“ If you fear you may be in any danger or your abuser has shown violent tendencies in the past, do not confront a narcissist directly.”
In The Highly Sensitive Person’s Survival Guide to Dealing with Toxic People, author Shahida Arabi highlights how HSPs can use their sensitivity to listen to their instincts about these con artists, rather than continually betraying your inner voice.
In The Highly Sensitive Person’s Survival Guide to Dealing with Toxic People, you’ll learn evidence-based skills grounded in cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) and dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) to help you recognize and shut down the common manipulation tactics used by toxic people, such as gaslighting, stonewalling, projection, covert put-downs, and love bombing.
Highly Sensitive Person
Highly sensitive persons (HSPs) are in a unique position to encounter a wide variety of toxic people, because manipulators look for people with empathy, conscientiousness, and emotional responsiveness to exploit.
Toxic people and narcissists find it quite easy to convince a highly empathic and conscientious person that they are paranoid, losing it, or just “overreacting” when being manipulated. Therefore, these are the people who are targeted, because they can be conditioned to doubt themselves.
Although toxicity exists on a spectrum, the merciless cruelty of these individuals cannot be underestimated, particularly when they lack empathy, as narcissists do. These are not normal relationship problems or indicative of a “communication” problem—these are patterns of heinous abuse and calculated mind games.
“The farther someone is on the spectrum of toxicity, the more sadistic and deliberately malicious they can be.”
HSPs like you who’ve been ensnared by toxic predators tend to blame themselves and look within when they come across insidious abuse. After all, we’ve been taught by society to discount our instincts and to treat our high sensitivity like a problem rather than a potential skill set. So, speaking out against such a manipulator and, ultimately, speaking up for ourselves can feel like a death sentence, especially when the manipulator in question wears such a well-constructed false mask.
HSPs are further invalidated by court systems, law enforcement, family, friends, and sometimes even our own therapists who do not realize that this is no “normal” breakup or relationship issue—this is a power dynamic that disrupts every aspect of the survivor’s life and mental health. Emotional and psychological abuse destroys self-esteem and self-worth, leaving long-lasting, debilitating effects.
HSP as a strength
Society might have taught you that your sensitivity is a weakness, but it can be your biggest strength. Your “extra” sensitivity is your inner alarm system and shield. It goes off more quickly in the presence of danger. The trick is to tune in to your sensitivity and listen to your inner voice. As an empathic human being, your sensitivity is a superpower.
As HSPs, we often take responsibility for the emotions and issues of others. While this high level of empathy and compulsion to “rescue” can be advantageous when we are called to engage in activism and help populations in need, it actually makes us even more vulnerable to toxic people who seek our sympathy in order to continue their destructive behavior. When we are always swayed by another person’s pain, we fail to take into account how they are treating us. Instead, we reconcile with them quickly, rationalizing their unacceptable behavior. Manipulative people depend on this trait to exploit us.
The HSP becomes invested in the narcissist, believing they’ve met their soul mate (or perfect business partner or ideal friend). When the tides turn and the narcissist’s false mask slips, the HSP rationalizes the narcissist’s abusive behavior—we assume that trauma, insecurities, or fear of intimacy is what’s preventing them from establishing a healthy connection.
The truth is, what we are witnessing is the narcissist’s true character. The narcissist establishes relationships for one purpose only: narcissistic supply—any form of praise, attention, admiration, ego-stroking, money, sex, or resources that the relationship grants them.
“The heightened empathy of HSPs ultimately places us at risk when we encounter toxic individuals. It causes us to view them from our own moral perspective, seeing them in an overly sympathetic light and dismissing, rationalizing, or minimizing red flags. This is both erroneous and self-destructive.”
When you are highly empathic, you try to see the best in others and “help” those you think are hurting, especially if they use a pity ploy on you—any action that invites sympathy for the purpose of manipulation—to get you to see them as the victims when they are really the perpetrators. Toxic people and narcissists may wax on about their bad childhood, their addiction problems, and their hardships to get you to feel sorry for them.
The Five Types of Toxic People
Toxic Personality Type #1: Garden-Variety Boundary-Steppers
These types of toxic people are the most benign out of the bunch, but they can still be harmful and are unaware of how toxic they are. They habitually cross over your boundaries by talking over you, invading your personal space, asking more of you than you can give, bestowing unsolicited advice, wasting your time, being flaky, or breaking commitments. They may be loud and self-absorbed, selfish, or otherwise unable to read social cues.
“Gently “ease” boundary-steppers into your unavailability, and it will become more of an ingrained habit for them to respect your limits because they have no other choice. They’ll usually move on to a more receptive target.”
