Narcissists Thrive on Controlling Others—Here’s How to Safely Get Your Power Back

Narcissists Thrive on Controlling Others—Here’s How to Safely Get Your Power Back

Whether you’re on NarcTok or not, you’ve probably heard of narcissism before. It seems that more and more people are realizing they’ve dealt with a narcissist, especially (but not exclusively) in romantic relationships. They’ve noticed certain signs of narcissistic abuse, such as feeling undermined, unsure, and manipulated with a cycle of idealization and devaluation. While these feelings don’t always point to narcissistic abuse, they can be common indicators—and are just straight-up sh*tty.

Dealing with a narcissist, someone with narcissistic personality disorder, or even someone with narcissistic tendencies can be difficult, to put it lightly. That goes for any kind of relationship, too, including one with a narcissistic parent, friend, or coworker, for example.

“Being in a relationship with a narcissist, or someone on the narcissism spectrum, can be tricky, exhausting, and painful,” says Janet Bayraman, LCSW, a licensed trauma therapist based in Los Angeles. “It’s harmful being in a relationship with a narcissist as the narcissist will do anything to have you question yourself.”

And that can lead to a plethora of negative effects on your mental health. High levels of anxiety, depression, low self-esteem, complex PTSD, isolation, and feeling helpless are examples listed by Natalie Jambazian, LMFT, a Los Angeles-based therapist specializing in narcissistic abuse recovery and the author of Detoxing from A Narcissist. In the midst of so much confusion and pain, how can you take control away from a narcissist?

In This Article

  • 01

    Signs of a narcissist

  • 02

    Can a narcissist change?

  • 03

    What shuts down a narcissist?

  • 04

    What not to say to a narcissist

  • 05

    Can you ignore a narcissist

  • 06

    How to take control away from a narcissist

  • 07

    What happens when a narcissist loses power?

What are the signs of a narcissist?

Identifying a narcissist is the first step to getting control back. Some common behaviors of narcissism, according to Jambazian, include:

  • A lack of empathy
  • Manipulative, calculated behavior, such as gaslighting, guilt-tripping, shifting blame, and playing the victim
  • Entitlement or believing they deserve special treatment and are above the law
  • Disrespecting boundaries and criticizing people for setting them
  • Needing the “3 As”—attention, admiration, and adoration—from everyone
  • Refusing to take responsibility and/or an inability to see themselves at fault
  • Pathological lying
  • Unpredictable moods, in which they’re kind to you one day and give you the silent treatment the next

Bayraman adds that a narcissist will use forms of manipulation and control—such as blackmail—to serve their own needs and desires. Isolation is another form of manipulation, which she says “can make it harder for the victim to recognize the abuse and seek help.”

Yes, abuse is often a piece of the puzzle when it comes to narcissism. “Remaining in a relationship with a narcissist will result in abuse, often of many sorts,” says Eamonn McKay, LMFT, an Octave therapist who specializes in narcissistic abuse recovery and trauma.

Not everyone who shows those signs has a full-blown case of narcissistic personality disorder, however. That diagnosis requires five of the following nine criteria to be present:

  • A grandiose sense of self-importance
  • A preoccupation with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love
  • A belief that they’re special and unique and can be understood by, or should associate with, other special or high-status people or institutions
  • A need for excessive admiration
  • A sense of entitlement
  • Interpersonally exploitative behavior
  • A lack of empathy
  • Envy of others or a belief that others are envious of them
  • A demonstration of arrogant and haughty behaviors or attitudes

It’s important to note that these signs may not appear in the way you’d expect since there are nine types of narcissists. For example, the victim narcissist, or the vulnerable narcissist, may present as being constantly hurt.

Again, not everyone with narcissistic traits has a true case of narcissism or narcissistic personality disorder. “For instance, there is a healthy narcissism necessary when we consider ourselves expert at something, a teacher or leader in some field, or if we’re giving a TED Talk, for example,” McKay says. “But this precociousness or some realized rare talent about which we might be suitably proud would not be sufficient to attract the diagnosis of narcissistic personality disorder, even if we might display certain traits of this disorder.”

One sign McKay wants to clarify is gaslighting, given its buzzy nature. His favorite description is that gaslighting is “an elaborate and insidious technique of deception and psychological manipulation, usually practiced by a single deceiver, or ‘gaslighter,’ on a single victim over an extended period.” Over time, the victim’s confidence in reality and their own truth becomes completely undermined, making them completely dependent on the gaslighter.

