Narcissists may not intentionally target sensitive people, but may have a higher success rate of pulling HSPs under their spell.
We’ve all heard the story. A person gets into a relationship that seems perfect at first. They’ve been wined and dined, totally swept off their feet, and feel like the most special person in the world. Until things begin to shift…
Their suitor, who was once so interested in them, suddenly becomes cold, cruel, and impossible to please.
What happened? they wonder. They feel like they can’t trust their own thoughts or feelings anymore. It’s confusing, stressful, and exhausting.
This is what it can feel like to be in a relationship with a narcissistic person. And, unfortunately, it seems to be a common experience for many of us who are highly sensitive people (HSPs).
What Is Narcissism?
Before we continue, let’s define what a narcissist is. Usually, they are characterized by being self-absorbed, having a high sense of self, and also having a lack of empathy for others (which is opposite of HSPs and their highly empathic selves). And when one’s narcissism is more extreme, they may have narcissistic personality disorder (NPD). And although they appear to be self-confident on the outside, on the inside, they are quite sensitive to being judged or criticized.
3 HSP Traits That Can Attract Unknowingly Narcissists
Whether you’ve been in a relationship with a narcissist before, or you know someone who has, it brings up a lot of questions. Are HSPs targeted by narcissists? Do we somehow attract them to us? And if we are more susceptible to narcissists, how can we change that?
- High empathy
- Poor boundaries
All three of these are traits that many HSPs have. This may explain why there is so much discussion of whether sensitive types are more likely to be targeted by narcissists than others. Based on Dr. Freeman’s work, narcissists may not intentionally target highly sensitive people, but may have a higher success rate of pulling HSPs under their spell.
But Dr. Freeman’s work also suggests a way HSPs (or anyone) can become nearly “narcissist-proof.” That involves changing two of the three traits Dr. Freeman identified, while still embracing the other one.
2 Traits That Can Make HSPs ‘Narcissist-Proof’
Yes, HSPs can start to become “narcissist-proof.”
First off, keep your high empathy. Multiple studies show that HSPs score particularly high in empathy and have more brain activity in areas of the brain related to empathy. This is just part of what it means to be an HSP, and it’s likely that we HSPs couldn’t change it about ourselves even if we tried.
And that’s a good thing — empathy is one of our most powerful gifts. As author/researcher Simon Baron-Cohen says in his book, Zero Degrees of Empathy, empathy is the “universal solvent” because “any problem, immersed in empathy, becomes solvable.” We should celebrate and embrace our empathy, not try to turn it off.
That doesn’t mean we have to absorb everything around us, however — there are ways for us to stop absorbing other people’s emotions.
Instead, to “narcissist-proof” yourself, you’ll want to focus on the other two traits. Poor boundaries and people-pleasing are some of the most common struggles HSPs describe, and both are really more habits than actual personality characteristics.
In other words — these are things you can change. And you can do that by replacing them with two good habits instead.
First, Practice the Art of Enforcing Boundaries as an HSP
First, Dr. Freeman suggests working on your boundaries. Knowing how to enforce healthy boundaries is an essential skill for HSPs, yet it’s one of the things we often struggle with the most. Why is that? Well, one reason stems from the way we often receive validation from others.
I spoke to Matt Landsiedel, a Transformative Life Coach for HSPs. He agrees with Dr. Freeman, and he tells me, “HSPs often get into relationships with narcissistic people because they lack boundaries and tend to get their sense of self from caretaking for others. Many HSPs possess a deep ability for empathy, and this empathy can be misused and we fall into codependency and caretaking.”
Because many of us HSPs have gotten our sense of self from caretaking, we may feel uncomfortable setting boundaries, as if we’re doing something wrong or hurtful. Not to mention, many of us HSPs were rewarded in childhood for being helpful and caring, so it becomes part of our identity.
A lot of our boundary-setting struggles may stem from childhood. If you recognize you have poor boundaries and often feel violated or disrespected by others, Dr. Freeman suggests exploring the underlying cause of this pattern. She says, “For some, they may discover they have an anxious-preoccupied (insecure) attachment style that developed as a result of childhood relationships with primary care-givers.”
No matter what our background is, though, it’s critical we learn to have a sense of self that isn’t derived only from caring for others. This is where setting boundaries comes in. If you’re new to setting boundaries, here are a few tips from one HSP to another to help you get started:
- Start small. If you’re brand new to boundary-setting, don’t jump right into setting the biggest, scariest boundary. Instead, practice a small boundary, such as taking your time to respond to a text message instead of responding immediately or turning down plans with an understanding friend if you’re feeling tired.
- Create a script. In emotional situations, it’s easy for HSPs to get mentally and emotionally flooded and lose our train of thought. So, when you’re setting a boundary, you may find it helpful to have a loose script to follow. For example, if you need to decline an invitation, you can say, “Thanks for the invitation, but I can’t attend this time.” No explanation necessary. Yes, it will probably be hard for you to say no, but it’s crucial in terms of practicing both boundary-setting and self-care.
