Narcissists are experts at finding what bothers you and pushing those buttons. They seem to have an innate ability to exploit your weaknesses which makes it very difficult to stay calm when you’re dealing with them. But it’s precisely the reaction from you that they’re looking to get, so if you want to shut them down, you have to learn how to remain calm no matter what they throw at you.
The most important thing you can do is to not give them the reaction they’re looking for, and there are various tips you can use to keep cool. These range from breathing to adjusting your expectations. Even if you have to walk away to stay calm, that’s better than reacting the way they want.
Read on for a complete guide that will explain the narcissist’s motivation for trying to push your buttons as well as the various ways you can defuse the situation. It’s vital to fully understand the nature of the narcissist’s reasons for what they do if you don’t want to fall prey to their manipulation.
What’s Behind the Narcissist’s Provocative Behavior?
Because of the way that narcissism develops in the childhood of the person affected, narcissists lack what is known as object constancy. Object constancy relates to the concept that you can maintain a bond with loved ones even when they are not physically with you and despite the occasional conflict you might have with them.
This is developed along with what is known as object permanence. Children develop object permanence — the idea that an object still exists even though you can’t see it, touch it, or sense it in any other way — at approximately 2 to 3 years old. Once you understand object permanence, you can then develop object constancy which is more or less the emotional version of object permanence.
As a child, you develop an understanding that someone you love continues to be a presence in your life even when they are not with you. You still know they love and support you when they are out of your sight. Additionally, you know that they don’t stop loving you even when the two of you argue. When you have object constancy, you can be angry with someone even though you continue to love them and feel they are a positive presence in your life.
For the narcissist, however, they are not capable of object constancy, and so, when they develop negative feelings about you, they cannot understand that your love for them remains despite any feelings of anger. They also cannot hold feelings of love for you in their heart when they are angry.
How Does a Lack of Object Constancy Affect a Narcissist’s Behavior?
Because narcissists lack object constancy, all they can feel for you when they’re angry are negative feelings. That enables them to be incredibly cruel, and it’s also why a small issue can quickly escalate into a major fight.
Without object constancy, narcissists think in binary terms. You’re either good or bad, with them or against them. When you’re against them, you’re all bad, and they feel the need to not just prove their point but to totally crush you.
That’s why they will use any weakness they have learned about you against you during an argument. They will say the most infuriating things to push your buttons and make you feel insignificant.
Moreover, when you couple this problem with an inability to feel empathy, you can understand how the narcissist will say the most cruel things without compunction. They are also hypervigilant for any criticism of their behavior so although you might have thought nothing about something you said or did, to the narcissist, it can become a relationship-ending argument.
This is part of why you’ll likely find yourself walking on eggshells around the narcissist in your life. While it’s not necessarily a conscious act on the part of the narcissist, they are always on the lookout for anything that threatens to expose what they believe to be their flawed true self, and they will do anything to protect it.
Why Narcissists Fight Dirty
Fighting with a narcissist is not like fighting with a relatively healthy partner. As psychotherapist and narcissism expert Elinor Greenberg writes in her book, “fighting with a narcissist is a completely different experience to regular relationship quarrels.”
Narcissists quite literally live in fear of having their true self — something they believe to be worthless — exposed to the world. At the heart of that fear is the idea that if everyone sees them for what they really believe themselves to be, they will be abandoned.
That makes them not only fierce in an argument, but it primes them to take offense at the slightest hint of criticism, and they are hypersensitive so almost anything can be viewed as a critical comment to them. They frequently misunderstand something you’ve said because they filter it through the distorted lens of the false self they created when they buried their flawed true self as a child.
That’s why the narcissist will frequently fly into their characteristic rage at the slightest provocation or even for something you didn’t mean as a criticism at all. You’ll suddenly find yourself being called names or being iced out completely. This way of viewing the world is also what the narcissist uses to justify their bad behaviors like lying and cheating.
Once a narcissist comes to see you as the enemy, their lack of object constancy means they can’t continue to hold loving feelings for you at the same time. You are, in a very real sense, dead to them, at least until they once again need something from you. It’s all very confusing, so what can you do?
