Narcissistic Defenses

by | Jan 12, 2021 | Healthy Relationships

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“You must give birth to your images.
They are the future waiting to be born.
Fear not the strangeness you feel.
The future must enter you long before it happens.
Just wait for the birth,
For the hour of new clarity.”
-Rainer Maria Rilke

When people ask me how life is these days, my standard answer has become, “It’s been a bit of a wild ride recently, and, I’m along for the ride.”

We certainly live in interesting times.

As I tune into national and global fragmentation, polarization, and violence, I find myself drawn to examining the same fragmentation, polarization, and violence within me.

“As within, so without” has been a guiding spiritual principle for me throughout my life. Whatever I think I am seeing “out there,” I can also find “in here.”

While some people find this idea shameful, humiliating, or blaming, I find tremendous freedom, relief, and power in this contemplation: If I can find it inside of myself, then I can do something about it. I can understand it, feel into it, examine it, transform it. But, if it only exists as some nefarious external threat, then I feel more helpless, victimized, and righteous.

In our membership program this month, we’re examining the process of healing rifts and engaging in relational repair work. Last week, we talked about the practice of beneficial regret as opposed to empty and meaningless “I’m sorry” interactions, and this week we dove a little more deeply into the idea of owning it all, especially our defensiveness.

There are many ways that we each mess with one another’s heads when we are feeling vulnerable, defensive, and afraid. Under duress, we tend to move into either shame or blame patterns in our relationships. People-pleasers tend to move toward shame: “I’m a terrible person, how can you stand my insecurities, my thoughtlessness, my lack of skillfulness…” Meanwhile, more narcissistically defended people tend to move toward blame: “You’re the terrible person, how do you expect me to stand your poor communication, your lack of awareness, your poor listening skills….”

In February, I’ll be presenting for the Nonviolent Communication Conference on the subject of narcissism (you can sign up to join us here). For my session, “Relating to ‘Narcissism’ Nonviolently,” we’ll be diving into a deeper discussion and understanding of narcissistically oriented psychological defenses in ourselves and others, looking particularly at how we might understand these dynamics through a lens of nonviolence and compassion.

In this week’s newsletter, I’m outlining some common narcissistically oriented defenses that we often see patterned in our relationships.

Remember, anytime that we move toward superiority over others, we are moving into a more narcissistic stance. When we move into a “one-up” position, it’s inherently alienating and disconnecting. It puts distance between ourselves and others and makes it difficult to move toward relationships characterized by more intimacy, trust, and playfulness.

Here are a few kinds of narcissistic defenses and mind-games that we each might play with one another and some ideas for how to respond to or transform each of them.

Disconnecting Narcissistic Defenses

Idealizing and Devaluing Others
Do you idealize and then devalue other people?

Watch out for patterns in yourself and others that involve cycles of idealization and devaluation, where you or others see others as much more “ideal” than they really are and then devalue and dismiss them when they turn out to be normal, imperfect people like the rest of humanity.

Denial and Deflection
Do you tell people that they “got it wrong” whenever there is a misunderstanding?

Do you take the position that it must be their poor listening, their limited intelligence, their distorted lenses, their insecurities? Putting the blame and responsibility on other people to change in order to make things better for ourselves is a form of gaslighting that can wreak havoc on your relationships.

When you are on the receiving end of blame or deflections, try to stay “unhooked” by listening for the feelings and needs underneath others’ evaluations of you. Alternatively, before you share your interpretations and judgments of another person, slow down to connect with your own deep needs and present-moment requests to support you in moving habitual conversation patterns in a new direction.

Do you sometimes accuse others of the very thing that you are actually doing yourself?

Every time you tell someone that they are “insecure,” check in with yourself to find out what insecurity of your own is driving your analysis. When you see someone else as “reactive,” slow down and find out what reactivity you may be bringing, too.

Whenever you want to show someone else how unskilled they are, take a look at your own capacity to just love them “as is” in that same moment. Trying to improve a relationship by improving the other person is a seductive but ultimately ineffective strategy as it can subtly breed increased distrust and wariness between people over time.

Do you sometimes pull a third person into the relational field between you and another with the intention of using this third person as reinforcement for your position and to help you change this other person?

This often happens in therapy when one partner focuses on trying to get the therapist to see what a problem their partner is, and then they enlist the therapist in joining them in changing the partner to some higher version of being. Often they will insist on having therapy together and will then attempt to manipulate the therapist as an ally.

Weaponizing Vulnerability
When someone reveals a vulnerability or personal pattern that they struggle with, do you respond with softness or compassion, or do you make an inventory of those vulnerabilities so that you can catch and point them out in the future?

We are all imperfect works-in-progress doing the best we can with our cumulative histories. Healing happens best in loving spaces infused with acceptance and grace.

When we reveal something vulnerable, we long to be met in the space of shared humanity: “Yes, I know that experience. I have been there too.” If someone tells you that they tend to be a bit paranoid or wary in relationships because they have a history of being betrayed and lied to, don’t use those vulnerabilities against them the next time you are in an argument, saying things like “that’s just your paranoia speaking” or “you really need to get that wariness and fearfulness under control because it will ruin our relationship.”

Additionally, people often use personality inventories against each other in this way too: “Well, you are an INFJ, so clearly that part of you that just takes things too personally is showing up here,” or “As a 9, you have a habit of avoiding conflict and you’re doing it again.”

We all use each of these defenses some of the time. It can help to name them, acknowledge them, and identify them, but only when and if you can then also greet yourself and others with gentleness, humility, and compassion.


Here are a few of my programs that might be of interest to you:

  • Conversations from the Heart, a free Q&A call on Wednesdays at 10am CT. LEARN MORE

  • Membership, a deep dive into personal growth with a dedicated community. LEARN MORE

  • Private Consultations, one-on-one guidance for your specific life situations. LEARN MORE


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