For background knowledge, "a narcissist is a person who lacks empathy, is deeply entitled, grandiose, often quite superficial, chronically seeks external validation and admiration, has difficulty managing things like disappointment, and will often—when frustrated or disappointed or stressed—manifest those emotions with rage they can't manage," says clinical psychologist Ramani Durvasula, PhD, author of Should I Stay or Should I Go: Surviving a Relationship with a Narcissist. "At the core, they're deeply insecure." Narcissists tend to have a lot of difficulty with situations wherein they feel unimportant, less than, or ordinary, adds clinical psychologist Aimee Daramus, PysD. "They have to feel like the most special person in the room, however they define that," she says. In short, they can be energy vampires and difficult to be around—let alone depend on for any type of bidirectional relationship.
A narcissistic friend can be a "healthy" narcissist
That said, narcissism exists on a spectrum, and some people can actually be healthy narcissists whom you'd be wise to actively not cut out of your life. "There's no such thing as a 'bad' personality. What we often think of as personality disorders occur when a personality is taken to an extreme," Dr. Daramus says. "So, a healthy narcissist is someone who is very confident, very comfortable promoting themselves or negotiating for themselves, very assertive. They can be a really good person to have in your corner when you’re not feeling particularly confident or if you’re having a hard time doing something."
"A healthy narcissist is someone who is very confident, very comfortable promoting themselves or negotiating for themselves. They can be a really good person to have in your corner." —Amy Daramus, PsyD
In terms of unhealthy narcissists, though, there's also a range, like the type Dr. Durvasula calls "low-grade jerks," who might be entitled or self-obsessed but don't typically have all the traits of a full-blown narcissist, especially given that they're able to empathize when pushed. You also might encounter malignant, dangerous, and exploitative individuals, who exhibit all the traits of narcissists that Dr. Durvasula clustered together. "Both are relatively unpleasant people, but where one might be not a very nice person—but tolerable—the other one could be dangerous," she says of these two archetypal examples. "So, there's a difference."
In my case, I've found being friends with a narcissist to be inspirational at times given his enormous confidence and assertiveness. That said, I'd be hard-pressed to label him as a healthy narcissist. He more comfortably fits in the "low-grade jerk" category; I've been on the receiving end of his frustrated rage, which in rare moments has felt psychologically demeaning.
What is common, though, in the dynamic of our relationship is how frustrating it is for me to tiptoe around the issue of his narcissism. His bottomless need for attention and inability to process criticism or hear someone out regarding their feelings is angering. And his tendency to believe he is superior to everyone in every situation is excruciating. Still, he's not all bad and has always been loyal and there for me when I need him.
And, just as he is a human being with human imperfections and complications, I am too. Sure, I've contemplated whether I'd be happier if I ended our friendship, vacillating frequently between feeling as though my life would be less stressful without him in it and then immediately feeling equally grateful for his presence in it. What I'm still unclear about, though, is whether narcissists like my friend can only exist in my life at the expense of my own well-being. Especially without any meet-me-in-the-middle sacrifice on his part.
Is being friends with a narcissist possible?
In short, it depends. "Reflect on whether being with this person is unhealthy," Dr. Durvasula says. Ask yourself, "'Are they leaving me with a feeling of self-doubt? Do I feel manipulated by them? Are they saying things that chronically hurt me? Are they invalidating me?' If the answer is 'yes' and you're still spending time with them, my next question is 'Why?'" she says. Furthermore, while it technically is possible for a narcissist to change, so long as they're willing to put in very hard work, Dr. Daramus says most don't. "Narcissists do not volunteer for therapy; they go into therapy if they are forced or pressured into it. They have to be faced with a serious loss to change."
"Narcissists do not volunteer for therapy; they go into therapy if they are forced or pressured into it. They have to be faced with a serious loss to change." —Dr. Daramus
After lots of work with my own therapist, I've accepted that my friend simply isn't doing that work. And yet, I still don't want to cut him out of my life completely. He doesn't uniformly leave me feeling badly, but rather, in specific circumstances that are triggering for him. I've essentially decided to take the good with bad, the loyal with the unpredictable. And the pros say there are strategies at my disposal that can make this choice a healthy one in the scope of my own life.
Tip 1: compartmentalize
In cases like mine—and when it's not simple to cut someone out of your life because they're a co-worker or family member—one solution Dr. Durvasula offers is to compartmentalize them. "I absolutely think workarounds are quite possible," she says. "Some people may be great in quick bursts—like they’re great to have at a party but they would be terrible to travel with for a week. However, a toxic person can’t typically turn it off, so [no matter what], they still may let it rip."
Tip 2: Be direct and open
If compartmentalizing in this way isn't possible, another option is to name the toxic behavior out loud to the narcissist. "It’s helpful if you can get very specific, like, 'Here’s how you spoke to me, and it made me feel bad, so if you want to be around me, that’s something I need you to not do'—and let them make the decision," says Dr. Daramus. And if you, like me, balk at this suggestion, because the narcissist friend in your life doesn't handle any kind of critique well, she says to sandwich the criticism between two compliments or expressions of gratitude. "Always emphasize the stuff that’s going to make them feel special or important or best, and then work in the other stuff ," Dr. Daramus adds.
Ultimately, it's nearly impossible to affect a narcissist's behavior—and incredibly difficult for them to even affect their own. Undoubtedly this makes actually being friends with a narcissist difficult, so you can either cut them out of your life, set up boundaries to keep them in your life in certain capacities, or leave the decision up to them by asking them to make changes they likely can't or won't make. But first, and most importantly, decide what you need from a friendship and whether this one stacks up because all you can control is your own choices and behaviors, no matter what you ask of someone else—narcissist or not.
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