When You Have to Engage With A Narcissist…
Updated: Feb 23, 2022
In short, I was at a wedding where the Mother-of-the Bride (let’s call her Maggy) is a covert narcissist, who convinced the majority of the family, including the bride, that the Father-of-the-Bride (let’s call him Brett), also her ex-husband, is the narcissist. HOW DOES THIS HAPPEN?? That’s what you’re thinking right? Honestly, it boggles my mind regularly, but I’m well experienced in walking the minefield that the world of narcissism and sociopathy is, having spent 15 years married to one. Someone like Maggy is so polished that unless you are very familiar with the nuances of the narcissist game, the game goes unnoticed. However, it’s common to walk away from a conversation with a narcissist feeling confused, but that’s the point, the narcissist wants to plant seeds of doubt that will grow like weeds, all the while distracting you from looking at them too closely. A hypothetical conversation may go like this - Maggy: I’m so concerned about Brett, he seems to be so unstable lately. He won’t even talk to his parents. I don’t want to speak badly of him though, but I’ve heard he’s totally abandoned his faith, well, and me as well, but I’m fine, I’m rising above it. Friend: thinks to themselves - that’s nice that she seems concerned for her ex, I haven’t noticed Brett seeming unstable, in fact, the last conversation with him I had, he seemed really well, but she must know him best given she was married to him. I wonder why he’s not speaking to his parents, that’s weird. Poor Maggy, I can’t believe she’s been totally abandoned, but I guess she seems ok, she’s so strong…. Then the friend walks away maybe feeling like something in the conversation felt off, but because they couldn’t pin point it, they shrug it off, or at least try to. They also end up second guessing their encounter with Brett because Maggy seemed so convincing…and that’s how the seed of doubt is planted. The friend will hear this confusing account from Maggy and may be concerned for Brett, but what the friend doesn’t know is the backstory. The backstory may be something along the lines of this - Brett has put healthy boundaries up with Maggy and she doesn’t like it, it makes her feel out of control. So part of her taking back control is to start to meet with Brett’s parents in order to gain them as allies and tear down Brett’s support system. By telling them how concerned she is about Brett in a myriad of different way, over time Maggy manages to convince them that Brett’s unstable and is going through some existential crisis (for the record Maggy has historically never liked Brett’s parents and during their years married told Brett how toxic his parents are - which ironically, is actually true). Her meeting with them and getting them to believe her version of the truth, is her way of not just building her allies, but attempting to show that she’s the healthy one because so many people appear to be supporting her. Brett in the meantime has discovered for himself just how unhealthy and toxic his parents are and has put up healthy boundaries with them. Brett’s parents, much like Maggy, don’t like boundaries. Because of their dislike of boundaries, their own toxicity, and the convincing story Maggy has spun, Brett’s parents have joined Maggy in thinking that Brett is the unhealthy one - it takes away any responsibility they have of actually having to own their personal un-health and it also allows them to remain victims in their own minds. Now, back to the friend - having no idea of the backstory, the friend is left with this niggling feeling, and by the time Maggy and the friend have had this conversation a number of times, the friend eventually accepts Maggy’s story as truth and forgets or ignores that niggling feeling that something about the exchange felt off. And you can bet that the conversations with Brett's parents were conversations Maggy had with other family members as well. Remember, the more allies she has, especially from Brett’s side of the family, the more convincing her story is. MADDENING RIGHT?
Narcissist often tell their victims that boundaries are unhealthy because they can’t control someone with healthy boundaries. So you see, in this story, Maggy has spun a story looking like she’s the concerned, mature party in order to make sure she comes out looking benevolent, but also like a victim. If you think she's a victim, you'll be pointing the finger at someone else, not her. It’s an insidious game that is ugly and destructive. Narcissists will criticize people behind closed doors, more often than not in a backhanded way (like Maggy did with Brett’s parents), but in the same breath say they don’t gossip, then they act super nice to the face of the person that they have just criticized behind their back. When you’ve been witness to the criticism behind closed doors and then the public display of niceties directed towards the criticized one by the narcissist later, it leaves you as the witness not quite sure what to think about the person being privately criticized, yet publicly praised - that same seed of doubt and confusion is planted regarding the person criticized. This leaves the narcissist feeling on top and in control, because you’re doubting the character of someone else and not focused on the character of the narcissist. Deflection. Someone like Maggy will do this regularly. In the middle of all that, the narcissist will also randomly tell you stories about how good they are, or how they did something selfless, or will try and inject a story into a conversation that confirms the reality that they are trying to project. It’s an exhausting, confusing, crazy-making game. Yup, that’s what it is, crazy-making.
For the people that are duped by the narcissist…it’s okay, I was too. For 15 long years. I would often observe my ex in situations talking to so-and-so like they were best friends, knowing he’d just told me how much an idiot he thinks so-and-so is. They seek to break down your trust in everyone around you, so that you only trust them, or you’re scared to cross them. Their whole life is contradiction and double-talk. My ex spent years criticizing my family to me and raving about them to everyone else. He did the same thing with “friends” as well. WHY am I going on about this you may be asking yourself…
Well, going to something like that wedding ignites the fuel of injustice in me, it makes me angry that there are people that walk around wreaking destruction, all the while duping people into believing their lies. Imagine being Brett, Father-of-the-Bride, walking into a situation like that. You can’t run away, you have to be strong in your own reality, the truth, and learn to not be triggered by the games a-foot. Sometimes we have to live with narcissists in our circle of friends, family or acquaintances
So what can we do? Educate ourselves, and treat the narcissist with the same kindness and patience you would perhaps a temperamental child. I recently had a conversation with a friend around accepting people, particularly the unhealthy people in our lives, for where they are at without the expectation that they will be anything else. Perhaps it's the difference between discernment and judgement. It doesn't mean that you don't have boundaries, it doesn't even mean that you have to be friends or like them. It could mean using discernment and learning to understand and accept where the person is at in their current state. And potentially where they are in their current state is unaware and stuck in their own wounds. By having good, strong boundaries, knowing the truth about yourself and trusting your spidey senses, you can engage in the world around you without being scared of engaging with the narcissists . Often it's the more challenging types of people that have something to teach us about our own journeys. None of this is easy, but if we let these experiences teach us, we allow room for growth.