How to Talk to a Narcissist


How to talk to a narcissist

This could be the shortest blog post ever: Don’t bother.

Seriously. If by talking to a narcissist your intent is to actually converse with him, I have news for you. It can’t be done. You can talk around a narcissist. Like, in his general vicinity. If he’s very astute, he might notice your lips moving periodically, maybe connect that to the fragments of sound coming out of your face. As he goes right on blabbering all the fascinating things he has to say about himself.

If you have a big voice, you could try talking over a narcissist, just to see how long it takes before he drowns you out. Because, trust me, he’s never voluntarily going to let you get a word in edgewise.

Your narcissist wouldn’t be a narcissist if he were capable of acknowledging you as a person with words to contribute. The disorder arises from the absence of a core self, manifest as a profound lack of empathy. Constitutionally, your narcissist just isn’t equipped to give a shit about your half of the conversation.

For example, the last time I visited my narcissistic parent, he decided not to put in his hearing aid. Even though I’d flown across the country, and my sister-in-law and niece had flown from Europe. He doesn’t pretend, anymore, that we might have something to say that’s worth hearing.

But here’s the bright side. You don’t actually have to talk to a narcissist, even if he’s a member of the family.

Sure, you might be seated next to him at the Thanksgiving table. Maybe you’ve been sitting there for years, wracking your brain trying to come up with some kind of strategy to shut him up. To make him listen to something other than the sound of his own yawp for just five seconds. More than once you’ve had your fork poised, straining to stop yourself from plunging it into his hand.

But even when your sense of family obligation (i.e., codependence) keeps your butt in the chair next to his, there’s no reason to remain psychically present. If your mind wanders off for a stroll in a more pleasant clime, I guarantee your narcissist won’t notice. He just needs one warm body for an audience. If you’re a breathing carcass with ears, he’s good to go. While he’s holding forth, you can astral project halfway around the globe for all he knows.

With practice, you’ll get good at using this psychic travel time for stuff you’d rather be doing—composing dirty limericks, say, or planning out your accessories for the week.

If you can swing it, I highly recommend you do your talking with a narcissist over the phone. At first you might feel obliged to contribute the occasional “Uh-huh,” “Wow” or “Gee” as a sign that you’re keeping up your end of the call. This is entirely unnecessary. Your narcissist is disinclined to waste any of his precious words inquiring about you, whether it’s to ask how you’re doing or to ask if you’re still on the line. Remember, it’s not you he’s talking to. He’s just talking. What you were doing before the call and what you’ll do after it, whether you’re sad or ecstatic, restless or content, fulfilled or anxious—these things are of zero interest.

So go ahead. Put down the phone. Finish fixing lunch or scouring the bathtub. Your narcissist won’t know you’re gone. He’s an expert at carrying on the conversation all by himself.

I know what you’re thinking. Why participate in this charade at all? Why not call your narcissist on his bad behavior and insist he shape up? It works for Dorothy in the movie. She stands up to the wizard, scolding him for scaring people and failing to keep his promises. And he changes right in front of our eyes, becoming the kind-hearted helper Dorothy and the Tin Man, Scarecrow and Cowardly Lion need.

Eleanor Payson, author of The Wizard of Oz and Other Narcissists, acknowledges that, in reality, “we cannot expect the NPD individual to assist us in validating our own strengths” the way the wizard assists Dorothy and Co. “On the contrary, we must discover these strengths through other people and supportive environments.” You might fervently wish that your narcissist could change—could learn to praise your heart, your brains, your courage. That he could learn to take a genuine interest in you. That he could hear you. But the likelihood of those things happening is nil. “You may be forced to recognize that the NPD individual is incapable of change as he remains unable to recognize your feelings, and unrelenting in his effort to control the resources of attention, support, empathy.”

This has certainly been my experience. Confrontation only makes my narcissist defensive and, sometimes, spitting mean. Once, on the phone, I managed to interrupt him long enough to tell him I was tired of having one-way conversations that were all about him. He huffily explained how mistaken I was for seeing it that way, since it is clearly not his nature to be self absorbed. On the contrary, he sulked, he’s a caring listener and healer. When I’ve challenged him in person, he’s gotten physically aggressive, charging me, shouting and jabbing his finger in my face.

