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Dealing With Narcissists: You Can't Win

Updated on February 9, 2020
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The Little Shaman is a spiritual coach & specialist in cluster B personality disorders, with a popular YouTube show and clients worldwide.

Narcissistic relationships are difficult and painful for many reasons, not the least of which is that they are usually power struggles where both people are trying to control the other person and get what they want. Sometimes it's blatant and sometimes it's not obvious at all, but the desire to win this power struggle can keep people hanging on for years and years.

It's important to say that most people don't realize this is what's happening. They are simply trying to get what they want and feel they deserve from the relationship. The problem is that the narcissist or otherwise toxic person has demonstrated that they are not interested in giving these things. Maybe they are not able to give them. The victim, invested in winning these things from the narcissist and often encouraged by what looks like progress or concessions made on the narcissist's part, keeps trying and negotiating and bargaining and pushing and pleading for the "reward" the narcissist is dangling. They often change their behavior and everything else they are told to do in order to try to win this game and get the prize. But regardless of what the narcissist might promise, it doesn't work. They never get it, no matter how perfectly the comply or how flawlessly they address the narcissist's many complaints about who they are as a person. It just doesn't work, and people are often devastated by the fact that there is always something else they did wrong, always another hurdle they have to jump.

It doesn't work because to a narcissist, a relationship is a constant power struggle where they have to balance between keeping people around to serve their needs without giving too much of themselves so that no one can control them. Pathologically narcissistic people are generally very afraid that others will control and hurt them if they don't constantly guard against it. They often go to extreme lengths to prevent it from happening, and can appear paranoid or even delusional about this subject. Some of the most common accusations heard from narcissists have to do with others trying to control them. The reality is, the narcissist is usually the one trying to control everything and everyone. If they are not allowed to do so, they feel that they are being controlled and will react to that.

This is why it's a power struggle even if someone doesn't realize it or believe they are participating in something like that. The narcissistic person makes it one. A person either pushes back against this or becomes totally subjugated by the narcissist, losing their sovereignty, their identity and everything else. Most people push back. Some people push back at first and others push back eventually, even if they don't really intend to. You have to, or risk losing who you are as a person. The narcissist takes offense to the assertion of you as a separate person and then the war is on.

How dare you? How dare you? To make matters worse, not only do you insist on being your own separate person but you actually want something from the narcissist. That can't be allowed and it won't be. Now not only is the game about erasing your threatening sovereignty but it's about desperately trying to hang on to their own. Because their identity is so fragile and unstable, any individuality from others is taken as a rejection and a threat against that. Any expectation that they should give something of themselves to the relationship or the other person is taken as a threat as well. Whereas most of us see giving of ourselves to a loved one or a relationship to be rewarding and fulfilling, narcissists fear losing parts of themselves that they will not get back and therefore being diminished by doing it. They don't have anything to give to others and, as evidenced by their irrational fear of losing themselves, they don't understand what giving means or how it works anyway.

You cannot give anything to anyone if you believe that by doing so, you will deplete what little you have and leave yourself with nothing. If someone has one piece of bread to eat and they're one meal away from starving to death, most people are not going to feel that they can share. And if someone tries to take any of it from them and leave them to die with nothing, that person is probably going to be in for a fight. A big one. This is the mindset narcissistic people are in. Any attempt to help them understand things differently is generally going to be seen as an attempt to manipulate them out of their piece of bread. That's just how it is. This person does not have anything to share with you. They have nothing to give. They have so little, in fact, that you are seen as predatory for trying to take anything. How dare you?

Every situation is a power struggle with pathologically narcissistic people because they have literally nothing else. Hanging on to that power over others - which they interpret ultimately as power over themselves - is all they've got. Remember, narcissists have an unstable identity and must rely on others to tell them who and what they are. We've spoken in other episodes of the show about how victims are not the only people who give their power away. Narcissists and other toxic abusers do too, and that is why they try to control others. They are trying to control them because they believe the other person either does have or will have power over them. They believe if they control the other person or people, they then have that power. This is what gaslighting, smear campaigning and all of their other manipulative and abusive tactics are about: controlling others. The truth is, they are simply rendering themselves even more powerless by believing - and behaving - as if others hold all the power in the situation. This reiterates to them that they have none. It is the same with victims.

The truth is, others don't hold all of the power in any situation. You always have power over yourself and your choices. Always. Narcissists give this power away by blaming other people for their feelings, behavior, choices, words and by trying to force others to take responsibility for them. Because of that, when dealing with narcissists, it's important to remember that you are in a power struggle whether you want to be or not. If you are participating in the relationship, you don't have a choice. They have assigned these things to you and will behave as if you - not they - are responsible for all of them. This is how they function in relationships with others and it does not change. This is the function of the dysfunction.

Pathologically narcissistic people are like children in this way; they feel helpless and controlled. Powerless and dependent in a world full of people with more power than they have. The difference is, children actually have no choice in the matter; they really are helpless. Adult narcissists are not but for whatever reason, they don't seem to have developed past this point. They don't realize that it is their own dependence on others which creates this skewed power dynamic in the first place. They generally know on some level that they are dependent and are usually resentful of others because of it, but like children, they seem to simply assume this is how it is. They don't realize that they actually do have power over themselves and their circumstances, that they are choosing the path of powerlessness by refusing to evolve in whatever ways they could. Maybe some can't.

You might hear a little bit of yourself in some of this, and that's because this is how power structures in relationships work. If you are relying on others for something, they have power over that. What you are relying on them for dictates how much power they have. If someone is not trustworthy, we need to be extremely careful how much power we give them. You wouldn't give a burglar the keys to your house, or a car thief the keys to your car. If you are relying on a narcissist for things you need to do for yourself, such as validate your self-worth, your value or you as a person, that is a lot of power to give another person and it can be abused very easily, either because someone is malicious and cruel or because they are so desperate and self-focused that they cannot care about others. The most important thing to remember is that they did not take this power. Whether you realize it or not, at some point you gave it to them. And you can take it back.

In the end, this is not a contest you will win. The brass ring you are trying to grab actually doesn't exist and never did. There is nothing there. What you see is what you get: an unstable person with unstable emotions and an unstable reality who cannot give you what they don't have. That's it. If you are OK with that, then that's fine, so long as you understand the true reality of the situation. If you are not, then the only way to win this game is not to play.

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