- Check in with yourself. Make it a practice to check in with yourself and notice how you’re feeling. A great way to make this a practice is by setting a reminder on your phone to check in with yourself during the workday. When the timer goes off, stop what you’re doing and assess the way you’re feeling. Are your shoulders tense? Is your jaw clenched? Do you feel overwhelmed? If so, then it may be time to take a short break or let your boss know you need more time on that project. When you become more familiar with yourself and what you need, it becomes easier to assess when you need to set a boundary.
And if you suspect you’re in a relationship with a narcissistic person, Landseidel advises: “Take time and space every day to check in with yourself and slow down the pace of your relationship. Use this time to check in with your needs and practice self-care.” He also says that the number-one tactic a narcissistic person uses is fast pacing. In this way, they “sweep you off your feet” — in other words, they knock you off course of your relationship with yourself and others. As a result, this keeps you in the momentum of meeting their needs, but at the cost of your own needs and desires.
Now, if it’s hard for you to know what you need, let’s move into the second habit Dr. Freeman suggests, which is to switch from people-pleasing to authenticity.
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Second, Switch From People-Pleasing to Authenticity
The second thing Dr. Freeman suggests changing has to do with people-pleasing. Many HSPs report struggling with this and feel like they don’t really know who they are or what they want. One reason this is such a challenge for HSPs is that many of us were invalidated for our big feelings and high sensitivity as children.
As a result, we may form this deep-seated belief that our true feelings are “wrong” or problematic, which can contribute to decreased self-trust and low self-esteem. If we’re walking around feeling unsure of ourselves, it can feel much easier to just go along with what other people want rather than sharing what we want.
According to Dr. Freeman, “When our value of ourselves is low — we look outside of ourselves to get an idea of our worth. In order to try to be liked and receive a ‘good’ assessment and avoid criticism and pain, a pattern of being extremely nice, helpful, and self-sacrificing is developed.”
The good news is, we can overcome the habit of people-pleasing by learning to strengthen our self-trust, which allows us to step into our authenticity.
Landsiedel explains why being authentic helps us repel narcissistic people. He says, “Authenticity leads to greater self-awareness, and greater self-awareness will keep you resistant to gaslighting [a form of manipulation causing you to question your sanity or version of reality], love bombing, and other behaviors narcissists exhibit…” He goes on to say that, when we’re authentic, we refuse to place our own needs above those of a narcissistic person.
Here are a few tips I’ve learned to switch from people-pleasing to authenticity:
- Practice stating your opinion. When someone asks what you’d like to do for dinner, maybe you’re used to saying, “I don’t care. Whatever you want!” Instead, practice having an opinion in this situation. This is a great way to show yourself, and others, that you do have a say in things. You can start with dinner and then expand to other things, too.
- Slow down and get in touch with yourself. A great way to get connected with your authentic self is by slowing down. If you’re always rushing around, you don’t have time to connect with who you are and what matters to you. (Plus, we HSPs don’t do well with too much stimulation!) Practicing guided meditation is a great way to connect deeply to yourself. For example, this is a great cord-cutting meditation for reconnecting to your own energy!
- Learn to sit with discomfort. Oftentimes, we HSPs people-please and agree with others because we’re afraid of conflict. However, every time we ignore our needs for what someone else wants, we build resentment. Speaking our needs and setting boundaries will likely be uncomfortable, but it’s important to remember that we can survive that discomfort!
The more we step into our authenticity, the more grounded we are in who we are and what matters to us. When we’re navigating life from this space, we’re less likely to accept behavior that doesn’t align with us. Thus, making us a difficult “target” for a narcissistic person.
Leveling Up Your Empathy
If you put these two habits into practice, you’ll already have closed off two of the three avenues by which narcissists can invade your life. If you’re worried about that third one, however — your empathy — don’t be.
Because, surprisingly, once you make those two healthy changes, your empathy will no longer be an open door for anyone and everyone to walk over you. Instead, it will be a source of strength.
“Rather than focus on reducing empathy (which I’m not sure how someone could do anyway),” Dr. Freeman says, “put efforts toward the protection of your empathy.”
That’s because empathy, paired with good boundaries and authenticity, starts to develop into a mature sense of compassion. Compassion, unlike empathy, also involves a desire to help. And that’s only possible when you know your own limits and needs and build your offers of support to others around what’s realistic for you to give.
For example, with good boundaries and authenticity, you can provide support to a friend in need without depleting yourself in the process. Because when you’re in touch with yourself, you’ll know when it’s time to recharge your own batteries and you’ll respect yourself enough to actually do that.
It’s important to remember that as HSPs, we can do our part to feel protected and in control of our experience. Feeling like we’re constantly susceptible to narcissists is disempowering, but knowing there are ways to combat this is a way to step back into our power and take ownership over our lives.
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You might like:
- What to Do When You’ve Attracted a Narcissist, According to a Therapist
- Do Highly Sensitive People Attract Narcissists?
- How to Heal After Narcissistic Abuse as an HSP
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