“Politeness is the art of choosing among one’s real thoughts.”
“When someone told me that narcissists respond well to having their egos stroked and that I might have a better chance of being heard by my ex if I initiated every conversation with a few solid ego strokes, I felt bile in my throat.”
You have a narcissist ex who still tries to bait and engage you from time to time. How to respond? You feel like a jerk when you act like one, and rightly so. You won’t feel great if you go low in an effort to protect yourself from more emotional abuse. Acting in a way that you know is rude and unpleasant is not a long-term solution for managing a narcissist ex.
Michelle Obama says, “When they go low, we go high.” How do you “go high” with a narcissist without stroking their ego or losing your own self-respect? We’ve gathered some tips from people who have successfully negotiated the difficult situation.
1. Be professional
Being polite, respectful, and pleasant is essential in all social and professional situations, including this one. In fact, thinking of dealing with the narcissist ex in a professional manner has helped people in your situation understand how to respond. What if you had an angry or flirty or manipulative customer on the phone, and you were a savvy customer service representative? Imagining how you would act will give you ideas about how to respond when your ex comes up with the newest way to get under your skin or cross boundaries.
Responding as the savvy customer service rep is a skill that you can learn with practice and determination. When you make a mistake and let that condescending edge slip into your voice or allow yourself to be provoked, just reevaluate for next time. Replay the situation in your head or with a therapist, using your professional responses. Be thankful that you can hone this skill, the skill of offering diplomatic, professional responses even when someone else is out of line. This is a skill that you will apply to other professional or personal situations with good success.
2. Define the boundaries of your conversation topics
It helps many divorced spouses to be very clear about the appropriate topics of conversation. For example, many divorced spouses limit conversations to kids-and-schedule. They do not respond to comments about anything else. Be professionally polite rather than warmly polite.
For example, you wake up to a “good morning” text from your narcissist ex. The Previous-You might have thought you needed to respond with a “good morning” in order to be polite. The New-You realizes that discussing the goodness of morning is not within your boundaries (kids-and-schedule). Cheerful baiting by your ex (e.g., good morning!, Happy Birthday!, just saw a Lakers cap and it reminded me of you!) is just as much out of boundaries as angry baiting or needy baiting.
Remember, the New-You is a savvy customer service rep. Would the savvy customer service rep respond to a late-night text from a lonely client? No. Would the savvy customer service rep respond to an angry tirade? No. Would the savvy customer service rep respond to flirting or engage in friendly conversation topics outside the matter at hand while on the clock? No. No. No.
Low and slow
“Going high” doesn’t mean that you treat your narcissistic ex with the same politeness with which you’d treat a trusted friend. Your narcissist ex is not a trusted friend, and so you engage in professional politeness rather than personal politeness.
Responding with one or two sentences, spoken low and slow, is one method for responding with professional politeness.
My ex and I had established a weekly telephone check-in on Fridays at 9AM. We used this meeting to discuss the kids’ schedule for the upcoming week. My ex has a history of unreliability, so I was skeptical when he promised that he’d always clear his schedule or let me know in advance if he couldn’t make it.
Sure enough, just a few weeks after his promise, he stood me up for our 9AM telephone check-in. I sent a text about 9:10, “meeting at 9?” but didn’t hear anything from him for hours. I was livid. Angry with him for standing me up. Angry at myself for excusing his unreliability so many times in the past.
In the past, I might have given him a piece of my mind when he finally showed up. This time, though, I spent 5 minutes writing an angry letter to him, telling him exactly what I thought of him. I would have spent longer because I had a lot to say, but it was a busy day, so I ended the letter on a spiteful crescendo, signed my name, and then ripped it into little pieces. I ripped it up to seal up the very reality of these feelings. Then I practiced saying two sentences low and slow.
The sentences I chose were, “I don’t want to hear your excuses. I expect you to tell me in advance when you can’t make an appointment with me.”
If a friend had stood me up for a lunch date, I would have texted to see if anything was wrong. If that friend stood me up a couple of times, I would have started to lose interest. If that ‘friend’ stood me up more than twice, I wouldn’t have considered them a friend but moved them to the ‘acquaintance’ category. I’m not sure why I accepted such terrible behavior from my ex for so long in an effort to do my part for the relationship.
Low-and-slow is a strategy for responding to your narcissist ex when she or he crosses boundaries in any way. Get your feelings out on paper if your emotions are high. Those feelings need to come out somehow, but your narcissist ex doesn’t even deserve to hear them.
Then choose one or two sentences that explain your expectations for the future. Practice in front of a mirror. Look yourself in the eye, and say those sentences low and slow – with a low voice and with a slow, assertive tempo.
(continued in 5 Tips for Dealing with a Narcissist Ex, Part II)