8 Techniques to Remain Calm When Dealing with a Narcissist
Let’s discuss several techniques to stay calm when dealing with a narcissist and deescalate the situation.
1. Remember to Breathe
When you are confronted in any situation, it can trigger your fight or flight nervous system. This is what prepares you for a life or death situation so your heart begins racing, your muscles tense, and your blood pressure rises. This can make for a big confrontation, but there’s a way to calm those responses down.
The opposite of the fight or flight nervous system can be thought of as the relax and chill nervous system. It’s formally known as the parasympathetic nervous system, and the switch to turn it on and the fight or flight system off is the vagus nerve. The vagus nerve runs throughout your body, and it innervates almost every one of your major organs.
This includes your lungs and your stomach. So if you want to activate the vagus nerve and stimulate your relax and chill nervous system, taking 10 deep breaths that expand both your stomach and your chest will do the trick.
This also gives you a moment to consider your response to any of the provocative statements the narcissist in your life might be making. By taking a moment to breathe deeply and calm down your racing heart and rising blood pressure, you can better respond in a way that effectively sidetracks the narcissist’s attempt to get a rise out of you.
You can use this technique any time you’re feeling stressed, and it will help you to relax. Once you’re feeling more relaxed, you can think more clearly about what you might want to say or do in response to the situation at hand.
2. Empathize with the Narcissist
I know, I know — the narcissist doesn’t have any empathy for you, so why should you try to empathize with them. Well, there are two very good reasons to practice empathy in this situation. First, it will soothe their rage when they see you are empathizing with them. They do respond positively to empathy — it’s part of why they are often attracted to empaths.
The narcissist wants someone who is focused on their needs and emotions. When you empathize with them, they will respond positively to your compassion which can deescalate the situation. The other reason it is a good tactic is that you are modeling empathy for them.
Narcissists need long-term therapy to truly improve their mental condition, but they can sometimes learn effective techniques for reducing their narcissistic tendencies. That’s not to say they will see you empathizing with them and suddenly become more empathetic themselves, but they can learn to try to better understand your feelings.
When you show them how it’s done, they can pick up on some of the techniques. At least they will know what empathy looks like in a relationship, and that’s a start. Many of the therapeutic methods that treat narcissism involve simply helping them to understand how to express certain emotions like empathy.
When you can model what that looks like for them, it can help them to become less narcissistic in some ways, particularly when you couple that expectation of empathy and compassion with strong boundaries.
3. Don’t Expect to Be Treated Fairly
Part of managing a relationship with a narcissist is managing your expectations. You are not dealing with an emotionally healthy person, and so, you can’t expect to be treated with fairness. You can think of a narcissist like a spoiled child, and in a sense, their emotional development stopped in childhood so they are still very much like a self-absorbed toddler.
Because they don’t have healthy identity mechanisms to self-soothe and support their own ego, the narcissist needs other people to do that. As a result, they come to see other people as simply being extensions of their own identity. They expect you to cater to them because they see you as a part of themselves.
They don’t see you as an independent individual who has your own rights and your own needs. They have instead come to see you as someone who should be focused solely on their needs even to the exclusion of your own.
In the narcissist’s mind, they have to always have everything their way, and they will give little ground in an argument. Their whole life has been an exercise in devising ways to manipulate and control the people around them, and they’ve learned that by hitting below the belt, they can cause you to lose your cool.
When you lose your cool, they are better able to control you. That’s why you have to know what to expect going into any discussion with a narcissist. Once you have adjusted your expectations, their unfair behavior will have less of an effect on your level of anxiety. You can understand where that’s coming from and keep calm even in the face of their narcissistic storm.
4. No Right or Wrong
When you’re dealing with a narcissist, if you make the discussion about what’s right and what’s wrong, you’ll back them into a corner. They’ll have no choice but to make you the one who’s wrong because they cannot accept having any flaws.
The narcissist will try to turn the argument into winning and losing, but if you get drawn into that, you’re going to end up utterly frustrated and stressed out. The narcissist’s self-esteem is too fragile to let anyone get the upper hand. They will continue fighting and escalate the argument if you make it about winning or losing or right or wrong.