My narcissist is certain there’s nothing about him that needs to change to make things better between us.

So I keep my distance, geographically and psychically. I find other people to talk to, people who understand that a conversation, like a relationship, is a two-way street. I screen my calls for wizards. And when, by accident, my narcissist gets through, well:

There once was a lady named Tucker

Who gents liked to turn to for succor.

She might put on airs

When she asked them upstairs . . .

Party Line



In a Venn diagram of our family, Bruce, Sue and I would be the only offspring in the shaded area where Fathers #1 and #2 overlap. The three of us were the lucky ones who got a double dose of narcissistic parenting. That may in part be why, as adults, we’re spread out across the globe. We’ve put a lot of miles between where we grew up and where we make our homes today.

For too long, the distance between us didn’t register. We were happy to see one another when we found ourselves all in one place, but we didn’t stay in regular contact. Our lives were not entwined.

Therapy started to change that. Much of what I was realizing and grappling with involved more than just me. Our whole family was implicated. I wanted to know how my sibs had experienced the day-to-day traumas I was trying to process. So I picked up the phone and started asking.

And then our mother was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Suddenly, there was an urgent need to be in communication with one another—to share how freaked out we were, strategize around Mom’s care, stay up to date on her condition, vent when the pressure of frequent visits to our parents’ house turned us into slavering lunatics.

When she died it was like a curtain flew open, exposing Father #2 to the glare of a spotlight. Outlining his narcissism in pitiless neon. We realized she’d been making herself a shield for thirty-five years, positioning her body between Dad and us. What had eked out, what we’d seen before she died was tame. He turned on us with the full fury of his ruthless need.

Nine time zones separated us kids: Bruce in Germany, Sue on the East Coast, me in California. We worked out that Bruce could call at 9:00 at night his time, which made it 3:00 in the afternoon for Sue and noon for me. That’s been our standing conference time ever since. We’ve talked on the phone once a month or so for the last six years.

Those regular calls have dramatically changed our relationships. We know one another and what’s going on in each other’s lives in ways we never did before. As we learn about ourselves we bring our discoveries to the group for discussion. In our little subset of three, each of us feels accepted, loved and lavished with support. We’re no longer isolated by the facts of our past. It’s become clear that we didn’t invent the abuse we suffered. Talking about it together not only confirms the truth of what happened to us individually, it lets us comfort one another and pool resources for healing.

It feels like this is the way a family is supposed to operate. But when you’re raised by a narcissistic parent (or two), “loving” and “supportive” are not behaviors you get much exposure to. Au contraire. One of the most insidious ways those with narcissistic personality disorder manipulate their families is by pitting individuals against each other. They create an atmosphere of derision and mistrust to keep the ranks in their own separate corners, smarting from constant jibes.

Father #1 taught us to focus on our glaring faults and believe we didn’t deserve his support. Father #2 reinforced that we will never be as good as he is. At anything. Then he turned our attention to one another’s worthlessness. Whenever he got one of us alone, he seized the opportunity to lambast the others.

Divided, we fell.

It took my brother and sister and me a long while to fully recognize that we’d been duped. That, in fact, we were on the same team.

After we instituted the sibs conference call, we had to figure out how to have a conversation that wasn’t all about our narcissists. We were so well trained to hold them at the center of our attention that we could easily spend 90 minutes talking about our fathers instead of ourselves.

We’ve learned, slowly, to limit the energy we expend on them and to recognize when the conversation is getting hijacked. These days we’re pretty good at keeping the focus on our own lives and struggles, comparing notes on what works and guiding one another away from pitfalls.

That doesn’t mean we never talk about the men who raised us. I don’t think a child ever completely accepts that those who were supposed to cherish and protect her savaged her instead. No matter how old she gets. I do know that wishing our parents were different doesn’t make it so. Instead, we work at sharing the truth of our experience, opening ourselves to one another.

Shaping ourselves into the kind of family we want to be.


My First Narcissist

Father #1 in my family diagram is my biological father, Arthur. It was important to him to be taken for an important man. As a sought-after family physician, he rushed to the bedsides of his patients at all hours and made himself indispensible at the local hospital. As a deacon at Calvary Baptist Church, he taught Sunday school and counseled struggling souls in the ways of righteousness.

