Much of the current literature on Narcissism Personality Disorder (NPD) concludes that confronting a narcissist is a waste of time, no matter how skillfully the confrontation is executed.
According to this school of thought, confronting a narcissist with diagnosable NPD will result in one of two outcomes: 1) escalation of hostility; or 2) future-faking.
Escalation of hostility
In most cases, the narcissist will initially become angry and defensive if confronted. They will deny the problem or minimize their behavior. They will say you are over-reacting. They will try to convince you that a normal person wouldn’t be bothered by their behavior. If that doesn’t work to mollify you, they will excuse their behavior based on the situation (worked late, stress at work, headache, etc.), or even blame you for making them act as they did. They may argue that you left them no choice, that you brought it on.
A malignant narcissist may initiate the silent treatment, or lash out by accusing you of all sorts of misdeeds that have suddenly come to their attention once you confront them. The dark side of your Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde (or your “Dr. Jekyll/Ms. Hyde”) will be on full display. A narcissist may punish you by spreading disinformation. They will take a particle of truth from an encounter with you, elaborate the story to make you look bad and tell (or “confide”) in the people around you.
It is possible that the narcissist in your life will physically hurt you if you confront him or her. Whether this physical force is life-threatening or whether it’s “not that bad,” physical force is a sign of a relationship that needs to change. If this is happening to you, please reach out for help.
The narcissist in your life, when meeting solid resistance from you, might promise to reform. Now you’ll get the charming side of the Dr. Jekyll/Mr.-or-Ms. Hyde. Promised reform, however, will be temporary, and both of you know it in your heart-of-hearts. Commitments for future action, skillfully proffered by the narcissist to soothe (i.e., manipulate) are known as future-faking.
Future-faking and over-promising often placate and appease you, the non-narcissistic partner. The narcissist gets you to “buy-in” to their excuses, and strings you along for another day. Their reform, however, is fleeting. Soon you are back to square one.
Future-faking sometimes (not always) involves public performance. Touching apologies in front of the family, grand gestures of love, or colorful tributes on social media endear the narcissist to your circle of friends and family and make you appear demanding and hard-to-please. Only you will understand the underlying manipulation and self-justification in some of this posturing.
Future-faking sometimes (not always) involves love bombing. The narcissist might shower you with excessive affection and appreciation in order to get you to soften your stance. Love bombing may go hand-in-hand with public posturing. The narcissist will load you up with everything that you love, promise you the moon, and make gallant sacrifices to “make it up” to you.
Confronting a narcissist might only add another spin to the narcissist cycle (confronting – hostility/future-faking – forgiving – hoping – hurting – confronting – repeat). Your heart has been broken a million times, once for each time that you got your hopes up, believing that things would be different. You may think you are strong enough to handle it, but is this the way you want to live your life? Many therapists would say that your strength is actually a state of denial.
If it doesn’t work for me to confront a narcissist, could a therapist get through to them?
Many therapists maintain that partners of narcissists should not hope that marriage counseling will help the narcissist change. For example, one therapist wrote that the best outcome she sees from clients confronting narcissists is that the non-narcissistic mate gets some support, things go better for a while, and then the narcissistic mate slowly reverts to his or her usual pattern. The non-narcissistic partner has to face the hard reality that they will need to leave the relationship or keep their deepest frustrations to themselves in order to have any peace, however superficial.
However, other therapists remain more optimistic. Narcissists can change their behavior . . . if they are determined to do so. If a narcissist is not willing to change, and insists that the blame lies with you, then no amount of self-definition or boundary-setting on your part will significantly improve their behavior. No amount of negotiating with a narcissist will result in change unless the narcissist wants to make it happen.
According to the more optimistic therapists, if a narcissist can maintain a long-term commitment to change and avoid lapsing into denial or blaming you, they can change. Progress will be challenging – and narcissistic tendencies may remain throughout life – but a narcissist can indeed replace deeply-ingrained habits.
Elements that may increase the likelihood of a change include the real fear of losing someone or something that is precious to them, relationships with people (therapists and family members) who will not fall for their narcissistic tricks, and outside validation of progress when progress is really happening.
Confronting a narcissist may not change the narcissist, but it might change you.
Confront a narcissist in a manner in which you can maintain your self-respect. Confronting a narcissist with the same kind of emotional abuse that you receive from them will just make you feel like a jerk. Remember, confronting a narcissist won’t change the narcissist, but it will change you. As you practice dealing with a toxic personality while remaining calm and clear-minded, you will feel more powerful and proactive.
If you fear that confronting a narcissist may result in his or her use of physical force against you, don’t do it alone. A free and confidential national hotline is available 24/7.
Labeling-and-leaving is one method of confrontation that helps the non-narcissist maintain self-dignity. You might say, “This feels like love bombing to me,” or “Your promises will become meaningful when I see you keep them,” or “You seem angry that I have a different opinion than you.” Make your statement and then leave.
If a narcissist asks you to excuse a slip-up because they’ve been doing so well in the recent past, don’t initiate the old cycle by giving in. You could say, “I’m thankful you are doing better; I’ll continue doing my part for the sake of us both.”
One therapist gave the following example:
Maybe you’ve previously said, “If you use nasty language, I’ll leave for the night.” After a few months of your partner offering some kind words with no put-downs, they devalue you on one occasion during an argument.
You feel inclined to let this go, since they’ve been doing so well. But this can reinforce the behavior, which hurts you both. Instead, stick to your boundary while encouraging them to keep up their progress.
Confronting a narcissist may be one of the hardest skills you have to learn in this life. Learning to do it, however, will make you a better version of yourself. The chances are very high that the narcissist in your life will “give” you numerous and repeated opportunities to practice confronting them. You can improve your skills while considering whether to remain in the relationship.