How To Cope With A Narcissistic Family Member
Updated October 22, 2021
Medically Reviewed By: Chante’ Gamby, LCSW
The word “narcissist” is often thrown around to describe people who engage in various behaviors - some of which aren’t related to narcissistic personality disorder or NPD.
In reality, although many people may demonstrate certain traits or symptoms affiliated with the condition, it takes more than a couple of symptoms or traits to get a diagnosis. We don’t know the exact number for what percentage of people meet the criteria for narcissistic personality disorder, but statistics indicate that it’s somewhere from 0.5% to 6.2% of the population.
Still, what we can take away from this statistic is that NPD is not uncommon by any means. If you have a family member who lives with NPD, you’re not alone.
Familial relationships are often complicated, but when they start to negatively impact your mental or physical health, self-esteem, and other parts of your life, it can put you in a tough position.
You might wonder if maintaining a loving relationship with this person is even possible. It’s true that many find it too much and make the difficult decision to break off contact, and that’s not always an option or even a preference.
However, some strategies can help you do what you need to do to take care of yourself.
No matter what you choose to do, remember that your priority must be self-care.
First things first: What exactly is Narcissistic Personality Disorder?
Narcissistic Personality Disorder is a personality disorder characterized by an exaggerated sense of self-importance combined with a lack of concern for the feelings of others and an excessive need for admiration from other people. These patterns must be ongoing for a diagnosis of NPD to occur.
Common symptoms include but aren’t limited to:
- A grandiose or inflated sense of self-importance
- The belief that one is “the best of the best,” special, or unique and can only be understood by or affiliated with other people or institutions who they feel are of the same high status
- An excessive need for praise or admiration
- A lack of empathy for other people
- The exploitation of other people
- A sense of entitlement
- Fantasies about success, beauty, and power
- The expectation that others will comply with all their desires without question
- Envy, or accusations of envy in others
- Exaggerations of their skills and accomplishments
They may feel that their way is the right way, nitpick others, and manipulate, shame, blame, or guilt others. But, with all these glorious feelings of superiority comes a deep sense of insecurity that’s often held inside. Many people living with NPD find it difficult to tolerate even the slightest real or perceived criticism. They may react defensively or even angrily if you try to call them out on problematic behaviors. In that scenario, the individual may turn it around or blame it on you. Some people will gaslight others, making you question your sense of reality.
Despite a high sensitivity to criticism of themselves, they may not hesitate to dish out criticism and insults at every opportunity. A person with NPD might put others down to make themselves feel better. Often, this person feels the need to be the most powerful, the most successful, and the most intelligent person in the room. If he senses that anyone else might outshine him, he will make degrading comments to keep that person firmly below him on the totem pole.
Loved ones may struggle with non-stop put-downs and insults, whether those jabs at you and your self-esteem are overt or covert. In time, this treatment, regardless of the cause, can break a person down. Your self-esteem may lower, you may question your intelligence, perception, or ability, and overall, feel stress or strain. You may also start to get nervous about future angry outbursts or setting other people off in any way - even over small, reasonable things, such as a personal need - because you have gotten used to walking on eggshells and receiving this treatment.
How Is NPD Diagnosed?
Narcissistic personality disorder can be diagnosed by a qualified medical or mental health provider such as a psychiatrist. Narcissistic Personality Disorder can be more difficult to diagnose and treat for several reasons. Mainly, it can be tough for someone with NPD to realize that something is wrong. This is why many individuals living with NPD start by seeking help for another concern or condition, whether that’s a comorbid or co-occurring condition, trouble in interpersonal relationships, or something else.
That said, someone who lives with a narcissistic personality disorder may, in some cases, acknowledge their symptoms and behavior and seek help. Treatment for NPD is indeed available, and while it’s not necessarily a direct “cure,” proper care can help someone with NPD manage their symptoms. Individual psychotherapy is a commonly used treatment, but family therapy can also be beneficial.
What if your family member doesn’t seek help? There are some things you can do.
What To Do If A Loved One Is Unwilling To Seek Help
If a relationship of any kind, including a familial relationship, impacts you negatively, it’s important to put yourself first.
Often, that is easier said than done. If the narcissist is a parent, you may feel guilty about putting your needs ahead of theirs. If it is your child, you may feel as though you have failed. If it’s a spouse or partner, you may feel that this is the price to pay for keeping them in your life.
It’s important to acknowledge that it’s common for someone to play on these emotions, using your feelings of guilt to their advantage. If this person has a pattern of manipulative behavior, they likely know all the right buttons to push. And, if they lack empathy, they may not feel any regard for how these behaviors are hurting you.
