The Little Shaman is a spiritual coach & specialist in cluster B personality disorders, with a popular YouTube show and clients worldwide.
Possibly one of the hardest things for a narcissist's loved ones to learn is how to stop explaining. It's a natural response, but it's also the exact wrong response with a narcissist. Here we will detail why that is, and what to do instead.
Why it Doesn't Work
Narcissists look at things differently than the rest of us do. They are guided by emotion. Not logic, not reason and not intelligence. Emotion. This often causes their perception of things to be very, very different from other people's. They view everything through the lens of feeling, and their feelings are generally negative, out of control and even frightening to them. This causes their perceptions and experiences to be negative and frightening to them as well. They believe feelings are facts. That's not just a saying or a metaphor. They actually believe their feelings are facts. If they feel it, it must be true - regardless of whether it makes any sense or if they have proof or anything else.
Most people realize that feelings are not reliable. They sometimes make no sense, they're sometimes irrational and they are certainly not facts. Most of us realize that high emotion can alter perception and that events viewed through the lens of emotion are often not viewed correctly.
Narcissists do not understand this. They experience things exactly the opposite way. Events viewed through the lens of emotion are altered in order to fit the emotion. If they are angry at you, everything you do will be perceived negatively, no matter what it is. If you're smiling, you must be laughing at them. If you brought them a sandwich or offered to share your food, there must be something wrong with it. Even things you did in the past that were OK at the time are now viewed through this lens and found to be evil. Yesterday, you were washing dishes together and laughing, having fun. No unkind words were said, there were no problems at all. Today, they see it as they were only helping you wash dishes yesterday because you forced them to do it so you can laugh at how much of a slave they are.
In reality, the narcissist's "truth" changes with their emotions. When they are angry, you are bad and they hate you. You also hate them and are horribly cruel and evil. When they are happy, you are good and they love you. You also love them (or at least don't hate them) and are not mean to them. It has nothing to do with actual reality or anything you are actually doing. It is all based on unreasonable, irrational and faulty perceptions. Instead of being seen as an individual human being with your own feelings, you are simply seen as a walking mirror of the narcissist's feelings about themselves.
Why We Still Try
Because of this hugely divergent way of seeing things, people who are dealing with a narcissist often find themselves looking for a way to bridge the gap. They find themselves constantly explaining to the narcissist that the narcissist's perception is incorrect or faulty, that the narcissist is adding the wrong things together or coming to ludicrous conclusions based on things that aren't real, weren't said or didn't happen. This is understandable. Rational adults speaking to other adults are going to use reason and logic to try to get their point across. What else is there to do? This usually works in most people's lives. Compromises are reached, points are made, life goes on.
The trouble comes when you find yourself dealing with a seemingly-normal, cognizant person who, five minutes ago was speaking with you like a reasonable, intelligent adult and who now cannot understand even a basic point you are trying to make or simple words you are saying. Worse, they seem to have misunderstood you terribly and are now angry, upset and offended. So what do you do? As a rational, reasonable person, you try to explain. In most situations, this would be the right thing to do. With narcissists, it is the exact wrong thing.
In actuality, there's been no misunderstanding. At least, not one of the kind most people believe. The misunderstanding is not from you to the narcissist. It is within the narcissist themselves. They did not hear you wrong. They did not misunderstand what you said. What happened was that they reacted to their own emotions and blamed it on you. It really has nothing to do with you at all. When you brought them that sandwich, your motive was simply to do something nice and give them a sandwich. They didn't misunderstand that because they did not consider that. They don't care what your motive is. Not really. It's all about what is happening on their internal landscape. And all they are hearing inside is, "You're stupid, you're ugly, you're garbage, you're worthless, no one loves you, they are all laughing at you, they don't care about you..." You just got caught in the crossfire.
You can try to explain that your motives are not negative, that you don't hate the narcissist, you don't think they're garbage, or whatever else but the narcissist has been listening to this internal dialogue their entire life and they are completely and utterly convinced of it. They're never going to believe you. They're not even going to hear you. Ever notice that it seems like they are listening—and responding—to someone else when you're talking? Someone who is saying completely different things than what you are saying? That's because they are.
A Deeper Understanding
Narcissists expect to be treated badly because of this very thing. They therefore look for evidence of it in every single thing other people do. And of course, they find it, mostly because they push and provoke and harass and refuse to accept anything else.
For instance, a wife is speaking with her narcissistic husband. It's the classic narcissistic argument, where no matter what she says or how she says it, everything that comes out of her mouth is hurtful, hateful and wrong. The wife is attempting to explain to the narcissist reasonably and logically that his accusations are senseless and untrue. As she is talking, she calls him "honey." The narcissist replies, "Don't call me honey" in a disgusted tone of voice. The wife loses her cool and replies, "Fine, [expletive]. I won't." The narcissist then says, "That's more like it."
