Narcissism, Relationships

Dealing With a Narcissist? How to Make a Relationship With a Narcissist Work?

We encounter a lot of people in our lives that are incredibly self-centered, egocentric, grandiose, pretentious, thoughtless, and inconsiderate.

All of these describe narcissistic traits and people who only care about themselves.

Although it’s best to avoid these people, oftentimes, we find ourselves in situations where we have to deal with narcissists.

These narcissists could be a family member we have to live with, an ex with who we are co-parenting, a coworker, etc.

This article will help you learn how you can make a relationship with a narcissist work.

Ready? Let’s get started!

Narcissism as a Coping Mechanism versus Narcissism as a Personality Disorder

Today, the words narcissism and narcissistic are widely used in everyday conversation to refer to someone who is extremely self-absorbed.

This informal adaptation of a clinical term could be compared to the use of the word depressed. Many people use that word to describe their feelings of sadness. This is very different from clinical depression, which is a serious disorder.

Narcissism as a Coping Mechanism

Self-protection strategies or coping mechanisms represent unconscious psychological strategies that aim to shield us from our wounded child’s negative feelings and thoughts.

These coping mechanisms may include:

  • Overspending
  • Addictions
  • Binge eating
  • Overreacting when you feel even slightly rejected, dismissed, or abandoned.
  • Playing the victim
  • Playing the martyr
  • Holding onto resentments
  • Blaming others
  • Procrastination and using distractions
  • denial,
  • perfectionism,
  • people-pleasing,
  • control,
  • avoidance and withdrawal,
  • etc.

Narcissism can also be a coping mechanism. It’s not healthy, yet it’s extremely common.

In this sense, narcissism is not a personality disorder but an outcome of being raised by less-than-perfect parents.

Narcissism as a Personality Disorder

Outwardly, someone with NPD appears to be a self-obsessed individual who thinks they’re the most important person in the room. But this demonstration of grandeur and flawlessness is nothing more than a self-protection strategy to suppress the wounded child’s struggle with feelings of worthlessness, deep insecurity, and inferiority.

According to the DSM-5 Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, narcissistic personality disorder erepresents “A pervasive pattern of grandiosity (in fantasy or behavior), need for admiration, and lack of empathy, beginning by early adulthood and present in a variety of contexts, as indicated by five (or more) of the following:

1. Has a grandiose sense of self-importance (e.g., exaggerates achievements and talents, expects to be recognized as superior without commensurate achievements).

2. Is preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love.

3. Believes that he or she is “special” and unique and can only be understood by, or should associate with, other special or high-status people (or institutions).

4. Requires excessive admiration.

5. Has a sense of entitlement (i.e., unreasonable expectations of especially favorable treatment or automatic compliance with his or her expectations).

6. Is interpersonally exploitative (i.e., takes advantage of others to achieve his or her own ends).

7. Lacks empathy: is unwilling to recognize or identify with the feelings and needs of others.

8. Is often envious of others or believes that others are envious of him or her.

9. Shows arrogant, haughty behaviors or attitudes.”

In this sense, someone with NPD doesn’t just cause problems in other people’s lives, the person who has the disorder experiences distress and upset as well.

how do you identify a narcissist

Related: 13 Traits to Help You Spot a Narcissist Early On — and How You Can Defend Yourself Against One

How to Make Your Relationship With The Narcissist Work?

#1. Understand Why Narcissist Don’t Change

Narcissists don’t see their narcissism

The first and most important step in change is self-awareness.

Narcissists lack self-insight. They don’t understand how disturbing their behaviors are to others.

Without self-insight, the narcissist won’t see the necessity for change. The narcissist may even present himself as the victim or injured party, believing that it’s other people’s fault and that things would be so much better if others were to change.

Why Therapy or Counseling May Not Change a Narcissist?

Psychotherapy and counseling are only effective for people who recognize their role in creating their circumstances and are willing to change.

Sadly, this is rarely the case for a narcissist.

Examine your expectations when it comes to your relationship with the narcissist. Do you believe that with enough love and encouragement the narcissist will change? Did you try changing the narcissist before? How did that go?

#2. Let Go of Denial

A narcissist uses charisma and seemingly high self-confidence and high self-esteem to charm you and other people.

That is why it’s easy to be in denial as to what you’re dealing with.

You may even witness the narcissist treating other people completely different to the way they treat you, which further confuses you and even cause you to think something is wrong with you.

