This is a key question to answer, because toxic personality types like narcissists and sociopaths are masters at annoying and provoking others, to the point where we feel we MUST engage with them to “set the record straight” or “put them in their place”. But does this really fix things, or does it just give them what they want?
In this article, we’ll argue it’s the latter that’s more the case, and therefore that it’s almost always best to NOT engage with these types of personality types. We’ll use some example and quotes to explain how and why engaging with these people is really just “inflating” them and feeding them exactly what they’re looking for.
The main focus of this guide is on narcissists, because they are more common, but we’ve also included psychopaths/sociopaths in the title, because all Cluster B personality disorders are provocative and reaction seeking – they feed off your engagement and emotional reaction. The Cluster B disorders are called “dramatic” for a reason – they all feed off constant drama and conflict.
Therefore the general advice for one in this area applies to them all. Let’s examine the different reasons why it is better NOT to engage with narcissists or sociopaths, together with some advice on how to hold your own composure and calmness when dealing with these people. There will be quite a few quotes sprinkled in this post from other experts on the subject, because they’ve put things better than I ever could on certain aspects of this issue of engaging with provocative personality types like narcissists and sociopaths.
“Custer B is the .. definition of reaction seeking or dramatic personality disorders. This is not ‘I want to go away and sit on my own in my room’, this is ‘I need to annoy you to live. I need to hurt you to feel OK. I need to cause chaos and drama wherever I go just to feel basically alright’”.
1. Engaging Is Giving Them Exactly What They Want
This is the first and most important point to realize when dealing with all the Cluster B disorders – they feed off the emotional reactions of others. This is why they are so provocative and reaction-seeking in their behavior. All the following points basically feed off this core point; it’s vital to grind this into your sensibilities when dealing with narcissists, sociopaths, and other toxic personality types.
Therefore, by engaging with them in a confrontational way, and getting drawn into arguments with them, you are giving them exactly what they want. You are feeding them “supply” – the fuel or “food” through which they prop up their false sense of self.
Perhaps the most obvious example of this is when engaging with them in an argument, either in person or via phone/text/email etc. By getting upset and pouring out your emotions to them, it “fills them up”, because they can see they’ve “got a rise” out of you.
Narcissism expert Richard Grannon puts it best here – describing that trap that overly naive and sincere people fall into trying to engage with toxic personality types when provoked by them:
“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 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 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 narcissist what hurts us….Don’t teach the narcissist what hurts you”
Most people who’ve dealt with these toxic personality disordered people without fully understanding them will relate to this – we jump in trying to “set the record straight”, but really, this is exactly what they want. They want to pull us in and engage us in their games. Don’t fall for it, and you gain the upper hand right away.
“One of the biggest things you can do for yourself if you are dealing with someone like this is to always remain calm when dealing with them because what you’ll find with psychopaths and narcissists especially is that they’re trying to provoke you.
They’re trying to provoke reactions so that you look crazy and hysterical and they can then sit back and play victim and say ‘oh look what this person did to me and how crazy they’re acting’.
If you remain calm completely with them, you gain that upper hand. They’re trying to put you on the defensive. They’re trying to make you feel like you’re under attack. So if they say the perfect thing that has you thinking ‘oh my god, I have to respond to that because I have the perfect response, you should know that was intentionally planned”
Jackson Mackenzie – see here.
Another context to apply this rule in is after toxic relationships, when we’ve cut them off and gone no contact. Lots of times, they’ll circle back weeks, months or years later, trying to engage with you again. The same rules apply; do not engage with them or feed them any supply. They feed off your reactions so starve them off by giving them none.
2. Not Engaging Irritates Them
This is really the inverse of the above point, but still bears mentioning. If you want to treat this like a game, understand that not engaging with them is how you win it. It actively irritates narcissists and sociopaths when you DON’T engage with them. You’re starving them of supply.
Divorce lawyer and narcissism expert Jonathan C Noble puts it brilliantly:
If you’re ever entangled with a narcissist, you’re gonna know, when these critical barbs start to come out of their mouth towards you. They’re not going to like your haircut, they’re not going to like your jeans. They’re not going to like so much about who you are.
This is after love-bombing. The mask is starting to peel off. The truth is I’ve had the unpleasant experience of dating women who were narcissists, and it’s almost a joke when you listen to what they say to you…
I’d liken it to if someone where an 8th degree black-belt in Jiu-Jitsu, and a middle school child came up to them and tried to fight them. You would just say ‘that’s ridiculous’. You wouldn’t even engage them.
So my advice is, listen and observe and put yourself in that position where you if you get tangled up with a narcissist, you would do what that 8th degree black-belt does….You don’t even engage. Because they’re dying to engage you. You’re maddening them…It’s kryptonite when you don’t engage with their nonsense. That drives them crazy“.
Jonathan C Noble
I’ll be the first to admit this is easier said than done. When they’re provoking us, our ego really badly wants us to engage back, but if you can in any way manage to sublimate that desire, and instead NOT engage, that is what will really irritate provocative narcissists and sociopaths.
