What A Narcissist Says (And What They Really Mean)
“Even if the argument wasn’t a big deal, he’d make it a big deal,” Amber says. “He was incapable of saying, ‘Sorry, my bad. Let’s move on.’ If I brought up something, he’d counter with something that I did. I’ve been in plenty of relationships where the occasional argument strayed into that territory—with [my partner] bringing up my issues—but with him, it was something else.”
We weren’t able to speak with Amber’s partner for this piece, but his actions are in line with typical narcissistic behaviors.
“To manipulate and control others, narcissists will often play the role of the victim,” Raichbach explains. “When another person objects to their behavior, they will turn the situation around and act like they are the one that is being mistreated or misunderstood. If the other party feels guilty, they are less likely to challenge the controlling nature of the narcissist and allow them to continue influencing their decisions.”
Similarly, narcissists often project their own faults onto their partners. That can make for some frustrating arguments.
“Projection occurs when an individual attributes a characteristic that they see in themselves onto another person,” Raichbach says. “It’s a defense mechanism that is used by narcissists, most often after they have suffered some blow to their ego. By shifting the blame from themselves onto another person, they both feel better about themselves and have fuel to continue their narcissistic behaviors.”
What they say: “You should be ashamed about…”
As a narcissist becomes more comfortable in a relationship, he (or she, but statistically speaking, most narcissists are male) will often key in on his partner’s insecurities. This is often the point where the non-narcissist realizes something’s wrong.
“Bullying and demeaning others is a favorite manipulation tactic of narcissists,” Raichbach says. “Often, narcissists will get to know you well enough that they can target the insecurities that they know have the most effect. They also might attempt to conceal or downplay the severity of their abuse by including compliments with their attacks.”
Some research (link opens a PDF) suggests that men use insults as a broader strategy of mate retention—in other words, insults are sometimes an effective (but by no means healthy) part of relationship maintenance.
Amber says that’s what’s so frustrating about these tactics; ultimately, narcissists use them because they work.
“The best way to deal with a narcissist is to recognize and accept their criticism and bullying comes from a place of insecurity, and therefore isn’t valid.”
—Sal Raichbach, PsyD
“He really damaged my self-esteem,” she says. “He knew what made me self-conscious, and he wasn’t above using my insecurities to his advantage. But I stayed with him—in fact, it took me a while to date anyone else after our relationship ended. I didn’t think I was good enough. I guess I can blame him for that.”
What they say: “I’m sorry. I’m going to change. It won’t happen again.”
At this point, we should acknowledge an important point: Narcissists aren’t sociopaths. They’re typically capable of empathy, and when they realize they’ve made a mistake, they may offer a sincere apology.
Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean you should accept that apology.
“Narcissists live in a world where everything revolves around them, and as a result, they put their needs first,” Raichbach says. “Someone who is in a relationship with a narcissist, whether that be a romantic relationship, a friendship, or a co-worker, should know that they are not going to be able to fix or change that person’s behavior.”
While apologies might sound convincing, they’re worthless without real change, and narcissists aren’t always capable of changing on their own. That’s not to say that the situation is entirely hopeless, but be careful when approaching a person with narcissistic tendencies; don’t use terms like “narcissist,” and try to empathize with the motivations behind their actions.
“When approaching a narcissist about their behavior, it’s best to tread lightly when expressing your concern,” Raichbach says. “It’s important to realize that this kind of behavior comes from a place of insecurity and low self-esteem, and will typically become defensive when someone tries to call out their narcissistic behaviors.”
“The best way to deal with a narcissist is to recognize and accept their criticism and bullying comes from a place of insecurity, and therefore isn’t valid,” he adds. “The narcissist only wins when an individual believes that they are inferior to that individual.”
If you really want to help a person with narcissistic behaviors, try to gently guide them toward therapy. Consider relationship counseling with a trained, certified psychologist who may be able to recognize the signs of narcissism.
Of course, there’s always another option: You could simply end the relationship. If your partner isn’t prepared to get help, that’s sometimes the only realistic course of action.
“Narcissists can get better through therapy, but typically they are resistant to treatment because they do not recognize their behavior as a problem,” Raichbach says. “The only way for a person with narcissistic tendencies to get help is to want it themselves.”
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