Communicating with narcissists . . . why do we bother? I’m exhausted just thinking about it. Between their penchant for tossing word salad, pathological lying, broken promises, deliberate provocations, pretzel twisting words, putting words in your mouth that were never there — it’s both pointless and exhausting. Unless, of course, the narcissist or borderline is making your divorce/custody case arguments by kindly documenting their crazy for you, in which case there’s some value in communicating. But only if you’ve got your emotions in check and know how to practice BIFF communication (brief, informative, firm,
friendly business civil). And only if you’ve broken your JADE habit (justifying, arguing, defending, explaining).
It’s important to be deliberate and precise with the words we use. Words have meaning. It’s how we facilitate comprehension and avoid misunderstandings. It’s how we negotiate getting our wants and needs met. It’s how we share ideas, teach and counsel others. One of my instant credibility breakers is when someone, say a visitor to the Shrink4Men Facebook page, posts a false or just plain wrong statement about me and my work and, when challenged, becomes indignant and accuses me of splitting hairs over their use of words. How many people reading this have had a narcissistic or borderline partner, ex or parent snap at you, “I know what I said, but it’s not what I meant!” when you call them on their BS?
Everyone uses words to communicate, including narcissists, psychopaths and borderlines. However, narcissists et al frequently use words differently than normal people (i.e., non-disordered) do. Not all narcissists, psychopaths and borderlines do the following things all of the time. But enough of them do often enough, which is why we write books and articles about these topics using generalizations. In my personal and clinical observations, there are five primary differences in how narcissists and other immature and unstable personalities communicate.
1. When narcissists and other abusive personalities engage in linguistic communication, the words and phrases they use often don’t mean what you think they mean. When communicating with or trying to mediate a dispute with a narcissist or borderline, it’s vitally important to understand what the words they’re using mean to them versus how they’re defined by Merriam-Webster. Always ask for clarification. For example, ask, “What do you mean by unfair?” Or, “How am I being mean? How am I trying to control you?” If they become angry when you ask for clarification, one guess as to why that is. If you catch them contradicting themselves when you ask for clarification, call them on it and note their response. Do they tell more lies? Play the victim? Become angry? It’s up to you whether you wish to persist or accept that this person is bullshitting you. If you accept the person is bullshitting you, then ask yourself if you want to be in a relationship with someone who’s neither willing nor capable of being straight with you.
2. They do superficial hyperbole, not depth. Narcissists and borderlines often seem emotionally intense, but their emotions are, in fact, shallow. You’re confusing pathology with passion. This is why they can climb the highest mountain top on Monday, declaring their undying love for you for all the world to hear. And be posting selfies with their newest soulmate on Thursday morning as you look at their Facebook page slack-jawed, head spinning. You weren’t their soulmate and they didn’t love you. Not in the adult sense of the word. The narcissist or borderline was high on the conquest of seducing you into loving them. After that, it’s downhill to Devaluation Station and the Discard Landfill. Again, ask for clarification when someone throws around words like “love,” “soulmate” and “never felt this way before” very early on in a relationship.
3. Their words are fleetingly temporal and audience dependent. Meaning their words have an expiration date. For example, they cease to have any meaning as soon as they get whatever it is they’re trying to manipulate and exploit from you. Furthermore, details and narratives change depending upon who the narcissist’s or borderline’s target audience is. I used to observe my narcissistic ex do this when he was trying to pitch his consulting or public speaking services. It was remarkable how he’d tailor his pitch to potential clients. This isn’t so uncommon in business. What I marveled at was how he tailored his professed values and beliefs to prospective clients. Values and beliefs tend to be consistent over time. People of integrity don’t morph their values to con others. It was chameleon-like. I also saw him do this with our friends and his own family. Even when he was retelling the same story to our social circle, which he did repeatedly, I was able to track the tweaks and embellishments. The truth doesn’t evolve or require embroidery. It’s steadfast.
4. They lie to survive and sometimes it’s just plain fun. Narcissists and other abusive personalities are typically habitual and pathological liars. They lie to avoid consequences for their bad and sometimes criminal behavior. They lie to seduce. They lie to recruit flying monkeys, negative advocates, cheerleaders and minions. They lie to feel important and superior. They lie get what they want. They lie to hurt and punish their targets of blame. Oftentimes, they lie simply because they enjoy it. Duping delight is “the near irresistible thrill some people feel in taking a risk and getting away with it. Sometimes it includes contempt for the target who is being so ruthlessly and successfully exploited. It is hard to contain duping delight; those who feel it want to share their accomplishments with others, seeking admiration for their exploits.” (Paul Ekman, 2009). Distinguishing fact from fiction with these individuals can be challenging. When in doubt, pay attention to their behavior not their words.
5. Narcissists don’t listen, they listen for. What do I mean by listening for? Rather than slowing down and listening to others in an effort to understand, show interest, caring and concern, to foster empathy and/or to try to equitably resolve conflict, narcissists and borderlines listen for information to weaponize and help them to better manipulate, control and exploit you. They listen for many things, but they’re not really listening to you. They don’t care how you feel or what you think unless it somehow impacts them. So what are they listening for?
