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How to Identify a Narcissistic Friend (And What to Do Next)

  • Mary DeMuth The Seven Deadly Friendships
How to Identify a Narcissistic Friend (And What to Do Next)

It was her eyes. How they narrowed when she said the words that confounded me.

“I don’t understand why Jesus would die for me,” she said, a smile playing on her lips. We sat in a restaurant while others lunched. I picked at a hangnail, wondering how this line of reasoning would play out.

“I know. It’s hard to believe,” I said. Jesus had forgiven me of so much, and I was well aware that the balance of my sins compared to a holy God didn’t make sense, thanks to grace.

“No,” she said. “I understand why Jesus died for you.” Those eyes bored into my insecurity. The Mona Lisa smile remained. Then she lifted her chin and landed her gaze on an unsuspecting diner. “And that guy over there. I know why Jesus died for him. He sins.”

I took a bite.

“You see, I don’t really sin. So why would Jesus have to die for me?”

I didn’t have a reaction for my friend in that moment, other than wanting to move my chair away from the possible lightning strike. Her words sent me researching, and in that quest, I discovered something that would change my life.

Narcissists.

If you’ve been raised by one (or two), you’ll spend your life trying to resolve a painful puzzle: performing all sorts of emotional gymnastics to make a narcissist love you. The problem is this: Narcissistic people are incapable of empathy, other-centered love, or healthy relationships. Yet, we chase. Just like I chased my friend who seemed to think she never sinned.

There’s an important distinction to make. There’s a difference between a person with narcissistic tendencies and someone who has Narcissistic Personality Disorder. The difference is in the degree of pain they inflict (from a molehill to a mountain) and their ability to change (from a little to none at all).

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What the Bible Says:

What the Bible Says:

The Bible is chock full of character studies of people with narcissistic traits. When Satan tempted Adam and Eve, he appealed to their pride and desire for control. The moment sin entered the world, this preoccupation with self flourished. While writing this book, I’ve been on a two-month quest to read the entire Bible in chronological order. What stood out to me was how many times narcissistic people got into trouble, hurt people, and continued to do so. Reading about the era of kings cemented hopelessness in this regard. Because of sin, we will battle self-centeredness our whole lives. But because of Jesus and his beautiful intersection in our lives (and the outrageous gift of the Holy Spirit within us), we no longer have to be enslaved to narcissism.

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“Because of sin, we will battle self-centeredness our whole lives.”

“Because of sin, we will battle self-centeredness our whole lives.”

But what happens when we encounter an entrenched narcissist? Paul writes starkly of their traits in 2 Timothy 3:1-5. Take special note of what he encourages our response to be at the end of the verses.

You should know this, Timothy, that in the last days there will be very difficult times. For people will love only themselves and their money. They will be boastful and proud, scoffing at God, disobedient to their parents, and ungrateful. They will consider nothing sacred. They will be unloving and unforgiving; they will slander others and have no self-control. They will be cruel and hate what is good. They will betray their friends, be reckless, be puffed up with pride, and love pleasure rather than God. They will act religious, but they will reject the power that could make them godly. Stay away from people like that!

It’s typically best to sever relationship with a narcissist—to stay away.

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Why Stay Away?

Why Stay Away?

Why? We do this for the sake of potential reconciliation later. The truth is, narcissists can only love and worship themselves; therefore, they will continue to harm you as they elevate themselves. As long as you continue to be harmed, your injury will continually grow worse. Their continued attacks will only cause it to seep and fester. Best to first let the wound heal without further damage before you even entertain jumping back in.

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“Most narcissistic people do not reform.”

“Most narcissistic people do not reform.”

But here’s the sad truth: Most narcissistic people do not reform. I recently recounted a relationship I had with a narcissist that I naively thought had improved. But as I unpacked my story, I realized that the narcissistic person only used me when she needed my emotional support during a difficult trial. The moment she was back on her feet emotionally, she dismissed me and continued to betray—even worse than before. I forgot to examine the fruit of her life. I dismissed her narcissistic traits, hoping beyond hope that she had finally changed. Initially, she covered up her narcissism for a period of time, but it reared its selfish head soon enough.

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How to Identify Narcissism:

How to Identify Narcissism:

Perhaps the easiest way to discern a narcissistic friend is to watch them in public. Jesus gave us a perfect illustration:

When you are invited to a wedding feast, don’t sit in the seat of honor. What if someone who is more distinguished than you has also been invited? The host will come and say, “Give this person your seat.” Then you will be embarrassed, and you will have to take whatever seat is left at the foot of the table! Instead, take the lowest place at the foot of the table. Then when your host sees you, he will come and say, “Friend, we have a better place for you!” Then you will be honored in front of all the other guests. For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted” (Luke 14:8-11).

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“Watch them in public.”

“Watch them in public.”

A narcissist thrives with honor and often seeks it out, demands it. He or she wants to be recognized in public. If you see this, be wary, because eventually that need for public recognition will morph into private requirements. In the context of relationship, a narcissistic person will demand constant heralding and unending (and unwarranted) praise in daily life. They constantly need ego stroking behind closed doors, and this can become exhausting.

And if you threaten to expose a narcissist, beware. Dr. Diane Langberg shares an important truth: “When a narcissist is exposed, their horror is about the damage it will do to them to be accused and they believe that others are failing them by getting in the way of their ability to live out their specialness.” You will become a narcissist’s sworn enemy. When you were “loved” as long as you existed to stroke their ego, you’ll become hated when you don’t.

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Now What?

Now What?

What should you do if you find yourself in a relationship with a narcissist? As mentioned before, find a way to separate in order to heal. Pray for your loved one. But don’t engage for a period of time, perhaps forever. Much has been written about negotiating a relationship with narcissistic people, but it’s not easy and takes a level of sophistication and prowess to navigate it well.

The key, then, to interacting with someone you suspect is narcissistic is to break the vicious circle—to gently thwart their frantic efforts to control, distance, defend or blame in the relationship by sending the message that you’re more than willing to connect with them, but not on these terms; to invite them into a version of intimacy where they can be loved and admired, warts and all—if they only allow the experience to happen. 

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“Break the vicious circle.”

“Break the vicious circle.”

In other words, change the rules of the game. Instead of being vulnerable and letting the narcissist live on a stage of admiration, be cautious and dare the narcissistic friend to share vulnerably. Most often this cannot work. Why? Because if the narcissistic person has been acting this way his or her whole life, change is nearly impossible. Picture it like a needle going into the groove of an overplayed record. The more it’s played, the deeper the groove, and the less likely the needle will skip out of that groove. Once self-serving behavior becomes a minute-by-minute, deeply entrenched habit, it’s very difficult to change. Of course, through Christ anything is possible, which is why it’s always wise to separate, heal, pray, forgive, and be ready in case your narcissistic friend comes to her senses. But I wouldn’t be honest if I said that it’s likely to happen. More often than not, a narcissist likes living that way and will not change.

Adapted from The Seven Deadly Friendships. Copyright © 2018 Mary DeMuth. Published by Harvest House Publishers, Eugene, Oregon. www.harvesthousepublishers.com. Used by Permission.

Mary DeMuth
is a writer, speaker, podcaster, and artist who loves to help people live re-storied lives. Author of more than 30 books, including Christian living books, Southern fiction, and devotionals (her latest: Jesus Every Day), Mary speaks around the country and the world, praying as she goes. She is the wife of Patrick and the mom of three adult children.

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