It’s important to recognize the narcissist for who they are in order to be able to evaluate what you need and what you are not getting in the relationship.

#3. Decide If You Are Ready to Work on The Relationship

Ask Yourself, “Can I Forgive and Move Forward?”

Before you decide to work on the relationship, you’ll need to forgive the narcissist for any past hurt.

It’s almost impossible to harbor resentment and maintain a good relationship at the same time.

Remember forgiving is never about the other person. It’s always about you. You forgive to free yourself and feel peaceful again.

Ask yourself, “Am I Willing to Work on Just Myself?”

You need to accept that you can only change yourself.

You need to also resist the temptation of falling back into old patterns and trying to change the narcissist.

This might seem unfair, but it’s also empowering to know that you are in control and that you don’t have to wait for anything from the narcissist.

#4. Detach with Love

Detachment is a concept that originated in Al-Anon.

It states that you can detach from an alcoholic’s behavior while not shutting off the person or your love for him.

Detachment is when you don’t make narcissism about you. This requires from you to:

(1) Identify narcissistic behavior in the other person, like acting in an arrogant or entitled way.

(2) Accept these behaviors and attitudes as part of narcissism.

So when the other person is demanding attention or special treatment, instead of feeling hurt or frustrated, you accept that this is what narcissists do: they demand attention.

When you remain detached – when you don’t take the narcissist’s behavior personally, you are neither accepting the blame nor reacting defensively.

In other words, you no longer react to narcissistic behavior or attitudes since you don’t expect the narcissist to act differently.

Related: 6 Healthy Relationship Tips For Couples (ACT In Relationships)

#5. Take Better Care of Yourself

When you are in a relationship with a narcissist, you can expect to get very little from them.

This is because narcissists are often so absorbed with themselves and their own agendas that they have little to give others.

Your task here is to take care of yourself and get your needs met elsewhere.

Taking care of yourself begins with lowering your expectations of this person.

Consider people in your life you can count on. If not, get to know people. Sign up for a yoga, or dance class. Attend a support group. Find a club of your interest.

Related: 45 Easy Self Care Day Ideas at Home for a Healthy Mind, Body & Soul

#6. Increase Your Self-Esteem

Dealing with a narcissist for any appreciable length of time can make you feel that you don’t count or don’t matter.

The following are some suggestions to help you boost your self-esteem:

* Start doing more activities that are self-affirming – activities that are about you and your own preferences, such as pursuing your own interests and hobbies, or doing something on your own terms.

* Face your fears and what causes you anxiety. Avoidance behaviors serve only to intensify your fears. The more you face what you fear, the more confident you become.

* Take care of your health and well-being. Eat healthy food, exercise, and get some quality sleep. A growing number of studies has shown the strong link between physical and mental health.

* Visualize how you will be a month from now, three months from now, six months, or a year. Set goals for yourself and work every day to achieve them.

Related: Raising low self-esteem: 18 Ways to Build High Self-Esteem

#7. Empower Yourself by Setting Boundaries

If what you’ve been doing is not working, you need to start thinking of ways you can react that are different from how you usually react.

Here are ways to set limits:

1. Learn to Say No

If you find it hard to say no to the narcissist, you’ll need to add the word “no” to your vocabulary.

2. Be Firm

The narcissist may not take no for an answer and become more demanding.

The best thing you can do here is to “stick to your guns” and restate what you’ve told the narcissist. There is no need to explain and come up with an elaborate excuse.

3. Imagine If The Situation Was Reversed

If you are having a hard time saying no, try to imagine how would the narcissist react if you asked for something? If he was refusing, would he provide you with an explanation?

4. Don’t Give In to Threats or Intimidation

Remember if you give an inch, the narcissist will take a yard.

5. Identify Narcissistic Behavior You’re No Longer Willing to Tolerate

Write down a personal declaration that you are no longer willing to tolerate specific narcissistic behaviors any longer.

You don’t have to share this statement with anyone. It is a way to empower yourself and remind you to set boundaries.

how to set healthy emotional boundaries

#8. Learn About Corrective Life Experiences

Although it is commonly known that narcissists are unlikely to change, psychiatrist Elsa Ronningstam (2005) emphasizes that “corrective life experiences” can sometimes change narcissists into compassionate human beings.

These life experiences include achievements, relationships, and disappointments.

Corrective achievements, for example, can provide the narcissist with the type of self-validation that he lacked as a child, which may help him let go of the need for constant praise or recognition.