Can someone with a narcissistic personality change?

The answer isn’t too promising. “Most narcissists don’t change because they don’t see a problem in their actions; rather, they believe other people are the issue,” Jambazian says.

The only time they’ll change, she continues, is if they hit rock bottom and lose everyone and everything in their lives. If and when they do seek therapy, it can be helpful—to an extent. McKay says this is true especially as they age, when certain characteristics of personality disorders tend to ease. One technique that can be beneficial is “mentalizing,” or realizing how their actions and attitudes impact others.

Implementing dialectical behavior therapy (DBT)—a type of therapy that helps people accept their reality and learn to change their behaviors—is another option, McKay says. It addresses mood dysregulation, interpersonal stress, and positive interventions, such as mindfulness. “But the changes can be minor, the number of individuals for whom it can prove effective relatively small, and any treatment requires that the individual have sufficient insight to realize they have the disorder, and to be willing to work on this,” he clarifies. And research shows this is challenging at best for most people with narcissistic personality disorder.

Bayraman agrees that change depends on the individual’s motivation, level of narcissism (remember, narcissism exists on a spectrum and some people have more traits than others), and amount of insight. “With introspection and reflection, individuals with narcissistic traits may become more aware of the underlying insecurities and vulnerabilities driving their behavior,” she adds. “This increased self-awareness can be a crucial first step toward change.”

It’s incredibly difficult (and often futile) waiting for a narcissist to change their ways. So oftentimes the more feasible solution to improving your situation is taking your control back from a narcissist. “Change won’t happen if the individual with narcissistic traits continues to receive external validation and reinforcement for their behavior,” Bayraman says.

What shuts down a narcissist?

1. Setting clear boundaries on what is and isn’t okay with you

Narcissists are used to getting away with unacceptable behavior. Put them in their place by setting clear boundaries and actually enforcing them. This could look like “I will not be spoken to with that disrespectful tone and language. If you do it again, I will leave the room.”

Setting boundaries can easily upset a narcissist. While their anger or displeasure at your boundaries might be uncomfortable, it’s a necessary step at breaking their control over you. “Survivors have to be ‘okay’ with having [the narcissist] becoming resentful and angry,” Jambazian says.

They’ll probably still try cross those boundaries, Jambazian continues, “but the boundaries are set for you, for you to feel a sense of empowerment without the expectation [the other person] will change.”

2. Responding versus reacting

Basically, “responding versus reacting” means regulating yourself before responding to a trigger in an emotionally activated way. (Easier said than done, but also worthwhile.) This might look like taking a few deep breaths before answering a provoking or insulting question, or proactively clearing your mind through journaling to help you get on a more even keel before dealing with the latest problem a narcissist dumped on your lap.

“Narcissists thrive on emotional anger from you,” Jambazian explains. “They think they have ‘won’ when you are upset and outraged.” She adds that by not giving them “narcissistic supply,” aka others’ validation, compliments, and other forms of attention, you shut them down.

3. Talking and sharing as little as possible

Jambazian recommends disengaging and not sharing anything, especially your vulnerabilities, achievements, and any other personal information. “Stick to superficial topics,” she says. “Start gradually distancing yourself and do not engage with them.”

4. Putting your wants and needs first

To be clear, this is different from narcissism. By giving yourself some power and control, you’re taking back what’s yours. A few examples of this, Bayraman shares, include firmly setting boundaries in the face of their resistance, prioritizing self-care, and engaging in activities that bring you joy. She also encourages keeping yourself at an arm’s length from a narcissistic person so you don’t fall into their traps. (And if you do, give yourself grace and self-compassion!)

5. Don’t feed into their tactics

People with narcissistic tendencies often fish for validation and attention from others, whether that looks like talking endlessly about their accomplishments or constantly sharing “woe is me” stories. Bayraman encourages you to avoid feeding into that by engaging with them as it only encourages them further.

