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How to Navigate Narcissism In Your Family

Relationships, Coping Skills, Family, Therapist Guide
6 min read

You’ve probably read or come across articles titled: “Am I dating a Narcissist?”   You may have even had this experience yourself.  In this example you would learn how to navigate or potentially leave the partnership.  But what happens when the person with narcissistic traits is a family member? 

Those relationships between parents, siblings or extended family members can often be more complex and challenging to navigate. 

Here are some traits to notice and tools that will help you set boundaries, take care of yourself and practice self-advocacy while acknowledging & recognizing the toll these relationships can have on you: 

What does Narcissistic Personality Disorder look like?

It's first helpful to identify what Narcissistic Personality Disorder is and key traits to look for:

  • NPD is a mental condition in which people have an inflated sense of their own importance (grandiosity), a deep need for attention and admiration, have troubled relationships, and lack empathy for others. 
  • They will displace blame onto others where they identify as the victim; they rarely take ownership or accountability of wrongdoing and view relationships as largely transactional. 
  • They experience emotions like shame, vulnerability, and insecurity, but these feelings are intolerable so they will often project these feelings on to others.  These projections mask, defend, and compensate for their own fragile psyche and sense of self. 

If you grew up in a home with a narcissistic parent or sibling, then you may have witnessed these traits firsthand.  These experiences can shape and impact you into adulthood.  Children or siblings who have narcissistic family members may notice the following in their adult lives:

         -You shy away or avoid conflict and confrontation in your adult relationships.

         -You’re overly tolerant of the abuse by a narcissistic family member that you would not tolerate in other relationships.

         -You find it’s hard to trust others or notice you have “love/hate” relationships that feel stressful or exhausting.

        - You notice people-pleasing behavior while organizing around the needs of others; You are the “helper” in your adult relationships.

         -You feel like the “scapegoat” in the family.

Tools to Navigate Your Relationship with A Narcissist 

Here are some helpful tools and tips to best help you navigate a relationship with a Narcissistic parent or sibling:

  • Refrain from calling them a Narcissist- This may be tempting and in moments of frustration feel warranted, but it is usually ineffective.  They are often unable to reflect on their own behavior and this will typically escalate the situation.
  • Don’t get caught in the “power play”- This can be very challenging as you may have found yourself caught in this cycle. In arguments, they tend to see things in black-and-white and have need to be right, feel superior, or win.  You won’t change this.  Keep in mind, this is less about you and more about them.  You don’t have to constantly defend yourself or your actions!  Instead, focus on the choices that each of you have made or are making and express desire for an outcome.  This may sound like, “We’ll probably continue to go back-and-forth or disagree, but I’d like to come to a resolution.” Or “Although I don’t see things the same way, what feels like a mutual outcome?”
  • When faced with conflict, prepare to negotiate with intention- You may be in contentious situations with a family member where you feel exasperated and at a stalemate.  These tips can help you navigate the most challenging circumstances:

-List your triggers with this family member and prepare your responses.  This will keep you on track and avoid escalation.

-Be clear about what you would like to achieve together.

-Stay emotionally regulated.  Practice taking emotion out of your responses, so you don’t become activated.  

-Be concise, clear and to the point.  Again, don’t get caught up in justifying or defending yourself. 

-List things they might say to undermine you or get under your skin.

-Set a specific time and timeframe to discuss issues.  This also allows you to prepare in healthy ways and get in the proper mind frame.

  • Have firm boundaries and self-advocate- This is where you practice effective communication skills. Ex: “I don’t want to be spoken to that way and I will not continue to engage in the conversation.” “I’m making the choice to walk away and take care of myself.”  You can also limit the amount of time you will spend with your family members, have an exit strategy, and be firm with topics you are open to discuss while practicing “I” statements.  You can also set limits on what you are willing to do for them and not “cosign” their actions.
  • Practice self-care with a focus on self-esteem and self-worth- Years of verbal and emotional abuse by a sibling or parents can be damaging.  Surround yourself with people who value and support you.  Know that you are worthy of healthy relationships and love. 
  • Consider support groups or therapy- These options are an opportunity to focus on you.  This is a space where you can explore, grow, and heal from toxic family relationships while continuing to learn new tools and skills that improve your emotional and mental health. 

About the author: Rodman Walsh is a California based Therapist whose specialities cover relationship issues, personality disorders, general anxiety, and more. Click here to read more content from Rodman and schedule a free introductory call.