That said, it is possible to find peace in your life again, especially with strong boundaries, self-care, and support.
Any one of these strategies, or some combination of them, can help you cope and build parameters for interactions with your family member:
- Limit your contact
- Set boundaries related to specific behaviors
- Cut off contact entirely
Let’s take a good look at the pros and cons of each.
Limit Your Contact
If you take this route, you must be clear and up-front with a family member to break off contact if certain behaviors occur. Even more, you will have to stick to the boundary once you assert it.
Decide on how often you want to see this person (once a week, once a month, etc.), and then set parameters for that interaction.
For example, you might say: “I want to spend time with you on the 1st, and I am excited to do that. In advance, I want to let you know that if you make any insulting remarks about my parenting skills, I will not be able to be in the same room with you. My children and I will leave immediately.” Or, “If you come to my house, I need you to avoid making comments about its neatness or cleanliness. Otherwise, I will have to ask you to leave.” You might even set explicit boundaries about when, where, and within what contexts you’ll see this person. Maybe, you’ll only spend time with them when your spouse or other family members are present - not when you’re alone. You can modify this based on what you can stick to and what is most helpful for you.
This strategy addresses any potential problems before they arise. It also sets clear boundaries so that they know what you expect.
Also, some people who show symptoms of NPD don’t like it when their behavior can be predicted or controlled. When you tell them ahead of time what you expect them to say or do, they will be motivated to do the opposite and surprise you.
The key to this strategy is to use specific language and stick to what you say. Define the exact behaviors that you dislike and communicate the precise way in which you plan to respond.
This ensures that there is no misunderstanding. Then, follow through. If you say that you’ll leave, leave.
Set Boundaries Related To Specific Behaviors
There are times when people living with NPD have a hard time with or don’t have a sense of boundaries. This person might know how to manipulate people and situations to meet their needs. Over time, family members become accustomed to enabling individuals with these traits, simply giving them what they want to keep the peace. But, you don’t have to take part in this. You can make it clear that you will not put up with certain behaviors.
Some examples? A person might demand special treatment (maybe, they demand free items or a lower price and talk down to those in service positions), or they may yell at you and ask you to back them up when they enter an altercation with someone or something else.
You can say, “If you’re going to keep speaking to me that way, then we’re done with this conversation,” “If you raise your voice at the cashier, I will leave,” or “I’m not going to go with you to talk to the landlord because I don’t have a problem with him.”
Make no mistake. Your loved one may attempt to push the issue and pressure you to jump back on their manipulation train. Don’t allow them to push your buttons. Repeat your position in the same words calmly and firmly, and do not go back on what you said.
Cut Off Contact
There are some situations where this is the best option to preserve your emotional and psychological wellbeing. If you have kids or if other loved ones are involved, it may also be the case that you’d like to protect them from undergoing the treatment you have.
Often, this comes after trial and error. Despite your best efforts, you may find that the drain on your mental health is not worth it anymore. If this happens, there is no shame in cutting off ties for the sake of your self-care.
Of course, while this is the best decision in many cases, it’s not easy.
Here are some tips to help you through the adjustment:
- Go cold turkey. Sometimes, if you don’t go cold turkey, the person will try to work their way back in.
- Know that they will disrespect your boundaries. If this person cannot understand or respect boundaries, it’s up to you to keep those boundaries in place. Be prepared for your family member to call you constantly or even show up at your home until they figure out that you mean business. This may take time, and it can be emotionally tumultuous. Don’t be afraid to ask for help from other people, whether that’s emotionally or tangibly.
- Don’t argue. This person may try to play the victim and you as the betrayer no matter what you say. Arguing will only make you feel drained and possibly, question your sense of reality yet again. Keep hard boundaries and do not engage.
- Take care of yourself. Reach out to trusted friends for support during this difficult time. Therapy for yourself, either in person or online, may help you to work through your emotions. Be gentle with yourself and realize that it may take time to heal from what you’ve been through.
Most of all, don’t give up hope. With firmness and plenty of self-care, you can find your way to the other side of the pain, start to trust yourself again, and maintain peace of mind.
Find A Therapist
Are you ready to find a therapist or counselor? There are several ways to start your search. You can find someone near you by searching the web, asking your primary care doctor for a referral, or, if applicable, seeing who your insurance company covers. You can also sign up for an online therapy platform like ReGain with licensed, experienced providers. ReGain offers both individual and couples counseling, making it easier and faster to start the therapeutic process. You deserve to find the right fit, so no matter how you find a therapist, don’t hesitate to start your search today.
Click here to learn more about ReGain, or read the reviews below to learn more about the providers on the platform.
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