Narcissism and self-absorption seem so prevalent these days. Some individuals never outgrow the egocentric childhood belief that their needs are the only important ones. They lack empathy and genuine interest in others. And they grow into adults with a sense of bold superiority and a desire for respect and admiration from others with little to offer in return. And if things do not unfold as they expect them to, they can become erratic, rude and lash out when criticized.
We meet them in our daily lives as friends and bosses, and we see this behavior in relatives and loved ones. It is common to feel unsettled, manipulated and always put upon or even put down by people who are so self-absorbed.
“As we grow, most of us learn that we aren’t the center of the universe, that other people have legitimate feelings and needs, and that we can’t always get what we want,” says Dan Neuharth, PhD, a licensed marriage and family therapist in the San Francisco Bay Area and expert on narcissism. “Developmentally, narcissistic and self-absorbed people haven’t yet accepted these realities or their limitations and therefore often respond to frustrations with a child’s repertoire: sulking, blaming, avoiding, manipulating, throwing a tantrum or acting out in other ways.”
“Their interactions tend to be about winning, being right and avoiding feeling one-down or out of control,” says Neuharth, author of If You Had Controlling Parents. “Hallmarks of this self-absorption are entitlement, lack of empathy and reluctance to take responsibility for one’s actions. Listening and learning are absent from that equation, so interactions with these self-absorbed people feel like a ripoff.”
Narcissists live and operate in a different world than most of us. It is important to learn how to establish healthy boundaries.
Tips for creating boundaries:
- View them with compassion. It may not be easy to be sympathetic but it may be better for your own emotional health. Contrary to popular belief that narcissism is extreme self-esteem, it can actually stem from fear, insecurity and lack of self-esteem. “Underneath their self-centeredness they are likely afraid of feeling flawed, powerless, unworthy or out of control,” says Neuharth. Knowing this may enable you to take their actions less personally.
- But don’t let them take advantage. Narcissistic and self-absorbed people are very good at getting what they want and you may find yourself always in the path of their needs. “If someone is repeatedly focusing on what you can do for them, you have the right to say no or tell them you will think about it and get back to them.” He says if someone is being pushy or critical, it can help to have assertive phrases ready such as, “I am satisfied I did the right thing,” or, “I will consider your ideas as well as mine.”
- Shield yourself emotionally. Since the narcissist in your life will likely think their ideas and approach are better than yours, prepare yourself for push back if you disagree or share a personal opinion — because their point of view is so firmly entrenched in the “I am right” position. “It may be a mistake to discuss personal matters,” says Neuharth. “You may be vulnerable to ridicule or being dismissed.” He said it is also unlikely to get a meaningful dialog going — unless it is you agreeing with them.
- Choose your reaction. It’s easy to get aggravated around self-obsessed people but it is also wise to change your expectation and realize that narcissists don’t have the same flexibility as you to step outside of their own way of seeing the world. Sometimes you have to humor them and play along to keep the peace (for example, if the narcissist is your boss). Sometimes you can listen politely and move on. In a relationship that is so slanted toward the needs of the other person, you sometimes have to pull away and observe behavior rather than reacting.
- Stop giving so much. Relationships with narcissists and self-absorbed people can be a one-way street but you can learn to not give in to selfish behavior. “If you keep giving to someone who only takes and doesn’t appreciate what you are giving, you are teaching them to be a taker, not a giver,” says Neuharth. Whether it’s a friend who is asking you once again to put your life on hold to help her with something or an uncle who dominates every family dinner with his opinions and doesn’t let you get in a word, it may be time to do less, give less, or spend less time catering to that person. Although it is difficult, you have to stop enabling their behavior — at least around you — so that you can focus on your own needs.
- Make yourself a priority. Narcissists and self-absorbed people believe the world revolves around them and they are interested in you insofar as you are revolving around them too. Some people would never think to tend to their own needs before the needs of others — the way a narcissist does. “If you’re not taking care of yourself, you will eventually have nothing to give and nothing to show for it except resentment,” says Neuharth. “Healthy self-care means boundary-setting.”
While you may not be able to stay clear of narcissistic people, you can try to focus on more balance in your relationships. “Ideally, your life is in balance and your relationships are reciprocal, with a mix of giving and taking,” Neuharth says. “In some situations or times in a relationship that balance may be skewed, but over time it is healthiest if it is relatively equal so both people feel they are getting a fair deal and their contributions, needs and rights are respected.”
-By Laurie Sue Brockway