Narcissists Exploit Your Defenses and Use Theirs for Immunity

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If you are in a relationship with a narcissist, you may suspect that you are narcissistic before recognizing it in a partner or friend. Why? Because a narcissist’s manipulations are insidious and unscrupulous, and often trigger a defensive response in you. Although unconscious defense mechanisms are universal and necessary because they protect your self-esteem, a rise in your defenses can cause you to act on your feelings less constructively. Eventually, when your defenses recede and you are able to look at yourself, you may feel extreme shame for saying or doing things that you would not typically say or do.

The narcissist’s defensive process is very different. Their unconscious defense mechanisms are usually robust, static, and rigid. They rarely soften enough to allow the narcissist to look in the mirror and truly grapple with the hurt they inflicted. Instead, they continually deflect and project any material that threatens their ego, continually casting the blame and shame outwards. On the rare occasion that the narcissist does take responsibility, it is usually because they got caught. Also, typically their admission is insincere and packed with plenty of minimizations, justifications, and excuses. Often, their attempt at accountability may make you feel worse because they skew things and position themselves as the victim.

An understanding of your defensive process versus the narcissist’s is important when an unscrupulous and unfair attack is launched against your character. The accusations can be so hurtful and egregious that your defense mechanisms automatically heighten as you experience the emotional anguish of being mischaracterized.

For example, Teresa bends over backward for her co-worker, Neely. She covers for her, stays up all night to do her work when Neely is hung over, and defends her to the team when they are fed up with Neely’s excuses and lack of accountability. One afternoon at work, Teresa’s boss calls Teresa into her office. Teresa is excited because she feels like she may be receiving a promotion. Instead, her boss questions her “bad attitude.” Confused because she has sacrificed a great deal for the team, and always tries to remain positive, she asks for the source of the complaints. Her boss indicates that Neely came to her the previous day to discuss Teresa’s lack of empathy, inability to be a team member, and lackadaisical attitude toward projects.

Astounded, shocked, and massively hurt, Teresa defends herself. Emotional and angry, she escalates and emphatically tells her boss that the problem is Neely, and that Neely exhibits a lack of professionalism, is incompetent at times, and is telling lies. Her boss looks at her with disbelief and sends her to the break room to calm down.

Teresa gets herself a glass of water from the kitchenette and goes over the encounter with her boss in her head. She begins to feel ashamed of her response and worries that she is a “hot head.” Instead of honoring her feelings about Neely’s betrayal and underhanded attack on her character, she is consumed with anxiety about her emotional response. She “roasts” herself for the remainder of the night.

The next day, during the team meeting, the boss announces that Neely is going to be the new team leader and that Teresa will be reporting to Neely. That afternoon Tereas’s boss reprimands her for attacking Neely’s character during their meeting even though Teresa was simply defending herself from Neely’s character assignation. Teresa’s confidence dwindles and she subjugates herself to Neely’s demands and criticisms because she believes she deserves it.

This exemplifies how a narcissist can exploit your natural defense mechanisms by blindsiding you with an unfounded assault on your character. The intensity of your shock, hurt, and anger may compel you to act on your emotions less constructively than you normally do, and it may seem like you responded in a toxic manner. However, if you are a person who, when your defense mechanisms settle down, really looks at yourself and is naturally remorseful, accountable, and empathic, you are probably OK.

Everyone gets defensive at times. You are human and when a person you trust blindsides and betrays you, the hurt and anger can be overwhelming. It is normal to get defensive at this point. Yet, please remember that after your defenses lessen a little, it is your ability to take a serious look at yourself and experience remorse that differentiates your defensive process from a narcissist’s. You are OK. Knowing this may help you recognize and regulate the next rise in your defense mechanisms and assist you in seeing the narcissist’s unfair attack as the real problem. It can also help you “hit the pause button” and briefly excuse yourself from a negative interaction until you can regulate what you are feeling before saying something that you may regret.

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Defense mechanisms exist to protect us and some, like sublimation, are often useful. If you are a person with a healthy defensive structure, the ebb and flow of your defenses allows you to introspect, feel remorse because of insight, be accountable, and have empathy for others. Alternatively, a narcissist’s defensive structure is impenetrable which usually prevents them from sincerely experiencing natural insight, accountability, and empathy in an interpersonal relationship. The difference in these defensive structures is important and may soften your tendency to “roast” yourself.

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