Is someone consistently taking advantage of you? Your romantic partner or your boss?
Do you rush around trying to do things for them but they never seem to have your back? Or is keeping up with their mood swings and meltdowns a 24/7 job? Do you find yourself doing more and more but getting less and less?
And when you try to talk to them about it in a reasonable way, do they fly off the handle or burst into tears — and nothing ever changes?
You might be a “caretaker” to someone with narcissistic or borderline traits. And that’s a really bad place to be. But there are things you can do to improve the situation.
Psychotherapist Margalis Fjelstad brings some solid answers in her book: Stop Caretaking the Borderline or Narcissist: How to End the Drama and Get On with Life.
Narcissistic Personality Disorder and Borderline Personality Disorder are serious mental health issues — not stuff you want to casually diagnose without a P and H and D after your name. But people who exhibit enough of the characteristics of those problems can mess up your life, even at subclinical levels.
So let’s learn the basics about these difficult folks and then find out how to stop being a pushover when you deal with them…
What’s A Narcissist? What’s a Borderline?
You probably know a bit about narcissism. And, frankly, you probably know a few narcissists. Here’s what they have in common.
- An increased sense of importance
- Preoccupations with fantasies of success, wealth, beauty, and talent
- A strong sense of being unique and special
- A sense of entitlement to being treated better than others
- Exploitation of others
- Unwilling or unable to notice or understand other’s feelings
- Envy and arrogance
You get it. They think they’re better than everyone else. Including you.
Borderline is a bit more complex but you’ve probably encountered the type.
BPD is described by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (4th ed.) (DSM-IV) as a “pervasive pattern of instability of interpersonal relationships, self-image and affects or moods, and marked impulsivity, beginning by early adulthood and present in a variety of contexts.”
Borderlines are ruled by their emotions. Logic has no effect and anything that conflicts with their feelings is false. They’re impulsive and their moods are as unpredictable as Lady Gaga’s outfits.
Borderlines don’t have a clear sense of self. They often change who they are based on context and wear a “mask.” They’re terrified of their real self being seen, assuming they’ll be rejected.
Borderlines crave reassurance — while relentlessly picking fights and causing drama. (They’ll text you 34 times to tell you they’re giving you the silent treatment.) Unsurprisingly, they have a history of unstable relationships.
You might be thinking these two personality types seem very different. They are, but there are some deep underlying similarities…
Narcissists need someone to support their unrealistic vision of themselves (and to do all the petty stuff they’re too good for). Borderlines are a black hole of insecurity, requiring someone to give them constant reassurance (but it’s never enough.)
So both need closeness — but both are terrified of closeness. The narcissist doesn’t want to give up their “specialness” and the borderline is afraid of totally losing themselves by connecting with another person.
So there’s a constant push-pull in their relationships, whether it’s in love or at work. Often they’ll idealize you until you join them, but once you do they’ll devalue you to make sure you don’t get too close. If you leave, they’ll chase you. If you stick around, they’ll keep abusing you. They often end up with partners or employees who they can be certain will never leave them — and then they treat those people horribly.
Both frequently engage in “projection” — accusing you of doing what they’re guilty of. Say no to a narcissist and they’ll call you selfish. Borderlines will have a meltdown, attempt to make you jealous, or passive-aggressively test your loyalty — and then accuse you of causing drama.
Sound like someone in your life?
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So this leads to the $10,000 question: how did a nice person like you end up in a lousy situation like this?
You’re Probably A “Caretaker”
In general, that’s a good thing. Caretakers have lovely traits and they keep workplaces and families functioning despite dysfunctional members. They’re the rock that groups are built upon. However…
With someone who has narcissistic or borderline traits, well, it can be like rock meeting paper in “rock paper scissors” — they get engulfed. Taking care of the narcissist or borderline becomes a thankless, toxic full-time job.
(Caretaker traits) include a desire to do a good job, enjoyment in pleasing others, a desire to care for others, peacemaking, a gentle and mild temperament, and calm and reasonable behaviors. These traits can be the hallmark of someone who is easy to get along with, caring of others, and a good worker, spouse, and parent. But when you use these behaviors as a means of counteracting the extreme behaviors of the BP/NP, they can morph into more toxic forms and become perfectionism, a need to please, overcompliance, extreme guilt, anxiety, overconcern, avoidance of conflict, fear of anger, low self-esteem, and passivity. At that point, these traits become detrimental to the mental, emotional, and physical health of the person and become Caretaker behaviors.
