4 Essential Ways to Cope With a Narcissistic or Sociopathic Person in Your Life

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As a blogger, I pay attention to what readers want to know about. I’ve noticed that articles about three particular types of personality disorders (PDs), narcissistic, borderline and sociopathic, are often the most read.

Since my specialty (and the topics of my books and blogs) is Childhood Emotional Neglect or CEN, I can tell you that adults who grow up with emotional neglect often seem to attract people with personality disorders. That’s because CEN teaches you to take up little space, and those with personality disorders tend to take up a lot. It’s a classic case of opposites attracting.

People who find themselves involved with a personality disordered person may often find themselves getting hurt. I have noticed that the folks who comment on posts about PD’s very often express a mixture of strong emotions like confusion, hurt, anger and helplessness. Clearly, a great many people are hungry for information and guidance on how to handle relationships with these complex people in your lives.

Here are some example questions I’ve received from readers asking for guidance on dealing with a narcissistic or sociopathic person in their lives.

“Such a pity that escape (divorce) seems to be the only viable outcome. I’ve had to divorce my wife, but she still controls the minds of my now young adult daughters, so now I live with the pain of this alienation.”

“Does it serve a purpose to see a narcissistic parent’s condition coming from childhood emotional neglect? Yes. Once I realized that possibility, I looked at myself and realized how I often did to others exactly what my father did to me: because he left me with the same fragile sense of self. Fortunately I did not pass it on to another generation, having decided to end the bucket chain of abuse.”

The world is full of people who struggle with personality disorders. In truth, the numbers are staggering. 6% of the U.S. population has a narcissistic personality disorder. 5.6% has a borderline personality, and 1% has antisocial personality (according to the National Institute of Health).

With these numbers, there’s a reasonable chance that you’ve met, befriended, been related to, or fallen in love with at least one of these personality types.

These three personality disorders are all different. Narcissists are known for being self-centered. Those with borderline personality are known for being unpredictable and highly emotional. And antisocial personalities (or sociopaths) are famous for their brutality. Generally, these three PD’s can best be understood by their ability or inability to feel two very important emotions: guilt and empathy.

                                 Guilt               Empathy             

Narcissistic           Yes                  No

Borderline             Yes                  Yes

Sociopathic            No                   No

Here are the Four Main Questions About PD that I see you, our readers, struggling with:

1.  What causes personality disorders?

We don’t know for sure, but current science tells us that it’s a combination of genetics and childhood experiences, such as emotional abuse and unpredictable parenting characterized by the repeated, sudden withdrawal of love and approval by the parent or love based on false, self-serving, or superficial factors. Neither nature nor nurture alone is probably enough to produce a personality disorder; most research indicates that it takes a combination of both.

2.  Why didn’t I realize sooner that my husband/sister/father/friend, etc. has a personality disorder?

First, I’d like to suggest that you stop asking this question because it sounds like you are blaming yourself. The huge majority of people have no idea what a personality disorder is, or how to recognize it. Folks with narcissistic or borderline personality are not simply all good or all bad. They have very lovable qualities, and very maddening qualities, just like everyone else. This is why even mental health professionals require a good amount of time to make a diagnosis of personality disorder.

Sociopaths, however, fall into a special category of their own. Unlike people with borderline and narcissistic personalities, sociopaths have no capacity for guilt. But that is a very difficult thing to see in someone, especially when that someone is both highly charismatic and skilled at faking guilt and other emotions. Unfortunately, sociopaths, the most emotionally ruthless people among us, are also the most difficult to recognize.

3.  Do people with personality disorders know what they are doing? Is he/she hurting me on purpose?

For sociopaths, the answer is simple: yes. Many sociopaths actually take pleasure in manipulating and hurting others. They view (and treat) the people in their lives like chess pieces.

For narcissists and borderlines, the answer is not so clear, because both of these groups are scrambling to protect their fragile inner core. The narcissist’s greatest fear is that you will see what he/she feels about herself deep down: worthlessness. Whereas the borderline person’s greatest fear is that you will abandon him.

Narcissists appear to not care if they hurt you, but it’s because they are extremely focused on protecting themselves. Borderline folks are at the mercy of their own pain and have little energy left over to offer care for others. They are capable of both guilt and empathy, but often cannot access either.

Most narcissistic and borderline people are not purposely inflicting pain or misery on others. They are more like a bull in a china shop.

4.  I now hate someone I used to love. Is it OK to kick this person out of my life?

It all depends on what he/she has done, and what is your relationship with them. Of course, you must protect yourself and your children above all. And the type of PD you’re dealing with matters. Unfortunately, many people share traits from all three, making it difficult to know.

