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  • Writer's pictureKatarina Ament, PsyD, MS

Fueling the Fire: Why Confronting a Narcissist Doesn’t Usually Work

Updated: Sep 4, 2023

If you’ve been hurt by a narcissist, you’ve likely daydreamed about confronting them directly about their toxic behavior. Imagining finally speaking your truth and holding them accountable is satisfying. But in reality, confronting a narcissist often backfires. Their core traits make them unable to self-reflect, empathize, and hear feedback.

Chances are, if you’ve tried calling out their behavior before, you’ve probably been met with denial, a sob story (to shift the conversation and make you feel sorry for them), narcissistic rage, or projection (They’ll tell you you’re actually the one with the problem!). And whatever you do, don’t let the narcissist know you think they’re a narcissist. This will likely trigger an even stronger response than calling out certain behaviors and escalate the situation.

But why is it like that? Why can’t you have a healthy, adult conversation and get them to see the light?

Here’s why confronting a narcissist tends to fuel the fire rather than stopping the abuse:

They Don’t Accept Responsibility

The very nature of extreme narcissism means they are incapable of genuinely accepting blame or accountability for the harm they cause. Their egos are too fragile. Rather than own their actions, they’ll reflexively deflect, blame, justify, minimize - anything to divert attention from their flaws. Don’t expect a heartfelt apology.

They Need to Feel Superior

Part of what drives narcissistic behavior is an inner core of deep shame and insecurity. To compensate, they construct false personas of superiority to convince themselves and others of their inflated worth. Being confronted directly threatens this charade, which their egos can’t tolerate. Expect pushback.

They View Everything as a Challenge

The narcissist sees everything through a lens of power, dominance and control - including relationships. When confronted, they don’t process it as feedback. They process it as a challenge or threat to their authority. Their reflex is to assert themselves and put you back in your “place.”

They Feel Victimized

In the narcissist’s mind, they are never the problem. They have little capacity for self-reflection or seeing differing perspectives. When confronted, they immediately feel attacked and victimized. Rather than own flaws, they make themselves the injured party.

They Need to Win

Ultimately, narcissists need to win arguments and be perceived as right, superior and victorious, no matter what. When you confront them directly, you’re challenging them head on. They’ll come out guns blazing to take you down, diffuse the criticism, and “win” at any cost.

So, if direct confrontation just adds fuel to the fire, what alternatives do you have?

While direct confrontation doesn’t work, that doesn’t mean you should just continue as is and accept abusive behavior.

Tips on How to Handle a Narcissist

Set boundaries quietly but firmly. Setting boundaries with a narcissist is often more a process of disengaging, rather than directly confronting. While I wouldn’t recommend telling them they’re manipulative, controlling, or a narcissist, what you can do is let them know that you’re not going to accept certain behaviors (like yelling or belittling) and how you will respond when that happens (e.g, disengaging, walking away) or decisions you’ve made to limit contact.

Setting boundaries is hard, especially if you’re not used to it. And there will be pushback. Narcissists will not automatically respect your boundaries. Their entitlement, grandiosity, and arrogance make it such that they don’t think other’s rules/boundaries apply to them. But you have to stay firm. Don’t get pulled into justifying or explaining in ways that invite debate or allow them to pull you away from the boundary you’ve set.

Speak matter-of-factly. Avoid dramatic confrontations or ultimatums which feed their egos. Believe it or not, narcissists actually get a kick out of riling people up. It makes them feel superior and in control. Don’t give them the satisfaction. State things calmly without exaggerating or sounding overly emotional.

Use consequences not threats. Follow through decisively on consequences of broken boundaries, such as disengaging from a conversation, sharing less personal information, leaving when things get heated, or limiting contact. Or in more severe cases, this may mean filing a report or removing the narcissistic person from your life. Don’t make empty threats. If you tell them that you will not tolerate yelling or name calling, be prepared to follow through. Setting a boundary only to let the narcissist overturn it teaches them they can continue pushing and disrespecting your limits.

Now some of you might be thinking, “Doesn’t that just make me controlling, like them?” No. Narcissists make demands or ultimatums to try to control another person. Setting boundaries comes from a place of self-care rather than control and involves communicating your needs and limits in a relationship in a calm, respectful manner.

Don’t try to reason with irrationality. You won’t get satisfying closure or persuade them of the truth. Focus your energy on distancing yourself from their opinions and reactions.

Embrace futility. Another term for this is radical acceptance. This doesn’t mean you accept their behavior as okay. It’s accepting that narcissists are wired differently with no easy fixes. Your peace comes from letting go of trying to change them.

Stop personalizing their disorder. Their reactions say nothing about your worth - they reveal the narcissist’s distortions.

Validate yourself. You know your own truth. Don’t let their denials make you feel self-doubt. Their reality is distorted, not yours.

See the sickness for what it is. Their attacks say more about their inner dysfunction than anything about you. Have compassion from a distance.

Surround yourself with support. Lean on people who can reinforce that the problem isn’t you. It’s the narcissist’s disorder.

While the idea of finally confronting a narcissist can feel gratifying, in reality it often becomes pointless friction. Disengaging as much as possible preserves your peace and denies narcissistic supply. That in itself can be confronting to a narcissist. You maintain power by investing it in yourself, not in trying to obtain validation from someone who can’t give it. Stick with what empowers you. Your goal should be to figure out to what extent you want to fit the narcissist into your life, not figuring out how to get them to see the light.

For more support in navigating narcissistic relationships, check out

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