by: E.B. Johnson
Is your friend a narcissist? One of the best ways to identify this type of toxic relationship is by looking for the patterns and stages that this type of friendship goes through. When a narcissist sets out to bring us into their lives, there’s usually a set pattern of idealization and devaluation that creates intense, codependent bonds. Once you admit that your friend is a narcissist, you can take steps to protect yourself and prevent further damage in the future.
The stages of narcissistic friendship.
When a narcissist sets out to make friends with you, they use a very distinct pattern of connection that creates intense, codependent bonds (Maass, Wehner & Ziegler, 2018). These connections form so quickly that we rarely have time to honestly analyze them for what they are.
The first stage of joining with the narcissist, idealization involves the creation of an intense bond. During the stage, the narcissistic friend will act compassionate and charming. They may seem to have more in common with you than anyone ever before. You become very close and intense fast, and this is when the sense of codependence begins. While you think you’re creating an unquestionable connection, you’re really being interviewed for weaknesses and pliability. The narcissist is figuring out how to use you. They’re also considering what your value to may be to them.
Devaluation is the second stage of the narcissistic friendship, and it is the most important to the narcissists. At this point, you have developed a close bond and you probably love your narcissistic friend. In order to keep you close, though, they begin a targeted campaign of devaluation. They tear down your self-esteem to make you easy to manipulate. When you stop keeping up with the demands for attention or validation, the behavior will ramp-up. This is a last-ditch attempt to keep you under control before you can wake up or lose interest in their games.
The final stage in a narcissistic friendship, the discarding stage involves the narcissist ridding themselves of threats and connections that no longer serve them. When you stop being compliant to the narcissist’s wishes — you’re out. This is usually when gaslighting kicks into full swing and becomes focused and intentional (to you and others). The person you knew will disappear entirely as they tear your reputation down to others and do everything they can to prevent exposure of their behavior.
What you can do about it.
Is your friend a narcissist? Do they make your relationship all about them? Do they push you around? Dismiss you? Or make you feel like you aren’t as worthy or loved as they are? We can’t build healthy lives when we’re surrounded by unhappy and unhealthy people. That’s what the narcissistic friend is. Find the strength to separate if you want to surround yourself with comfort and fulfillment again.
1. Take a step back to observe
It’s difficult to admit that our friends are narcissists. We can personalize that discovery too easily and come to doubt our ability to see people as they are. This type of self-doubt is precisely how the narcissists in our lives keep control, though. They use this doubt to undermine our sense of self and the boundaries we know to be important. That’s why we have to give ourselves time to wake up and see things as they are. Space is the best way to do that.
Before you react, take a beat and step back to observe the dynamics of your relationship and your friend group. Can you more clearly see the stages of friendship and how they create co-dependent cesspools of toxic interaction? When we step back to observe, we are better able to see and accept what’s happening.
This is a process you’ll need to engage in a time or two before you get it right. Journaling is a great way to get started. Take note each time you feel as though something isn’t right. Pull back, witness your friend’s behavior, and observe how it affects your own emotions. Does their behavior change the way you think about yourself? Does it increase conflict in your friend groups? Or keep you from doing things that make you happy? Keep a record and refer to it so that you can identify the patterns and accept them.
2. Quit over-investing
Friends of narcissists over-invest in their negative and manipulative compatriots. That’s the trademark sign of the relationship. Narcissists surround themselves with people who will pay tribute and do their dirty work. Ultimately, that’s all they care about. That’s why you have to stop paying tithe to the monster that’s living under your bed. Separating from a narcissist is a process, and one of the earliest steps must involve taking back our energy and power.
Break the spell with your friend once-and-for-all. See them for who they are and stop investing every ounce of your time and energy into them and their endless piles of drama and upset. They will continue to consume whatever you put into them, and they will drain you until you are of no value to them.
Stop giving away your power and your presence. Stop selling yourself short and allowing your boundaries (and your happiness) to be trampled on. Only by breaking this emotional spell can we wake up and take action against the friend that is undermining our happiness. Pull back. Avoid doing all the emotional heavy-lifting that your friend demands. Focus on doing that same work on your own life (and validating relationships) instead.
3. Set more efficient boundaries
Every relationship needs boundaries in order to thrive. We get nowhere by committing to people who don’t respect us or make us feel uncomfortable. Our friends should support us, and they should make us feel valued and wanted in the connections we build with them. That happens by respecting our needs and making sure not to cross the line on our values and wishes. In order to phase the narcissists out of your life, set better boundaries and stick to them.
Draw a line around the way you want to be treated and refuse to compromise on it. Our boundaries are necessary when dealing with a narcissist. Stop answering the phone in the middle of the night. Stop going above and beyond to show up for someone who only values you as a useful tool in their life.
Let your friend know you will not cross the line for them anymore. You can communicate this directly if you feel comfortable. Or, you can simply stop playing their games and remove yourself anytime you feel your boundaries compromised. There’s no right or wrong way to set boundaries. Get clear on how you want to be treated and what you expect in terms of return from your friendships. Prioritize the most important pieces and refuse to compromise on any boundaries that touch on your happiness.
Putting it all together…
Are you dealing with a narcissistic friendship that’s hindering your happiness? It’s not always easy to spot the narcissists in our social circles, but when we do, it opens our eyes to some serious truths. Rather than dealing with their manipulation, empower yourself to understand who they are and how they operate. Once you have a greater knowledge of the different stages of manipulation, your friendship has undergone, you can course-correct it and find your happy circle again.
Take a step back and take a beat to observe the patterns that are repeating in your friendships. Look for the idealization stages and then watch as other friend disappoint the narcissist and are outcast through discarding. Once you’ve accepted who your friend is, break the spell and stop investing all of your time and energy into them. Pull away slowly and prepare yourself for the inevitable fallout that will come (in whatever form it takes). Surround yourself with people you can trust and stand strong beside the boundaries that mean the most to you. You can’t surround yourself with toxic, narcissistic friends and hope to be happy. Separate yourself slowly and remove yourself entirely from the narcissist’s line of sight. Then you can create room for better, more rewarding friendships to come into your life.
- Maass U., Wehner C., Ziegler M. (2018) Narcissism and Friendships. In: Hermann A., Brunell A., Foster J. (eds) Handbook of Trait Narcissism. Springer, Cham. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-92171-6_37