Corrective relationships can help the narcissist set his sense of specialness or entitlement aside and cultivate a willingness to accept a partner for who they are. Empathic communication in such relationships can also help the narcissist consider their partner’s perspective and feel compassion toward them.

Corrective disappointments usually include hard life lessons, such as a loss of a job or a relationship, that help the narcissist realize that he has no one to blame but himself and consider his role in creating his circumstances.

#9. Maximize the Positives and Minimize the Negatives

Every relationship has its negatives and positives. This is one reason that many people find their relationships with the narcissist worth working on.

Or perhaps your relationship is with a family member or an ex, with whom you are co-parenting.

To maintain a good relationship, you’ll need to detach from the negative.

This means creating physical or psychological distance from the narcissistic behaviors, such as refusing to go to certain places with the narcissist, or refusing to discuss certain topics.

You’ll also need to connect with the narcissist in other areas of the relationship that you value.

For example, you may tell the narcissist that once they get home from their evening out, you would love to watch a movie with them.

Start by making a list of negatives you want to detach from and positives you value.


  • moodiness
  • bragging
  • using you
  • negative statements about you and others
  • monopolizing conversations
  • blaming you for their mistakes


  • desire for travel and adventure
  • certain hobbies and interests
  • enthusiasm
  • knowing how to take care of themselves

#10. Try Modified Assertiveness

Assertiveness is direct, respectful, and nondefensive.

You can express how you feel without sounding aggressive, judgmental, or manipulative.

Try doing the following:

1. Identify your feeling and simply state it, “I felt ___________ when you did___________ .”

2. Remind yourself that feelings are neither right nor wrong. They constitute your personal internal experience. You don’t have to explain and justify your feelings.

3. Notice how you feel afterward. A good assertive statement, shouldn’t leave you fuming or feeling guilty.

4. Keep practicing. Even if an interaction didn’t go well, try visualizing a different scenario where you see yourself assertively expressing your feelings. The more you see it your mind, the better your future interactions will go.

Keep in mind that confronting the narcissist directly may cause him to become either defensive or angry.

This is because narcissists usually take clear and direct assertive statements as an assault on their character, as in saying “How dare you attack ME.”

So you may need to modify your assertive statements in a way that will help the narcissist hear you.

The key is to show the narcissist empathy so he can feel heard, explain your perspective, and state your need.

Think of it as if you were dealing with an angry child who’s throwing a tantrum. You don’t want to give in to his demand, but you don’t want to escalate the argument either.


Narcissist: “I need you to stay late and finish this project.”

Assertive response: “I feel taken advantage of when you ask me something like this. I have plans for this evening I won’t be able to stay late today.”

Assertive response to narcissist: “I understand the dilemma you’re in about getting the project complete. But, I already have plans for this evening. Maybe I can come in early tomorrow and work on it?”

Related: How to Be More Effective in Relationships (Effective Communication)

#11. Be the Adult

Transactional analysis (Harris 1967) suggests that we all have three ego states: the parent, the child, and the adult.

For example, when someone makes critical remarks about you, they may be acting in the parental role.

Responding in the child role, you may throw a tantrum by yelling and screaming or by sulking or crying.

In the adult role, on the other hand, you deal with the person’s remarks in a calm way.

The optimal level of communication would be adult-to-adult communication. Sadly, the narcissist usually responds in the parent role (harsh, critical), or the child role (demanding).

Your goal here is to stay in the adult role.

non-defensive communication

#12. Model and Reinforce Appropriate Behavior and Responses

You can model more positive, empathic behavior without inciting a defensive reaction or an attack by acknowledging thoughtful, considerate, generous, or empathic behaviors performed by the narcissist.

This will give the narcissist what he really wants from you: your approval or admiration and reinforce more positive behaviors.

For example, you can say:

“I really appreciate it when you compliment me or acknowledge my work.”

“I really like it when you are so generous.”

“You really can be very caring and considerate.”

#13. Learn How to Deal with and Temper Tantrums Effectively

When the narcissist throws tantrums rather easily, try the following strategies:

  • Try to understand and empathize with the angry person’s perspective.
  • Speak softly, in a nondefensive way.
  • Don’t try to reason with the angry person or use explanations.
  • Create distance and ask for time to come up with a win-win solution.

If the narcissist is less prone to tantrums, you can use assertiveness to address the argument or simply choose not to walk away from the fight or at least wait to respond until the narcissist has calmed down and is more likely to hear you.

Related: How To Manage Your Anger In Healthy, Effective Ways?