6. Consider saying one of these phrases

  • “That is your perception; it is not my reality.”
  • “I see things differently.”
  • “Your response is noted.”
  • “I won’t engage in this behavior any further.”
  • “I hear you.”
  • “I am not able to accommodate your request at this moment.”
  • “Okay.”
  • “I am not comfortable with this conversation.”
  • “We have addressed this already.”
  • “My position on this hasn’t changed since we last spoke, and I won’t be influenced to see things differently.”
  • “You have my answer.”
  • “I’m ending this conversation now.”
  • “I’m not interested in competing with you.”
  • “I’m prioritizing my own needs and boundaries.”

Say those therapist-backed statements over and over again, too, if needed. That’s basically the “broken record technique,” which is an assertiveness skill.

FYI, there are times when these statements won’t necessarily be your best option, though. “Obviously, you want to be judicious here, and not shut down discussion on important issues that may need to be addressed and which may vacillate in urgency, such as finances, for instance, or childcare,” McKay says. “If your position on an issue must change—and the change is not solely to benefit the other party—then be judicious and flexible to a degree, but never to the point at which change harms you, or inconveniences you.”

What shouldn’t you say to a narcissist?

Unfortunately, a lot of (fair) things you might want to say to a narcissistic person aren’t in your best interest. Jambazian lists examples such as calling them a narcissist, saying they’re gaslighting you, or sharing feelings like “You make my life miserable.” These kinds of statements and reactions can feed their ego, she explains, and they will likely deflect blame on you.

Bayraman shares similar sentiments, like not criticizing them, trying to expose them, or making ultimatums. “While it’s natural to hope for change in a relationship, attempting to change a narcissist is typically futile and may lead to frustration and disappointment,” she says. “They are unlikely to respond positively.”

In short, what feels potentially helpful may not be, and vice versa. Jambazian encourages you to spend your energy on alternatives that work.” (More on what that looks like below!)

Can ignoring a narcissist be an effective strategy?

Plain old ignoring a narcissist might not help end their control over you, because they might still have access to your person—and you can still potentially see their messages (texts, voice mails, etc.), Jambazian says. Rather, go no-contact if possible.

“No contact means they don’t have any contact with you, including blocking them on social media, text, and emails so you won’t be able to know if they did in fact reach out,” Jambazian explains.

Merely ignoring them can also lead to scary situations. McKay says it can result in an intensification of their attempts to provoke you, which could look like continuing to reach out to you, ignoring demands to leave you alone, and invading your space unexpectedly.

They may also bring in other people and twist the narrative. “For instance, they may say to their ‘flying monkeys’—friends and others who have aligned with the narcissist, often playing the roles of their eyes, ears, protectors, and fellow agents of chaos—that you are refusing to speak with them to avoid discussing an important matter, and these others might then also reach out to you, often angrily so, or calling you out on social media, seeking to put pressure on you to engage, ‘do the right thing,” as such,” McKay adds.

If you fear they may engage in some sort of violence, it’s critical to ensure your safety. One option is contacting the National Domestic Violence Hotline by calling 1-800-799-SAFE, texting “START” to 88788, or chatting with an advocate on the site.

Bayraman adds that ignoring the narcissist may not be the only solution for every case; it may need to be coupled with other tactics. She agrees that ignoring a narcissist can cause them to become more aggressive and also doesn’t address underlying issues in the relationship. Ultimately, do what you need to do to be emotionally and physically safe.

How to take control away from a narcissist

1. Understand their tactics

Be mindful of when their words are a form of manipulation rather than a helpful truth. More specifically, Bayraman encourages asking yourself when and how they’re trying to bait you to fall into their trap of gaslighting and manipulation. Signs you’re being manipulated aren’t always obvious, either, and can include guilt-tripping and love bombing, among others.

2. Go no contact or low contact

This is your best option, Jambazian says, if you don’t share kids. “Low contact works when you have kids,” she continues. “Less engagement helps survivors heal and thrive.”

McKay agrees that saying nothing is the most effective conversational strategy. “If you can avoid engaging with a narcissist in any way possible, do that,” he says. “Silence can never be misquoted.”

Many of us know how bad “ghosting” feels, though, or are familiar with the guilt family can put on us for not spending enough time with them. If you feel bad, remind yourself you’re doing the right thing. “Sometimes it is necessary to ghost [loved ones]—in the short- or long-term—to provide space, a time to recenter on our needs, and perhaps even develop strategies to place explicit boundaries on these individuals,” McKay adds.

3. Detach from them emotionally

Beyond knowing their tactics, realizing their actions and words aren’t personal can be helpful when you have to interact. While it’s hard, try to avoid taking their cruel words to heart.

