Managing Your Narcissism – There can be change, there should be hope.
Managing Your Narcissism
Preface to any narcissists reading this: By recommending that you read this I am not intending to imply that you are ignorant or deficient in some critical manner. There’s a good chance that you already know a lot about the topics I mention here. However, at a basic level, narcissism is a habit of mind, a habitual way of thinking and acting. Changing habits is not easy. Reading this material is a gentle reminder to the mind to consider broadening and expanding the coping skills you are using to manage your life. If you want to improve a relationship you will have to change some of your behaviors that impact the relationship. This article is a start.
Recently I had an interesting moment in a therapy session. My client- let’s call him Joe- was stuck in a difficult moment. Joe is a diagnosed narcissist– he accepts the label and understands it very well. He loves his wife and family but is on the brink of losing everyone. His wife and kids are tired of dealing with Joe’s narcissistic behaviors. Joe has come to an understanding that his habitual narcissistic behavior damages the connection between him and those he loves. And he has persisted, until recently, in behaviors that could destroy his important relationships.
“But what exactly do I do? When I feel myself sliding into my old habits, what should I do?” Joe looked into my eyes, pleading for help. This is a rare moment for a therapist because those who are truly narcissistic resist looking like they might need something from someone else. A narcissist sincerely asking for help is not common.
I told Joe “There are things you can do to change your narcissistic behavior patterns but it’s not a simple answer. It’s a long road and you will not do it perfectly, especially at first, but you can do it.”
My answer was encouragement for Joe to keep going, which seemed helpful in the moment. It was by no means a concrete action plan. In the long run, Joe would have been better helped by having and implementing steps to help him manage his narcissistic behavior patterns. This article is a longer answer for Joe. It isn’t long enough- that would take a book- but it is at least a bare-bones outline of preliminary steps in managing narcissistic patterns.
If you are reading this, it probably means that you, like Joe, have been told by someone that you are a narcissist and you want to preserve and improve an important close relationship. Or perhaps you are reading it because you are in a close relationship with someone you suspect is a narcissist- I hope this helps you understand.
Narcissism isn’t necessarily a bad word. It isn’t an automatic death sentence for relationships. Unmanaged narcissistic behaviors, however, do not lead to deep connections and often result in a relationship ending. Like all personality traits, narcissism works in some contexts and doesn’t work in others.
Joe was very successful in business. He bragged that his narcissism allowed him to be tough-minded and make the right decisions even when it might be unpopular with his colleagues. He brought the same tough-minded approach to being a husband and father. Tough-minded (others often experience it as insensitive) is not always a bad thing. And, it is not always a good thing. Problems arise when narcissistic choices damage relationships that the narcissist highly values. If the narcissist does not change the harmful behaviors damages will continue to accumulate. Over time, relationships can crumble under the accumulated stress.
When folks like Joe end up in my office it is usually due to a relationship crisis with a significant Other. In this article I will use the word ‘Other’ to represent an important person to the Narcissist. The Other is usually an intimate partner but the Other can also be a child, parent, close friend, colleague, or anyone valued by the Narcissist.
We diagnose narcissism by observing and understanding observable and measurable behavior over time. If there is no narcissistic behavior, we won’t diagnose anyone as narcissistic. It’s the same as diagnosing drug addiction, depression, or anxiety- people behave in ways that can be described by a diagnosis.
Solutions to managing narcissism require behavior change. The narcissist must reduce narcissistic behaviors and increase more skillful behaviors. This isn’t rocket science but it can be very frustrating- narcissistic patterns exist for good reasons and they can be very hard to alter.
Narcissistic behaviors develop as coping skills, safety systems, designed to protect and enhance the personality. Threat management is how the system cultivates safety.
Narcissists learned at an early age that openness = vulnerability = dangerous. This means interpersonal distance = personal safety. The narcissist’s defense system keeps the Other away from the deepest interior of the Narcissist. Likewise, for safety’s sake as well as for a narcissistic disinterest in others, the narcissist does not normally venture deeply into the inner world of the Other.
Narcissism is, by definition, self-centered. When a self-centered approach hasn’t worked well for you, you will need to first notice that it isn’t working and then do something that is not self-centered.
That will mean doing more to connect with and understand the Other. Connection requires more behavior that is engaging and open and less behavior that is controlling and defensive. Connection usually entails listening, communicating empathy and interest in the Other, talking about your own insecurities, and doing small things that express caring to the Other. These skills can be learned.
There are a zillion books written on the topic that would be adequate. I would strongly recommend that you start by reading a little e-book on relationship skills. (Here’s a link to the pamphlet on Amazon.com. Click this if you want to get a hard copy.) The book is very short, well-written, pragmatic, and will help you get started on the road to improved connection with the Other. I recommend the e-book version because you can keep it on phones, computers, and tablets. Refer to it often, especially after something has gone poorly in a close relationship. It can help you figure out how to handle things better.
Here are the 5 topics covered in the pamphlet:
Avoid the Four Horsemen – Learn how to stop Criticism, Defensiveness, Contempt, and Stonewalling. Researchers have found that high levels of the Four Horsemen will ultimately destroy a relationship, hence the apocalyptic reference. All of us fall into these toxic strategies now and then when we feel we are under attack or that we will be hurt or lose someone important. Narcissists use Criticism and Contempt when they are on the attack. If the Other attacks the narcissist, the narcissist will often slip into Defensiveness and Stonewalling for protection. The e-book offers antidotes, alternative behavior patterns, for each of the Four Horsemen.
How to be a Great Listener – A guide to really hearing and understanding what your partner is trying to say. Listening is probably the most common deficit for Narcissists. They often do not even think to ask about the Other’s world. They can be blind to the Other’s overt efforts to be heard and understood.
Small Things Often – A daily guide to the specific small behaviors (like texting ‘I love you’) that create stronger bonds. This section focuses on little things that you can do that will create an atmosphere of connection and understanding between you and your Other. Very doable, very practical advice. But you have to do it, it won’t work if you just read about it.
Aftermath of a Fight – key steps to making repairs and getting back on track after regrettable incidents. This is a critical skill that many relationships, narcissistic or not, handle poorly. All couples occasionally have unfortunate moments- you would have to both be in a coma for nothing to ever go wrong between you. What research has found is that the aftermath of a disagreement contributes either to strengthening or to weakening the relationship bonds and each individual’s trust. Amazingly, when you handle the moments after a fight skillfully, your relationship gets better, not worse.
Relaxation – Learn the simple methods for self-soothing and reducing stress. Scientists in research labs have hooked up actual couples to multiple biometric instruments in order to record what actually happens at the physiological level when we are engaged in an intense emotional conversation. After a few decades of research we understand that it is a mistake to attempt serious communication when one or both partners are flooded with intense emotion. Flooded people do not problem-solve well nor do they communicate as well as they normally can. Instead of saying emotionally loaded stuff to a partner, we instead need to politely disengage, effectively calm down, and talk shortly thereafter. This section of the e-book offers some recommendations for easy, healthy ways to efficiently calm down.
So, there you go, Joe, a longer, more adequate answer. It works if you do it. I wish you all the best in your journey toward more effectively managing your narcissism.