Narcissism is a growing problem. In one study involving a data pool of 37,000 college students, researchers found that over a 30-year period, narcissistic personality traits rose at the same speed as obesity rates.
For some, their narcissism reaches a level of being clinically diagnosed as narcissistic personality disorder (NPD), which requires extensive treatment to remedy.
While you may not be in a relationship with anyone who suffers from a diagnosable case of NPD, you have likely been the brunt of someone else’s narcissistic behavior — when someone treats you as though you are a means to their self-important ends.
These relationships can be frustrating, disorienting, and sometimes even downright harmful to your mental health. As Christians, how can we respond to the narcissistic people in our lives in a way that is both healthy and holy?
The first step is being able to recognize a narcissistic person when you see one.
How to Recognize a Narcissistic Person
The hallmark of narcissism is a preoccupation with self. Narcissistic people are often very self-confident and even quite charming, which can help them gain influence and advancement.
However, as you get closer to them, what you find is that they lack empathy and are prone to lash out at others when they feel their personal fulfillment is being encroached upon.
Narcissists may attack or accuse those who contradict them, even going as far as to humiliate them publicly.
They may become jealous of others’ success or relationships and attempt to isolate those close to them while attacking their self-esteem through constant insults and putdowns.
In an effort to control others, narcissistic people may even meticulously monitor the movements and whereabouts of those close to them.
Narcissistic people cannot stand the thought of being wrong. And so, when challenged about their behavior, they become oversensitive and go on the attack. They may “gaslight” people who call them out by denying what they said or did.
Other times, they may claim that what they said or did was “just a joke” or misinterpreted and that their accuser is being overly sensitive.
Narcissistic people are incredibly adept at turning the blame on anybody and everybody but themselves, often projecting their own failures and shortcomings on others and accusing the people in their lives of the very things they themselves are guilty of.
Living with or being close to a narcissistic person can be, at the very least, emotionally taxing. At its worst, you may find yourself suffering abuse.
Whether a person has NPD or simply displays narcissistic tendencies, it can be difficult to know how to interact with them, especially for Christians who want to behave in a way that is consistent with godly character.
Here are four things to keep in mind if you are dealing with someone in your life who is acting narcissistically.
1. Remember That You Are Not a Doormat
And while self-control keeps us from lashing out in unhealthy or ungodly ways, it does not require us to continue putting ourselves in situations where we are at risk of being emotionally, spiritually, or even physically harmed.
The fine line Christians must walk is always striving to be kind while not enabling mistreatment or abuse, refusing to hold a grudge while not allowing narcissistic people to continually tear us down.
This line can often feel difficult to find, particularly when the narcissistic person is someone close to your heart, such as a parent, sibling, or someone you otherwise have admired or looked up to.
Discernment requires prayer, so we must seek God’s wisdom as we learn to deal with narcissistic people in our lives.
2. Set Boundaries and Stick to Them
What is important to remember when dealing with a narcissistic person is that you can’t control how they act or what they feel toward you. But you can control what you do. So set firm boundaries and commit to sticking to them.
These boundaries may include removing yourself from a situation when a narcissistic person begins attacking you, refusing to respond favorably when they launch into a diatribe that assumes the worst of others’ motives, speaking up when they have shared your personal information without permission, or standing firm when you have told them “no.”
Be gracious in the way you go about setting and communicating these boundaries. Also, be strategic.
When dealing with a narcissist, open confrontation is rarely the most helpful way to address your concerns with their behavior, as their oversensitivity to critique could lead to them relentlessly attacking you or becoming fixated on proving that you are the problem.
This could result in a relational setback rather than forward progress. So, strive to be prudent and empathetic, even as you strive to be firm.
When setting firm boundaries, you may sometimes feel as though you are being overly rigid, selfish, or mean. In fact, the narcissistic person who doesn’t like your boundaries may try to convince you of as much.
Nevertheless, it is important to remember that these boundaries are a necessary part of preserving your emotional, spiritual, and even physical well-being.
To be sure, this is an end unto itself. But you also can’t be the person God has created you to be or do the things he has called you to do with full effectiveness if your health and well-being are perpetually compromised.
What’s more is that if your well-being is compromised, it is likely that the well-being of those closest to you is compromised as well.
3. Find Support from Trusted Friends and Confidants
When grappling with a turbulent relationship wherein the other person constantly questions your interpretation of your experiences with them, you may find yourself getting turned around. You may begin to wonder: is it just me?
This is why it’s important to have people in your life who are godly, whom you trust, and whom you can turn to when you need to debrief an experience with a person in your life who is narcissistic.
While you always want to guard yourself against gossiping or complaining unnecessarily, you may find it helpful to recount a conversation or conflict with a narcissistic person to see if your confidant recognizes the same troubling pattern of behavior you do.
This person can be a close friend or even a trained therapist or mental health professional.
Whoever it is, ask them if they are interpreting the situation the same way you are and whether your current course of action is the healthiest and godliest response.
Further, be willing to listen when they seek to help you reframe the situation in a way that is different from your current perspective.
Obviously, never take advice that will require you to reinsert yourself into an unhealthy situation. Nevertheless, be open to having a trusted friend or confidant guide you through a process of recentering your experience in a way that is most healthy for you, as well as for the narcissistic person you are dealing with.
4. Recognize When You Need to Exit the Relationship
The unfortunate reality when dealing with a narcissistic person is that even if you are incredibly gracious and clear with your boundaries, you strive to be forgiving and overlook offenses, and you return kindness for every attack, there may come a point at which the relationship is untenable, and you must begin to disentangle your life from theirs.
This is particularly true where abusive behavior is recurrently present, especially if the narcissistic person is an authority figure, such as a parent, pastor, or boss.
Making the decision to take a step back from a relationship or remove yourself from it entirely isn’t something you should take lightly.
Not that you would, as doing so can be incredibly disruptive to your life, resulting in relational losses within your extended family, the need for you to find a new church community, or even to begin a job hunt.
Choosing to end a relationship ought to be a last resort. Even still, it may become necessary.
In the midst of that, remember to grieve your losses and be intentional about guarding yourself against bitterness and resentment. That isn’t an easy thing to do.
The path to healing and wholeness isn’t always a straight line. But through every peak and valley, we have a God who is close to us and who cares for us.
Whereas the narcissists in our lives constantly use us to their own ends, Jesus gave his very life so that we might become everything he created us to be.
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Dale Chamberlain (M.Div) is an author and podcaster who is passionate about helping people tackle ancient truths in everyday settings. He lives in Southern California with his wife Tamara and their two sons. Connect with Dale at KainosProject.com.