They were kind, funny, even loving — when they wanted to be. They had big dreams and seemed to sweep you up in them. But things never, ever turned out the way they wanted them — nothing was ever good enough — and they would explode in confusing bouts of anger, blame, or self-loathing (which, of course, required you to soothe them).
Worse, if you brought any of this up and tried to address it, they couldn’t seem to see it, and only denied or rationalized what had happened. Your only option, it seemed, was to keep giving and giving until you were completely spent.
Sound familiar? If it does, you have probably had a narcissist in your life. Welcome to the club! (Unfortunately.)
And, sadly, for highly sensitive people (HSPs) it seems to be a pretty large club. Considering that less than one percent of people are pathological narcissists, you wouldn’t think HSPs are any more likely to run into them than anyone else. But what if sensitive people are particularly prone to a narcissist’s needy, controlling behavior?
Let’s explore what makes a narcissist a narcissist, why HSPs might be a natural target for them, and what you can do about it.
Narcissists Are a Highly Sensitive Person’s ‘Shadow Self’
Narcissists — people who live with narcissistic personality disorder — have an unconscious belief that they are superior to other people. With that comes a craving for attention, respect, and often wealth or fame, and an almost total lack of empathy for the needs of others. The result is an individual who will manipulate or use others in order to get what they want.
Being a highly sensitive person, on the other hand, is perfectly healthy, and has nothing to do with ego. Highly sensitive people have nervous systems that process all input very deeply, from sights and sounds to thoughts and emotions. They tend to be creative, thoughtful, and caring. They can also get overwhelmed easily, because all that processing leads to overstimulation.
So what do these two have in common? Well, almost nothing. And, in one key way, they’re almost perfect opposites: empathy.
You see, even though high sensitivity is primarily about how you process information, the reality is that most HSPs are extremely empathetic. In fact, the brain regions associated with empathy are much more active in HSPs than in non-HSPs, and HSPs in general tend to be giving, altruistic nurturers.
That makes the narcissist, who has almost no empathy, essentially the HSP’s “shadow self.”
Why Do Highly Sensitive People ‘Attract’ Narcissists?
Why would someone who is caring and empathetic want to be around someone who has no empathy at all? On the surface, they wouldn’t — but then, narcissists don’t exactly walk around holding a sign that says, “I Want to Use You.”
In fact, they do the opposite: Many narcissists learn to act charming, friendly, and flattering in order to mask their tendencies. (Importantly, this is mostly unconscious — like almost everything that makes someone a narcissist. Typically, they don’t know they’re doing it.) Many will even “love bomb” the people they want to get close to, building them up to feel good around the narcissist and, therefore, not run away. Like an addictive substance.
And anyone, HSP or not, can get hooked.
What makes HSPs different is that their own high level of empathy means they are drawn to helping and caring for others. And the narcissist has an endless need to be cared for: a need for attention, compliments, special favors, and — above all — constant reassurance. Plus, although they have very lofty dreams, nothing they do or achieve is ever good enough, so they’re frequently upset, disappointed, or even wildly angry. Isn’t there anyone who can treat them the way they deserve?
Yes, unfortunately; and all too often it’s an HSP, the person who keenly feels the pain of others and takes a true sense of satisfaction from helping. HSPs are often the first to try to console and comfort someone in need, and that puts them at risk of getting pulled into a narcissist’s trap.
This can quickly lead to a one-sided relationship where the narcissist gets all the benefits of an HSP’s patience, compassion, caring, and love — and often, countless hours of their time. The HSP, on the other hand, gets only more and more exhausted. They may face a barrage of freak-outs, pity parties, verbal abuse, and anger.
And, no matter how much they do, they will find out it’s not enough.
7 Ways to Protect Yourself from Narcissists
If you’ve found yourself pulled into this trap before — or if you’re recognizing a current relationship in this article — don’t blame yourself. The reason you got drawn in is because you’re a caring and giving person, not because you did anything wrong.
Blaming you and emotionally beating you down is the narcissist’s tool, and it’s one you have the power to give up by no longer accepting that blame.
