11/05/2010 08:41 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Self-Defense Against Narcissists: Why 'No' Is So Hard to Say

You'd think that saying "no" would be a simple thing. It has a quick meaning and only two letters. It has a strong survival component, and we literally can't live without it.

So why does it pose so many problems?

We know we don't like to hear it; it means that we're not going to get our way, or that someone is disagreeing with us. But why, even when we want to or desperately need to, is it so hard to say?

Ten or so years ago I helped teach an abuse-awareness program aimed at young children in preschool and kindergarten. The program was called "Good Touch, Bad Touch" and was designed to teach the children how to recognize inappropriate behavior and then help them know what to do about it. We also had a segment on abduction prevention. In it we presented different scenarios in which a child was lured away by a grownup. As I recall, in one scenario the adult utilized a puppy as a lure; in another, he needed the child to help him with something (a sure sign something is wrong, because adults don't ask little children for help); and in another the adult offered candy.

What we found over time was that the scenarios landed on deaf ears. Even though we repeated the program a few times during the school year, the children always failed the test at the end. In the test they were asked to role-play the child and reject the abductor by pulling away and yelling, "He's not my daddy/mommy!" In nearly every single case, despite all the encouragement and preparation, the children went quietly with the adult perpetrator.

Even though a few children were good screamers and one little boy with an impishly beautiful face nearly yanked my arm out of its socket, the overwhelming majority of the children would have been lost had they ever had the misfortune of being in that situation for real.

Frankly, it scared us all silly. None of the people involved with the program could understand why the results were so dismal. Variables had been jostled: different teachers, different times of the day, different presentation styles, different emphases and intensities, all to no avail.

One day, instead of having the children role-play at the end, I had them role-play from the very beginning. The enactment would be the teaching tool instead of the test. And, lo and behold, they got it.

What part of "no" didn't they understand?

In reviewing it with colleagues, we concluded that most children are naturally submissive with adults and perceive them as authorities. Unless they were convinced by active experience that it was okay to say "no" and in essence behave disobediently to an adult, they just couldn't bring themselves to be so rude or risk the imagined punishment. Intellectualizing the idea was not enough. They had to do it and discover that they would be okay and no one would be angry with them.

Once that fear was addressed, they yelled and yanked their hearts out.

I think the adult art of defense against narcissists is not all that different. It is something that we either have learned early in life or must learn as adults by experience.

Adult Limit-Setting

This is a topic ample enough for a book. I know that condensing this into a blog will leave out very important issues for some of you: letting go, personal responsibility for life choices, maturity, self-sufficiency and emotional autonomy, abuse histories, epistemology and intuition development, cultural forces, and so on.

But we can start with this: Adults are obviously more complicated creatures when it comes to setting limits with people, particularly people who are good at manipulation and the art of deception. Our social needs are more complex, our relationships more multi-layered, not to mention the emotional history we bring to each encounter as adults. Narcissists are particularly good at exploiting the vulnerability that carrying all that baggage gives us.

A woman I know had a difficult childhood in which she was left by her mother at an early age with a father who was an unpredictable alcoholic she tried desperately -- but failed -- to please. She wound up in a relationship with a man who abused her for years. It was a subtle abuse that left no visible scars because instead of outright beatings, he used a form of domination that left her utterly voiceless.

Finally, after gathering up the courage to leave him, I asked her, "Now that you can look back on it and you know you can survive, do you know what made it so hard to do?" And she said with such clarity, "I was scared that it would mean I was unlovable. Not that he didn't love me. I always knew he didn't love me at some level. But worse -- that I was unlovable."

Men aren't immune to that sort of delusion. (I call it that because it is a belief system that is not based in reality. I'm not using it as an indicator of psychosis.) And they stay in relationships that perpetuate that distorted sense of themselves.

In plain English, it's a catch-22 emotional con job. Because we are emotionally more vulnerable or fragile (due to constitutional sensitivities, cultural factors, early childhood abuse, etc.), we are more susceptible to narcissistic predators who treat us badly. We are then increasingly convinced that we're unworthy or unlovable because we are being treated in an unloving manner. And the more unworthy we feel, the less likely we are to set a limit and walk out. And so on.

The Necessity of "No"

Allow me to share a brief, personal and terribly embarrassing story from my early twenties. I think it will describe perfectly how important it is for us to remember the word "no" as self-empowerment and self-respect (not to use rudely and impertinently) and to teach it properly to our children.

I was young, invincible and, as you'll see, about as naïve as a person can get. This is not smart when you live in the Bronx, which I did. I was in my apartment. It was about 3 a.m. -- in those days I made it past 9 p.m. with ease. I was listening to music and writing. There was a knock on my door. I looked through the peep hole and saw it was a guy I'd spoken to a few times in the lobby and in the elevator. I knew his name, which apartment he lived in, and he seemed "nice" enough. So (I still cringe) I opened the door and let him in.

I was lucky. We spoke for a few hours. Had coffee on the terrace. Watched the sun rise. And he left.

A week later, I wondered to a neighbor where he'd been, because I hadn't seem him around.

She looked at me, shocked, and said, "You didn't hear?"

"Hear what?"

"He was arrested!"

"For what?"

"Throwing a woman off the balcony of the Metropolitan Opera."

So, why "no"?

That's why.

It was a very, very fortunate roll of the dice. He was convicted of the murder. Most other people who do things that foolish don't live to talk about it. I must have had an army of angels surrounding me.

Why Is "No" So Hard to Say?

If it's so important, if our lives can depend on it, what's the difficulty? Wouldn't it be an evolutionary mandate? An instinct?

