This is a very common frustration with well meaning but vulnerable people who get tangled up with narcissists. We’re often annoyed with ourselves in retrospect about how naive and “wide open” we are to the narcissist. It seems they can manipulate, control and upset us very easily, and “pry us open” to extract information we shouldn’t have given away.
They might always seem to be able to “push our buttons” and upset us, as well as invert reality and have us leaving conversations feeling we are the bad one, having been “gas-lit” and messed with. It can be enormously frustrating how they always seem to be able to “win” and control us in interactions so easily.
We just feel very naive and dis-empowered dealing with them, and even though we can intellectually understand this at a distance, when actually interacting with them, we’re just tactically poor and power-blind.
What can we do about this? How can we be more savvy and “streetwise” when dealing with narcissists, so they don’t run rings around us and control our emotional state so easily?
The most important thing to do when frustrated with your own naivety when dealing with narcissists, is to improve your understanding of the narcissistic personality, especially how they feed off the emotional reactions of others.
To handle provocative personalities, you must also understand power dynamics more, and not try to act on an equal footing, nor give anything away to the narcissist that can be used against you at a later date.
Let’s deconstruct some of these points in more detail, including some naive assumptions people will often make of narcissists, to better understand what you’re dealing with, and adjust your approach accordingly.
Key Point – Understand The Context/Content Split With Toxic Interactions
This is one of the main manifestations of the broader naive beliefs we might often hold that the narcissist is just like us, and therefore is interested in reason, truth and facts just like us. They are not.
One of the best frameworks to explain this is the context/content split. Let’s explain:
Content can be defined in this sense as the actual contents of an interaction/relationship, or just reality. Facts, data, logic, reason, evidence, who did or said what, who’s responsible for something/someone.
Context (in this context, pun intended) is the power dynamics of the interactions. Who’s in control, who’s dominant, who’s superior? Where’s the energy and attention going? Who has the power?
Narcissists are only ever concerned about the context in interactions, NOT the content. Therefore, when you’re presenting them with hard facts/data/evidence of something they did wrong, they’re NOT interested in this, especially once the interaction has turned toxic. They’re ONLY interested in whether they’re managing to annoy or provoke you, and whether they’re occupying your thoughts and attention in some way, which equates in their mind to them controlling and having power over you.
This is a crucial insight to grind into your sensibilities, since NOT understanding this is why so many victims of narcissist remain naive and power-blind when interacting with them, and effectively get “eaten alive” in arguments and conflict with them.
You, as a normal person with genuine, sincere intentions, are trying to engage on the basis of content (facts, reality, evidence), whereas they are only interested in the CONTEXT of the interpersonal power dynamics, and of controlling you and “stringing you along”.
They couldn’t care less about facts/data/evidence, or who’s right or wrong. They just need to be in control of and “on top of” people, even if that means upsetting them.
See our article on the context/content split, for more on this, and it’s strongly advised to internalize this understanding. From that point on, you’ll know to NEVER naively waste time trying to engage with a narcissist on a sincere level, or try reasoning with them, and get exasperated doing so. You simply dis-engage and move on.
Do Not Rise To The Narcissist’s Provocation
Another crucial understanding of the Cluster B disorders of which narcissism is a part that needs internalizing, is that these people are constantly looking to feed off the emotional reactions of others.
Most normal people are pleased to see positive emotional reactions in others, but narcissists have a sickness in their mindset that means they are “fed” or “inflated” when they see NEGATIVE emotional reactions in others. It gives them a “kick” to know they have annoyed, upset or exasperated someone, and in some cases sends them into a “high” known as narcissistic elation.
This is another scenario in which naive and power-blind people get “eaten alive” by pathological personalities like narcissists. They are too trusting an open, too easily annoyed or upset, and respond to the narcissist with a sincerity that’s unwarranted and actually counterproductive.
Here’s a perfect example of this from Richard Grannon:
“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”
Hopefully readers can see how it’s really just the context/content split re-stated using an example. The narcissist is NOT interested at all in the actual content or reality of the situation, but only on the emotional responses being garnered from the other person.
Once you drop the naivety and get streetwise to this, you can adjust your response accordingly (you don’t even respond trying to “correct” them, because that’s what they want – you just delete/block them, end relationships as needed, and never speak to them again).
Do Not Give Your Power Away
As well as being provocative and reaction seeking, The Cluster B disorders are also characterized by a power-fixated personality style. These people want power and control over others, and are scanning people right from the start of interactions/relationships looking for ways to do this. It’s most true for the psychopath/sociopath, but also applies to the narcissist.
Therefore, you cannot interact with a narcissist on an open, trusting, sincere level that you would with a normal person.
