I Now Avoid Narcissistic Friends. Here’s How.
I’ve spent most of my life living in the shadow—especially in my close friendships.
Throughout my young adult life, I gravitated toward close friends who were charming, magnetic and lots of fun to be with. And they were certainly happy to have me in their lives: I was a great listener—the kind of person everyone would go to for advice, to complain, or to talk about themselves. I would always listen patiently. I was a warm and loving shoulder to cry on, a dependable problem solver, a loyal, available, and agreeable companion. I had a good sense of style that my friends admired and often even copied. Who wouldn’t want to be my friend?
Of course, I had never learned to be a friend to myself.
I grew up as an only child, with older parents who believed children should be “seen and not heard”—accessories. My mother was beautiful, stylish and very successful. She was a star that lit up a room the second she entered. I was her chubby, shy daughter who looked exactly like my father. I got used to being in the background—seen and never heard. When I grew up, I managed to find friends who loved being seen and heard. It was perfect symbiosis.
When I was in my late 20s and 30s I started recognizing how I was hiding and not “putting myself out there” in my friendships—and in my life. I felt uncomfortable when realizing that some of my friends were narcissists (for lack of a better word) and often felt resentful and angry when I was around them. The more they bragged, name-dropped, and brought conversations back to themselves, the more I shut down.
Feeling annoyed and regretting that I hadn’t been brave enough to speak up became my baseline state of being. Yet I was too afraid to say how I felt. Would my friends get mad? Feel betrayed? Hurt that I wasn’t “there” for them?
Yes, those were just my thoughts about what might happen—no evidence—but I didn’t want to risk possible consequences. So I swallowed my feelings. My insecurity was keeping me stuck.
So where was I in these one-way friendships? Well, I was an enabler. I was allowing this pattern, largely because it confirmed my self- doubt and insecurity. But as my resentment grew, I knew I had to take responsibility. I had long defined myself by my ability to accommodate others (I wanted to be liked and accepted, of course). But I didn’t even know who my true self really was. How was I going to change this pattern?
I needed to examine myself, my thoughts, and the story that I’d been dragging around for so many years.
I knew I couldn’t change my friends—I could only change myself, and begin to create new friendships where the balance was more equal.
So I began with questions:
- Why did I have so much self-doubt?
- Did I actually think I wasn’t interesting, intelligent, funny, enthusiastic or creative enough?
- Was I not a supportive, considerate or caring friend if I expressed myself?
- Why did I feel and behave like I was invisible? Was it because I used to feel that way with my mother?
- Was I really comfortable living in the shadow—or did I think I had no alternative?
As I answered honestly, I became ready to challenge my past story and address my fears. I also got in touch with things that interested me. I signed up for various design-related classes after work, joined a gym, and reached out to more casual friends to make fun plans. I was taking tiny steps and “putting myself out in the world” in a different way.
At the same time, my feelings of resentment helped me start to create some distance from my existing friends.
I wasn’t as available to make plans, have long phone conversations, and give endless advice. I didn’t totally withdraw but I created a boundary. I reminded myself gently to let go of feeling guilty or selfish—I had a “right” to do things I felt good about. Slowly, it felt natural: I was no longer seeking my friends’ approval. I was creating my freedom and I began to feel empowered.
Note: none of this happened overnight. By taking risks over the course of many years, I began to develop confidence—whether it was trying out a new class, initiating conversations in all walks of my life, or suggesting plans with new people. At first this was difficult for me, as I was completely out of my comfort zone—life in the shadow. But I had to become “comfortable with being uncomfortable”—very wise words from my mentor Jackie Gartman. Working with a life coach myself was an integral tool for me to peel away my limiting beliefs, and begin to write a new story for myself.
Sometimes I even needed to take a few steps back—especially if my thoughts of rejection or insecurity flared up.
My initial reaction to taking risks was to rehash “my story”—I’m not good enough. No one wants to be my friend. I’ll always be in the shadow. I’m comfortable that way.
Going to my dark place was tough, but it would remind me each time of the progress I’d made, and how I had to keep going forward.
So I learned to react to these thoughts differently.
I examined them, questioned them, and found evidence in my life to prove them wrong. When I did, I saw that I was much more resilient that I ever thought. I didn’t “fall apart” if I was rejected, and each time, I became ready to take chances again.
I committed myself to developing friendships with people who were supportive, emotionally available, and interested in me.
I was making new friends and I loved being “seen and heard.” I was speaking up, I was more assertive, I was being myself and I felt comfortable. My new friendships were reciprocal. As I met new people, I realized how sensitive I’d become to others’ narcissistic qualities that reminded me of past friendships. This didn’t mean that I had to shut down new connections with somewhat narcissistic people. I just became attuned to the dynamic, and kept my best interest in mind.
Now, I know what will no longer work for me in a close friendship. I am able to create boundaries that feel good to me, and have learned to “speak up” to let friends know how I’m feeling. I no longer hide in the background. I am ready to shine!