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I’m going way out on a limb here.
Not everyone is going to like this point of view, but I’m going in deep because I want us to step into our power.
I’ve been thinking about a good friend. She attracts narcissists because she’s willing to give up the spotlight and keep everyone else happy. Every time we talked, she’d list the latest reasons why her current partner was a narcissist.
She spent hours reading articles so she could connect his actions with narcissism. Explaining his narcissistic behavior to her partner certainly didn’t result in any self-discovery and recovery. Yet, day after day, she stayed, enduring the verbal abuse and gaslighting.
So I asked, “What if he is a narcissist? Like, what if a doctor met him today and gave him that exact diagnosis? What would change?”
She said, “Then I would be right. How I’ve been treated is wrong.”
I asked, “Can’t the behavior be wrong without a diagnosis? Don’t you know if how you’re being treated is wrong? Who would know except you? Are you accepting this behavior so you can be right or avoid responsibility?”
Sidenote: If you’re going to be a friend of mine, you don’t want to ask me questions if you don’t want a direct and responsive interaction.
She was quiet for some time. She then shared the truth that she never thought in terms of her wants or expectations. She was taught to keep others happy, which is a narcissist’s dream.
She realized she was focused on the wrong person. She wasn’t getting what she wanted and he wasn’t willing to bend—regardless of whether he was a narcissist. She was hitting her head on the same brick wall over and over, and she had the power to change it.
That’s the day she stopped the narcissism research. She started asking herself (in small ways at first), what she truly wanted and desired in a relationship rather than what she was willing to tolerate. That was a huge A-HA for her. She knew she had the power to change how she was treated although it meant making choices—choices she avoided by researching diagnoses and other people’s stories.
Get yourself back to you. It doesn’t matter if the other person is a narcissist, bipolar, manic, or whatever label we choose to define them…our work is the same.
The label is a distraction.
While it’s great to empathize and understand other people’s points of view, it’s not necessary for us to do what’s good for us.
When we label others, we might actually be trying to justify why we’re putting up with their behavior. We distract ourselves from the real problem; we’re allowing the mistreatment.
No label or diagnosis is going to get you what you want. You’re the one with the problem. Even if they’re a narcissist, they aren’t bothered by their behavior and will almost certainly never change because you think they should. You’re the one dealing with the anger, disappointment, and abuse—not them. The great thing about being the one with the problem, you’re also the one with the power to change it.
If you’re tired of linking behavior to mental-disorder labels, here’s how to step into your power in any relationship:
1. Non-negotiables list.
Everyone needs a list of things they absolutely will not accept in a relationship. For me, this includes no abuse of any kind. I also require honesty and do not accept name-calling or yelling in arguments. We need to dictate how we’re going to be treated.
2. Ask for what you want clearly.
The most romantic thing my man can do is tell me exactly what he wants. I don’t have to spend time guessing or doing things I think he might want. Keep in mind he may not always get it. However, at least you know. If it’s truly a non-negotiable, this may not be the relationship for you.
3. Have the hard conversations.
Look, the last thing I want to do when I’m angry or upset is be vulnerable and put my feelings out there, especially to the object of my anger. I often take a break to process, then return with clarity about what I want, unclouded by intense emotion. This way, I can be sure this is truly what I want and need and stand by it.
4. Try to see the two of you on the same side.
It’s not you against them, it’s both of you against the challenge. This maintains our empathy while remaining clear about the impact of the situation and what we need from it.
5. Create boundaries—it’s a requirement for healthy relationships.
Boundaries—ick. Despite teaching and coaching about them all the time, I can still cringe when I think I have to make them. However, boundaries are loving connectors. “Good fences make good neighbors” is about boundaries. We can make loving boundaries that actually lead to more trust rather than separation. It just takes a little practice.
6. Enforce the boundaries.
If you’re dealing with someone with a mental disorder, and frankly, even with a perfectly healthy person, you’re going to have to enforce boundaries. This is not about punishing the other person; it’s about keeping yourself safe. You don’t have to change their behavior. You have to remove yourself from the pattern so you can be safe. This might mean leaving the room or it might mean leaving the relationship.
The important thing is you get to decide. You have the power to choose what is truly best for you. That doesn’t happen until we stop looking for the problem in the other person and look at ourselves.
Whether this person has a diagnosable problem or is just an arse, you’re still in charge of your part in the relationship. You don’t have to prove that they’re wrong. You have to choose what you are willing to tolerate. You’re the only one responsible for ensuring you’re treated the way you want to be treated.
Author’s Note: I realize there are people (especially women) in situations deprived of power or safe choices. Please do not take this as shaming or blaming. There are powerful people who are extremely abusive and leaving them can be life-threatening. If this is you, I send love and hope. Please reach out if possible to organizations that might be able to help. See The Center for Domestic Violence, Trauma, and Mental Health for a list of support services.