This is actually not uncommon, because there are unfortunately so many narcissists around, plus many narcs continually bounce from one disastrous relationship to another because of their broken and toxic personality. So what do you do if you actually bump into a narcissist ex partner (ex girlfriend/boyfriend/husband/wife/friend) in public? What’s the best way to react? Should we even engage with them at all?
There are so many different ways this could play out that there isn’t one single answer, but here is an overall summary suggestion:
If you ever meet a narcissist ex in public, in general the best response is to ignore and avoid if possible. If some interaction is necessary because of the situation, it should be kept very brief, non-confrontational and detached, and it is recommended to disengage as soon as possible.
In other words, zero or minimal engagement is almost always the recommended approach if you ever do bump into a narcissist ex-partner in public.
Let’s explore more why this is the case, plus advice for different scenarios, plus what to expect from the narc ex if you do by chance meet them again in public.
What To Do If You Bump Into Your Narcissist Ex
We’ll give a brief answer up front about what to do, and then explain why in the rest of the article.
In general, if you do bump into a narcissist ex, you need to keep any interactions as minimal, dry, dull and boring as possible (gray rock), or not engage at all and keep on going like they never existed.
Here’s a general quick quote you can use:
“Wow, funny running into you! Such a shame I’m late …gotta run”
…or something close to this. Avoid, ignore, disengage but with a disinterested and unemotional detachment.
This is a question that has really interested me to the point I’ve asked about it in several communities I’ve been in. Here is a selection of some general insights and suggestions from people on how to deal with bumping in ex narcissist abusers in public:
- By far the most common response was that you avoid and ignore and pretend you didn’t see them and keep going on with your day. Avoids any of their nonsense that comes from engaging with them.
- If you have time to react, pretend not to see them, cross the road, change direction, ignore – whatever you have to do avoid engaging, then carry on with your day without their nonsense.
- If some level of interaction is necessary or sprung upon you because you were caught off guard, then detached politeness, very brief interaction and then dis-engage and move on is a common suggestion. Again, the general goal is minimal or zero interaction.
- The overwhelming feedback was to NEVER tell the narc ex what your real feelings/frustrations/grievances are. It simply feeds them the emotional reaction they are seeking, plus a disordered person can NEVER be made to change by you telling them what you think of them. Keep these feelings to yourself and work through them with a therapist if needed, but never with the narc.
- If you decide to engage with the narc ex in a confrontational, angry way, you are almost always feeding into what they want, since they’ve been practicing provoking reactions in others, in gas-lighting and “winning” arguments their whole life. Do you really want to do battle with such a person in public? The sensible answer is almost always no.
- Angrily engaging with a narcissist is also letting them know they still matter to you, which again feeds them supply and inflates them. It is best to detach from the need to do this, to the point they are unimportant and uninteresting to you – this causes them the most pain and conflict, not getting into back-and-forth arguments in public, which actually feeds them.
However, it’s also true that there’s lots of different contexts and scenarios you can bump into a narcissist ex, so there isn’t an easy one-size-fits-all answer. However, the general trend is still towards minimal or zero contact, and spending as little time in their presence as possible.
Here are some suggestions for reactions in different places you bump into a narc ex:
Walking down the street – simple – you’re in complete control of where you’re going and there’s absolutely no need to stop and engage if you bump into them on the street, so don’t. Simply keep walking without acknowledging or a quick line like quoted above and dis-engage, move on with your day like they never existed. An easier scenario to deal with.
In line – eg. in supermarket, shop, post office etc – a bit more complicated as you could be stood side by side in a queue and there isn’t an obvious reason to leave. Still, just do it anyway! Simply say you got something else to do or you forgot something and leave – “anyway, forgot something, bye”, without being too friendly, and go. Don’t elaborate, explain, or engage in follow up questions. Get out of there and come back later to do what you need to do, or walk around the shop/supermarket, get some more things and return to a queue when they’re gone.
Out at night (eg. bar, restaurant, event) – Again a bit more tricky as there’s no obvious reason to leave, you’re both there for a reason. However, if they’re constantly triangulating and trying to push buttons (they usually will be), then cut your losses and leave for the night, or go somewhere else if possible. Or move places and sit at a table facing away from them. Keep any interactions minimal, dry, dull and boring, and dis-engage as quickly as possible. If you are more “trapped” in the same place as them and cannot stay there without having to engage or see them constantly, then you are best off leaving, even if you’ve sunk some money into the night. Cut your losses for the night – this likely won’t happen often. As a side note, if you do decide to stay, and find yourself constantly looking over in their direction, checking out what they’re doing and with who, you know you’ve still got some work to do “un-hooking” from them psychologically. It’s a good idea to enlist the help of a good therapist with this.
Workplace – Perhaps the most tricky – if you move to a new workplace and find they’re there. Thankfully doesn’t happen often, but if it does, you’ll need to carefully balance your expected regularity of contact with your progress in unhooking from them. If contact is only going to be light and minimal, plus you’re pretty well recovered, then it may work. Any regular contact or hierarchical position they have over you – forget it. Move on to somewhere else.
