When speaking up to invite behaviour change backfires
Discerning who can handle feedback
One of the competences of hacking one’s own narcissistic tendencies is personal responsibility - the ability to hold yourself accountable for the consequences of your choices. This is challenging for many because it requires a desire to learn from how others experience you, to interrupt ineffective relational habits and adjust behaviour to re-align with your values.
This piece is an attempt to dissect STEP 4 of the Narcissism Playbook. I hope, dear reader, you will let me know if this resonates or misses the mark for you by commenting below to invite discussion on this topic.
Myths about holding someone accountable
A flawed assumption many make is that they have the power to hold someone to account for the consequences of their actions, especially if they disapprove of or are hurt by the other person’s choices. Sure, you might be able to motivate change if that person depends on your approval to maintain employment or inclusion in a group. Then we might need to have a chat about your use of authority and influence to keep someone in line that is more to do with satisfying your comfort than facilitating meaningful change.
But what happens when you don’t have that status yet believe you’re entitled to hold someone to account for their choices simply because you feel uncomfortable with or disapprove of them? Another flawed assumption is by simply providing what you believe is helpful or critical feedback the other person will be able to receive it, express personal responsibility for the impact of their actions, feel motivated to change and have the capacity to take steps toward changed behaviour.
Where did these myths originate?
Was it a conditioned rule that if you were told you did something wrong, you should apologize and the relationship wound will magically heal and universal order will be restored?
Is it a people pleasing habit that allows another’s perceptions to dominate yours so you can keep the peace or smooth things over?
Is it just the right thing to do that if you see something, you should say something? Who determines right from wrong and whose values hold greater weight in a relationship?
These myths and habits motivate attempts to help someone correct themselves according to your own values and rules of conduct, or your knowledge about their values. Either way, it’s a type of subtle control tactic rooted in moral righteousness that sadly is another sneaky relational narcissism tactic.
How do you know someone is accountability averse?
When a person’s pride matters more than you and their relationship with you and would be unwilling to consider any narrative that doesn’t fit their ideal self-perception to resolve conflict.
You’re in a personal/professional relationship with someone who shares your interests or stage of life. They seem to be very available and helpful to many other people in their life but when you are going through hardship and need them to reciprocate for all the times you were there for them, they are either unavailable, patronizing, offer advice or centre themselves rather than listen with empathy. You begin to resent them and find ways to avoid interacting with them while dealing with guilt about your feelings toward them and self-doubt. You decide to gently confront them about your experiences with them.
Responses to expect from the accountability averse person
Faux forgetfulness: “I don’t remember saying that.”
Denial: “I didn’t say that.”
Blame and change their story: “You misunderstood me…this is what I said (which is different to what they actually said).”
Patronize and gaslight: “I don’t see why you’re having such a reaction. Don’t you think you’re overreacting?”
When you give specific examples of what they said or did, they respond with:
Self-awareness: “I’m aware of that.” or “I know I do that.” and “Why didn’t you tell me to stop?”
Acceptance: “That’s fair.” Then follow up with “I’m working on it – give me time.”
Weak apology: “I’m sorry. Are we ok now?”
Non-apology and victimized: “I’m sorry you feel that way. I was only trying to help.”
Justify and blame: “I only said/did ‘x’ because of what you said/did.”
Placate: “I can see how you would think that about me. You don’t have anything to worry about because it won’t happen again.” Followed by “I want you to know that our friendship/relationship/collaboration is really important to me.”
How these tactics enables the other person to maintain control over the relationship
Placating statements are meant to disarm you so that you feel you’re getting through to them. The moment you feel like you had a win, they come back with a statement that they’re ‘doing the work’ or declare their boundaries with “I’ll only do ‘x’ if you do ‘y’.” This is their way of resetting the ground rules on their terms to undermine you and override feeling ashamed and inferior.
Reaffirming and restating the value of your relationship when accompanied with a list of people they have let go in the past (but this relationship is special and worth preserving) sends a message that they have the upper hand and will always decide the value and fate of the relationship.
They won’t be able to describe the steps they’re taking to do the work or prevent issues in the future because in their mind, they conduct themselves according to their values and you should be able to see and accept that.
The power shifting play to expect after confronting them
They will believe that the conversation cleared the air and act like things have moved on. Internally, they’re upset that you dared suggest that they were responsible for wrongdoing and start planning their retaliation.
They will look for a moment to ‘catch you out’ in each encounter. They might first show interest in you/your life to get you onside after being dismissive or less interested before you confronted them. Each interaction is going to seem like you have your old friend/partner/colleague back and this is because they’re acting exactly as needed to regroom you into trusting them again.
When you feel like they’ve changed because they took on your feedback, that’s when they will retaliate.
They will try to move the goal posts by imposing new boundaries and rules of what is appropriate in your relationship. They are doing this to reinstate their dominance in the relationship after their previous fall from grace. You’re actually on their shit list (and will act as if everything is fine) and you’re being tested to see if you’re worthy of being in the relationship with them. They will wait for the moment you mess up to use that against you and affirm their new perception of you.
When you mess up by violating their new rules (that you never agreed on or even knew existed) they will give you feedback about how you’ve made them feel. You will feel compelled to fix the person’s uncomfortable feelings about you to alleviate your discomfort with their sulking despite being unclear/unconvinced about what you actually did wrong because their narrative of reality is overriding your own.
They will present an ideal vision or goal of your relationship and propose that you both need to move forward as if that’s something you both want, when you actually want a change in the relationship dynamic.
They will also present an ideal view of themselves - that they’re mature, want to work together to resolve conflict, provide their own reasoning about the conflict that removes the spotlight from their behaviour and shifts it to a different narrative (ie. your perspective is flawed) making it about shared responsibility. This is an attempt to shift focus away from the cause of the conflict (their actions) onto a notion of ‘we have different perspectives and neither is right or wrong’ when the issue is about the impact of behaviour, not perspective or intent.
These steps are intended to help you trust them (re-grooming) while also gaslighting you that your perspective is flawed and theirs is superior and what is best for the relationship.
By sending mixed messages that they want to work things out while providing an alternative narrative of the issue prevents confronting the source of the problem and meaningful dialogue to transform the conflict.
The harsh truth
These are features of someone who cares more about preserving their self-image than preserving the relationship. They will not adjust their perceptions or behaviours to ensure that you’re both able to meet your needs through the relationship. They will expect that you will submit to their expectations, rules and values for their comfort and assume these values are what you want too.
This relationship will always be one-sided and disadvantage you.
People are motivated to change their actions when something important is at stake. It can feel upsetting when you don’t make the cut, especially if you have invested a lot of time, effort and hope into the success of the relationship. It’s easy to allow feelings of guilt, shame and doubt to persuade you to find ways to please that person because it will feel difficult to let that relationship go.
A relationship where one party is able to take personal responsibility for the consequences of their choices and the other uses this disclosure as a weapon against you AND not take personal responsibility is best continued as a transactional relationship or to no longer exist in your life.
Thanks for reading, sharing, subscribing and discussing this piece,
Nathalie Martinek, PhD
The Narcissism Hacker
PS If you’re looking to gift a loved one who is going through toxic relationship drama something useful, consider gifting them a year subscription to my work. I’m releasing helpful guides and checklists to spot and respond to narcissistic people, including adolescents and adult guardians of children that will only be available by paid subscription. Thank you for your support!