Toxic Personality Type #2: Crazy-Makers and Attention-Seekers
A step above the garden-variety toxic person are the “crazy-makers” and “attention-seekers.” These types have one selfish agenda: to have the focus be on them at all times, even if the feedback they receive is negative. They will create drama, introduce conflict, or showboat to garner praise out of an overwhelming need for attention. While they can be incredibly draining, frustrating, and demanding of your attention, they are a bit easier to work with than your more malignant types.
“Withdraw your attention. Attention-seekers crave your emotional reactions and energy; if they don’t get what they need from you, they’ll move on to a more sustainable form of fuel.”
Toxic Personality Type #3: Emotional Vampires
Emotional vampire” refer to toxic people who are capable of empathy but profusely drain your energy with their demands.
“Have a straightforward, firm discussion laying out your boundaries. A great general phrase to repeat with toxic people is, “I would love to help you, but I just don’t have the emotional bandwidth for this.”
CLEAR UP for Benign Toxicity
To more effectively communicate limits with garden-variety toxic people, use the CLEAR UP acronym.
HSPs who have problems with setting boundaries tend to struggle with anticipated conflict, with saying “no,” and with negotiating with benign toxic people. The CLEAR UP tool can help you master conflict and assert yourself in a healthy way.
- Lay down the law
- Exercise boundaries
- Power posing
Toxic Personality Type #4: Narcissists
Narcissists can be dangerously toxic because they lack the empathy to actually care about anybody else’s needs but their own. They are self-absorbed, self-centered, and extremely entitled. Depending on the severity of their narcissism, they can also be abusive when any perceived slight induces their narcissistic rage.
Here is an acronym to help you remember the characteristics and behaviors of a narcissist:
- Never admits to being wrong
- Avoids emotions and accountability
- Rages if anyone challenges them
- Childish when they don’t get their way
- Instills doubt in their victims
- Stonewalls during conflicts
- Smears and slanders you
- In denial and gaslights you
- Subjects you to the silent treatment
- Triangulates you and tears you down
Toxic Personality Type #5: Sociopaths and Psychopaths
Sociopath” and “psychopath” are the more common terms used for people with antisocial personality disorder (ASPD), which is the closest diagnosis we have in the most current version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) to describing psychopathy. Someone with ASPD will usually exhibit traits and behaviors such as a pattern of violating the rights of others, a failure to conform to social norms, irritability and aggressiveness, deceitfulness, impulsivity, reckless disregard for self and others, consistent irresponsibility, and lack of remorse.
Acronym for the defining traits of a psychopath:
- Pathological liar
- Superficially charming
- Yearns for constant stimulation
- Conscienceless and callous con artist
- Hides double life
- Overestimates self, grandiose
- Parasitic lifestyle and promiscuity
- Aggressive and impulsive
- Taunts and traumatizes for fun
- Hides in plain sight
It is not your fault
Additionally, set a boundary for yourself that you will not give in to emotionally manipulative behaviors out of a misplaced sense of obligation or guilt. You didn’t cause the narcissist’s dysfunction and you’re not responsible for remedying it. Unless you are their therapist (and even then, you’re there to offer help with boundaries included), it’s not your job to “fix” or “cure” someone of their destructive behavior toward others or to tolerate it to your own detriment. It is their responsibility to heal and fix themselves. Your duty is to yourself—to discern when someone is toxic to your well-being and to know when to detach and walk away. Do not feed into their crazy-making by reacting the way they want you to.
Love bombing is a manipulation method that cults use to groom their members. When it is done in a relationship with a narcissist or similar personality, you become part of a one-person cult. Love bombing involves excessive flattery, praise, and constant attention and affection showered on the target, usually in the beginning of a relationship, a friendship, or a work partnership, to get the victim heavily invested in the relationship early on. The higher the investment, the more difficult it can be for the victim to detach even once the manipulator reveals their true colors.
Love bombing targets our greatest vulnerabilities and desires: to be seen, heard, noticed, validated, and cherished. It is the gateway drug to addiction with a narcissistic partner.
Gaslighters use shaming, punishment, and emotional invalidation when their victims call out their abuse. Chronic gaslighting can cause an immense amount of fear, anxiety, self-doubt, and cognitive dissonance—that state of inner turmoil that arises due to contradictory and conflicting beliefs. On the one hand, the victim is noticing something that is amiss, not quite right. On the other, the victim feels blindsided by the gaslighter’s authoritative and continual invalidation of their reality and perceptions, unable to trust their own experiences.
Psychologists call this intermittent reinforcement of positive rewards to provoke a response in the victim (see below for a fuller discussion of this form of reinforcement). Whenever the victim is about to leave, the abuser swoops in with the “nice guy” or “nice girl” act, causing victims to doubt themselves and the true nature of their abusers.
