How To Cope With A Narcissistic Family Member
Updated December 01, 2019
Reviewer Chante’ Gamby, LCSW
The word "narcissist" is often thrown around to describe difficult personalities.
But in reality, although many people may demonstrate certain narcissistic qualities or behaviors, only about 6% of the population has full-on Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD).
Still, 6% translates to about 20 million overall. This statistic means that there is a pretty high probability that you might have a narcissistic parent, child, sibling, or spouse. It also means that you are not alone.
Life with a narcissistic family member can be a long, tiring journey. You may constantly feel drained, trying to placate your loved one. Your efforts to make him or her happy seem only to make things worse. And your feelings of self-worth can take a beating.
You might wonder if maintaining a loving relationship with a narcissist is even possible. it's true that many find it too much and end up making the difficult decision to break off contact.
However, there are some strategies that can help you keep your sanity intact when dealing with a narcissist.
No matter which method you choose, remember that your priority must be self-care.
First things first. What exactly is Narcissistic Personality Disorder anyway?
Things You Need To Know About NPD
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.
Common symptoms include:
- The feeling that one is entitled to constant attention and admiration, as well as special favors
- 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
- Constant exaggerations of their skills and accomplishments
But with all these grandiose feelings of superiority comes a deep sense of insecurity.
A person with NPD is unable to tolerate even the slightest criticism. He will react defensively, or even angrily if you try to call him out on problematic behaviors.
At the same time, they may not hesitate to dish out criticism and insults at every opportunity. A person with NPD shows a constant need to 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. However, if they dare to insult or criticize the narcissist, they will face terrible anger.
Why Narcissists Are So Hard To Deal With
With almost any other disorder, counselling and medication can help the person identify problem behaviors and work on them. Mental illnesses like anxiety and depression are relatively easy to treat once the person recognizes that she has a problem, however Narcissistic Personality Disorder can be more difficult to treat for several reasons.
The very nature of this disorder makes it almost impossible for the narcissist to recognize or admit that anything is wrong.
By definition, a narcissist believes that anything negative in his life is someone else's fault, not his. He blames others and makes himself the victim. This makes it extremely difficult to get treatment.
In some cases, the narcissist may be able to acknowledge that she has a disorder and to seek help. This is rare, but it does happen. If so, you can offer to attend therapy together. Cognitive Behavior Therapy is effective in moderating some of the behaviors.
Unfortunately, although it can be treated, there is no cure for NPD. The best that you can hope for is that your narcissist will learn to manage his symptoms so that they don't wreak havoc on his work and his relationships.
The only thing you have any power to change are your reactions to the narcissist's behaviors.
For that reason, when dealing with a narcissist, the best approach is to focus on yourself rather than him.
Often, that is easier said than done. If the narcissist is a parent, you may feel guilty about putting your needs ahead of his. 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 her in your life.
A narcissist will do all he can to play on these emotions. They are master manipulators and know all the right buttons to push. And because they lack empathy, they may not feel any regard for how these behaviors are hurting you.
But it is possible to find peace in your life again.
Here is everything you need to do about dealing with a narcissistic family member.
Any one of these strategies, or some combination of them, can help you cope with a narcissistic family member.
- Limit your contact
- Limit certain behaviors, OR
- Cut off contact entirely
Let's take a good look at the pros and cons of each.
Limit Your Contact
Be clear and up-front with a narcissistic family member that you will break off contact if certain behaviors occur.
For example, you might say: "I want to spend time with you, but if you make any insulting remarks about my parenting skills, I will not be able to be in the same room with you. So it's really up to you."
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."
This strategy addresses any potential problems before they arise. It also sets clear boundaries so that he or she knows what you expect.
Also, narcissists 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 be very specific in your language. 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.
Set Limits On Certain Kinds Of Behavior
Narcissists don't have a sense of boundaries. They know how to manipulate people and situations to meet their needs. Over time, family members become accustomed to enabling narcissists, 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.
You can say, "If you're going to keep speaking to me that way, then we're done with this conversation."
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 will attempt to push the issue and to pressure you to jump back on their manipulation train. But don't allow them to push your buttons. Simply repeat your position in the same words, calmly and firmly. Whatever you do, don't argue, and don't call her out as a narcissist. She cannot handle any criticism, and this will only make things worse.
Cut Off Contact
Some would say that this is the only effective way to deal with a narcissist.
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 keep your sanity when breaking off ties with a narcissist.
- Go cold turkey. Narcissists get a "high" from belittling and hurting those closest to them, and it becomes an addiction. The only way to break this addiction is by immediately removing their supply. Don't drag it out with a lingering and emotional goodbye.
- Know that they will disrespect your boundaries. By nature, narcissists are unable to understand or respect boundaries, so it's up to you to keep those boundaries in place. Be prepared for your family member to call you constantly or even to show up at your home until he figures out that you mean business.
- Don't argue. No matter what you say, your narcissist will always view herself as the victim and you as the betrayer. Arguing will only make you feel drained, and won't persuade the narcissist to your point-of-view.
- 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 years to heal from the pain that your loved one has caused you.
Most of all, don't give up hope. With a lot of firmness and plenty of self-care, you can find your way to the other side of the pain caused by a narcissistic family member. And you deserve that peace of mind.