Up until recently, I considered myself one of the lucky ones who’d never come face to face with a narcissist. Now, let’s just say I’m in close quarters with one. For the sake of maintaining my own mental health, learning how to shut down narcissists without becoming a doormat has become my unwitting side project. To glean some expert advise on the topic, I consulted Chicago-based clinical psychologist Aimee Daramus, PsyD, on how to avoid getting caught in the verbal traps narcissists so skillfully set.
First, she recommends confirming that you’re truly dealing with a (capital “N”) Narcissist. “Narcissism is a personality style in which people have a powerful need to be the best, most important in the room,” says Dr. Daramus. “It’s on a spectrum of severity. A healthy narcissist is realistically confident, knows their value, and is willing to work for the status that they want. On the other end of the spectrum is toxic narcissism—when a person feels entitled to be treated as ‘the best’ without earning it, and they’ll get angry and lash out if you say something that makes them feel equal or less-than.”
Such behavior is downright infuriating, and your gut reaction might be to point it that out. You’ll say something like, “You’re an egomaniac!” or “Wow, you’re such a narcissist.” And while that may feel like sweet relief for a split second after you shout it into their face, it won’t get you what you want, says Dr. Daramus. “Something that vague doesn’t give them anything to work with,” she explains. “It will trigger a lot more anger and defensiveness than asking for a change in behavior.”
“If you’re trying to preserve a relationship with a narcissist, the best thing to do is set direct limits and stick to them.” —Aimee Daramus, PsyD
Narcissists respond to direct feedback about specific behavior that you simply will not tolerate. “If you’re trying to preserve a relationship with a narcissist, the best thing to do is set direct limits and stick to them. Identify exactly what they did that hurt you, and let them know what it was. Let them know what you need from them, then back off and let them make the decision,” explains the psychologist. Within your retort, I mean, response, it’s also important to set consequences for them if they don’t comply. Dr. Daramus warns, however, that you’ll more than likely have to tolerate this conversation on multiple occasions before your words and demands really start to sink in.
Let’s do a little role play to bring all this theory into practice, shall we? Let’s say that someone keeps interrupting you in meetings at work. Dr. Daramus offers a script to follow: “Hey, you kept cutting me off in that meeting today. I had some things to say, too. If you want to be able to work well together, I need you to let me speak.”
See? This response contains all three aspects of dialogue that disarm a narcissist (stating the problem + offering a solution + adding the consequences = the narcissist will (hopefully) hear what you’re saying). “State what you need them to change. Let them know that they’ll be able to count on you if (and only if) you can count on them to respect you,” says Dr. Daramus.
Stating the problem + offering a solution + adding the consequences = the narcissist will (hopefully) hear what you’re saying
Since positive affirmation is invaluable to egocentric folks, make sure to cheer them on when their behavior changes for the better. In the grand scheme of things, some toxic narcissists will learn to use their egotistical powers for good, says Dr. Daramus. For example, Benedict Cumberbatch displays this character arc in the hit show Sherlock. But your intentions should never be to “change” someone. After all, you really can’t. Ultimately, your only job is to stop accepting their harmful actions toward you.
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