All about ME! Whether it’s spoken or written communication, narcissists and borderlines are listening for whether or not what you’re saying is about them or affects them in some way. When they ask, “How was your day?” they don’t really care. If you take them at face value and actually respond with details of your day, they get angry and accuse you of only caring about work or impatiently tell you to get to the point. Asking about you is a perfunctory prelude to doing what they really want to do — talk at you about themselves, their feelings, their grievances and the people who are “victimizing” them (i.e., not kissing their ass, not appreciating their genius, generosity and selflessness, holding them accountable and/or people who see through them).
They’re listening for indicators that you have friends who admire and like you. Those people will need to be eliminated. The narcissist can’t have you believing you’re a good, competent person. Their control and ownership of you is dependent upon you believing that you’re rubbish and are lucky the narcissist or borderline puts up with you. They’re listening for any potential threats to their control and possession of you. Just because they hold you in contempt doesn’t mean they want anyone else to have you until they decide they’re done with you. This is another reason not to bother writing voluminous JADE emails and letters.
Odds are your emails aren’t being read and absorbed. Instead, the narcissist mines those communications in order to weaponize and exploit them. Remember, they don’t care about your feelings. They don’t care about the truth or objective reality. Narcissists and borderlines care about Their Truth, which is usually at odds with the truth.
Twist and ATTACK! They listen for trigger words. Narcissists and other high-conflict people are grievance gatherers. They enjoy feeling outraged, offended and aggrieved, which they use to justify their rages and abuse of others. It also fuels their victim narratives. Simply put, these people enjoy conflict. The attacks can be multipurpose. They can be used to guilt trip you, exploit money, time or material goods, to make you look bad or smear you to others, to feel superior or just to get their jollies from seeing you scamper about trying to soothe, please and appease them.
For example, I always, and I mean always, advise divorcing clients with kids to adopt a parallel parenting approach and Low Contact model of communication. Parallel parenting means you parent around and in spite of the other parent. You don’t share what goes on during your custody time (unless it’s a medical or other serious issue) and you don’t ask about what goes on in the narcissist’s or borderline’s home. This includes offering advice or letting them know how well the kids are doing with you. Here’s a common mistake:
Client: Hey, just want to let you know I’ve had tremendous success with son not using the pacifier. Here’s how I’m handling it . . .
NPD/BPD: Stop telling me I’m a bad mom! What makes you think you know what I’m doing! You have no idea about everything I do! You’re just a fucking deadbeat Disney dad!!!! WHO DO YOU THINK YOU ARE TELLING ME HOW TO PARENT MY SON!!!!!!!
Client: I’m not telling you what to do or criticizing you. Remember the dentist said to wean him off the pacifier and I just wanted to share something I’m doing that’s been working.
NPD/BPD: Who the hell do you think took son to all of his doctor’s appointments before you abandoned us?!?!?!?!?!? Do you think I’m stupid?!?!?!?!? You’re just writing this to make yourself look good for court. Don’t think I don’t know what you’re doing! YOU CAN’T ABUSE ME ANYMORE!!! YOU DON”T CONTROL ME ANYMORE!!!! I’m calling my attorney!!!!!
Client (typing): Hi Dr. T, do you have time to talk today?
Do you see where the client went wrong? To a narcissist or borderline, suggestions and advice are trigger words. They perceive advice as criticism. Two reasonably mature co-parents could have a discussion about eradicating pacifier use. With a narcissist or other emotionally immature and unstable personality, you’d be better off popping a pacifier in their mouth instead of trying to have an adult conversation with them about it.
All the better to manipulate you, my dear. Narcissists, psychopaths and borderlines listen for information that will enable them to manipulate and exploit you. This is especially true in the early love bombing stage of the relationship when they lavish you with laser-focused attention. They want to know your hopes, dreams, fears, regrets, painful childhood experiences, family history, relationship history and vulnerabilities. Initially, it’s useful information for the seduction in order to appeal to your ego and persuade you that you’re soulmates. Inevitably, all the information you share will be used against you. With their intimate insider knowledge of you they’ll go from building you up to tearing you down.
They’ll use your past to dismiss any complaints about their behavior. For example, “This is about your mother/father issues. Get help!” They also use this information to undermine your confidence and self-worth and to cause you to second-guess and doubt your own sense of knowing. When you JADE, you just give them more information to weaponize against you. This is one of the reasons so many competent mental health professionals recommend No Contact or Low Contact (if there are minor children) after ending one of these relationships. It’s not to punish the narcissist or borderline. It’s about no longer giving them the means to hurt, confuse and manipulate you. It’s also about giving yourself the time and physical and emotional distance to grieve and to begin seeing and thinking clearly.
Or, as I like to say, feed a fever, starve a psycho.
Dr. Tara J. Palmatier, PsyD helps individuals work through their relationship and codependency issues via telephone or Skype. She specializes in helping men and women trying to break free of an abusive relationship, cope with the stress of an abusive relationship or heal from an abusive relationship. Coaching individuals through high-conflict divorce and custody cases is also an area of expertise. She combines practical advice, emotional support and goal-oriented outcomes. Please visit the Schedule a Session page for more information.
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