Similarly, if it’s after a relationship, and they’re either sniffing around trying to “hoover” you back in, or you must remain in some contact with them because children are involved, then it’s best to engage in grey rock tactics. Meaning, you’re boring, dull, lifeless, not dramatic, and using as few words as possible in dialogue. Be boring and dull, and they’ll go away – these people need drama and stimulation (they’re addicts), so starving them of this will get rid of them eventually. They’ll have to get their “supply” elsewhere.
3. They Understand Very Well What Is Going On (And Do NOT Need Things Explaining)
This is another point we often come round to understanding once we see better how Cluster B disordered people feed off the reactions of others, and are therefore NOT interested in facts, reason, logic or fairness. After being tangled up with narcissists and sociopaths, we’ll often kick ourselves down the line for how naive we were in engaging with them, trying to “explain”, the situation to them, so they could “understand” better.
The truth is that they understand very well what’s going on. But they’re very happy for this charade to keep going on, because it keeps us engaged and invested, so they can keep feeding off our emotional response.
Here’s another great quote from Richard Grannon that sums up this very common dynamic between disordered people and their (initially overly naive and sincere) victims:
“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”
Once we see through their simulated naivety and faked ignorance, and see that they know full well what’s going on, it’s much easier to dis-engage from their nonsense and regain our sanity. Don’t waste energy trying to reason or explain things that shouldn’t need explaining, to toxic people. It keeps their childish game going. Simply detach and move on.
Here’s another quick quote on this, contrasting the before (when we’re too naive and sincere, and over-engaging) to the after (when we understand Cluster B disorders better, and see the game they’re playing, and simply stop engaging):
“….in the past you would have kept tolerating, and kept trying to work it out with this person, or kept trying to explain to them how their behavior affects you. But that’s not what a person with high value does. That person walks away.”
Meredith Miller – see here
4. Narcissists & Sociopaths Cannot Change
This is closely related to the last point. A large part of what keeps us invested and engaging in toxic relationships with narcissists and sociopaths is a belief that we can still somehow “reach” them or “fix” them. That there’s a good person in somewhere, buried deep down, that we just need to somehow bring out, and we’re the ones who can do it.
If you’re holding onto any belief like this, you need to let go of it. Narcissists and sociopaths cannot be cured or fixed. They are completely resistant to any kind of therapy or reform, and in fact never believe there is anything wrong with them, considering themselves superior to others.
See our articles which covered the issue of change with narcissists and sociopaths/psychopaths in detail. Bottom line – these people cannot be “reached” or “cured”, so give up on any hopes of that. It’s another way they can keep you “corded” to them, and they’ll be happy to play along with it. Disengage and move on with your life.
Whatever toxic behaviors they engaged in before, they’ll keep doing. Their personalities are broken at the core – they need to feed off the reactions of others, or they literally start to feel like they’re dying inside.
Resolving these disorders would take many, many years of committed and intense therapy on their part, and even then would likely only produce modest changes in outer behavior, not core level change. This doesn’t happen with Cluster B disordered people – they already believe they’re perfect and don’t submit themselves to scrutiny or examination, so save your energy and move on from them.
5. Engaging Just Teaches Them How To Be Better Manipulators
This is another point which hits home once our naivety lessens and we become a bit more streetwise in seeing how these people operate. We may have engaged with narcissists or sociopaths, trying to “explain” things to them, and “help them see” what they did was wrong, how this/that thing they did/said was unacceptable. We might have poured our hearts out, used clever sounding therapeutic or relationship jargon. They may have nodded their heads and pretended to listen and agree.
The truth and is that narcissists and sociopaths don’t care about any of this. They were soaking up everything you said, so they can better manipulate you (and others) down the line.
This comes back to the same point about the Cluster B disorders being completely resistant to any kind of change, as well as being manipulative and exploitative to the point of feigning sincerity as a way of manipulating. Not only is there no way to truly “reach” these people, but they’ll even use these attempts to reach them as fuel to manipulate more effectively.
They’re happy to soak up clever sounding terminology from therapy or self-help circles you use on them, not to improve or understand, but to give themselves an air of emotional literacy and intelligence to better manipulate others down the line.
Therefore this is another reason we need to learn to disengage with these people, and not waste our energy trying to crack this “shell” that surrounds their personality, that makes literally everything they do manipulative, exploitative and insincere. We can exhaust ourselves trying to “fix” these people, when all we’ve actually done is make them better concealed predators:
“In the end, after being well and truly drained and poisoned, idealistic fixers realize that they have made no progress (with the sociopath/narcissist/energy vampire) whatsoever. (They have) merely upgraded their arsenal and become more experienced in deception”
Psychic Vampirism site – see here.
Using The DEEP Technique To Handle a Narcissist/Sociopath’s Provocation
Readers could very reasonably point out that it’s all very well having rules about not engaging with narcissists and sociopaths in our midst, but these people are masters at provoking and engaging others. They’ve been practicing all their lives. How do we fight against this really?
It can help to put a framework around this; a simple set of criteria that we can apply to NOT get drawn into engaging with toxic and provocative personalities. The best framework I’ve found is Ramani Durvasula’s DEEP Framework:
DEEP Technique – Don’t Defend, Engage, Explain or Personalize
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 in confrontations (“why don’t they understand?” Answer – they understand perfectly, but are keeping it going to feed off your annoyance and exasperation).