What To Expect If You Bump Into Your Narcissist Ex
Narcissists behave in toxic but predictable ways, so here are some things to be ready for if you do ever bump into a narcissist ex in public:
Triangulation – If they have a new partner with them, they’ll try and flout this in your face, trying to press and re-press “jealousy buttons”. It’s often called “triangulation” – involving another person in the interaction to try and push certain button and provoke a response. If they’re there, they’ll often be openly and excessively affectionate with their new partner, as much as possible in your view as well. They may spot you before you spot them, and pre-emptively put on an act with their new partner to get your attention. If they’re not there, they’ll keep bringing them up in conversation, which is again why no contact is best to prevent them even doing this. They’re trying to provoke an emotional reaction in you, to get you “re-hooked” and obsessing about them. You need to have done your own work to resolve this if it was an issue before, and simply exit from scenarios where they’re trying to triangulate again. When they push these buttons in you, we can have this “frozen on the spot” reaction – learn to force yourself to push through this and simply leave any situation where a narcissist is trying to triangulate.
Gaslighting – If you do decide to engage with them, you’ll often find that even within the first 20-30 seconds of conversing, they’ll already be trying to re-gaslight you, to “re-hook” you in their false view of what happened in your relationship. They’ll be trying to invert reality as they did before, often playing the victim and implying that you owe them an explanation for ignoring/not contacting/ghosting them, rather than them owing you an explanation for all their toxic behavior. This is why minimal or no interaction is usually best, to take away the possibility of them even trying this. Links with the lack of contrition point below.
Provocation – Sometimes there won’t be much faked niceness, but instead they’ll just be looking to annoy and upset you and provoke reactions in you as soon as possible. They’ll push old or obvious wounds/buttons, hurl insults or other obnoxious behavior. They might realize they only have a small window to upset you, so they’ll go all in. This is again why minimal or no contact is best, especially if they were more overtly and blatantly obnoxious and verbally abusive in your relationship. Don’t even give them the chance of doing the same thing again; walk past them like they don’t exist and carry on with your day.
Lack of Contrition/Humility – This need careful counterbalancing with the hoovering point we’ll discuss below, but in general, even if the narc ex’s overall tone seems to be initially friendly, do NOT expect any real, genuine remorse, contrition or humility for their toxic behavior in the relationship. They may feign and fake sincerity, but you’ll never get a real apology from a true narcissist. They don’t do humble or contrite, in their minds, they’re always the victim when anything goes wrong in their life, including breakups. In their mind, it never was their fault what happened, and never could be. Be ready for this stunning level of denial and projection from the narc. Sometimes it may be overt and blatant, but mostly it will be subtle and implied, just an unconscious co-ordinate they live by (nothing is ever their fault).
Hoovering – Narcissist exes will sometimes put on a charming, seemingly heartfelt act to try and draw you back in. They may verbally pretend to be “sorry” for what they did, promise that it’ll “be different this time” if you take them back etc etc. Do not fall for any of this nonsense; it’s more game and manipulation. They’re simply trying to reconnect with an old source of “narcissistic supply“. Narcissists are always manipulative and never sincere, and it’s a personality disorder that requires years (not weeks or months) of patient psychotherapy to fix. Unless that’s what’s happened (it won’t have), then they haven’t really changed. Drop them cold and move on, with something like: “that all sounds lovely, but if you really have changed, you’ll need to prove it to someone else, because you’ll never prove it to me”. See our article on dealing with these attempts to “hoover” you back in, plus the section below, for more details.
Some of these observations are contradictory and sometimes mutually exclusive. For example, they can’t really be hoovering and provoking you at the same time. But I’ve tried to provide a broad range of different behaviors to potentially expect, since there is no way of being certain which “bag of tricks” each narc will try in each interaction.
They might try one of several methods to manipulate and “re-hook” you, so be ready for the narc ex to use any of them. And of course if you ignore or disengage immediately, you never have to deal with any of this nonsense anyway, which is why it’s the best approach when possible.
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Using Gray Rock Tactics To Bore Off The Narcissist
In general, the best approach whenever possible when bumping into a narc ex is to either use a few words, or none at all and simply detach and keep going on with your day.
However, it is true that it isn’t always this straightforward. Sometimes you’re more stuck in a situation where it may not be feasable to just exit right away, and you may have to converse with them somewhat until you can get out of there.
In these cases, you are best using “gray rock” tactics – keep all interactions as dull, plain, boring, and insincere as possible. You are basically starving the narcissist of the “supply” they feed off, which is mostly your emotional reactions.
This is how ex partners of narcs who can’t go full on no-contact (because of parental commitments etc) usually deal with them long term. It’s also how to deal with them if you are stuck with them in a situation you can’t immediately escape from.
Here are some key pointers for gray rock tactics:
- Don’t get drawn into long conversations 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.
- 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.
- Cut off or starve them of all opportunities to denigrate or mock others, if this is how they get their supply (they, the superior one, is talking about how someone else is inferior or stupid).
