Narcissism causes a person to be so preoccupied with their own needs that they don’t notice, or actively choose to ignore, the needs and feelings of others. Narcissism is closely linked to the need for admiration and outside validation. Almost everyone is narcissistic sometimes. For example, an otherwise loving parent might temporarily ignore a crying child because the parent is enjoying admiration and attention on social media.
When narcissism is a strong pattern of behavior that defines a person’s personality, they may be diagnosed with narcissistic personality disorder (NPD). People who love or work with a narcissist may experience abuse and neglect. Sometimes a person with NPD engages in gaslighting attempting to make a victim of abuse question their own reality. This can be a toxic cycle that destroys relationships, self-esteem, and even entire workplaces or families.
NPD is difficult to treat because so few people with narcissism willingly seek treatment. Yet people dealing with the fallout of interacting with a narcissist can and do get better with appropriate support and strong boundaries. A therapist can help you understand how another person’s narcissism affects your life, and then work with you to prevent that relationship from harming your mental health.
THERAPY FOR DEALING WITH NARCISSISM
People with narcissism are not sadists who enjoy harming others. Instead, they lack a coherent, consistent sense of self and attempt to seek self-esteem from admiration and attention.
Most people with narcissism don’t seek treatment. Some people with NPD create a detailed fantasy life, filled with hope for the future, to escape the disappointing reality they actually live. For instance, a teenager who drops out of high school may fantasize about his future as a famous writer. Pursuing treatment forces him to accept that this fantasy is not reality. Other people with NPD are able to achieve some success at work or in their home lives. They may be able to make others cater to their needs, obscuring the problematic realities of their behavior.
People in relationships with narcissists can get help from therapy even if the narcissist never changes. In fact, one of the main focuses of therapy may be helping the loved one of a narcissist to accept that they can lead a happy life even if the narcissist never changes their behavior. Therapy can help a person dealing with a narcissist to:
Understand and identify narcissistic behavior. Some people in relationships with narcissists think the abuse is their fault.
Identify the effects of the narcissist on their own thoughts and feelings. Children of narcissists may struggle well into adulthood.
Set clear boundaries with the narcissist. This may mean changing the “rules” of the relationship, changing how one responds to the narcissist, or ending the relationship.
Talk with others about the abuse. People who have survived narcissistic abuse sometimes struggle to tell others about the abuse or explain why they have chosen to end a relationship.
People with NPD may seek treatment when their behavior threatens something they care about, such as their relationship with a child or partner. In some cases, couples or family therapy may be appropriate—but only if the person with NPD also seeks individual counseling to deal with their diagnosis. When a relationship is abusive, couples or family counseling may not be effective.