You can, however, make changes in your own patterns to avoid narcissists in the future, or minimize the damage they can do. Here are seven tips to do just that.
1. Question volatile or troubling relationships.
One telltale feature of narcissists is that all of their relationships are troubled relationships. They will have a shaky time in friendships, romance, and any career or school situation where they need to work cooperatively with others.
Which means it’s a good idea to really examine any relationship in your life that seems volatile. You may not know if someone’s a narcissist, but you know if you have a fight with them every single week, or if you always feel stressed out after seeing them. Make it a habit to simply notice these relationships, label them for what they are, and ask yourself what you get out of them.
2. Ask your friends for perspective.
It can be hard to see through the charm of a narcissist who’s buttering you up, and surprisingly easy to make excuses for their outbursts or bad behavior. However, while you may have a hard time seeing it objectively, to your friends, it’s often plain as day.
There are caveats here, of course. Your friend might not have any meaningful insight if they haven’t seen you with the person firsthand, and of course, only friends whose judgment you trust will really be useful here. But, in general, getting an outside opinion (and listening to it, even if it’s hard to hear) can be a good way to check your own instincts about a person.
3. Expect the worst.
It may seem totally contrary to an HSP’s natural idealism, but one useful mental practice if you think someone’s a narcissist is to expect the worst.
It goes like this:
If this person is a narcissist, they don’t believe they’re doing anything wrong, and they’ll never change. So, what if their current behavior continues forever? Would I be okay with that? Would the relationship be worth it?
Seeing the worst-case future is often enough of a slap in the face to make it much, much easier to pull back from the relationship.
4. Pull away from narcissists as early on as possible.
Generally speaking, the right time to disconnect from a toxic person is as early on as possible. That’s especially true with a narcissist.
Why? At the start of a relationship, there’s little at stake, and it’s only a small part of your life. But narcissists demand all the attention you can give them. Within months or a year, they could be a main focus of your life — especially if they’re your partner.
It’s much, much easier to back away at the start than it is to disentangle later (although it’s never too late).
5. Practice setting clear, firm boundaries.
Narcissists hate boundaries, because the world is supposed to be about them, not anyone else — and boundaries force them to confront that it’s not. At the same time, firm boundaries allow you the space and emotional clarity you need to take care of your own needs.
The best way to set a boundary to say it clearly, directly, and as a fact, not a request. For example:
Not clear: “I’m really tired tonight. Is it okay if we do this a different time?”
Clear: “I’m not going to come over after 8 p.m. anymore, even if you’re stressed out. If you need to talk, we can set up a time on the weekend.”
Just be ready, because narcissists believe that every “no” can become a “yes” if they push hard enough. Don’t treat your boundary as something you’re willing to argue, and don’t make an exception. You can read more about setting boundaries here.
6. Get some emotional distance.
Narcissists can be infuriating, and they will bait you to argue with them, feel sorry for them, or try to help them. All of this just pulls you in further.
Simply learning about how narcissism works can help create distance (and make it easier to resist engaging). For example:
- Narcissists don’t actually realize what they’re doing, so there is no point in arguing with them — you will never win.
- They’re incapable of seeing their own flaws, so there is no way for you to help them or “fix” them. It’s something they have to come to on their own.
- Narcissistic personality disorder is an illness, and it’s likely been with them since adolescence. They aren’t going to change unless they get professional help.
7. Practice a different kind of compassion.
Something I find oddly comforting is that a narcissist’s behavior is motivated by — wait for it — extremely fragile self-esteem. Yep, all that self-aggrandizing is because they don’t love themselves.
And that makes them seem a lot less intimidating.
It’s also a way to feel compassion toward them without engaging. It must be tragically hard to go through life not loving oneself, and it means that nothing will ever truly bring them happiness. Understanding that can soften your heart, even as you pull back from them.
Disconnecting from a Narcissist May Be the Kindest Thing You Can Do
Ultimately, it’s rare for narcissists to admit they have a problem. But, when even the most caring people pull away from them, it can be a wake-up call. And, in rare cases, it may even be the push they need to finally seek help.
Back away from these people, HSPs. It might be the kindest thing you ever do — for you, and for the narcissist.