With nearly 22 million people in North America affected by narcissistic personality disorder, chances are, you’ve either encountered a narcissist in your past or are currently in a relationship with one. They may be a parent, spouse, sibling, friend, or boss. They may even be a public figure you admire, such as a politician, entertainer, or athlete. Sometimes they’re easy to spot, with their extreme self-absorption, arrogance, and tendency to belittle or demean others. Other times, they can be on their best behavior, hiding behind a charming façade for weeks or even months while they manipulate a relationship to their advantage. If we allow ourselves to fall under their spell, we can quickly become entangled in a highly toxic relationship, where the fallout from ending it and being a victim of their wrath seems more daunting than staying put.
Are you already involved, or do you have the potential to be involved, with a high-conflict narcissist? Author of 5 Types of People Who Can Ruin Your Life and the co-founder of the High Conflict Institute Bill Eddy recommends using the WEB Method to identify these toxic and abusive people. WEB stands for a person’s words (W), your own emotions (E), and the person’s behavior (B).
Watch for language that demeans or insults others; displays arrogance, lack of empathy, or entitlement; and comments which split humanity into winners and losers.
Monitor your own feelings and emotions about the person in question. Pay attention to your gut! Narcissists will make you fearful, doubtful of your own competence or intelligence, or as though they’re “sucking up all the oxygen in the room.” Conversely, you should question any extreme feelings you have towards a person, such as awe beyond reason, feeling swept away by them, or believing them to be superior to you.
Note behavior that is aggressive, rude, entitled, or unempathetic. Does this person viciously attack others, especially in public? Do they demean them and make them feel inferior? If you are unsure if a person is displaying extreme behavior, Eddy recommends employing the 90 Percent Rule. As in, would 90 percent of people NOT behave in that way?
If you’ve identified a high-conflict narcissist in your life, you may be wondering how to end or reduce your relationship with them without incurring their wrath—which can be tricky. “HCPs are very sensitive to rejection,” Eddy explains. “They may interpret almost anything you do as insulting or threatening.”
If you’re ready, follow these recommended Dos and Don’ts to strategically extricate yourself from a toxic relationship:
DON’T tell a narcissist you’re ending or limiting a relationship because of their behavior. Treating it as a rejection or telling them there’s “something wrong with them” prompts vengeful behavior.
DON’T blame or criticize yourself (i.e., “It’s not you, it’s me.”) Doing so only reinforces a narcissist’s belief that you are inferior and they are superior.
DO focus on your differing or evolving styles, interests, and goals as a reason for ending or limiting a relationship (i.e., “I want to spend time with my family and less with colleagues.”)
DON’T make a big deal out of it. Treat the brief conversation as matter-a-factly as possible.
DO show simple respect for them, using words like respect, talented, or successful in your explanation.
DON’T feel you need to prove or explain your position if challenged. Simply state that your feelings are your opinion or perspective.
DO consult a therapist if the situation gets dicey. They can offer you guidance on ending a tricky relationship with a particularly volatile narcissist.
Finally, it’s worth noting that some relationships are easier to end than others—cutting off a narcissistic colleague is a lot easier than cutting off a narcissistic parent. But remember—no person inherently deserves to be in your life, especially if they are abusive or toxic to you. Set clear boundaries, surround yourself with supportive friends and family, and recognize that sometimes you need to sever ties, no matter a person’s relationship to you. It is one hundred percent okay to prioritize your mental, physical, and emotional health—no matter how anyone else might feel about your decision.
To learn more about how to identify and deal with narcissists, sociopaths, and other high-conflict personalities, check out Bill Eddy’s book, 5 Types of People Who Can Ruin Your Life.
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