Sometimes, the most infuriating fact of interacting with a narcissistic family member is, well, something that’s impossible to avoid: talking with them–having “conversation.” I can’t help put conversation in quotes because conversations with narcissists just don’t live up to my definition of what a conversation actually is–a verbal exchange of ideas or information between two people.
“Conversations” with narcissists can be infuriating for two reasons; one, most of what the narcissist says functions as a conversation flow-stopper, and two, most of what they talk about is them.
Growing up with a narcissistic parent means that you were likely robbed of being truly understood and valued for who you are. It’s a similar experience to being raised by an alcoholic (and alcoholics are most often also narcissists) in that your independent, separate self was ignored, attacked, or mocked.
Narcissists don’t have real “conversations” because they don’t care to get to know you; in conversation they are motivated by the following psychological drivers. Clearly deep-seated shame and insecurity are at the heart of the issue here:
- Ensuring they know as much, or more, than others
- Asserting that they’re “normal”
- Feeling liked (assumes people like them, call themselves “likeable”)
- Avoidance of criticism
- Staying in the spotlight (even if they’re “assisting,” they’re the star)
- An inability to be disagreed with (and perceives alternate opinions as oppositional)
- Maintaining victimhood (they’re always worse off than you)
- Outwitting blame (somehow they’re never at fault)
- Gaining approval
- Maintaining a sense of control (including ‘if’ and ‘then’ strategies)
- Feeling threatened by others’ lifestyles and choices
- An inability to truly appreciate, or feel, the pain of others
Uh oh. Did you also see yourself while going down a mental list of all the people you know who are a match for this list?
You very well may see yourself in this list. Just as you inherited traits of alcoholism (behavioral, emotional) and are a “para-alcoholic,” you are also a ”para-narcissist,” due to proximity and emotional need. The vicious cycle of narcissism has to do with the fact that when you have been robbed of expressing your true self, once you come of age and leave your nutty family, you are starved for attention, approval, and all the nurturing you didn’t get. Many people become narcissists via this route — they glom on to people who are willing to hear all about them, praise them, validate them, give and give to them. But the emptiness cannot be filled, that would require going back in time and I’m unaware of any time-travel healing therapies as of yet.
It’s key, then, to determine is how deeply infected you are by familial narcissism. Read through that list above, and ask yourself the reverse:
- Do you know for certain that you been truly empathetic with others? (On empathy.)
- Are you usually compelled to turn the conversation to yourself?
- Do you ask others about themselves without needing to express yourself in return?
- Are you un-threatened by others’ success and lifestyle differences?
- Do you give people ultimatums in order to maintain control and get what you want?
- Do you constantly seek approval from others?
- Are you a manipulative person? (On manipulative behavior.)
- Are you comfortable with agreeing to disagree?
- Do you tend toward ‘poor me’ and/or victimize yourself when things don’t go your way?
- Do you foist expectations on others, and feel desperately disappointed all too often?
- Do you see yourself in everything? (Someone’s buying a new car; you think, “Should I buy a car?”)
- Do you constantly compare yourself to others?
- Has anyone ever confronted you, observing that it seems things are “all about you?”
For some narcissists, they’re not just self-centered, but their narcissism is actually one manifestation of a borderline personality. Just like autism, there is a spectrum when it comes to narcissism. We can all be narcissistic at times, of course.
(There is such a thing as “healthy” narcissism. Don’t confuse a healthy ego with narcissism. Don’t let your own insecurities lead you to believe they are narcissists when it’s really your issue that their confidence unnerves you.)
It’s when narcissism prevents relationships from developing that it’s at a problem level. If you’re here because you Googled “in a relationship with a narcissist,” you may already be bumping up against the limits of trying to be loved by a narcissist.
And here’s what Wikipedia has for a description of a narcissistic borderline personality, which is a very, very deeply-seated trait. It’s interesting that the article mentions a relationship between shame and narcissism! Some people who fall into the narcissist category are also sociopaths.
Conversation with a narcissist is like a really lame game of pinball:
You say to your stepmother, “Did you hear about the new movie with George Clooney?” This is you pressing the flipper buttons and sending the ball up into the maze.
Stepmother’s turn. She says, “It’s The American. I heard it’s not worth seeing.” This is the ball dropping back down into the hole and returning to you.
“Did you? I heard it’s a really stunning movie…” This is you, pinging the ball up again.
Your stepmother shrugs her typical whatever shrug. Ball drops. Again. Game over.
Well, guess what? They’re not trying to have a conversation. That’s your game. They are just trying to defend their ego, deflect questions and any conversation topic that makes them uneasy, and keep the focus on them until you hit on a topic they can dominate. (You can test this out by repeatedly introducing topics about which you know the narcissist isn’t well versed or interested, and see how quickly they deflect the topic. They won’t take the opportunity to learn from you, as that would undermind their shaky confidence.)
The key to not letting a narcissist get under your skin is to keep your cool, manage your expectations, and say what you need to say.
Remember that they’re self-centered and insecure and that you can’t expect them to be the one who hears you, understands you, and all that. If you can manage to remember that, you’ll be disappointed much less.
For me, I try to keep conversations impersonal and light with these people in my life. Believe me, I don’t like that fact! I wish I could carelessly tell them about me. But I can’t help the expectations tied to that. I wish I could trust them to care, but trust isn’t a valuable commodity with them. It’s not with indifference that I’ve come to this – but it’s what keeps me from feeling hurt around these people. And it’s a form of asserting myself and being true to myself as well, so that seems all right to me.
When the situation requires that I express disagreement with their opinions (since narcissists don’t handle it gracefully), I do my best to remain cool as a cucumber while outlining my view and saying things like sure, that’s entirely possible or maybe in response to their viewpoint–(often leaning heavily on my partner to remind me to keep perspective!) When enough time has passed and they pull one of their victim episodes (such as feeling neglected for not having expectations of being taken out for a meal in honor Mother’s Day met), I will employ scripts like I’m sorry you feel that way (which I limit myself to saying once, but if I can’t help repeating it, I’ll say, Again, I’m sorry you feel that way) and then say, What you can expect from me is x, y, and z. (“I will always call you and wish you a wonderful mother’s day.”) I find this kind of communication much easier to do over email, which gives me time to process hurt feelings and anger. Among other emotions. (That wasn’t easy in this example because I was hurt by my stepmother’s not wishing me a happy Mother’s Day due to her own disappointed expectations. I was very tempted to take her bait and have a fight in which we compared the size of our hurt feelings, but it was refreshing to take a new tact.) Stating what can be expected of me is key; when the next victim episode occurs, I have something to refer to. (I.e., “As discussed last year, you get a phone call from me on Mother’s Day.”) And it gets me to reflect on what can be expected of me, taking ownership of that.
People are in victim mode when they complain about being hurt by what didn’t happen, rather than empowering themselves to ask for what they want or simply making what they want happen for themselves. But, then, you’ve known that your whole life, having had box seats to that event for so long!
(By the way, the originator of Mother’s Day later tried to get legislation passed to BAN it, after seeing how commercialized it had become! More revenue is generated on MD than any other Hallmark holiday in the world.)
Bottom line: know what you’re dealing with and be like oil on water with narcissists. There’s no truly getting mixed into something mutual with them, so I think it’s best to stay on the surface. Don’t try to change them, just glide–remain a whole globule.