If this person is a family member, spouse or co-parent, and is not a clear sociopath, I recommend a delicate balance of self-protection and as much empathy as you can muster for the true pain that this person is living with and hiding.

Here are some Suggestions for Managing Your Relationship:

  • NEVER malign your partner in front of your children because it will damage your children.
  • Try not to demonize the person, even in your own head. No one is all bad, and everyone has pain. Work to hold in your mind a realistic picture of both the positives and the negatives of him or her.
  • Keep communication with the person who is causing you pain to a minimum of what is necessary.
  • Always behave politely, predictably, and choose kindness whenever possible.
  • Never compete or try to beat them. It will be a losing battle for all involved, especially you.
  • Always take the high road.
  • Hurt and angry? Let your anger help you protect yourself, but don’t let it propel you to strike out at anyone or seek revenge. Use this as your mantra: The best revenge is living well.
  • Live well.

To learn how to manage your relationship with a narcissistic or borderline parent, see the book Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships. To learn how Childhood Emotional Neglect is different from emotional abuse and how to heal from it, see the book Running on Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect.

A version of this article was originally published on psychcentral.com. It has been republished here with the permission of the author.


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Catherine - February 9, 2021 Reply

Thank you for addressing this issue for us. It is too late for me but others need to be informed. Unfortunately people with Narcissism/Sociopathy can deliberately target those of us with CEN. In retrospect I feel like I must have had “clueless” tattooed on my forehead!

Sebastián - August 28, 2019 Reply

Hi, Dr. Webb and others. Thanks for your comments. I just wanted to add that while I appreciate the description of narcissism you provide here, thngs didn’t get very clear for me until I read some of Dr. George Simon’s work. He contends that narcissism is not always a protective mechanism. What I used to see as defensive tactics (to my detriment) I now see as aggressive, intentional ones, which makes everything make much more sense in my situation. I realize that you could argue that this heads toward sociopathy, but I don’t think it’s that clear. I recommend his work. Also, thank you for emphasizing taking a balanced view, if it merits it. This is important. At first, when realizing someone close to you may have a personality disorder, it’s easy to lose sight of this. Seeing multiple sides of someone does in no way discount any damaging behavior. What IS important is recognizing what that behavior might be, and doing what one can to protect oneself from it. Recognizing it is the first step. I wish everyone the best!

    Jonice - August 29, 2019 Reply

    Very good points, Sebastian. Thank you for your comments!

RL - August 25, 2019 Reply

One of the most straight forward, clear & understandable articles I’ve ever read about a frequently complex, confusing topic for many of us. Thanks!

    Jonice - August 26, 2019 Reply

    I’m glad to hear that! Thank you.

Alex S - August 12, 2019 Reply

Hi Dr. Webb,

You mentioned in the article, not to malign one’s spouse in front of one’s children, because it will damage them. I grew up seeing a lot of that, and yes, experienced some damage as a result. Any ideas on how to heal that damage?

I have both your books so any references to those would be useful.


    Jonice - August 12, 2019 Reply

    Going back and reprocessing your experience as a child is key. Often the parent who appeared to be the “bad guy” because of the negative comments made about him/her is not actually that. Developing a clear view of your parents as complex individuals with layers of good and bad can help you develop a more balanced view of them. In Running On Empty No More, the part about May’s mother may be helpful in this.

Victoria - August 12, 2019 Reply

I have been diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder specifically because of my CEN. Do you address psychiatric disorders that can evolve from CEN?

    Jonice - August 12, 2019 Reply

    Dear Victoria, CEN alone does not cause borderline PD. I have written some articles about this and you can find them on this site.

Tom Connaughton - August 11, 2019 Reply

Thank you Joyce, you are helping me see much, it wonderful for me to get this information from you, while living in Ireland, co Waterford in Southern Ireland, I am getting this information late in life in fact heading towards my 70 the birthday, ye seem to specialized with this disease in America, I have been telling my own therapist about you, Thank you again God bless you, I would love to go to one of your work shop’s but I can’t simply afford it, Tom from Waterford in Ireland

    Jonice - August 11, 2019 Reply

    I’m glad you are working on your CEN in therapy Tom. Keep up the good work!

R.D. - August 11, 2019 Reply

This is a very useful article! Thank you so much Dr. Webb.
For people who wish to recover from narcissistic abuse, I highly recommend the work of Melanie Tonia Evans’ NARP, if you are open to energy healing.
Having had a narcissistic parent as well as romantic relationships with Cluster B personality disordered folks, I have gotten great results using Dr. Webb’s resources along with regular therapy and NARP.
You don’t have to suffer feelings of pain and unworthiness for the rest of your life. You can break the chains of these painful patterns. As Dr. Webb says, the best revenge is living well! Be blessed everyone.

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