Do you have someone in your life who seems to be extremely self-absorbed? Are your interactions with them mostly centered on their life, their feelings and their story? Do they seem to blame everyone else for problems in their life? Have you ever been on the receiving end of that blame? If this sounds like a person you are dealing with, you may be navigating narcissism within that relationship. If so, you are not alone in trying to figure out how to navigate these personal relationships.

In fact this year, in every Belonging Matters Conversations for Leaders (BMCFL) cohort, leaders consistently identified navigating narcissistic relationships within their families, workplaces and communities as a priority challenge that drained their energy and left them feeling confused and isolated. Below are some of these same leaders’ insights and tips for navigating these tricky relationships so that you can build a sense of belonging from the inside out.

What is narcissism?

Wikipedia defines narcissism as “a self-centered personality style characterized as having an excessive interest in one's physical appearance or image and an excessive preoccupation with one's own needs, often at the expense of others.”

Our May 2022 cohort of leaders shared how everyone has some level of narcissism as it is human nature to be self-centric. They discussed understanding narcissism as a spectrum or continuum as a helpful way of understanding it. From this perspective, it is possible to see there are significant differences among people with healthy levels of narcissism, people who are extremely self-absorbed, and those who have been diagnosed as living with narcissistic personality disorder.

One leader in this cohort explained, “Sometimes people have narcissistic tendencies rather than having narcissistic personality disorder. Discerning whether someone is suffering from narcissistic personality disorder is difficult as these cases usually go undiagnosed.” Whether one thinks they are dealing with a person who is either living with narcissistic personality disorder or has moderate to severe narcissistic tendencies, our Belonging Matters Conversations For Leaders cohort came up with the following tips and strategies to navigate this often tricky relationship.

Please note: One of our leaders recommends never telling a narcissist they are a narcissist, as in her experience, it will not yield a productive or healthy relationship.

Navigating narcissism: Leaders’ tips for relationships

So, what are the tips you can use when navigating conflict in relationships with narcissists? Below are strategies our BMCFL leaders have to offer.

#1 Recognize you can create your own story.

Recognize that you are the creator of your own story. You bring your own story, experiences and worldviews to the table; you do not have to take on anyone else’s emotions, projections or experiences. You also get to choose how you want to respond, interact and present yourself to the world.

#2 Know that you are worthy & enough.

For many leaders in our cohorts, these tricky relationships often began eroding their own sense of self-worth and belonging. They recommend replacing any negative self-talk with the mantra:

“You are enough. Full stop. You are worthy. Full stop.”

#3 Create safety by setting boundaries.

Set clear and firm boundaries to help create your sense of safety. By setting boundaries and making them clear to the other person, you are demonstrating how you expect to be treated and how they can expect to be treated by you. Setting boundaries is hard work, especially when navigating narcissism; however, taking the time to implement them is well worth the effort.

Remember, you do not owe anyone an explanation for why you are setting a boundary. That said, making the boundary clear—so that the other person is aware that some behaviours are acceptable while others are not—can help to ensure everyone is on the same page.

One of our leaders explains…
“In my own personal experience, making clear to the narcissist in my life that they have crossed a boundary is far more important than explaining why the boundary is there. For example, when the person with narcissism in my life attempts to place blame on me for them being upset, a clear boundary is when I inform the person that I am not responsible for their emotions. I remind myself that I can be understanding and empathetic towards the emotion, but it is important I am clear with the person that I am not responsible for their emotions nor am I responsible for their actions because of their emotions.”

#4 Consider revising your relationship expectations.

Examine the expectations you have of the relationship and of the narcissist. It may be that you need to revise your expectations as the person may not be capable of meeting them. Matching your expectations to those that the narcissist is likely able to achieve enables you to not feel disappointed when they don’t meet them. Revisiting your expectations also provides a framework that can lead to more positive interactions between you and the narcissist.

#5 Grieve what never was nor could be and lay it down.

In revising your expectations, take the time to grieve what never was nor ever could be with this person. It can be hard to swallow the fact that some people are just not able to provide us with the support, care or love that we expect from them. Grieving and letting go is an important step in moving forward and will better equip you in revising your expectations.

Leaders in our gatherings all agreed—speaking with a mental health professional can really help with this process. They recommend reaching out to a counsellor during this process or at any point while navigating narcissism.

Belonging to oneself

Building belonging when narcissism is at play can be tricky. But when we do, the rewards are great and contribute to our positive mental health & well-being. In one Belonging Matters Conversations for Leaders cohort, the group summed it up nicely…
“When I belong to myself, I am grounded in what matters most to me. I am attuned to myself and respond in a way that is true to my values. I feel more empowered and I have a sense of agency to decide what happens next.”
BELONGING fully to myself means I am grounded
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About the Author

Jessie Sutherland

An international speaker, trainer, and consultant, Jessie Sutherland works with organizations and communities to engage diversity, build belonging and ignite intercultural collaboration. Her approach creates sustainable community change that effectively addresses a wide range of complex social problems.

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