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Catch 22

Updated: Apr 15

So here again is the catch-22: It’s “damned if you do; damned if you don’t.”

Assertively defending yourself or standing up to them in the face of their verbal aggression is a losing battle. But so is allowing them to walk all over you. For here, failing to honor your very personhood, you risk losing yourself. And that’s why therapists agree that getting out of such a relationship is your best choice.

But if, for any number of reasons, that’s simply not viable, what's the best alternative?

If you can’t outright escape the narcissist, how do you evade the catch-22 you’re left with?

If the narcissist has dug their claws into you deep enough, you may need a few sessions with a mental health professional to muster the courage and determination to respond to them in a way that renders you less susceptible to their abuse. And emotionally extricating yourself from them mostly involves developing a keener understanding of how this relationship has negatively influenced you.

Over time, have you ...

  • Unwittingly given their words more authority than your own?

  • Not been able to help feeling intimidated by them?

  • Allowed them to convince you that you couldn’t enforce any boundarieswith them — couldn’t protect your “buffer zone”?

  • Lost so much self-esteem that you’ve come to believe you may actually deserve the awful treatment you’ve received from them?

Can you now grasp that the narcissist’s harmful ways of treating you are all driven by their deep-seated insecurities, even self-loathing? That even when they’re appallingly offensive, it’s only one of their more desperate defenses? If you can discern the weaknesses that till now they’d effectively camouflaged from you (as well as themselves!), you should be able to start the process of emotionally detaching from them.

And that’s pivotal. Even as you may be planning your eventual escape, you can begin to shield yourself from their relational insensitivities or sadism. By no longer reacting to them, but letting their words pass over you like a harmless cloud, you’ll begin to protect yourself from their toxicity. Moreover, if you want to keep things as peaceful as possible and stay clear of the “can’t win” battles that are their forte, you can simply “mmm-hmm” them and keep them flattered enough so they’ll be less inclined to get on your case.

Narcissists are highly susceptible to flattery; they really can’t get enough of it. That gives you a strategic advantage over them. Obviously, regularly expressing your adulation or admiration won’t feel particularly genuine. Nonetheless, in this relationship, it can be a highly useful tactic to safeguard your emotional and mental welfare. (And if you have any reservations about doing so, just recall all the manipulative, exploitative ways they’ve treated you.)

So, unless you feel your integrity is just too much compromised, compliment them and make them look good — even giving them more credit for something than they deserve. Given their rageful and vindictive bent, it makes little sense to be candid with them or try to put them in their place, regardless of how powerful that impulse may be. Much better to preempt their angrily acting out by repeatedly offering them the recognition they may have been so starved of while growing up. (Which is the one thought that might actually enable you to feel more empathy for them.)

Finally, it’s all about discovering how to protect yourself from not taking anything they say or do personally.

In addition, you’ll need to grow your own adult authority to become the sole judge of yourself. And to do so with infinitely more compassion, understanding, and acceptance than the pathological narcissist ever could. That’s how you reclaim your emotional equilibrium and self-esteem.

So even if you need to continue your relationship with such a damaged, and damaging, individual, there’s no reason you have to sacrifice your honor and self-respect.

Still, you’ll need to spend a fair amount of time reminding yourself that how they treat you says far more about them than it does you. And to internally stand firm in the face of their ongoing abuse, endeavor to get as much support from others as you can.

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