This is really common among people who are caught up with toxic people like narcissists and psychopaths. We might often get frustrated and exasperated that we can’t seem to reason with them, we can’t “get through” to them despite explaining things very clearly and rationally.
Why can’t we do this? Are we doing something wrong? Is there a way to reason with narcissists or psychopaths?
Whenever you are getting exasperated trying to reason with a narcissist or psychopath, it’s because they’re only interested in the context (power dynamics) of the interaction, whereas you are focused on the content (facts) of the interaction. It is pointless to try and reason with disordered people, because they are not interested in facts, logic or reason, and are instead feeding off the negative emotional reactions of others.
This in a nutshell is why it’s completely pointless to try and reason with a toxic, disordered person, since their goal of toxic interactions is completely at odds with those of a sincere, honest person. Therefore any attempt to engage with them on the level of sincerity and genuineness (including using logic and reason) is a complete waste of time and energy.
They’re not interested in that, and we’ll go into real detail in the rest of this article to explain why. Once you understand how people with Cluster B disorders (the category of personality disorders that includes narcissism and psychopathy) think and operate, it becomes very easy to see what they’re up to, and we can disengage and detach much quicker.
In this post you will also see lots of quotes from Richard Grannon, because he nailed this context/content split as regards toxic interactions perfectly many years ago. He’s the best person I’ve found in the Cluster B abuse recovery space to give you conceptual frameworks that allow you to drop the naivety and get streetwise to personality disordered people’s real intentions and motives, so you can drop these people and move on quicker with your life.
Let’s unpick the entire issue of attempting to reason with narcissists and psychopaths in more detail, especially the futility of it.
Narcissism Is Based On Denial
The foremost point that needs raising here in regards to narcissist is their entire identity is built on a denial of reality, not it’s acceptance.
Therefore, if you’re trying to reason with a narcissist around a topic where to accept reality would be to break their delusional view of themselves and the world, you are ALWAYS going to lose.
As to why narcissists are this way, it’s important to have a little background theory on how the narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) is formed. It’s fair to say that narcissists are in a sense also victims as well as predators – they had a very traumatic childhood to make them the way they are.
We cover what some of this abuse that creates narcissism can entail in another post, but one of the defenses adopted by the child in response to this trauma, is to deny and block out reality, because they cannot handle how traumatic it is, and are too young to fight back or assert their own independence.
The problem is, this denial of reality becomes a firmly ingrained habit – because in their mind, they MUST do this to survive. The environment they are in as a child is too traumatic/abusive not to.
Now it hopefully becomes a little easier to see why narcissists can be so awkward and stubborn to deal with when trying to reason with them – if what you’re saying clashes with their false self image, you’ve got ZERO chance of getting through to them, no matter how well reasoned you are.
Personality disorder expert Richard Grannon puts it this way:
“In order to survive (their childhood trauma), the (narcissistic) child builds a shell around themselves. The shell keeps reality out. Reality, data and facts and truth are the enemy. SOME data gets through the shell, but only that which validates the pre-existing (narcissistic) self image.
And other data that comes through that can be transformed on it’s way through the shell to validate the pre-existing false self image will be. And all the rest – ALL the rest – is ignored.
That’s why you’ve had the experience of dealing with a narcissist, and finding them to be very very stubborn, very stiff, and NOTHING gets through to them. They just cling stubbornly to that delusional version of themselves…..
….The formation of their personality is one giant NO. It’s a negation (of reality). They must fight like hell to keep reality at bay. And they’ve been doing this since they were very very young. They don’t know any other way of existing.”
This is a more foundational reason why trying to reason with a narcissist is a waste of time, especially if the topic of discussion is one that, for the narcissist to accept your reality, they’d have to let go of their own grandiose, narcissistic self image. You’re dealing with a full grown adult who’s still operating with the defenses they created as a 3 or 4 year old child. You’ve got no chance!
Another Trap Of Trying To Reason With a Narcissist/Psychopath (Alternative Explanation)
Although this somewhat goes against the denial point raised above, it also forms part of some people’s experience with narcissists that they DO know full well what’s going on, and are simply “playing dumb” to string the other person along and exasperate them.
In this context, the trap of trying to reason with toxic people like narcissists/sociopaths is that they already know full well what is going on.
Therefore logic, reason and information will NOT fix the situation with them.
It’s a game that’s being played out by them, the goal of which is to drawn you in, get you annoyed and exasperated, and have you on the defensive, wasting energy trying to reason and defend yourself.
“The more chaos inducing communication and the more chaos inducing behavior we get from (the narcissist/psychopath), the more we push the pedal down on reason, rationality and information.
We’re like “No no no, just let me explain to you, let me just give you the right data, let me just give you the right information”, with this fallacious nation behind it, that if they just understood more, they would stop (the toxic behavior).
They understand perfectly. They understand the situation perfectly, believe me”
It’s also useful to understand the concept of narcissistic supply with all the Cluster B disorders (especially narcissism, but applies to all of them) – the mechanism by which these people “feed” themselves psychologically and prop up their false self image and fragile psychological state.
