Dealing With Narcissists

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Reader’s Question

Growing up I had a childhood friend for whom I would be there whenever she broke up with a boyfriend or needed someone to talk to, but who would otherwise ditch me. One-on-one she was nice, but she made fun of me when others were around. She would only hang out with me if no one else was around and would ditch me if someone else became available.

I was sick of being ditched by her, so when she called me out of the blue years later, I refused to interact with her. Well, this caused her to get upset and she harassed my friends as to why I was treating her this way. One of them pointed out that she hasn’t really been around and that she left our group.

Recently I had to sit at her table at a mutual friend’s wedding and all she did was brag about things in her life. She made some snide comments towards me, but since it wasn’t the time or place to discuss it, I simply smiled and brushed it off.

I’m mad at myself because I feel like I should have defended myself, but it seems like she just wanted a reaction. We were with a group of people, so of course, like always, she had to make fun of me. I just don’t get it. She never seemed to like me in the first place, so why would she care that I didn’t want to hang out (years later)? Why does she hate me so much?

Psychologist’s Reply

Trying to explain other people’s motives and behavior is always tricky business, so we’ll never know whether anything we come up with is accurate. An important part of the problem is that we humans tend not to have good insight into our own behavior. So, even if another person is entirely honest and open with us, their explanation for their own behavior may very well be inaccurate. With that disclaimer, let’s get down to some juicy speculation.

On the surface, narcissistic people seem self-confident and not in need of others. In reality, however, the self-projection of confidence is a defense to try to compensate for core insecurity. Because the self-confident exterior is not based on internal reality, the narcissistic individual requires an audience to perpetuate the image. If no one is present to validate the self-projection, the narcissist is left with his or her hollow self.

Of course, not all audiences are deemed equal. So, if a “better” (higher status?) audience is available, the lesser “friend” is dropped because he or she is no longer needed. For narcissists, “friendships” aren’t based on mutual respect and meeting each other’s needs; they are simply based on what the other person can do for them. The friends and family of narcissists are frequently left confused and hurt by the narcissist’s selfish behavior, which may be downright mean-spirited when they put down others to make themselves look better or be more liked.

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Your frustration seems to be based on trying to understand your former friend’s behavior from the vantage point of someone capable of genuine friendships, rather than through the eyes of the narcissist. When you refused to provide her attention, her ego was wounded, and you witnessed her upset and retaliation. As you noted, her apparent hurt was not because of who you are to her, but simply that you no longer played the role of audience and supporter for her fragile ego (which required further propping up through bragging and trying to put you down).

In many ways, your ex-friend did you a favor by breaking away from your social group, and you did yourself a favor by refusing to fall back into old roles. As you witnessed, the most effective retaliation toward narcissists is simply to refuse to pay them any attention. Fortunately, that’s also the response that is probably best for your mental health as well. Rather than beating yourself up for not confronting her, pat yourself on the back for rising above the pathological cycle your ex-friend perpetuates.

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