Scott was desperate.
The relationship started well enough – his girlfriend was kind, sweet, and affectionate in the beginning. But soon enough, the lies started. Or rather, he started noticing them. The mask slipped, and her lack of empathy started to shine through. Then came the insults. The criticism. The guilt trips. The fake tears. After 8 months of abuse, he was at his wit’s end.
Scott had read about narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) online, and was pretty sure his partner fit the bill. So, he decided to confront her about it. To tell her who – and what – she was.
He was hoping for a moment of enlightenment, something that would make her change. But sadly for Scott, it just led to more guilt trips. This, unfortunately, is a common reaction from the narcissist.
Have you ever had thoughts of doing the same thing? Perhaps you’re wondering if it’s a good idea. Should you tell a narcissist they are a narcissist? We’ll get to that – but first, let’s explore where this urge comes from.
Why do People Want to Confront a Narcissist?
Every person has their own reasons, but like Scott, they are usually born of frustration. People are struggling to cope with the behaviour of a narcissist, and they are looking for a way out.
Some common reasons people might want to confront a narcissist include:
- To help them understand why they behave like they do
- Because “The truth may set them free”
- To change their behaviour
- To hurt them back
- To make them take responsibility for their behaviour
- To regain a sense of control by standing up to the narcissist
- To hurt the narcissist
If someone is abusing you, whether they are you partner, a family member, or someone at work – and you recognise them as a narcissist, the urge to tell them can be strong. You can see something about them that they can’t see. You want to tell them:
“You’re a narcissist. You have a lack of empathy. You’ve probably experienced some trauma that hurt you. You have low self-esteem, so you’ve constructed a fake self that your fragile real self can hide behind. You need a constant supply of attention and adoration to maintain that facade. This is why you act this way. You’re punishing me for your own pain.”
The idea of saying all this might feel good. But is it a good strategy? Does it even work?
Can you tell narcissists they are narcissists?
Of course, you can tell them. The question is, will they listen? Will they accept what you say, take ownership of it, and try to change?
The hurdle you face here, is that a lot of narcissists’ behaviours are unconscious. Often, they themselves don’t realise the true cause of their behaviour. This puts them in a place where it’s hard to take true responsibility for their actions – something narcissists rarely do. As far as they are concerned, they are the victims. If they act in abusive and destructive ways, well, that’s just someone else’s fault.
In an ideal world, you’d tell the narcissist that they have NPD, and it would lead to a moment of revelation for them. They would realise that they don’t see the world in a useful way, and that they are causing suffering for others – and for themselves:
“Oh yeah, you’re right! Thank you for bringing this to my attention! I shall now find a good therapist to help make me feel whole again. If I manage to do that, I’ll be in touch – otherwise, I’ll leave you alone and stop causing problems for you!”
Unfortunately, we don’t live in an ideal world. Narcissists may simply discount or deny what you say. Furthermore, even if they do accept that they are a narcissist, they may simply see this as a positive thing! These types of response are the most likely. Still, there are times you might want to consider confronting a narcissist.
Should you Confront a Narcissist? The pros and The Cons
Let’s look at some of the reasons for and against telling a narcissist they are a narcissist.
- There is a chance, albeit a small one, that they will attempt to change their behaviour.
- You are at least giving them an opportunity to improve their life, both for their own sake and the sake of others.
- If you plan to break contact with a narcissist, or have already begun to, you may feel like you owe them an explanation as to why.
- It is highly unlikely to lead to a moment of enlightenment. They will most likely respond in whatever way they normally do.
- It may lead to further confrontation. Perhaps they will turn it around, and try to gaslight you – convince you that you are the narcissist, and they are the victim (and they may truly believe that).
- A confrontation can sometimes be a form of narcissistic supply. It proves to the narcissist that they are able to emotionally affect you, which might make them feel powerful. You may end up having the opposite of your intended effect.
Should you tell a narcissist they need help?
As noted above, one of the “pros” to telling a narcissist that they’re a narcissist, is that it might lead to them seeking help. This is worth at least some thought.
If you’re being abused by a narcissist, you might see a confrontation like this as a way to potentially stop the abuse – you’re trying to remove or reduce your own suffering at their hands. But it’s also worth keeping in mind that for them to realise that they have a mental disorder, and to seek treatment for it, is in their best interests too – and they can’t do that if they don’t realise they have a problem.
Although NPD is difficult to treat, there are success stories. In these cases, someone had to have told then they were a narcissist, and that they needed help. This has to be the first step towards a life that’s not only less harmful to others, but better for themselves too.
Unfortunately, the second step is honest self-awareness – and sadly this is often lacking in narcissists! Let’s take a brief tour of what you’re up against here.
