We all want to know how to become “immune” to toxic or narcissistic people – the types who lack empathy, have a callous sense of entitlement, and a penchant for exploiting others – and for good reason. A recent study showed that those who were involved with pathological narcissists in their relationships reported greater levels of burden, depression, and anxiety (Day, Bourke, Townsend, & Grenyer, 2019). This magical superpower we can use to ward off people looking to drain and exploit us is highly sought after. If we could prevent ourselves from investing years into a relationship with another manipulator, wouldn’t we all want to become kryptonite?

Yet this “immunity” to narcissists is a bit of a myth. Most of us will encounter predatory people throughout various stages of our lives regardless of how empowered we feel – what will change is how we react to them, what boundaries we set, and our ability to detach more quickly. It’s important that you not blame yourself should you come across a toxic person, as even the experts can be duped.

There are five ways, however, you can make yourself less of an appealing target to narcissists in the initial stages of getting to know them. Although these are not foolproof guarantees that you won’t become entangled with a predator, as anyone with empathy can be targeted, they can certainly provide some important shields and additional safeguards on your journey.

1. Reserve your empathy, “nurturing,” and emotional responsiveness for people who reciprocate and have proven themselves to be emotionally safe.

Many of the survivors of narcissists I have corresponded with are highly empathic, sensitive and compassionate individuals. These are beautiful qualities to have in a relationship with a fellow empathic partner. However, these qualities when used in excess do not bode well when you are with a manipulator, as your empathy will inevitably be used against you.

As Dr. Robert Hare notes in his book, Without Conscience, “Psychopaths have an uncanny ability to spot and use nurturant womenthat is, those who have a powerful need to help or mother others. Many such women are in the helping professionsnursing, social work, counselingand tend to look for the goodness in others while overlooking or minimizing their faults: Hes got his problems but I can help him, or, He had such a rough time as a kid, all he needs is someone to hug him. These women will usually take a lot of abuse in their belief that they can help; they are ripe for being left emotionally, physically, and financially drained.”

If you sense you are with someone abusive, self-absorbed, or manipulative, or someone who treats your woes and joys with complete indifference, save the nurturing for someone who can actually empathize with you and does not respond to your empathy and attempts to help with mistreatment, neglect, punishment, and emotional abandonment. Don’t be a caretaker to toxic individuals; take care of yourself and loved ones who have shown you they can be trusted. Remember, you don’t know how emotionally safe this person is. Until you do know, remain cautious. Resist being too “maternal” or overly emotionally generous (whether you’re a man or a woman) with someone you’ve just met.

2. Make yourself your first priority.

One popularmanipulative technique abusers use is love bombing – flooding you with attention, praise, romantic gestures, adventures, and constant communication with them. They share their experiences freely with you to get you to trust them and reveal your own triggers and traumas; research shows that this escalating personal self-disclosure can actually enhance the sense of intimacy between two people (Aron et al. 1997). This false sense of intimacy can be alluring when you aren’t prioritizing your sense of safety or when you’re looking to fill an emotional void.

Narcissistic partners want to take up a lot of your time in the early stages so they can get you accustomed to depending on them as a source of validation, comfort, and a sense of purpose. They make you a priority during the honeymoon phase so that you can start to make them a center of your world. Once you’re sufficiently invested, they will withdraw and devalue you.

One way to prevent this cycle from even beginning in the first place is to prioritize yourself, your own safety, self-care, and goals. Allocate time very sparingly to strangers and do not spend a lot of your time and energy on someone in the early stages of dating – there is absolutely no rush to reveal your innermost secrets and insecurities to people you have just met. In the early stages of dating or getting to know anyone, slow down the process of physical and emotional intimacy even moreso than you usually do. When you make yourself less available, abusers tend to show their true colors. They will either back off because they realize you’re not an easy target who will give them narcissistic supply (praise, ego-strokes, admiration, sex, or resources), or become enraged that you’re not giving them all of your time and attention. This will also prevent them from being able to take up a space in your life without earning it with organic consistency and integrity over time.

3. Create financial independence and success – and use these wisely.

Although there are also many narcissists and sociopaths who can leech off independent victims, financial independence can help when it comes to your ability to leave a toxic situation promptly and effectively. When you don’t depend on anyone to make money and you use your abundance to take care of yourself and not predators, you will always have the ability to control your own future. This is power, and pathologically envious narcissists are often turned off by it because it means they cannot easily control a victim.