Here’s a key rule of thumb
With narcissists (and psychopaths), anything and everything you say can and will be used against you at a later date. Anything you reveal to them will be “filed away” to use against you when it’s convenient to them.
Here’s some important tips that follow on from this point:
- NEVER reveal anything sincere, vulnerable or authentic to a narcissist. Use Gray Rock tactics (see below) to keep conversations dull, dry, boring, and get rid of the narcissist. Feed them NOTHING substantial, intimate or sincere.
- If you realize an intimate partner is a narcissist and you’ve already revealed things to them you shouldn’t have, especially past traumas/hurts/weaknesses, get out of the relationship immediately. They will hammer away at these “buttons” when the time comes, so pre-emptively admit you’ve made a mistake in being power blind and get away from them.
- With narcissist work colleagues and other non-intimate settings, never reveal anything deep about your private life, wants, goals, dreams, aspirations, etc. Stick to dry, dull, boring facts, or make up interests. Again, if you realize you’ve overshared, get away from a narcissist manager right away.
- In workplaces, document everything inappropriate and unprofessional they do, but also be aware they are doing the same to you, and don’t leave yourself open to anything down the line.
- If you’re in therapy, if you struggle with over-sharing, it’s advised to work on boundaries and codependency and assertiveness (to shut down intrusions into your private life).
Do Not Try To Interact As Two Equal Adults
This is another aspect of the full blown narcissistic personality that needs internalizing by well meaning but naive people when interacting with them:
Narcissists cannot and never will do “equal”. They can’t relate to people as two normal adults would, on equal footing. They MUST be superior, on top and dominating others at all times. If you mess with this dynamic, and try to make it more “equal”, you’ll trigger them and they’ll start to attack you.
This is a crucial insight that needs to be understood. See the video below from Richard Grannon for more explanation on this. Yes, at times they can also act like an infant, and be the submissive, fawning, “vulnerable” child that you seem to have to “parent”. But this never usually lasts, and most of the time, they NEED to be “on top” of others to keep their fragile personality afloat. The point is, the dynamic can NEVER be equal with a narcissist.
Here’s a common trap naive people fall into if they don’t understand this:
- The naive person tries to interact with the narcissist on an “equal”, respectful, adult footing.
- This “triggers” the narcissist, who starts to attack, belittle, demean and undermine the other person. They MUST feel superior and “above” other people at all times.
- The other person naively thinks the narcissist must be “confused” or “in a bad mood”, and pushes the pedal down on reason/information, continuing to act on a equal, reasonable level.
- This continues to annoy and trigger the narcissist even more, who continually attacks the other person, and the toxic cycle escalates.
- Once a narcissist is triggered in this way, they can have childish fits of narcissistic rage that can last days or even weeks, so they’ll continue trying to dominate and subjugate the other person if they continue to tolerate it. They don’t calm down quickly if their narcissistic defenses are triggered; they seek to punish and belittle the other person in a disproportionate way. The message they’re sending to you is “you’re getting too big for your boots, humble slave. You always need to be below me, worshipping me, licking my feet. Never equal or above”.
How do you avoid this pattern playing out? You simply disengage and withdraw as soon as you realize this dynamic is playing out, in the early stages, and someone is incapable of interacting on an adult, equal footing with you and must always be dominating and “on top” of you psychologically.
The naive and overly giving person will keep trying to “push into” the narcissist’s defenses, thinking they are just like everyone else, and can be “reached” and reasoned with, which just makes it worse. The narcissistic mindset is one that’s almost alien to that of normal people, so the same rules don’t apply. Realize this and dis-engage sooner.
Narcissists don’t do “equal” – explained in second half of video
Use The Gray Rock Technique
An extension to this above point about not giving your power away, is also to starve a narcissist of the supply they are seeking by using “gray rock” tactics to remain deliberately boring, dull and uninteresting, so they get their “fix” elsewhere.
Overly naive and weak boundaried people let themselves be dragged into a narcissist’s drama and general life chaos and nonsense. They’re often too sincere and trusting when a narcissist is “putting on an act” and think it’s their responsibility to help, when it isn’t.
To counter this, here are some simple “gray rock” principles to apply to stop all this and not get sucked in:
- Stop feeding their fake grandiose self image fantasy, whatever it is (the “best” this, the most beautiful that, the “smartest” this etc). You don’t need to undermine it, as this will irritate them, but don’t feed it either.
- Do not provide narcissist with any drama, not get involved in any drama they try to drag you into, with nonsense phone calls/texts etc, often at some weird hour of day.
- Don’t get drawn into long conversations in person or phone/email/text about whatever nonsense drama they bring up. Use as few words as possible (less words than them as well), don’t inflate or rebuke them, but stick to cold, dry, dull, neutral statements.