Further, take care of yourself outside of that, too. “By prioritizing your own needs and emotional health, you reclaim your power and create space for personal growth and healing,” Bayraman says.

4. Practice “DEEP”

McKay sums taking control back well with the acronym “DEEP.” It stands for don’t: Defend, Explain, Engage, or Personalize. This technique is a way to help you emotionally protect yourself from the hurtful tactics of a narcissist, and can be a helpful reminder when dealing with one directly or indirectly.

As tempting and understandable as those urges can be, they’ll only further the narcissist’s “work” and leave you feeling worse.

5. “Grey rocking”

In a nutshell, the grey rock method entails giving little reaction. “As noted above, responses such as ‘Okay,’ or ‘Noted’ or ‘I’ll get back to you’ are perfectly valid and complete responses,” McKay affirms. “We are refusing to provide them the ammo to intensify their provocation.”

If you can’t go no contact, this is probably your next best option, though it’s not perfect (and nothing is). “This doesn’t work all the time, but the goal is for them to become disinterested,” Jambazian explains.

6. “Yellow rocking”

Yellow rocking is basically grey rocking plus politeness, in which you add words like “please” and “thank you.” Jambazian says it works well when co-parenting.

It can also be helpful if you have to go to court later on. “Courts can perceive the very limited responses inherent in the grey rock approach as potentially leading to lack of clarity, this in itself often intensifying tensions between the parties,” McKay adds. “The yellow rock approach can seem friendlier, more amenable, less ‘you get this and nothing more.’”

7. “Firewalling”

Like a firewall you might see on your laptop, protect yourself and details you want to hold close from the narcissist. “You don’t share any information with them so that they don’t use it against you later,” Jambazian says.

8. Document instances of abuse

When the narcissistic person crosses your boundaries, or does anything abusive, documenting what happened can be useful. This goes for both personal and professional relationships.

In a work setting, McKay also urges seeking intervention from management or HR if the abuse doesn’t end. He adds that seeing a therapist because of a case of narcissism at work isn’t unusual, either, so it’s another option.

9. Seek support and professional help

While you can’t force a narcissist—or anyone, for that matter—to go to therapy, you can consider doing it yourself. “Dealing with a narcissist can be emotionally draining and isolating, so it’s important to reach out for support from others who can provide validation, understanding, and perspective,” Bayraman says. “This may include friends, family members, support groups, or a therapist who can offer guidance and strategies for coping with narcissistic behavior.”

McKay recommends a therapist who has extensive experience in trauma and personality disorders.

What happens when a narcissist loses power?

Since narcissists crave a sense of power, losing it can be a blow to their ego, leading to narcissistic injury, says Bayraman. “They may experience feelings of humiliation, shame, or inadequacy, especially if their self-esteem is closely tied to their sense of power and control,” she says.

While taking those steps is crucial, be prepared for it to be tough, too. They may act out in a harmful way. “Once they lose control, they will become aggressive, they will devalue you, they will insult you, and they will victimize themselves,” Jambazian says. “You may experience abandonment or the silent treatment, and they may be resentful of you and use a smear campaign to damage your reputation.” Bayraman adds they may try to intimidate you, manipulate you, or coerce you. Their acts of violence may become physical, as well.

Their reactions aren’t always aggressive and external, however. When their crafted images are fractured at work, McKay says, they may feel so devastated that they leave the company or cut off the accuser. “They so dislike their true, inadequate, shameful selves being made overt, that these drastic responses actually are common,” he continues. Those fractures that show their true selves may look like a weakness in an overt narcissist, he explains, or abusive characteristics in a vulnerable narcissist.

Then, they may look for other sources of narcissistic supply. Bayraman says this may look like seeking attention, admiration, or validation from other people or in other places. In some cases, she says, they may eventually adapt, reassessing their priorities and developing new coping strategies.

But again, your best option—and what to focus on—is to limit contact, conversation, and emotional reactions as much as possible. “The rule here is to be judicious in responding, protect your integrity in the interactions, such as only giving what is necessary to respond to any request for information,” McKay says, “and taking measures to ensure your physical and emotional safety if risk to yourself is a concern.”

Written by Living Smarter

Living Smarter is a leading well-being lifestyle development striving for excellent user experience by providing quality information about trending supplements on the market.

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