HSPs fall victim to love bombing because they are so heavily emotional themselves that they resonate with the depth of interest shown to them by predators.
Hoovering allows toxic people to “check in” with their targets when they are moving forward with their lives. For example, an abusive ex-partner might hoover their victim by sending them texts on certain holidays reminiscing about the happy moments they had together. A toxic mother might hoover her adult daughter by calling her after giving her the silent treatment.
Moving the Goalpost
Toxic people use the tactic of “moving the goalposts” to ensure that they have every reason to be endlessly dissatisfied with you, regardless of what you do or don’t do for them. Even after you’ve done everything in the world to satisfy their arbitrary desires, provided all the evidence to validate your perspective, or taken every action to meet their request, they set up yet another expectation of you, demand more proof, or get you to meet yet another goal.
A smear campaign is a preemptive strike to sabotage you so that you won’t have a support network to fall back on lest you decide to detach and cut ties with the toxic person. They may gossip behind your back, slander you to their or your loved ones, create stories that depict you as the abuser while they play the victim, and claim that you engaged in the same behaviors that they are afraid you will accuse them of engaging in. They can tell blatant lies, rumors, or faux-concerned “suggestions” that call into doubt your sanity and character; they can even resort to manufacturing false evidence. They will also methodically, covertly, and deliberately provoke you so they can use your emotional reactions to the abuse as proof of your instability.
Present only the facts if you are met with unwarranted accusations. The best “revenge” is living your own life, rebuilding your social networks with trustworthy people, and moving forward into success.
Abusers work overtime to paint you as the abuser in order to escape accountability for their actions. They may even stalk and harass you or the people you know as a way to supposedly “expose” the truth about you; this exposure acts as a way to hide their own abusive behavior while projecting it onto you.
Let go of the people who choose to support the narcissist; they will find out how wrong they are on their own. It’s not your job to convince them. Take it as a blessing that you now know who your true friends are.
You don’t owe grown adults a full education on how to be a decent person. Remember, toxic people don’t argue with you; they essentially argue with themselves and you serve as the audience to their long, self-absorbed, draining monologues.
They thrive off the drama, and they live for the chaos they manufacture. Each and every time you attempt to counter their absurd claims, you feed them narcissistic supply. Don’t feed them—instead, supply yourself with the confirmation that their abusive behavior is the problem, not you. Cut the interaction short as soon as you anticipate it escalating and use your energy on self-care and self-protection instead.
They thrive off the drama, and they live for the chaos they manufacture. Cut the interaction short as soon as you anticipate it escalating and use your energy on self-care and self-protection instead.
Strategies to Exit
When you suspect you’re dealing with a narcissistic individual, implementing the OFTEN acronym is a strategy you can use to remind you of your options to exit the situation:
- Observe rather than accuse
- Fade out
- The handy excuse
- Exit and make a safety plan
- Notice rather than react
Observe rather than accuse.
Narcissistic individuals tend to unmask themselves far more quickly when they think you’re not aware of who they truly are. Direct confrontation of their narcissism will result in further manipulation and narcissistic rage, which can cause you
to remain entrenched in the cycle of their abuse as they begin love bombing you again. If you suspect you’re with a narcissist, the better route might be to mentally prepare how to leave while collecting more information about their character.
A narcissist will rage when they feel slighted or rejected. Rather than outwardly rejecting them, you can do a slow “fade.” Pretend that everything is as it was, but gradually give them less and less of your energy and time. Stick to one-word or neutral responses when in conversations with them. Incrementally pull out your investment so they get accustomed to not having you around.
Narcissists cannot stand not having attention, so they will attempt to gain narcissistic supply elsewhere.
The handy excuse.
When you fade out, it’s important to have a “handy excuse”—something the narcissist deems plausible enough to explain your withdrawal rather than recognizing that you are actually ejecting their presence from your life. Pretend to be busy with a work project, emphasize how stressful your new coursework is, talk about a new venture that is taking up your time. If they react with additional rage, proceed to the next step.
Exit and make a safety plan
Eventually, you’ll need to have a safety plan for your exit. Work with a counselor, your human resources department, or a domestic violence advocate to devise an escape strategy. Depending on the nature of your relationship with the narcissist and whether you’re cohabiting with them, you may not have to make as many arrangements as you might think
Notice rather than react.
If you are forced to deal with a narcissist even after you’ve exited the relationship (such as in situations of co-parenting or family reunions), being emotionally in control is a must. As you know, narcissistic individuals enjoy provoking you. Notice their manipulation tactics, name them, and rather than giving them the reactions they are seeking, mindfully take a breath and refocus on your self-care. Know what they are trying to get from you, and you will achieve a sense of emotional freedom from their tactics.
All the Best in your quest to get Better. Don’t Settle: Live with Passion.