- Don’t give them any sexual contact and attention if this is what they feed off, or what they hooked you in with. No talking yourself into short term flings, thinking it’s OK because it’s “not serious”. Cut off all positive attention to them.
- Don’t feed any image of number 1/best/brightest/biggest etc fantasies they have of themselves. Again, don’t undermine or attack it, but don’t feed it either. You don’t want them thinking they can get this “supply” off you anymore.
- Be boring, dull and grey rock – don’t feed them silliness or entertainment if that’s what they’re used to.
- A lot of narcissists have their ego wrapped up in being “funny” or quick witted/sharp etc. Don’t take them on when they want you to laugh at their nonsense. Just meet them with silent treatment and folded arms, or something similar, and stick to dull, cold facts and observations and keep your interactions with them humorless and boring.
- NEVER attempt to reason with a narcissist using facts/logic/reason/evidence about the toxic things they did in the relationship. They’re not interested in facts or reason, only in provoking reactions in others. Save your energy and dis-engage as soon as possible.
See our full article on using gray rock tactics to starve a narcissist of supply for more tips on this. This course from Richard Grannon on managing contact with a narc also contains useful information , including a section specially tailored for co-parenting with a narcissist.
“The NPD feeds off drama. Or they seem to. What they’re actually feeding off is your emotional response. Because your emotionality and you’re “upset-ness” in their heads is directly proportionate to how much you care about them, and how much you care about them is directly proportionate to how much power they have over you.
When you’re a gray rock, you’re dull and lifeless. Yes, you respond, but there’s no drama there, and you’re not showing them that you’re upset, but you are responding. You’re just a boring thing – they’ll go away. Eventually, they will go away. They have to. These people are (supply) addicts. They’re hungry ghosts. That hungry ghost will float away and find someone else who’s going to give them what it is they’re really (craving) for.”
Beware of Hoovering From The Narcissist/Sociopath
This is a very important thing to watch out for if you do ever bump into a narc ex in a scenario where you can’t quickly escape and they try to engage with you for a lengthy period of time.
They’ll often try and “hoover” or draw you back in, trying to get you to give them one more chance. They can be very seductive and persuasive in the way they do this, so it’s important to be aware of this manipulative tactic and not fall for it:
Here are some examples of hoovering:
- They’ll go back to the seemingly innocent, sweet, caring image if this is what they initially reeled you in with.
- They may issue seemingly heartfelt apologies about how sorry they are about how they hurt you.
- There will be promises that the cheating, gas-lighting, projection, lying etc. won’t happen again.
- If you had been trying to get them to go to therapy because of their toxic behavior, they’ll promise to get help if you take them back.
- Any other changes in their behavior that you wanted them to make first time but they never did, they’ll latch onto these and promise to do them now, or claim they are “growing/changing/evolving/self aware” now when they haven’t changed at all.
- The general message they’ll try to hoover you back in with is “I’ll be the person you always wanted me to be”.
- If you do take them back, they’ll keep up these apparent changes for a while, then drop them and go straight back to the old, obnoxious, abusive patterns.
Hoovering From The Psychopath/Narcissist:
Don’t fall for any of this nonsense from the narc ex – they’re just trying to rekindle an old source of “supply”. Drop them cold and move on.
What To Convey To The Narcissist Ex
It’s very important that you DON’T convey any genuine, sincere, authentic feelings you have about the narcissist (especially charged emotions like anger), since this is what “feeds” and inflates them.
Instead, you need to convey an aura of disinterest and detachment to them, along the lines of these ideas:
- That they are unimportant and uninteresting to you
- That you are emotionally detached from them and the relationship you had with them.
- That you’ve got better things to do with your day than engage with them
- That you weren’t thinking about them before you bumped into them, and you won’t be thinking about them after you’ve disengaged from them as well.
- In short, that they don’t matter to you.
This is the general approach that’s both best for your well being, but also causes them the most narcissistic injury, since it’s the worse form of insult to a narcissist to think they are unimportant and not special to someone.
Of course, there’s a difference between only conveying this image and actually being and living it, but with bumping into a narc ex, it doesn’t even matter. Context is more important than content for disordered people, so it’s what you convey to them that’s important, not the reality.
If you’re still hurting from your relationship with them, then work through it with a skilled therapist, but NEVER convey your hurts or vulnerabilities to the narc ex if you bump into them.
Your actual end goal should be to genuinely detach from the narc so they really are unimportant and uninteresting, but even if you’re not quite there yet, you still need to convey detachment to them. In short, “fake it til you make it”, but don’t feed them anything in the way of strong emotions that they can get a “kick” or a “rise” out of. Deal with any unprocessed emotions in private if you still need to, but never with them. Stay detached and distant.
This topic actually covers many of the cornerstone concepts about what motivates and “feeds” narcissists, and how not to fall into the trap of feeding them what they want.
Here are some related articles on this entire topic of narcissists, engaging, provocation, reaction seeking, reasoning and detachment:
- Should you ever try to reason with a narc?
- Reasons to NOT engage with a narc
- How to deal with a narc ex who contacts you after a long time
- Starving a narc of supply (gray rock)
- Should you ever forgive a narc ex abuser?
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