Updated date:

"You Say Tomato, I Say Basketball!" Communication Difficulties With Narcissists

The Little Shaman is a spiritual coach & specialist in cluster B personality disorders, with a popular YouTube show and clients worldwide.


One of the things it can take people several years to figure out - if they ever realize it at all, since it can be so subtle - is that even though a narcissist may be using the same words and phrases that they are, or saying things that make sense in the context that they are being used in, the narcissist may not actually mean the same things you or anyone else means when they use those words or phrases. They may not even really understand or care what these things really mean at all. They are simply using them because this is where they go.

It's important to make it clear that we are not talking about love languages or anything metaphoric here. We are talking about actual words and their meanings. It might seem odd that people would use words they don't really understand, but narcissists are mimics. It's how they've learned to survive. It's kind of like learning a song in another language. You can learn how to say the words and sing the song without ever understanding or even knowing what they mean. You are simply mimicking the singer. This is what many pathologically narcissistic people are doing as well.

It's not unlike the way children learn to speak. They imitate sounds and words with no idea what they mean, which is why they so often repeat cuss words and swearing. They don't know it's a bad word. They are just repeating what they've heard. Narcissistic adults are not children, of course, and what we find is that many of them may believe they know what these words and phrases mean but in fact do not, or that their definition of them is different from what most people understand it to be. It may be extremely difficult for them to relate the definition of words or the context in which they are being used. For example, it is not uncommon for narcissistic people who are pressed to define a word or phrase to resort to looking it up in a dictionary or something similar instead of being able to answer. Or they may simply refuse to define it at all. This usually happens because their argument or behavior points to the fact that their definitions of things must be different or possibly wrong, and people begin to ask them what things mean. Because they can't answer, they will often use one of their patented defense mechanisms: deflect, deny or detonate.

Because they are so good at mimicry, it can be quite a while before a person realizes that the narcissist is either using words they don't actually understand or that they mean something by the words that is different from how they the listener is understanding them. If a narcissist is very intelligent or higher-functioning, this can be to hard to see, even for years because they've learned to compensate, manipulate and hide things better. A narcissist may use words like respect, love, trust, accountability and responsibility but be unable to define them, explain the context in which they are being used or explain how they would apply in a given situation. These are not the only types of words or phrases they are using wrong or without understanding - it can really be anything, from literary quotes to platitudes to everyday words - but these kinds of things are very commonly on the list.

This lack of common definition creates large problems in any relationship. When someone does not even know what they are asking for, how will they know when they get it? How can they give it to someone else? The answer is that they can't, even if they wanted to do so. This is even more confusing for the person who does not realize this is the problem. They believe that everyone agreed to the same thing. They don't realize that the truth is, there was never any agreement at all because the understanding of the words being used is not the same.

This is not to say narcissists are never deliberately misleading, of course; they absolutely are. But if the victim understood this simple fact, it could possibly save them years of disappointment and pain. The relationship with a narcissist - any relationship, whether it's parent and child, spousal, platonic or any other kind - is like someone who only speaks Spanish getting into a cab where the driver only speaks Japanese and somehow expecting to get where they want to go. It's not going to happen because there is no way to communicate with the other person. It's just going to be a huge hassle that frustrates and upsets both people for no good reason because the situation is impossible from the beginning.

In a very real way, narcissists don't speak the same language as most other people. It sounds the same, but upon careful consideration, what we find is that the words being used don't mean the same thing to both people. This can go on for a long time without being understood; indeed, it may never be understood by either person in the relationship. Both people will end up believing the other has lied to or misled them.

In practical terms, it doesn't really matter whether someone is lying or just doesn't understand. Either way, the situation is unhealthy and isn't going to work out. It's extremely important to remember that in order to protect ourselves, we should not assume that someone feels, experiences or understands things the same way we do. We should not assume that just because someone says the same words we do, they mean the same thing by them because narcissist or not, everyone is different. We want to guard against projecting our feelings, experiences and anything else onto another person. This only leads to misunderstandings and hurt feelings.

If someone says they feel, experience or understand things the same way we do - which is something narcissists often do to create the appearance of intimacy - we should be careful about accepting this at face value. Pay attention to any red flags that demonstrate this is not really the case, because they will be there if it isn't. And, the most simple method of all: ask. Ask people what things mean to them. You may not get the truth if someone is trying to fool you, but you will probably get a red flag. This could be in the form of a non-answer, a vague answer, a cliché answer, a deflection of the question back to you, a refusal to answer, a nonsensical answer that makes no sense... and if you get a red flag when asking someone what things like love and respect mean to them, that is one you probably shouldn't ignore.