Supply most often consists of some kind of adoration, attention or other thing which feeds their grandiosity, but if this kind of “ego stroking” fails or isn’t available, they will resort to provoking, attacking and annoying others to feed themselves a kind of “backup” supply.
Cluster B disordered individual’s psychology is sick and inverted at the core, and therefore they are psychologically inflated when they see negative (not positive) emotional reactions in others (anger, annoyance, exasperation, anxiety, desperation etc). They get a kick to see others annoyed and upset.
Therefore, once an interaction or relationship with a narcissist/psychopath has turned toxic, trying to reason with them – and getting more and more annoyed and exasperated doing so – is giving them what they want. It’s feeding them “supply“. By trying to reason with them, you’re falling into their trap.
Context vs Content With Narcissist/Psychopaths
One conceptual framework that’s great for understanding how narcissists and psychopaths operate in their interactions and communication is the context/content split.
For Cluster B disordered people, CONTEXT is always more important than content.
Let’s define content and context separately to demonstrate what is meant by this.
What is Content?
In terms of interactions and communication, content is simply what the word suggests – the actual objective content of a situation – the actual things done, the actual words said, and so on.
- Who actually did or said what
- Whether stuff happened or didn’t happen
- What was was said or not said
- Who’s responsibility something really is/was. Who’s to blame (if anyone)?
What is Context?
In terms of relationships with disordered people like narcissists and psychopaths, context could be described as the interpersonal power and attention dynamics of the interaction or relationship. Who’s in control, who has the power, where’s the attention and energy going?
Here are some examples of what context could be interactions with toxic people:
- The power dynamics – who’s in control of who in the interaction?
- Positive interpersonal dynamics – adoration, admiration, affection, and (sexual) attention (of particular interest to narcissists, who feed off this)
- Negative interpersonal dynamics – who is provoking or upsetting who? Is someone inducing a negative emotional reaction out of someone else?
- The EFFECT that communication has on people (not the substance or reality or truth of the communication). Cluster B disordered people are students of the effect their behavior and words has on other people. That’s why they’re so good at inducing negative reactions in people – they’ve been observing and practicing it their whole lives.
- In terms of personality disordered people, bring this under one umbrella – am I occupying this person’s mind/thoughts, in either a positive or negative way? Is so, then they have power and control over that person, which is what they want.
Bottom line – In confrontation encounters with narcissists, sociopaths and other disordered people, they are NOT interested at all in the content of the conversation (who did/said what, who’s “right”, facts, logic, reason). Instead they are ONLY interested in the context of the interaction (interpersonal power dynamics – most often whether they’re managing to annoy, irritate, exasperate or upset you).
As long as they have you wasting energy and getting agitated trying to reason with them or defend yourself with clear logic and facts, they are still controlling you. You’re interested in the content of the situation; they’re only interested in the CONTEXT and power dynamics.
It is crucial for people tied up with personality disordered people like this to grind this insight into their sensibilities, so you can disengage and detach from these abusive, crazy-making scenarios more quickly without wasting your energy, as well as detaching from the entire relationship once you see these abusive dynamics playing out.
Naive vs Streetwise Responses When Dealing With Narcissists/Psychopaths
People often want to see what this looks like, so let’s break it down into two simple examples of dealing with provocative, reaction seeking Cluster B disordered people. Like a before and after – before you realize who they really are and how they work, and after, when you’re wise to them and don’t waste your energy engaging with them anymore.
BEFORE – Naive response – You spend minutes or hours trying to reason with a narcissist or psychopath, carefully and conscientiously putting together timelines, facts, who said/did what and when. Or sincerely pointing out in simple, clear, rational, step-by-step terms how what they did/said was wrong and hurtful etc. It’s like you’re diligently putting together a report for your boss! You waste your energy engaging with the toxic person, sincerely pleading with them to see logic and reason. You wonder whether there’s some “perfect” combination of words that can “get through” to them. The more you do this, the more they deny reality and ramp up their crazy-making behavior and gas-lighting. It may almost seem like the more exasperated you get trying to reason with them, the more they seem to enjoy it, get a kick out of it, be “fed” by it. After days, weeks, months of this pattern playing out, you may step back and realize just how much time and energy you’ve wasted trying to reason with this person.
Or something like this will happen if they provoke you:
“The narcissist (or sociopath) reaches out with a provocative communication, with the intent of upsetting or hurting you…..The victim gets their adrenaline spiked….they become angry or anxious or depressed….The victim feels instantly, neurotically compelled to redress the balance…and they reply way too instinctively, way too quickly, with way too much emotion….trying to use reason where there is none….
….(The victim feels): ‘I have to drop everything and answer straight away and send through a 500 word essay about what they just said was wrong, and it was wrong, and they shouldn’t and it was unfair, and this is because of this, and also when you say that to a person that means X etc etc.’
And you’re psycho-babbling and philosophizing and you’re pouring out all this stuff. And the (narcissist/sociopath) is sat back going “Ha ha ha ha! Got ya!”.
You’ve given them exactly what they want. Because you’re showing them you’re upset. You’re showing them you’re in an emotional state.