Take time to advance your professional goals, build good credit, have a home of your own and earn an income which fits the lifestyle and freedom you wish to achieve. Avoid giving out loans or being excessively generous with people who take a heightened interest in your income – this means they’re out to use you. You can make it clear you’re independent without offering up your resources. When you have your own mission, goals, dreams, career,and abundance, you don’t have to live in fear of the narcissistic partner taking these away from you or lower your own standards for what you expect out of a relationship just to have someone contribute financially.

4. Demonstrate boundaries and your capacity to leave a toxic situation early on.

If you do decide to disclose anything to a potential dating partner early on, let it be a demonstration of core beliefs, values,and experiences which convey a strong sense of self and boundaries. You don’t have to actively verbalize how strong and powerful you are (narcissists tend to see through this) when you can show someone – you can show them by how you’ve handled situations in the past and by the beliefs you espouse. Without going into great detail, only briefly disclose experiences which hint at you exiting toxic situations with fervor and speed, which vividly capture the fact that you can cut ties without much regret. A stable, healthy and empathic partner will be intrigued by this, while a narcissistic partner will find it repugnant because they know they can’t exploit you for long.

A narcissist will assume that if you are a spiritual and empathic person, for example, that your high sense of morality and conscientiousness would prevent you from leaving them even when they mistreat you. As Dr. George Simon notes in his book In Sheep’s Clothing, manipulative individuals look for conscientious people who are prone to rationalizing an abuser’s behavior or sympathizing with them to the point of making themselves vulnerable to further exploitation. As he says, “You might be the kind of person who is too willing to give a would-be manipulator the benefit of the doubt. When they do something to hurt you, you may be too ready to see their side of things and too willing to blame yourself when they go on the attack and throw you on the defensive.”

Discovering your beliefs and core values are one of the ways a manipulator finds out whether you’re just the type they are looking for. If asked about your “spiritual beliefs” or anything which could help a narcissistic partner assess the level of guilt you might feel at not “forgiving” them or letting “bygones be bygones,” or beliefs about “soulmates,” be sure to qualify your response with appropriate limitations. For example, once when I was asked by a pathological liar whether I believed “we are all connected,” I responded with, “I believe some people are less connected than others.” Needless to say, this highly manipulative individual was not a fan of this response. When you are able to show that your morality and integrity does not prevent you from getting rid of toxic people from your life, you are more likely to be seen as a difficult target.

5. Have a fulfilling life and healthy self-image outside of being in a relationship.

Regardless of your relationship status, you should invest time in creating a beautiful life for yourself which excites you outside of any relationship. This means having support networks, good friends, hobbies, goals, passions, interests,and a career which give you a sense of purpose and meaning that will carry you through life with a renewed sense of curiosity, inspiration, determination,and drive. Having this fulfilling existence and a healthy self-esteem rids you of the need to have a relationship simply for the sake of having a purpose. As clinical psychiatrist Dr. Dale Archer notes, love bombing is ultimately more powerful when we distrust our own value or worth – whether it’s because we haven’t yet healed our wounds or because of circumstances of grief or loss which have left a void. He writes, “On paper, {the folks who are targeted} are attractive, but something makes them doubt their own value. Along comes the love bomber to shower them with affection and attention. The dopamine rush of the new romance is vastly more powerful than it would be if the target had a healthy self-image, because the love bomber fills a need the target cant fill on her own.”

When you cultivate a positive self-image, you are less likely to feel as enamored by someone simply because they flatter and compliment you because you will already be confident in your own skin. You will already be aware of the valuable assets and amazing traits you bring to the table. It is when you are trying to escape from something that you are even more likely to continue to try to get a positive return on a toxic relationship because you feel it is your only source of fulfillment and validation. However, when you have a strong sense of security from within, you can at least have a solid foundation of knowing that you are not the problem should you be mistreated, and that you are in fact worthy of healthy relationships. Such a life liberates you from not chasing toxic people who have proven themselves to be detrimental to your well-being, because once you feel fulfilled on your own, you are less likely to keep people around who do not add to your existing happiness.