Narcissism and self-awareness – a quick guide
To help you get an idea of the impact of NPD on self-awareness, here are some common questions people ask:
- Do narcissists know they hurt you? Generally speaking, they understand that they are hurting you, but rationalise their behaviour in some way. It also tends to be reactionary, in the heat of the moment, rather than planned. However, some narcissists, who we call “malignant narcissists”, do cause pain deliberately and in a calculated way.
- Do narcissists know what they are doing? Narcissists often realise what they are doing, but have a poor sense of why they are doing it.Their self-awareness only goes so deep.
- Do narcissists know they are using you? It varies from person to person. They may be aware they are using you, but not see it as a problem. They may not feel, understand, or realise the pain their manipulations cause you.
- Do narcissists feel guilt? They can feel guilty, but they are less likely to. When their feelings get hurt (such as after a confrontation!), they far less likely to feel guilty for what they do in response to this. Although not all narcissists lack empathy, many do, and it’s hard to feel guilty when you’re oblivious to the pain you’re causing.
- Do narcissists cry? Yes – narcissists are notoriously thin-skinned, and some narcissists do cry when upset.
Do narcissists feel emotional pain? Although many blogs on the internet portray narcissists as unfeeling monsters, this is not true. Narcissists feel all the emotions that non-narcissists do, but to different degrees, and in response to different things. They may not truly understand what upsets them, or why, however.
- Do narcissists feel remorse? Narcissists are capable of remorse, but it is less common and not as strong as non-narcissists feel. Again, when narcissists are weak in empathy, they often don’t realise they’ve done something they should be remorseful of.
But given the impact narcissists tend to have on other people, surely they know that there is something wrong with them?
Do narcissists know they are sick?
There are some narcissists who have recognised their condition, and took steps towards treating it. But as we’ve just seen, this level of self-awareness is not a characteristic of the condition.
It is rare for narcissists to know (or to accept, if they do know) that they have an illness, in the same way people with other mental illnesses do, such as people with depression or anxiety.
For example Australian broadcasting network SBS interviewed a diagnosed narcissist, who had been in treatment for 10 years. When asked if he had any idea he had NPD before being diagnosed, he said “None, no. Until that day I didn’t even know what it was.”
Narcissists don’t tend to come to the conclusion that they are sick all by themselves. To admit that one is suffering from a mental illness is to admit a flaw, which narcissists find incredibly difficult. They think of themselves as superior, not inferior.
Do narcissists respond to therapy?
So, narcissists don’t have a clear sense of why they behave the way they do, nor do they generally think the way they behave is even a problem. This lack of self-awareness is what you are dealing with if you want to to convince a narcissist to seek treatment.
However if they can get past this hurdle, some narcissists do seek treatment and find benefit. Dr. Elinor Greenberg, a psychologist in New York who specialises in NPD, lists her seven key characteristics of self-aware narcissists – the ones most likely to respond to therapy:
- Motivated – have a reason to change
- High-functioning – be able to navigate modern life, e.g. hold a job, pay bills on time etc
- Psychologically-minded – curious about how people think
- Have a capacity for self-reflection
- Relatively emotionally stable
- Have a desire for self-improvement in general
If the person you are thinking of confronting meets most of all of these traits, you’re more likely to be successful in your efforts.
How to tell a Narcissist they are a Narcissist or Need Help?
The first thing you should do, is be sure this is a course of action you want to take. In all likelihood, they will not thank you for sharing this with them, and it may create further abuse and conflict. They may use what you say to try to gain more control over you.
Also, bear in mind that if they do decide to seek help, there is a difficult path ahead for them – and for you. Narcissists have their own wounds, that is for certain – but you likely have yours too. Be wary of becoming a healer to someone else, rather than to yourself. If you decide to travel this path with them, it will not be an easy one.
Another thing you may be wondering – should you tell a narcissist how they make you feel? This is another area in which caution is advisable. By telling them this, you are providing fuel for their ego, by confirming that they are able to affect you emotionally. Telling a narcissist that they hurt you will not result in remorse, guilt, or shame. It is unlikely to change their behaviour.
Before you tell them, make sure that you have adequate support in your life, which could mean supportive friends or professional help.
Then, you can then simply sit down and speak with the narcissist in your life about the traits they have, that you think they may have NPD, and that they might benefit from getting some help. But don’t go in without a plan. Think about what you’ll do and say if they respond in different ways, such as:
- If they try to turning things around so that you are to blame
- If they deny they have a problem
- If they become abusive
- If they react in a passive-aggressive way
Also, decide where your boundaries are, and stick to them. If they do respond in a negative way, or if it’s clear that they will not change, how will this affect your relationship? Would this be a sign that you need to break the relationship? You can’t control how they respond – only how you respond. Overall, be sure not to put your own well-being on the line, for the sake of someone else’s.