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Now, this was no doubt intended to be a knock against the wife, to imply that the wife using terms of endearment is fake or insincere because she is so horrible and abusive. But it really says more about the narcissist than anything, doesn't it? They cannot accept being treated respectfully. It jams their radar, so to speak, and makes them very uneasy. Since they expect to be treated badly, they are constantly on edge, waiting for it to happen. They will often cause an argument or accuse someone of treating them badly for no reason simply to fulfill this expectation and ease their internal tension. Sometimes you can actually see the relief on their faces.
Explaining in these situations is useless. You will not get anywhere. Not only are they not listening, they don't want to believe you. They want to believe you are evil. It makes them victims. It makes them the center of attention, and most of all, it makes them right. If they have to accept that you are not evil, then who is to blame for all these problems? There's only one person left. In the narcissist's cartoon, comic book view of the world, there always has to be a villain - and a hero, by the way. If the villain isn't you, it will have to be them and if that's true, then it means that everything that voice says to them is right. Don't forget, narcissism is nothing but a defense mechanism against that little voice. That little voice says they are evil, horrible, disgusting vomit on the ground, so in self-defense, the narcissist creates a false self that is the total opposite of that.
A hero, in other words.
However, someone has to be evil, because all that hurt and bile and anger and bitterness has to go somewhere. So it has to be you. You were once the hero, when the narcissist first met you and you were perfect, and you were going to save everyone and make everything great. But you revealed yourself as a lowly human with no special powers and worse, you revealed that they are a lowly human with no special powers, either. So you're now the villain in this story and you can never be anything else.
Beyond that, they like that you keep trying to make them understand that you love them. They like the futility, the sincerity, the fact that you keep trying and keep jumping through those hoops for them. They don't believe you and they never will, but they love to hear it just the same. They like frustrating you and upsetting you and sucking your life force out one pointless argument at a time. Explaining is really only feeding their egotistical need for attention in the end because they aren't going to believe you. They don't want to and even if they did, the voice of that brutal superego that piles them on with internal abuse 24 hours a day would never let them.
Their disorder is set up so perfectly that exactly the things they need to hear and understand in order to change are exactly the things they are programmed to deny and block out the most. It's really sad, when you think about it. Because of that blind spot, they simply self-destruct over and over and over again. They are some of the most miserable people alive, and they walk around their entire lives never realizing they are doing it all to themselves. There are none so blind as those who refuse to see.
What to Do Instead
It's very easy, then, to get caught in the trap of explaining. When a problem is so easy for us to see, of course we will try to make the other person understand. "Hey, you can fix this! All you have to do is stop doing this!" As a rational adult person, that's what most of us do. We attempt to communicate. If the communication is getting fouled up along the way somewhere, we try to fix that so that we are heard and things can be resolved.
The problem is that in this situation, the lines are crossed in a place where you can't reach or affect them. It doesn't matter how you say it, or how many times you say it. They are not going to hear it. They can't and they don't even want to anyway. There is too much at stake for them to believe you, and because of that, they never will. There are many people right now suffering in relationships with narcissists and holding onto hope that things will change. Holding onto hope that if they can just somehow explain it right, the narcissist will finally understand. But their brain does not work like yours does. The reality is, the chances are 1000 to 1, because these people have a vested interest in things staying exactly the same way they are right now.
When the narcissist accuses you of something that isn't true, or when they have their patented "misunderstandings," simply tell them that they are entitled to their opinion and leave it at that. You can say, "I'm sorry that you feel that way, but you're entitled to your opinion," or "I disagree with that, but you are entitled to your feelings." There is no reason to get bogged down in semantics about what was actually said and how it was said, or the ulterior motives that you don't really have or any of that because it is a waste of time. It goes nowhere and it never ends.
If you say the things suggested here, it asserts that you disagree with their interpretation but it does not feed into their need to create chaos in order to get attention. It does not reward the behavior, in other words. A lot of times they will push harder and provoke more, trying to get a reaction out of you - which is all they really wanted in the first place. Hold your ground and don't give in. Some people have difficulty doing this. They don't like "letting the narcissist get away with" the things they are saying. That's understandable, but it's counterproductive. A fair response to that feeling is, if you roll around in the mud with a pig, all that will happen is you'll get dirty too. Do yourself a favor: stay clean.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
Questions & Answers
Question: Is there any way for a narcissist to see that their emotions are creating a reality that isn't real? Can a marriage ever work out with a narcissist?
Answer: It is very difficult for someone to see something that their defense mechanisms have evolved to hide from them. Pathologically narcissistic people spend their entire lives hiding from reality. It is very difficult for someone like that to turn and face the truth. Some may not even be able to at this point in their lives.