually find yourself smiling. Whether reflecting on the narcissist's all-too-common mixed messages, "I'm the hero" stories, double standards, or perplexing lack of honest self-awareness, try to find humor in the messiness of the narcissist's inner world.
The bottom line.
If you want to lovingly tolerate—and even grow to like—the narcissist in your life, get ready for a journey that requires patience, empathy, and plenty of perseverance. In the end, you might just be rewarded with a genuine dose of authentic love.
Just remember that your well-being should never be put at risk. If the situation is negatively affecting you or your well-being, put yourself out of harm's way by creating distance and getting the support you deserve. And if you ever feel unsafe in your relationship, it's important to leave immediately and reach out for help, whether from loved ones or from trained advocates (see below). You deserve to feel safe and loved.
If you are in immediate danger, call 911. For anonymous and confidential help, you can call the National Domestic Violence Hotline (1-800-799-7233 or TTY 1-800-787-3224) and speak with a trained advocate for free as many times as you need. They're available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. You can also speak to them through a live private chat on their website or text START to 88788.
Carla Marie Manly, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist based in Sonoma County, California. With a holistic, body-mind-spirit approach, Manly specializes in the treatment of anxiety, depression, trauma, and relationship issues. She has a doctorate in clinical psychology from Pacifica Graduate Institute and a master's in counseling from Sonoma State University. Manly is also the author of several books, including Joy From Fear, Aging Joyfully, and her latest book Date Smart: Transform Your Relationships & Love Fearlessly.
Blending traditional psychotherapy with alternative mindfulness practices, Manly knows the importance of creating healthy balance, awareness, and positivity in life. Recognizing the need for greater somatic awareness in society, Dr. Manly has integrated components of mindfulness, meditation, and yoga into her private psychotherapy practice and public course offerings. Her psychotherapeutic model offers a highly personalized approach that focuses on discovering and understanding each individual’s unique needs and life-path goals.