The narcissist/sociopath then goes into an emotional high….and they learn that this works, and they keep it in their toolbox. Effectively what we do over time is we teach the (toxic person) what hurts us….Don’t teach what hurts them what hurts you”
AFTER – Streetwise response – Once you understand better the Cluster B disorders – their insincere and exploitative nature, and the context/content split – you drop the naivety and wasted sincerity and disengage from these interactions and relationships much faster. You understand that THEY understand perfectly, and are just stringing you along to feed themselves “supply“. You disengage from crazy-making interactions immediately. If they send a provocative text or email, you don’t respond trying to “correct” them (that’s actually what they want) – block them and end the relationship if you haven’t already. No wasting time trying to reason, no getting upset/agitated – it’s “goodbye” – clunk, phone down, walk away, don’t respond. Easy – you just saved yourself a load of time and energy!
Moreover, once this clicks with you that this has crazy-making pattern of communication has been going on a while, you leave the relationship right away, no if’s, no buts, no discussion, no engaging. You pack your stuff and leave, or you pack their stuff and throw them out. Or it’s simply “goodbye”, put the phone down, block them on all platforms, and never speak to them again. They still try to engage – it’s “goodbye”. They try to recontact, either quickly or after some time – ignore, block, goodbye. Once narcissists and psychopaths know you are onto them, they tend to disappear anyway and move onto the next unsuspecting target, for the same cycle to repeat all over again.
“When communicating with the insincere, you must abandon all sincerity”
How To Deal With A Narcissist or Psychopath
Given what we’ve covered so far, here’s some summary pointers on how to deal with narcissists, sociopaths, or other personality disordered people:
- Bottom line – you cannot reason with narcissists/psychopaths. They feed off the negative reactions of others, and are not interested the content of what is actually happening or what was said/done.
- Above all, stop with the sincerity, naivety and gullibility when communicating with narcissists and other disordered people. Understand how they operate, and how logic and reason are irrelevant to them, and grind it into your mindset.
- Don’t engage with their attempts to provoke, annoy, goad or irritate you. Use the DEEP technique below as a good framework.
- Don’t attempt to appeal to things like logic, reason, fairness or reasonableness to get your point across of “get them to see”. You’re wasting your time. Disordered people aren’t interested in any of these things.
- On the micro level (within interactions), where you can see yourself getting drawn in and exasperated trying to explain something, learn to catch yourself doing this and pull back immediately. A disordered person wants you expending energy trying to explain, reason and defend yourself – don’t give them the pleasure. Withdraw and preserve your sanity.
- On the macro level, in any relationship where you can do so, end the relationship immediately if you see toxic patterns like gas-lighting, projection, blame shifting, denial of logic and reason, etc. No if’s, not buts, no wasting time trying to reason your decision with them – just get out.
- Go full on no contact – don’t let them back in, don’t let them convince you to talk things over (AKA “hoovering” – but the same pattern will repeat again), don’t explain or reason your decision to go no contact. Cut them off like they never existed and carry on with your life.
- If the narcissist or other toxic person is a boss, and depending on the general culture of the company, document and report their toxic behavior and get a transfer (if mostly a good company), or move to a different company altogether (toxic workplace where the narc/sociopath is tolerated, and there are loads more people just like them).
Another good framework to use to prevent you having your time and energy wasted by narcissists/sociopaths etc trying to provoke and goad you is the DEEP Framework created by Dr Ramani Durvasula.
The video below offers a good explanation.
Here’s a quick summary of each point – if you have to deal with anyone who is narcissistic, sociopathic or otherwise provocative, DON’T do any of these things:
- Defend – Don’t waste energy trying to defend yourself – they want you on the defensive, they aren’t listening anyway and they don’t care what you have to say. They aren’t interested in facts or logic or reason, and you’re just feeding them supply if you’re getting upset or angry or frustrated while trying to defend yourself.
- Engage – Simple. Don’t even engage, resort to grey rock tactics – be boring and dull. Don’t share opinions, be vulnerable or critique them. Engaging is just feeding them what they want.
- Explain – Don’t explain to someone who isn’t listening and doesn’t care about facts anyway. It will feed your exasperation (which feeds them) and waste your energy. Pretending they don’t understand what you say (when they understand perfectly well) is a great way of gas-lighting and crazy-making. Don’t give them the chance.
- Personalize – Don’t take anything they do personally. All the nonsense they engage in (gas-lighting, lying, rudeness, projection, blame shifting, provocation) is THEIRS to own, not yours. It comes from them having a broken personality which means they need to feed off the emotional reactions of others. If you take in their abuse, it will create strong introjects or inner critics in you, so don’t ever take disordered people’s behavior to heart. Keep a detached distance.
Being drawn into ANY of these 4 things, just opens up the door to more blah blah blah, gas-lighting, projection and blame-shifting, so don’t do any of these things, and simply shut down conversations right away. It saves your time and energy and stops you getting exasperated in the way that Cluster B’s often will get you in confrontations (“why don’t they understand?” Answer – they understand perfectly, but are keeping it going to feed off your annoyance and exasperation).