The reasons we fail to say "no" to narcissists are many, but for the sake of brevity, I'll list and describe a few I've noticed:

1) Mental Three-Card Monte

Some con artists are simply very, very good. Sometimes, the narcissist is so good at what he (or she) does that there is no outsmarting him. There are people who spend their lives developing the art of confounding and using others. To keep up, we'd have to dedicate our lives to anticipating and outmaneuvering them. Outside of going into law enforcement of some kind, who'd want to spend his whole life thinking that way? Sometimes the best we can do is forgive ourselves (and maybe them) and move on.

2) Denial

When the level of malevolence and distortion is so overwhelming and hard to imagine, we simply don't. This is partly denial: "I can't or won't believe it." It is also partly a failure of intuition that is ideally developed early in life.

I know one man who lived with a woman who slowly bilked him out of $100,000 over a few years and nearly got him indicted on federal fraud charges by using his identity to steal even more from government agencies. There were many signs, but he overlooked or explained them away because he couldn't bear the idea that she would do anything to hurt him.

"You end up with someone who would abuse your generosity and take advantage of you, and you just don't want to believe that when you try to be nice that you would attract someone so bad," he said.

In this man's mind being with someone so malevolent meant that something had to be wrong with him. So he had to keep up the emotional pretense that she meant no harm or was misunderstood in order to maintain his sense of self-worth.

3) Thinking, "I Can Fix It"

This is a subset of denial, and it affects all of us, especially when someone is a Jekyll-Hyde manipulator. There is nothing more potent than intermittent reinforcement -- if he's good sometimes, maybe we can "help" him be good more often. In my experience, this is usually not going to help anyone, especially the one being manipulated.

There is another aspect to this. Young people (though not all) tend to have a harder time saying "no" because they are, well, young. With youth comes a certain sense of invincibility, which is good and proper. It makes us courageous, bold and willing to attempt things (whether in science or sports or art) that others who have been more socially seasoned are unwilling to consider. But it also makes young people more vulnerable because they believe the worst will never happen to them. This is why I opened the door to a murderer. It simply never occurred to me that anyone could hurt me like that.

4) Fear of Giving Offense

In ancient societies, giving offense led to ostracism or exclusion. And in that world, being kicked out of the pack often meant death. Today's version of it is slightly different. If we give offense, we may be shunned from our social circle. And when we get shunned we may feel not only unloved, but unlovable and unworthy.

So, we accept what I call "crumbs" of pseudo-love or approval from people who really have no love to share.

I see this a lot in people who work in the arts, in the media, and in the East and West Coast capitols of Narcissism: Washington D.C. and Hollywood. The threat of being shunned creates a horror in them that borders on real pathological panic.

5) Desire to Belong

We live in a culture that values narcissism and image above substance and sincerity. We are so immersed in it we can easily fail to see its impact. We are social animals, like wolves and meerkats. Being too different is a distinct liability. Animals that stick out too much are usually easy marks for predators. If we say "no" but live in a culture of narcissists, we are literally alone. (I will write more on this topic in future posts.)

6) Fear of Hurting Others

I've seen both men and women succumb to this, but overall, it is far more of an issue for women than men. This is the condensed version of the need to be "nice." There are two things I keep in mind about this: One, being good and being self-preserving are not mutually exclusive. Two, if it consistently "hurts" someone for me to say, "Please stop that," then it might be time to reconsider the relationship.

7) Fear of Punishment

I knew a young woman whose mother used to put her in a choke hold when she got drunk. This was the origin of her limit-setting problems because she found herself in a horrid predicament: if she fought back, she got punished, but if she took it, she struggled to breathe. In her adult life, not only did she develop asthma, but she found herself accepting behaviors that were thoroughly out of line because she was afraid of how much worse it would get if she did say "no."

This is something we see in the workplace quite a bit. People accept all sorts of intolerable nastiness from others because they're afraid that if they don't, they'll be fired. One local company is particularly punitive and uses fear and shame openly. If you aren't a "team player," no one will actually fire you. They slap you on the back with the modern equivalent of a red letter: They put you at a desk in the middle of nowhere with nothing to do so everyone knows you're a pariah.

When You Think You Have No Options...

You still do. Even if they're not perfect.

One woman commented on my last post that she often found herself in what she believed was an untenable situation. "What do you do when you really can't get away?" she asked in her comment.

The simple facts of her story: Her husband has a close friend with a wife who is abrasive, narcissistic, rude, and frequently stinking drunk. She wants to turn down invitations to their parties because they both know that they are being used as "audience fillers" for the wife's theatrics, but she doesn't because she don't want to hurt her husband's friend.

A couple of questions to her and others of you who feel you have no choice but to tolerate being hurt so someone else won't be.

One, are you sure they're going to be as hurt as you fear? Is it even remotely possible that they'll be relieved to hear someone tell the truth about something they've known for years? Our fears can turn some nasty tricks in our minds, making mountains out of molehills. In any case, this is a question to consider, not a direct suggestion.

Two, why is your hurt and discomfort so unimportant?

Three, who says you have to make a major issue of it? So long as you're not in actual danger, you can let your "nos" be more situation-specific and less dramatic. You can walk away. You can see them on your terms, under different circumstances. Your partner can see his or her friend alone. You can say, "Sorry, we can't be there. We have other plans." Not everything has to be cause for mediation on Jerry Springer.

There are no formulas for this, unfortunately. But I believe that there are always options and possibilities. Even if they don't make the situation perfect, they can make it better. And as far as I can tell, narcissists have always been here and always will be.

Scott Peck, in his book "People of the Lie," wrote:

There are boundaries to the individual soul. And in our dealings with each other we generally respect these boundaries. It is characteristic of -- and prerequisite for -- mental health both that our own ego boundaries should be clear and that we should clearly recognize the boundaries of others. We must know where we end and others begin.

When others don't recognize those boundaries, it's up to us to enforce them.