- Keep interactions short and sweet, and withdraw as soon as possible.
- If there’s specific thing you know they draw narcissistic supply from (eg. belittling or feeling superior to others), don’t feed it to them.
- Don’t feed them any sillyness or entertainment. Stay dull and humorless, with “nothing” observations (like “oh, that cloud over there seems a bit more grey than the others” – stuff like that).
See our article on using “gray rock” methods to starve a narcissist of supply, for more information and tips on this.
Use The Broken Record Method When Necessary
If we are particularly naive and our boundaries are poor, it’ll also generally be easy for the narcissist to “open us up” psychologically in argument, extracting information out of us we should not have given away. Because our boundaries are so poor, they just keep pushing into us with questioning, and eventually, we crack.
A good way to counter this is simply the broken record technique, where you simply state the same thing, over and over again, without explaining or elaborating. When we try to set a boundary with a toxic person, it’s the prying and probing for reasons/explanations that often leads us to get “opened up” psychologically by the narcissist, and from there, they start to mock and ridicule these explanations, and it just goes toxic from there because you’ve given away more than you needed to.
With “broken record”, you just repeat the same phrase over and over, without changing, elaborating or offering explanations. You’re leaving a job/relationship, you’re not coming to …., you won’t do….. etc. Drill this technique to avoid being drawn into discussions you don’t want to be with them. Especially useful in workplaces.
Another great framework to use is Dr Ramani Durvasula’s DEEP acronym – don’t Defend, Explain, Engage or Personalize when dealing with a narcissist.
See the video below for an explanations of this.
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.
Stop Believing There Is A “Real Person” Inside a Narcissist
This is another mental trap that naive victims of narcissists often fall into, and that keeps them bonded or “stuck” to the narcissist psychologically, and wasting energy on them. We want to stubbornly believe that despite their behavior, there is still a real person inside them somewhere, that we can “reach”.
“If I try harder, they’ll be a good person” is a common naive belief we might hold about them that’s just “fodder” for them, they feed off this kind of naivety because they can just treat you worse and worse and you’ll keep trying harder to please them. It’s insanity!
Let’s debunk this belief with a few home truths about the narcissist:
- There is no “real person” or “real self” or “inner child” inside a narcissist you can reach. Their real self died many years ago, back in their infancy, due to the trauma they themselves experienced.
- From infancy, narcissists have been operating out of a grandiose, false “shell self”, that needs constant “supply” to keep itself afloat.
- There are NO real emotions and authentic desire for intimacy left with a narcissist. Some of them can appear to engage normally at times, but that’s just a front act.
- Therefore, when you’re dealing in adulthood with a full blown NPD, ALL interactions with them, even seemingly genuine ones, are manipulative, exploitative and insincere.
- There is no combination of words, right thing to say, or modality of therapy that can “reach” or change them. There is no person left to “reach”.
- Therefore, never judge the narcissist by your own values, thinking they are “just like you” or any other person. Despite their front act, they are not.
See our article on whether there’s a real person trapped inside a narcissist, where we break this issue down in detail, plus a video that’s essential viewing. It is VITAL to grind this insight into your mindset to get more streetwise and less naive, when dealing with them.
Useful Course For Managing Contact With A Narcissist
The best course I’ve personally found on getting rid of a naive, overly open and trusting mindset when dealing with narcissists is Richard Grannon’s “Manage Contact With a Narcissist” course.
In it, you’ll find loads of quality information and actionable advice/steps, including:
- An excellent overview of the broken nature of the narcissistic personality disorder, how it operates, and how machine like and predictable it is.
- How to use this understanding to get streetwise and savvy to the narcissist’s power and mind games, and not be so naive when dealing with them
- How to use “gray rock” tactics to bore off the narcissist, and starve them of supply, so they go away and seek their “fix” elsewhere.
- How to deal with any necessary interactions (eg. when children are involved) you must have with a narcissist, to preserve your own mental healthy and sanity.
- How to deal a narcissist’s attempt to provoke negative emotional reactions in you, in a way where you don’t rise to it and play into their hands.
- How to move from a naive approach to a more cunning, subtle and strategic approach when dealing with a narcissist, that protects you and your emotional state instead of leaving yourself wide open.
- An excellent “circuit breaker” drill to manage your emotional state before, during and after dealing with the narcissist, so they can’t affect your mood so easily (does work when done with intent, from personal use).
- Some more subtle ways to massage a narcissist’s ego when appropriate (eg. workplace) and use their addiction to “supply” against them, to stop them coming after you.
Click here to view Richard Grannon’s “Managing Contact With A Narcissist” Course (affiliate link, but I’ve purchased the course myself and continue to use it from time to time. I highly recommend it for getting streetwise to a narc and being less naive when dealing with them)