Dysfunctional behavior applies to everyone. It’s not just the narcissist who is flawed in their perception and responses. The people around them frequently utilize maladjusted coping mechanisms (or defense mechanisms) in an attempt to handle the toxic situation or manage the narcissism.
Here are some real-life examples: An employee realizes their boss is a narcissist but idealizes their success and strives to be just like them. A child knows their parent is different, controlling, reactionary and demanding but says they are perfect. A spouse sees the narcissism but minimizes the behavior and makes excuses for it.
A quick look at types of defense mechanisms, originally coined by Sigmund Freud and further developed by Anna Freud and George Eman Vaillant, reveals several which are commonly found in people who deal with narcissists.
- Acting out. It frequently backfires when a person expresses their frustrations to the narcissist about their narcissistic behavior. So instead, non-narcissists act out their infuriation on others and avoid the narcissist.
- Denial. It is far easier to intentionally ignore the red flags of narcissism than it is to confront reality. This is commonly done by those that are narcissistic and don’t want to self-evaluate or those that don’t want to deal with the consequences of the realization. For instance, they might need to get a new job or leave the marriage.
- Dissociation. Eventually, the narcissist rages, completely losing it over a seemingly insignificant matter while verbally assaulting anyone who is nearby. Those who have grown accustomed to the outbursts tend to space out during the frenzy and thus dissociate for a brief period of time.
- Idealization. By disregarding the negative characteristics of a narcissist and focusing on their successes, a person idealizes the narcissist. This coping mechanism has a dual purpose as it also feeds the narcissist’s need for superiority and affirmation. Thus the person providing this support becomes a favorite of the narcissist and can be immune from the majority of the rages.
- Intellectualizing. Some choose to overthink and explain away the irrational behavior or the distorted perception of the narcissist. Usually, this comes in the form of excuse making from the narcissist’s past experiences as justification for the overreaction or falsehood.
- Projection. Even after the narcissism has been identified, many continue to wrongly assume that the narcissist will be just as empathic or remorseful as them. Part of the definition of the disorder is a lack of empathy or remorse. This doesn’t change just because those around the narcissist understand the narcissist better. The narcissist still won’t take the time to see things from other’s point of view.
- Reaction Formation. Another interesting way of coping with the narcissist is to continue to cater to the narcissist even when angry with them. The honest emotion of frustration is not expressed at all and instead is replaced with feeding the narcissistic ego.
- Splitting. Once the narcissism is revealed, a typical response is to divide all narcissists into an evil category while simultaneously placing all non-narcissists into a good category. This black-and-white thinking is not productive as many narcissists are not evil and many non-narcissists are evil.
- Undoing. When aggressively confronted by a narcissist, a person is likely to take back an assertive statement regardless of the accuracy. In an effort to keep the peace, a person assumes that by undoing what was said, things will return to normal. They won’t. The narcissist continues to remember the incident and will bring it up whenever it can be utilized for their benefit.
- Upward social comparison. Part of narcissism is that they believe they are better than others and then highlighting the failures of those they feel are beneath them. This constant game of comparison feeds the ego. Those who endorse or support that philosophy are engaging in like behavior though upward social comparison.
- Wishful thinking. The last and possibly the saddest of the coping mechanisms is hoping the narcissist will change. While some can change, only if they choose and perceive a benefit for doing so, most won’t. This wishful thinking can paralyze a person from making positive personal life choices.
These defense mechanisms prevent a person from dealing with the reality of narcissism and its effects. As long as there are coping strategies in place, the narcissist is able to escape responsibility.