What’s more, narcissists always hold a grudge, so if you do happen to dominate them in an argument, they will feel vulnerable which leads to anger and a desire for revenge. They will feel like they have to get back at you to restore the power balance, and the power balance in their mind means they have all the power.
So refusing to be drawn into a situation of what’s right or what’s wrong will save you from being frustrated in the moment, and it will save you a lot of trouble in the future.
5. Don’t Make it Personal
The narcissist is coming from a place of damaged identity. They have suffered trauma in their childhood, and that has had a lasting effect on their behavior and personality. They are not lashing out at you on a personal level.
Their behavior comes from a need to appear superior, in the right, and good at all times. This is because they don’t have a healthy sense of self. When they buried their true self long ago, they infused the false self they constructed with child-like grandiose ideas about what is good and right.
To prop up that false identity, they need other people to make them feel what they have had to tell themselves they are from a very young age. It’s not really about you or anything you have or have not done; it’s about them feeling a need to survive, a need to maintain the only identity they’ve ever really had.
If you can see through their bluff, you’ll see the frightened child behind those hateful actions and words. Now, you don’t deserve to be treated that way and you have a right to set strong boundaries, but they are not attacking out of some personal dislike for you or any kind of mean spirit. Rather, this is an emotionally immature child who has never known another way.
If you can understand what lies behind their behavior, you can keep your cool even if you need to distance yourself from that kind of treatment. They’re not acting the way they act or doing what they do to you; they are simply doing it because it’s all they’ve known to do to cope with life.
6. Distract the Narcissist
Another technique you can use when dealing with a narcissist is one they often use, distraction. If you find the topic of discussion is escalating or straying into an area you know will cause discord, you can try asking the narcissist about something different they’re interested in.
Narcissists love to show off their expertise on a topic, and if you ask them about it, that can de-escalate the discussion and calm everyone down. Another method of distraction is to ask the narcissist for advice. This is another way to give them an opportunity to show their intelligence.
This can be a very effective technique for getting the narcissist onto another topic and helping to keep the situation calm. It might feel like you’re manipulating the situation, and in fact, you are, but it’s different from the malicious manipulation of the narcissist.
7. Walk Away
When all other techniques fail and you know you’re going to lose it, the best strategy is to just walk away and go someplace you can calm down. Sometimes that is hard to do in the heat of an argument, but the reality is that you won’t win an argument with a narcissist.
No matter what you do or say, the narcissist will never admit they are wrong, or if they do, they will somehow find a way to blame you for their bad behavior. Walking away may be the only way for you to find some peace of mind and restore calm. If you understand that staying and fighting the good fight is a futile thing to do, you can see the wisdom of walking away.
8. Process Your Feelings
Another important thing to do is process the feelings that arise for you when you must frequently interact with a narcissist. After a long enough time of being emotionally abused, your own self-esteem and confidence can suffer, and it’s important to work through those feelings to avoid long-term trauma.
It can help to meditate and work through those feelings or you might prefer talking with a good friend. If all else fails, you can even seek professional help to work through the issues that come up for you. If you must continue to have the narcissist in your life and are unable to go no contact, you need to have an outlet for the feelings interactions in them will cause.
As part of processing your feelings, it’s also important to make sure you get enough time away from this toxic person. You need to have a good support network of loving family and/or friends to support you and help you work through your emotions. If that’s not something you like, perhaps getting out into nature is a better way for you to work through the trauma.
You need to take care of your own needs because it’s certain the narcissist won’t do that for you. Make sure to get enough exercise and have enough quiet time so you can destress and relax your mind and body.
Dealing with a narcissist is difficult and frustrating to do on a regular basis. Most people would tell you to get away from them and go no contact, but sometimes that’s not possible. The narcissist might be an elderly parent, a child of yours, or someone you love despite their problems. You simply might not want to go no-contact.
If that’s the case, you have to know how to stay calm even when they are intentionally provoking you. You have to constantly be the adult in the room while a selfish, spoiled child rants at you. It’s not easy to do, but these techniques can help you to keep from losing it and work through the issues they constantly bring up.
Given the way a narcissist treats you and constantly provokes you, you might be forgiven for wondering if they even care about you at all. Read this article about whether they care about their family to gain valuable insight into how they think of even the closest people in their life. It will help you understand their behavior better.
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