From every angle, he looked like a pious man of God, an unimpeachable community leader.

He sent my oldest brother, Allon, to school in Florida because an Evangelical minister with an international following sent his kids there too. Allon was thirteen years old. Our father bought him a ticket and put him on a train to travel the 1,500 miles by himself. You can still hear that dejected kid in his voice today when my brother asks, “What did I do wrong? I don’t know why he sent me away.”

My middle brother Tedd was sent away to the Christian academy our father later helped to found with an itinerate preacher. Since reading a draft of my memoir, Tedd has told me many times about being in his dorm room at that school, which overlooked the parking lot. He knew our father was on campus when his car showed up in the lot. But instead of coming to say hello after his business was finished, our father climbed in his car and drove away while his son watched.

He’s been dead for four decades but people still take my sister aside to tell her what a Godly man our father was. A faithful servant of the Lord. How can she tell them that this revered Christian man was incapable of loving his family? That he stalked his patients, his wife, his children as sexual prey?

The hell a narcissist creates for those closest to him is an intensely private one.

Most Sunday nights after the evening service, my parents invited their church friends over to our house for fellowship. Bruce and Sue and I were sent to bed before the guests started arriving. Our father demanded that we stay out of the way. I would lie in bed staring at the ceiling while cars pulled in and ladies’ heels clacked up the front walk. One night, instead of settling in the living room or drifting to the kitchen for coffee and sandwiches, a group of guests hung back in the front hall. Spasms of laughter floated up the stairwell to the bedroom I shared with Sue.

I padded down the stairs in my footie pajamas and stood sleepily rubbing my eyes.  “Oh no,” one of the adults said with a wink. “Did we wake you?” Then they whirled me into the living room and plied me with chips and cookies while I performed. I danced. I sang. I answered questions. They hooted at my answers and looked approvingly at my parents. My father stood stiffly against the wall, arms crossed, his thin smile stretched taut.

He grabbed my wrists, marched me back to bed, hustled me under the covers and slammed the door shut on his way out. He wasn’t about to be upstaged in front of his flock. Least of all by a snot-nosed little kid.

When I met my husband, forty years after my father’s death, I found myself resisting the powerful manifestations of his love. This was what I’d been trying to invite into my life. Yet to be the object of such unequivocal feeling made me anxious. My therapist, Jan, suggested that I was holding onto the belief that I didn’t deserve to be loved so well.

We used EMDR to pursue that possibility. As I slowed my breathing and listened to the tones ping from one ear to the other, my father’s face appeared. We were outside, at dusk, standing in the space between the garage and the house. It was cold. He towered over me. He kept saying the same thing again and again: You don’t deserve to be loved. You don’t deserve to be loved. And then: Your mother only loves you because she has to.

Jan stopped the tones and let me cry a while before asking what was happening. Then she proposed I go back as an adult to get my child self out of there. She restarted the tones and back I went. I told my child self not to look at him, to keep her eyes on my face. As I held her and backed away from my father, I showed the child me all the things she was going to learn and experience, the fullness of who she would become. I told her that person was already inside of her. That she was perfectly suited for the journey just as she was.

I carried her into the house. My mother was lying on the couch. I told my child self to brush Mom’s hair until it was time for dinner, and while she was brushing, to raise the brush to her head sometimes and brush her own hair too.

Jan suggested I might be feeling unworthy of unreserved love because my mother hadn’t received it herself. She asked me to go back to the couch and have a conversation with Mom about that.

I told my mother I didn’t want to hold back or defend myself out of fear. I didn’t want to repeat her mistakes. She encouraged me to open myself completely, without reservation or doubt that I might not be worthy. Sitting in Jan’s office, I felt a palpable expansion, my chest brimming with breath.

We used the tones to reinforce the new belief: I deserve to be loved well. I laughed out loud at the image that came. My child self and I were outside again, between the house and garage in the almost-dark. We flicked our fingers and my father crumbled like dust. Poof.


Is Your Parent a Narcissist? A Quiz



Right before the American Psychiatric Association released the fifth edition of its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, or DSM, I read somewhere that narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) had been omitted from the new edition. Supposedly, the APA had decided that narcissism was so prevalent in the American population it could no longer be considered a disorder.

