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Dealing with Difficult People

Article written by Dr Amanda Ferguson

For a person with narcissistic PD - it is all about them. The main thing they seek is attention. They will probably confuse you - because they ‘blow with the wind’. That is, whatever they think will serve them in the moment is what they will say and do.

This is the time of year when we often feel forced to deal with that most difficult person - whether family, friend or other. These people are most likely on the spectrum of personality disorder - commonly narcissist (lacking empathy), borderline (impulsive), histrionic (dramatic) or dependent (infantile) personality. They know they are right, they’re entitled, enraged, manipulative and rigid. They often lie, cheat and argue as easily as they breathe. We often feel confused, conflicted, frustrated and guilty when trying to deal with them.

What are we dealing with and how do we get through this?

Firstly, personality disorders (PD) are common, and they range from low to high levels in many people. That is, people can have some traits, a lot, or have a classic personality disorder. The current edition of the DSM-5, an international mental health manual, classifies these people in clusters of personality disorder. This means, some people may have traits of more than one disorder.

So, while an ex-president of the USA might be a classic narcissist, our family member, friend or boss might not be. As adults, we are most prone to being attacked and susceptible to people with personality disorders if we had a parent with one of these disorders. This is because it typically causes a blind spot in us – which we can resolve.

What can we do?

If you are trying to understand the mindset of these people, it’s important to spend time away from them. Relax and detach. Do some research and weigh up what traits they seem to have. Talk about this with a trusted friend or health professional.

For a person with narcissistic PD - it is all about them. The main thing they seek is attention. They will probably confuse you - because they ‘blow with the wind’. That is, whatever they think will serve them in the moment is what they will say and do. For that reason, they will often contradict themselves - even in the same sentence.

The stages of realising and dealing with difficult people

In the first stage - we typically suffer, go along with, adapt too much to fit in; appease. We may feel a range of disempowered feelings - from passive to aggressive.

In the second stage - we are awakening to something being wrong, bad or too hard to deal with in this person. We try to understand and try to make sense and yet we can't - because it doesn't make sense in a normal person's mind. We start to feel frustrated and try to work around the person or try to break free. We may feel ‘fight or flight’ feelings.

In the third stage - we ideally look at our part in this entanglement; we take ownership for our own blind spot that led us to be in this relationship. We may realise that we were born into and find our self in this bind as a family member. Be it personal, work or other relationship, this is typically a super-charged phase of the connection with such a person.

In the fourth stage - we realise we need to learn how to detach from these people - and from other people we will meet with personality disorders. It helps to go back to any childhood attachment – for instance to a parent - and release this emotional charge or attachment. We often feel that its bad or wrong to detach; we may feel guilty. It isn't wrong – it’s just different; it’s change.

In the fifth stage - we find ourselves being able to deal with these people in a transactional or superficial way. This is all that is possible with these types of people. It’s critical to remember that a normal relationship is not possible with an abnormal person.

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 and 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. This can end up being quite a healthy discussion or debate when managed well.

  • Silence is consent – so it’s important for your self-respect that you do say something. They won’t understand what you’re doing – when you do it easily.

  • Once you can do all this comfortably, you’ll find you can also stand up to a narcissist and disarm them successfully.

For standard responses - try phrases that mean nothing (other than to yourself) and that don’t seem to 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)

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