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Dealing with Difficult People

Updated: Jun 27, 2021

Difficult people typically have personality disorders: narcissism, borderline, histrionic, avoidant and dependAnt.

Narcissistic people, in particular, rarely enter counselling. Rather, the people in relationships with them do, as they suffer in trying to relate with these abnormal people – who may be parents, friends, bosses, neighbours etc.

What is a Narcissist?

If someone in your life makes you feel wrong most of the time or needs things to be done their way most of the time or simply is right most of the time, then you may be dealing with a narcissist. Many people have narcissistic traits (i.e., less than five in the check list below) making relationships with them difficult. It is impossible to have a normal relationship with someone who has a full Narcissistic Personality Disorder. People who maintain a relationship with them are either doing so for strategic reasons or have personality or mental health issue themselves. The full disorder is so dysfunctional that it is virtually impossible to cure. This is because inherent in the diagnosis is the belief by the narcissist that there is nothing wrong with them – that everyone else is at fault. Underlying this behaviour is a lack of sense of self and hence a continuous need for attention and to feel good about themselves. There is a difference between sexes: males initially present as leaders or charismatic and become aggressive when challenged; females often present as martyrs or needy who become rigid, aggressive or victims when challenged.

Check List For Narcissistic Personality Disorder (DSM-5) A pervasive pattern of grandiosity (in fantasy and behaviour), 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 favourable 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 behaviours or attitudes.

Dealing with Narcissists strategically

  • Never threaten their territory: that is them and what they care about or believe in. If you don’t agree with them, you are challenging or threatening to them. They will attack or insult (known as the narcissistic insult’).

  • Use ‘light and breezy’, ‘it’s all good’ approaches/tones – because they are non-threatening.

  • Come up with standard responses in advance and practice rolling them out. These are to deflect, disarm and stop the narcissist in their tracks. Then change the subject quickly to what you want to focus on or back to them or what they care about/ believe in. This can end up being quite a healthy discussion or debate when managed well. Silence is consent – so its important for your self respect that you do say something. They won’t understand what you’re doing – when you do it easily.

Try phrases that mean nothing (other than to yourself) and don’t disagree with the narcissist, such as:

  • ‘Yeah, you get that don’t you?’

  • ‘Oh how about that?’

  • ‘ Yeah – there you go (and say to yourself ‘again’)

  • ‘You may be right’… (and say to yourself ‘or you may be wrong’) ‘That’s true… and’ (change the subject)

Analogies: * Use the analogy of an iron fist in a velvet glove when dealing with them – i.e., be totally tough without them realising it. Soon you’ll be running rings around them. * They are often like two-year olds throwing temper tantrums * Pick your fights – you can’t win all – so just pick the important ones to you – and use these strategies * They are like puppies – they will spew or piddle abuse (termed ‘emotional vomit or incontinence’ in psychology and psychiatry) and ‘chew your best shoes’ – so quarantine and don’t share your most precious information or they will try to destroy it.

Dark soul mate: I devised the term dark soul mate many years ago when working with my clients. It refers to the healing opportunities of relationships with these types of people: because they connect with dark or hidden wounds in ourselves, thus so must we in order to process and recover from the encounters with them. In turn, this can be a catalyst for us to do the deeper work on our original wounds from childhood or early adulthood. In a more spiritual slant, they can be seen as a soul mate in our healing process.

What is a Co-Narcissist? Sir Winston Churchill: “An appeaser is one who feeds a crocodile – hoping it will eat him last.”

Articles: (Please click on links below to read following articles.) Narcissism and the relationship with proneness to shame, Amanda Ferguson, PhD. (1996) Co-Narcissism: How We Accommodate to Narcissistic Parents, Alan Rappaport, PhD. “This article introduces the term “co-narcissism” to refer to the way that people accommodate to narcissistic parents”. Rappaport uses’ the term narcissism here to refer to people with very low self-esteem who attempt to control others’ views of them for defensive purposes. They are interpersonally rigid, easily offended, self-absorbed, blaming, and find it difficult to empathize with others. Co-narcissistic people, as a result of their attempts to get along with their narcissistic parents, work hard to please others, defer to other’s opinions, worry about how others think and feel about them, are often depressed or anxious, find it hard to know their own views and experience, and take the blame for interpersonal problems. They fear being considered selfish if they act assertively. A high proportion of psychotherapy patients are co-narcissistic. The article discusses the co-narcissistic syndrome and its treatment, and gives case examples of patients who suffer from this problem.”

Books: ‘Trapped in the mirror: Children of narcissistic parents’. Elan Golomb ‘Working with Monsters: How to identify and protect yourself from the workplace psychopath’. John Clarke ‘The Happiness Trap: Stop struggling, start living’. Dr Russ Harris


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