Turns out the DSM hasn’t scratched narcissism off the list of disorders. We may indeed be getting more self-involved as a nation, but that doesn’t change the fact that for some folks, it goes beyond Trump-style egomania. It’s a pathology. A disease. An affliction families are exposed to and shaped by every day. (On second thought, The Donald might just be the NPD poster boy.)

Here’s a taste of the diagnostic criteria for narcissistic personality disorder outlined in the current DSM:

  • Impaired ability to recognize or identify with the feelings and needs of others
  • Relationships are largely superficial and exist to serve self-esteem regulation
  • Excessive attempts to attract and be the focus of the attention of others; admiration seeking
  • Personal standards unreasonably high in order to see oneself as exceptional

Sound like a mommy or a daddy you know? Take this quick 5-question quiz to find out if you, too, were raised by a narcissist.

I. You call home from college to report that you made the Dean’s List. Your parent:

  1. congratulates you, gushing about how wonderful you are and how proud he is of you
  2. reminds you that he started college at age 16 and graduated magna cum laude, Phi Beta Kappa, Deus ex machina

II. Whenever a service person comes to the house (piano tuner, plumber, IT guy) to help him out, your parent:

  1. thanks the person profusely and doesn’t begrudge them their fee
  2. waits until the person has left and then calls him a know-it-all, a Mr. High-and-Mighty smarty pants, a cretin whose shoddy work your parent must now correct

III. Your parent calls you on the phone. You didn’t realize he had your phone number. He explains that:

  1. he just wanted to hear your voice; he’s been missing you and wants to know how you’re doing
  2. he decided his dog needs a birth date to celebrate, and he couldn’t wait to tell you that he’s giving the dog yours

IV. Your hardworking sister is struggling financially. Your parent offers to give her his second car. A week later he:

  1. takes the car to be fully serviced and detailed, and pays for the title transfer
  2. retracts the offer, saying he needs the car to drive his dog around

V. You arrive from the airport late at night, after traveling cross country to visit your parent. He:

  1. sits up waiting for you excitedly, your favorite snacks at the ready when you walk through the door
  2. locks the doors, turns off the lights and sets the burglar alarm after changing the code

If you chose the second answer to any of the above, well, welcome to the club. Lots of people probably think your parent is a charming person. They have no trouble telling you so every time you run into them. They sigh reverently, or eye you with envy. Most people will never see your parent the way you do. Because if there’s one thing your parent knows, it’s how to put on a good show. He does this as if his life depended on it.

Eleanor Payson, M.S.W. uses the analogy of the Wizard of Oz to explain narcissistic personality disorder and what it does to families and individuals subject to its exhausting tyrannies. Your parent is a master at using his wizard voice and billows of green smoke to manipulate every situation, monopolize every conversation, suck up every last molecule of oxygen in the room. You exist in his world to enlarge his sense of self, to show him how great and powerful he is. And, as Payson puts it, “to be devoured by [his] unrelenting needs.”

You want a brain, a heart, some courage? You want to go home, little girl? This isn’t about what you want. It’s never about you.

When your parent senses that you’re on to him, when your awareness of his disorder prompts you to start questioning, pushing back, refusing to let yourself get gobbled up by his all-consuming need, things get prickly. He will breathe flames. He will command you to pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.

Don’t listen.

Make sure to get a good, long look at the little operator back there frantically working the controls. Call your brothers and sisters over to look too. Maybe then you’ll be able to start seeing him for what he is: an imposter, a fraud. An old humbug.

It can be one of the hardest things you ever attempt, to break the hold of a narcissistic parent’s spell. Every child, no matter how old, desires nothing more profoundly than to know that her parent is on her side, that he is devoted to helping her get what she needs. Coming to grips with the fact that he has a very different agenda—one that takes zero notice of her self or her wishes—can be brutal.

Get some support. I’ve spent a lot of time talking with my therapist about how to set limits. I ordered a copy of Payson’s book and then ordered more copies for my siblings. We spend time comparing notes, reminding one another that our experience is not a dream. We strategize ways to minimize the toxic effects of our parent’s disorder. We are definitely not in Kansas anymore. But that’s not the end of our story.