#14. Keep Yourself Safe

Not all narcissists are physically abusive, but most violent abusers tend to be narcissists.

They may come up with excuses for their abusiveness as a means of blaming other people and avoiding taking responsibility for their behavior, as in saying “You pushed my buttons and made me hit you.”

If you find yourself in a relationship with a narcissist that has the potential for violence, you will need to keep yourself safe.

Contact the domestic violence counseling centers in your community and get numbers for twenty-four-hour hotlines and the phone numbers of your local police department.

Put together an emergency kit that you can grab quickly. Put things like your Social Security number, credit cards, checkbooks, cash, your medical insurance card, an extra set of car keys, and a list of emergency numbers.

Give a friend, trusted family member, a signal or code word that you will use if you need help.

8 Strategies for Managing Narcissists in the Workplace

While all narcissists at work can be challenging, the difficulty of the challenge depends upon how much influence they have and how many daily interactions you have with them.

A narcissistic boss with whom you have constant contact is more challenging to you than a narcissistic coworker whom you rarely see.

#1. If Possible, Avoid the Narcissist

The most obvious way to deal with a narcissist is to simply avoid them.

If they’re in the lunchroom, eat somewhere else. If their desk is next to yours, see if you can change desks.

If the narcissist asks you to do special favors, simply decline and remind them you are too busy doing your work.

If the narcissist invites you to do something after work, politely decline.

Related: 5 Reasons Why Narcissists Target Empaths – & How You Can Recover From a Narcissist

#2. Set Your Talking Points and Stick to Them

When you have to interact with a narcissist, rehearse the conversation in your mind beforehand and determine what exactly you want to achieve, and stick to that.

Don’t let the narcissist distract you with flattery or use you.

#3. Simply Do Your Job

The best way to protect yourself is to simply do your job and be known to your employer as a good employee.

Don’t get involved in office gossip. Simply excuse yourself and go back to your job.  Let the narcissist know that you are off-limits.

#4. Don’t Be Deceived by the Flattery

“Narcissists always have some way of drawing you in. Remember though, narcissists are like Las Vegas: a lot of flashing bright lights with tons of excitement, but you usually walk away the loser. Better to stay away if you can.” –  

Alan A. Cavaiola

If the narcissist sees something valuable in you for him, he will flatter you, projecting his fantasies of perfection onto you. That is until he no longer needs you or finds out that you are only human, then he will totally devalue you.

Don’t get taken in by the flattery and avoid opening the door to a relationship.

#5. Go Around Rather Than Through The Narcissist

If you need to work with a narcissist on regular basis, sometimes you may choose to avoid requesting certain things from the narcissist and seek someone with greater influence.

For example, if the narcissist is wasting a lot of time on a project you’re working on together, rather than asking the narcissist to speed things up and have to deal with their defensiveness, you may choose to go to the narcissist’s boss and ask the boss to ask the narcissist to speed things up.

For this, you’ll need to cultivate a strong networker with others who may have more influence over the narcissist than you do.

#6. Document When Necessary

This applies to threats but also big promises.

Narcissists are notorious for not following through on their promises, such as promotions, or taking care of certain tasks, especially when it becomes inconvenient for them later on.

If you receive a promise, document by sending an e-mail thanking the narcissist for the promise or the information.

Federal and state laws, and the corporation’s policies can be useful resources to protect yourself from the narcissist.

You can contact your department of human resources to find out more about these services.

Laws, such as New Jersey’s Conscientious Employee Protection Act (CEPA), also referred to as the “whistleblower statute,” protect against workplace bullying, be it physical or psychological (being harassed, “overlooked” for a promotion, or even being fired).

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission aims to protect people from racial and sexual discriminatory behaviors.

You can also contact an attorney who specializes in workplace law to get you the help you need.

#8. Identify Your Own Career Values and Goals

Focusing on your own values and goals will help you take effective action when it comes to dealing with the narcissist.

It helps you avoid the traps of the narcissist and aim for the higher things in life.

Start by identifying your long-term goals – where you see yourself five years from now, and then your short-term and daily goals.

Identifying your values can help you assess whether working with the narcissist is worth it or if it’s better if you left and worked somewhere else.

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Dealing With a Narcissist How to Make a Relationship With a Narcissist Work (3)


  • Portions of this article were adapted from the book The One-Way Relationship Workbook, © 2010 by Alan A. Cavaiola and Neil Lavender. All rights reserved.

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