Why in the world would you choose to be a caretaker to, well, a “taker”? First, you’re trying to be nice. Maybe too nice.
And you feel needed. (And you will constantly feel needed because narcissists always need a cheerleader and borderlines are experts at creating new sources of stress for themselves.)
And you may have some self-esteem issues. Because when very emotionally healthy people find themselves working for or romantically involved with a narcissist or borderline they usually say, “I’m outta here.”
(To learn how to deal with a psychopath, click here.)
So what should you do if you find yourself being taken advantage of by a narcissist or borderline?
1) Leave. Now.
They’re probably not going to change. And people with real NPD or BPD basically have the emotional development of a two-year-old. You’re not going to fix them.
In terms of emotional development, BP/NPs are more similar to two-year-olds than to adults. They typically do not believe that anything or anyone in their world is permanent. Only the specific emotions that BP/NPs are having in the present moment are real. They often do not remember past emotions, thoughts, or behaviors, and they feel convinced that their present emotion will last forever. So ask yourself, “Would I expect a two-year-old to keep promises or remember to do chores, or be alone for more than a few minutes, or understand how to act at a formal gathering, or wait for anything, or do something that he or she didn’t want to do, or be at ease in new situations, or to go along with a change of plans?” Of course you wouldn’t.
I know, I know — if you could easily leave, you probably wouldn’t be reading this. I get it, but it’s pretty much required that I say “run.”
You want to have as little contact as possible with people who have these issues. And getting away from them is often not easy. They’ll repeatedly try and seduce you back (figuratively or literally).
And when you think they’re out of your life they’ll pop up again — utterly forgetting their poor behavior in the past. Don’t be flattered.
They probably resurfaced because the last pushover they dealt with finally wised up and ran, or they’re looking to upgrade. You’re not special. And they’ll probably keep the hunt going (actively or passively) while trying to lure you back.
(To learn how to overcome bullies at work, click here.)
Alright, you can’t run. Maybe you can’t leave this job or you don’t want to get a divorce or it’s otherwise too difficult to extract yourself from the situation. What attitude do you need to have to deal with them?
2) Quit Trying To Change Them And Start Changing Yourself
Talk to them all you want, they are probably never going to say, “Oh, I get it now. You’re right.” And if they do, don’t expect lasting improvements. Again, if this was a realistic possibility, you probably wouldn’t be reading this.
You can’t make people change. You can only control your own behavior.
And whether it’s at work or your personal life, if you want this relationship to be functional, you have to accept it’s on you.
It is only after you give up denial, anger, and bargaining; give up any hope of the BP/NP’s being different; give up expecting the BP/NP to do what you want; and accept the real facts of the situation that you can finally start generating ideas that could make your life better. It is only after you quit focusing on what “should” or “shouldn’t” be happening that you can really get down to what “is” or “isn’t” happening. Basing your life on what you hope will happen rather than what is happening has been part of the reason for how you ended up being so frustrated, angry, and hurt.
That doesn’t mean you can’t get help. Ask people for thoughts and advice, get others on your side, and find role models who handle these situations well… Just don’t expect the narcissist or borderline to see these examples and shape up. You have to do the leg work.
(To learn more about how to deal with a narcissist, click here.)
Okay, it’s on you. You’re done focusing on what they “should” do. So what’s the right approach to take when trying to get this person to treat you better?
3) Stop Talking, Start Doing
Talking to a narcissist or borderline is all but pointless. Don’t think that a nice chat is going to make a difference in the long run.
Even if you think you have an ironclad case, they’ll come back at you with a word salad that makes no sense and only serves to make you crazy.
Very little gets changed with a BP/NP by talking. BP/NPs are masters of denial and delusion. They jump instantaneously from topic to topic, they are emotional rather than logical, and they usually forget any discussion that has been emotionally intense. Making changes in the relationship with a BP/NP requires taking new actions, not making agreements or coming to an understanding.
You need to back up your words with action. It’s the only thing they’ll understand.
Giving up rescuing the BP/NP is an action, not a discussion. It isn’t something to announce to the BP/NP. It isn’t something to negotiate with the BP/NP. It isn’t something to threaten the BP/NP with. It is all action. You stop participating in the merry-go-round interactions, you stop arguing, you stop worrying what the BP/NP will do next, and you stop expecting the BP/NP to fulfill your needs.
Are they saying cruel things to you? Tell them you’re leaving the conversation and you’ll resume it when they’re feeling better. Walking away will register on their radar.
(To learn how to survive in a toxic workplace, click here.)
So you need to act, not talk. But what will make this relationship more sustainable?
