The most common question I get from my clients or readers is, “What if I’m the narcissist?”
If you’ve asked yourself this question, it’s likely because your narcissist is accusing you of being one. But the simple answer is, if you think you’re a narcissist, then that means you are concerned about other people’s feelings, as well as questioning your own behavior and taking accountability. Narcissists don’t care about anyone else but themselves. Nor do they take accountability for their actions, as they are so busy projecting their behavior onto others, and accusing them of being someone that he or she actually is. Narcissists are always the “victim” and they see their actual victims as aggressors.
A narcissist will call you a narcissist when you have boundaries, outsmart them, or call them out. Yet when you are accused of being one, somehow this instills unbelievable fear within you. But guess what: you just got the best compliment you will ever get from that person because you instilled a boundary they didn’t like. Well done.
Stop fearing what a narcissist says, does, or thinks of you. Focus less on what a narcissist “does” to you and more about how you see them, as well as how you see yourself. So first, let’s talk about how you see them.
In my coaching program, I have a module that talks about my theory of “bears versus squirrels.” If you have experienced long-term narcissistic abuse and you didn’t have the skills to manage them, then your nervous system was wired to see their behavior as a major threat to your survival. Their skillful manipulation tactics always outmaneuvered your innocent codependency, so all you could ever do was flight, fight or freeze. Your mind, then, programmed itself to see your narcissist as a “bear.”
Therefore, every time this person “knocks on your door,” via text or email, or you just hear this person’s name, it’s as if a bear was breaking down your door and going to kill you. And that is the illusion they want you to see, and have likely succeeded for many, many years.
Narcissists are highly undeveloped, adult children who love to create false illusions of themselves and project them onto us, for which we buy into it for a while. But when we start to see who they really are, they get very frightened and will do anything they can to make sure we see them as powerful, scary bears.
But the truth is, they are just an annoying nuisance. Sure, they have the ability to create a lot of destruction, and chaos, but they aren’t bears – they are really squirrels. Imagine a squirrel getting into your house. It would be jumping all over the place, going absolutely bonkers, and knocking things over because it’s scared. But because it’s a squirrel, you’re not scared for your life. It’s just annoying and you want it out.
Of course, if it was a bear, you would be terrified. But with a squirrel, you’re just annoyed. And you actually laugh at this crazy rodent by how silly he is behaving!
You must see a narcissist as a squirrel. Otherwise, they will win, and you will always lose. But it’s not really about losing the conflict or the argument, it’s about losing yourself and who you really are.
This leads me to my next point of how you see yourself. A bear would see you and want to gobble you up or destroy every shred of your being because you’re weak, and they are strong. But this is actually how you see yourself because if you get upset and derailed by the things they say, then you see yourself weaker than they are. However, since they are just squirrels, they are actually intimidated by you. Therefore they make a mess of your “house,” by gaslighting you to think they are stronger and more capable. But in reality, they are just a nuisance, and you must laugh at their attempts to destroy your house. You must see yourself as the bigger one; the stronger one; the smarter one.
This is exactly how narcissists perceive themselves, and why you are so scared to perceive yourself that way. But here’s the rub: How the narcissist perceives himself is just an illusion. Just like how you perceive yourself as the weaker one is an illusion.
The truth is, a narcissist is terrified to be seen for who they really are. But unfortunately, so are you. God forbid you are actually strong and smart, and two steps ahead of them. And if you are, oh my gosh, suddenly, you’re now a “narcissist.”
It’s okay to outsmart them, play their games, and mirror their behavior. You aren’t a narcissist. You’re the person you have been all this time — a complete badass, who will do anything to protect yourself, your agency, your family, your money, etc.
Here’s what I mean by mirroring them, which, by the way, they have been doing this to you all this time without you even knowing it. Narcissists do a technique I call “woodpeckering”: they peck and peck, and jab you with passive-aggressive insults until you lose your temper and control. Suddenly, they become eerily calm while they question your mental health, whether you are of sound mind to parent your children, or whether you are of sound mind to do anything.
You can do the exact same thing to them, which I call mirroring. Here’s an example text exchange between my Breakup Breakthrough client and her ex, who has majority custody of their daughter because he manipulated the legal system.
He texted my client saying their daughter was working on her math homework, but would call her soon. The text was laden with covert passive-aggressive commentary to try to show my client that he was such a good dad and ‘it’s a good thing I have custody of her because you’re such a mess,’ kind of messaging.
She responded with a simple question asking why her math homework was taking so long.
His response was, “Are you seriously asking me why her homework is taking so long? I told you she was working on her accelerated math assignment. And she has regular homework as well. These are the type of messages that don’t need to be sent. Please use this for legitimate concerns, money and scheduling. I know in your mind, you’re thinking I’m doing everything to keep her from you. And it’s not the case. But until you realize that, unfortunately, there’s nothing I can do or say to fix this. YOU did this to yourself, not me. And if you don’t believe that, ask around, ask my attorney. I don’t know what else to do. And every step of the way, you have given me grief since the beginning of the divorce, please don’t reply, I more than likely won’t read it, unless it’s positive.”
Of course, this nearly derailed my client. She felt like a bad mom, a bad person, and ‘less than’ him. Here is how I told her to respond, using one of my MAGIC Words that can be found in my book: “Wow, you seem really stressed. Are you okay? I’m a little worried about how your stress may affect our daughter, and whether you’re able to handle her on your own. Let me know how I can help. I will be sure to let my attorney know you are struggling with the simple task of parenting through her homework, thereby resulting in an erratic outburst via text. Of course, I want to stay positive. And that is and always will be my intent. Hey, have a fantastic evening!”
Do you see how her response turned it back on him and mirrored what he was trying to do to her? You might be thinking, “But that will make him even more mad!” Well of course, but, remember, he’s just a squirrel! Let him get mad. His anger has nothing to do with you.
His anger may be exactly what you might want to achieve so that you have documented evidence of his unraveling, all while you remain calm. You were once afraid of “poking the bear,” but now you understand that he isn’t a bear at all; he’s just a squirrel having a temper tantrum.
The more you consistently remain calm, the faster he will run out of steam. And if you are consistent with this, I promise you, the intimidation, and passive aggression will stop because it no longer works on you. The only reason why it continues is because it’s working – it’s how you see yourself, how you see him, and how he sees you. Both of you are caught up in this illusion.
So in this scenario, especially if you are in the middle of a custody case or a legal case, your goal should be documenting abuse, passive aggression, or erratic behavior. Just as a narcissist would do to you, you want to bleed it out of them, all while you are being nice, “concerned” about him, and authentically concerned about the well-being of your children.
If you are reading this, then it means you are a good person and a good parent. You are doing an amazing job finding the resources to help yourself and/or your children. Thinking like a narcissist does not mean you are one. You’re just playing one on TV.
And you know what, sometimes it can be a little fun playing with squirrels.
We love being given the opportunity to publish articles from Lindsey Ellison. Always such good information. Thanks, Lindsey!
Lindsey Ellison is a breakup breakthrough coach and founder of Start Over Coaching, Inc., a coaching practice dedicated to helping people navigate their divorce or break-up. She is the author of the best-selling book, MAGIC Words: How to Get What You Want from a Narcissist and her latest book, Blessons of a Breakup, which you can get for free on her website. You can find Lindsey on her popular podcast, Unbreakable You: Breakup Without Being Broken, and on her website: lindseyellison.com.