What Is a Narcissistic Personality?

Hands of friends with coffee cups

Narcissism isn't simply vanity or egotism or selfishness. It's when a person is driven almost entirely by his own self-image and how he is perceived by others. His overly inflated ideas of his own prestige, achievements and all-around importance need constant reinforcement. He requires admiration and can't handle criticism. When chided, even gently, he can erupt into anger and name-calling. Trying to maintain a relationship with such a person can be exhausting. There's also the danger of falling into his web, subsumed into his egocentric worldview. Still, it's possible—especially if you understand what it is that you're dealing with. Bear in mind that even though insecurity and low self-esteem may be the underlying causes of a man's narcissism, they're often buried so deeply that he's convinced himself to believe his own bluster. At any rate, if he is in your life for any reason, you need to deal with his behaviors, not undertake his psychoanalysis.

Dealing With Him Without Losing Yourself

Preserve your own core values, your own character, your own personality when dealing with a narcissist. Don't let his steamrolling ego flatten you. Narcissists are notoriously thin-skinned, with values that are only skin-deep. Don't attempt to convince him with rational arguments. Logic has nothing to do with his behavior. He'll see your rational argument as an attack, and he'll strike back. Keep cool and don't let him flimflam you.

If you're trying to get an ex or current spouse to do the right thing, make a point of emphasizing what great "publicity" it will bring. If it's possible, let him believe he thought of this ego-boosting maneuver himself. Avoid direct criticism. It doesn't work and might bring on rage, vindictiveness and spite. Keep your own identity intact through any interaction. Stay on-topic. He may try to re-frame the conversation to gain control and/or change the subject to something more agreeable to him. At the same time, for the conversation to proceed at all, you may need to give him little affirmations along the way. Stay calm, even when he's trying to shut you down. Don't give him any excuses to blow his top and thus bring the dialogue to a halt. Sometimes, humor helps, but sarcasm never does.

Is This Relationship Worth All the Work?

Beware the narcissist disguised as Prince Charming. He may sweep a person off her feet. His charming behavior will win him admiration and respect—at least in the short run. Unfortunately, a charismatic narcissist can draw a well-meaning, loving soul into his own fantasies. She may even be convinced that he's as devoted to her as she is to him. But the lovable veneer wears away after a while as his deficiencies become more and more apparent. What this guy is really looking for is an acolyte, not an equal partner. He isn't good at the give and take that define a stable relationship. He can see other people (including you) only as extensions of his own ego. Therefore, he doesn't see anything wrong with crossing personal boundaries. He is capable of going through your mail, your belongings, your activities online—just to make sure you're staying within his tight little orbit. Define your own personal space in a firm but non-threatening manner. Stick to your guns.

When Silence Isn't Golden

The popular image of a narcissist is the blowhard who brags incessantly and obnoxiously to anyone who'll listen, but quieter versions exist too. Make no mistake; they still need others to prop them up, but their hostility comes across as more passive-aggressive, even furtive. It can take longer to pinpoint such a person as a narcissist, and in the meantime, you might be wondering what it is you've done to merit his scorn. In fact, this guy expects you to support his ideal idea of himself with no prompting. In other words, he expects you to read his mind through the layers of obfuscation wrapped around his damaged core. He can be very manipulative, in a behind-the-scenes kind of way. Once you're figured this out, you have the upper hand. As with any other narcissist, be firm, state your case, but don't let yourself get baited into an argument.

Co-Parenting With a Narcissist

Perhaps you need to keep up a connection with an ex because of your children's bond with him. He is an important figure in their lives, whether he's their birth father or not. Unable or unwilling to see through his bravado, to them, he's an apparently confident, popular, generous guy. They'll shower him with unconditional affection—which, of course, is the perfect relationship as far as he's concerned. At some point, though, his bubble is almost certain to burst. The children will inevitably start to show their own spirit of independence, therefore, in his eyes, "betraying" him. Be prepared. The narcissist whose self-image has been shattered can retaliate in nasty ways. Make sure your kids understand that this is not a personal attack aimed at them.

Children in "high-conflict" parenting situations sometimes think they are the ones to blame, that they've somehow done something wrong. Reassure them that this is not true, but do it without casting blame on the narcissist. Don't vent your feelings about him to your kids. They're children, not bargaining chips, and they're in a very vulnerable place right now. If you use them as sounding boards against your ex or use them to send him messages, he'll just turn it against you. Be the calm, stable parent. Set firm boundaries for visitations and interactions with the children. If he refuses to adhere to these rules, you may have to seek help from the court system. If the kids are consistently anxious and/or upset because of the co-parenting situation, consider family therapy.

No matter what level of interaction you're going to have with this man, it's important to carve out space in your life only for yourself. If you have a supportive network of friends or family, utilize it. If you have a skill or an artistic bent, express yourself with it. Take a course in a subject you're interested in. If nothing else, confide in a journal; keeping a record of your own thoughts and feelings throughout a difficult relationship can be of enormous help. And speaking of help, don't be afraid to seek it from a mentor, a therapist or a sympathetic pastor.