4) Establish Boundaries
You’re being a pushover. You need limits. And you need the narcissist or borderline to respect those limits. That means being firm and consistent, but not mean. And you need to know ahead of time what you will do when the boundary is violated.
Keep in mind that you cannot enforce a boundary or limit that you have no power over. You hold power primarily over what you will do if the boundary is breached. It is also helpful to set limits only about the things that are really important enough to warrant the amount of energy and emotional strength that it will require you to follow through. You don’t need to tell the BP/NP why you have made the boundary—just keep stating the boundary over and over and be sure to act on it consistently.
Now narcissists and borderlines are very emotional people. And they can also be very manipulative. And you might not be great at being direct and assertive. How do you word your boundaries to make it clear but minimize conflict?
The Yale Communication Model happens to be designed for dealing with highly sensitive or manipulative people. So frame your statement to them using this formula.
1. When ____________ happens
2. I feel ____________
3. I would like ____________
4. Or I will need to ____________
Remember: the most important part here is #4. If there’s no penalty and it’s just words, nothing is going to change.
(To learn 6 rituals from ancient wisdom that will make you happy, click here.)
Okay, so you know how to establish boundaries. But how do you toughen yourself so you don’t stay a pushover?
5) Rebuild Your Life
The needs of the narcissist or borderline may have become the center of your universe. That needs to stop. In fact, you can learn a lesson from them, advice you don’t hear very often: be a little more selfish.
Take better care of yourself. See friends. Get rest. Exercise. Get alone time. Focus on your own goals. Anything that got sacrificed because you were caretaking. Create more of a life for yourself that doesn’t involve that toxic person.
This doesn’t mean totally ignore others. And if the narcissist or borderline is still a part of your life, you can still care for them. But do like the emergency instructions on airplanes: first put the oxygen mask on yourself, then put it on the two-year-old. Make sure you’re taking care of you. Because clearly they won’t.
And then there’s that self-esteem issue that likely got you here in the first place. Start addressing it with compassionate self-talk.
How do you talk to yourself in the privacy of your own mind? Do you talk to yourself like you would to a friend, a loved one, or the most valued person in your life? If you are not being positive toward yourself, why not? If you find yourself criticizing yourself, calling yourself names, deriding yourself, and even emotionally punishing yourself, why are you doing this? What is your goal? These internal negative self-attacks may seem automatic, but you can learn to control and redirect them toward positive self-support with practice and vigilance.
You’re not merely an extension of them any longer. So take the time to enjoy being you.
When was the last time that you enjoyed just being who you are? Feeling your feelings, thinking your thoughts, and making your own choices are the elements of really enjoying being you.
(To see the schedule that very successful people follow every day, click here.)
Okay, we’ve learned a lot. Let’s round it up — and learn how to make new friends without gaining another borderline or narcissist in the process…
Here’s how to stop being a pushover:
- Leave. Now: Narcissists and borderlines are unlikely to change. So it’s not a bad idea to change how often you see them to “never.”
- Quit trying to change them and start changing yourself: It’s on you if you want this to get better.
- Stop talking, start doing: Talk is very cheap. Always know what you will do if they don’t comply.
- Establish boundaries: I’m not explaining this one. I’m at my limit. You’re not the boss of me.
- Rebuild your life: I’m not explaining this one either. I’m going to the gym.
So when you’re on the hunt for a new relationship or a new job (with a new boss), what should you keep in mind so you don’t recreate the same problems?
- Picking people with the qualities you value
- Identifying the good qualities and the shortcomings of the person
- Being aware of how much you each talk and share about yourselves
- Observing how the two of you decide what to do and where to go
- Observing whether this person has good boundaries without being too distant
And if you’re a total caretaker, stretch your muscles by trying a few things that normal people occasionally do which you probably avoid like the plague. They’ll help you be less of a pushover.
- Ask the other person to do something that is inconvenient
- Reschedule a get together
- Identify something that you find uncomfortable about this new friend and let him or her know
Give these ideas a shot and stop being a pushover… Oops, did I just tell you what to do? Well, definitely don’t do it because I said so.
I’m not a borderline. Now some people have accused me of being narcissistic — but I know they’re wrong because I am sooooooo much smarter than they are.
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Eric Barker is the author of Barking Up the Wrong Tree: The Surprising Science Behind Why Everything You Know About Success Is (Mostly) Wrong. Eric has been featured in the The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Wired and TIME. He also runs the Barking Up the Wrong Tree blog. Join his 290,000-plus subscribers and get free weekly updates here.