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©2019 Bill Eddy, LCSW, Esq.
According to the DSM-5 manual of mental disorders, up to 6% of the adult population in the United States may have a narcissistic personality disorder. That’s about 20 million people. Chances are good that you or someone you know may be married to a narcissist, the son or daughter of a narcissist, the parent of a narcissist, or a sibling or a cousin. If so, you know that it can be very hard to cope with their constant criticisms, arrogant statements, preoccupation with themselves, disparaging remarks, and demands for admiration. Not only does this get tiresome, it can also wear down your own self-esteem, be exhausting, and absorb a huge amount of your time with nothing received in return. This article gives some suggestions for how you can deal with them without getting stuck in the mud or disliking yourself.
1. Don’t call them a narcissist.
This is always tempting, but backfires and makes things worse. Usually calling them a narcissist is designed to make them stop and think about the damage they’re doing. But for people with narcissistic personality disorder, they can’t reflect on their own behavior and instead become obsessed with proving that you are the one with a problem! And they are better at doing that than you can ever be. It’s really true that they do not self-reflect and gain insights from people’s feedback, no matter how constructive or intense it may be. Just forgetaboudit! You’re not going to give them insight into themselves. And you may actually make your relationship worse.
For example, I know of cases in which an adult children angrily confronted one of their parents by telling them they had a narcissistic personality disorder. After that, the parent kept dropping by their house uninvited to prove “What you said about me just isn’t true. Now apologize to me or I’ll keep coming back until you do. After all I’ve done for you, I can’t believe how ungrateful you are!”
2. Don’t argue with them.
For the same reason that you shouldn’t call them a narcissist, it doesn’t help to argue with them. They’re not going to have insights from your feedback. And you don’t need to defend yourself, because it isn’t about you. It’s really about them and their personality and lack of interpersonal skills. They tend to see things in all-or-nothing terms, so that they see all the fault as yours and all the victimhood as theirs. You can’t change that. They constantly see themselves as victims-in-life, treated so unfairly by those around them, without any recognition of their own part in the problem—which may actually be the primary part of the problem. Arguing just puts them in the emotional parts of their brains where they shift into high gear of defensiveness.
For example, some romantic partners get hooked into arguments over who is the most stupid person in the relationship. Narcissists are continually putting out subtle and blatant messages that their partners are less intelligent than them. Observations and criticisms, that just don’t stop. They have to feel superior to feel okay. And even then, it’s a very shakey feeling of superiority, which they have to constantly shore up by putting others down—especially their partners. In high-conflict divorces, narcissists fill the courts with their stories of how incompetent their partners are: as parents, financially, morally and otherwise. Their stories of how wonderful they are and how special they would treat you becomes the opposite, as they use putting you down to protect their superior self-image as they get a divorce. They couldn’t have failed at marriage, so it must be all your fault! And the world (and the children) need to know that, they say. They’re just telling the truth, they insist.
3. Do set limits on what you will do for them.
While you can’t control a narcissist’s behavior, you can control your own. Instead of trying to get them to change their behavior, look at how you can change yours. One of the first places is to look at ways you may tolerate or support their narcissism. In many families, a narcissistic sibling or child slowly takes over the family, by demanding the most attention, demanding loyalty, insulting everyone (even their parents), violating the family’s rules and manipulating the families’ decision-making. You don’t have to cooperate with this.
You can withdraw your participation in their actions against others, or even behavior toward yourself. “If you’re going to speak to me that way, I’m going to have to end this conversation.” “I’m sorry, but I can’t go with you when you confront our neighbor. I don’t agree that they have done anything wrong.”
For example, I have seen adult narcissists in court bring their parents and their siblings to support them in their legal conflicts with others, such as lawsuits against their neighbors, ex-spouses, former professionals, former employers, etc. The parents and siblings often appear worn out after a lifetime reluctantly coping with and trying to support their narcissistic family member; trying to placate them so they will calm down or not be angry with them. The trouble is that this has no positive outcome. It’s better to set limits sooner rather than later.
4. Do get support and consultation.
Often people feel alone when dealing with a narcissistic family member. Your own self-esteem may be worn down, after all the insults, criticisms, and public humiliation. Yet with support from friends and/or professionals—such as counselors, lawyers and others—you can get perspective and learn that you don’t have to be embarrassed. There are millions of narcissists in the world and they are good at making their family members feel like they have a unique problem, so that they are too ashamed to deal with it by speaking to others outside of the family. You have nothing to be ashamed of. Your family member may be suffering from a disorder they don’t understand and didn’t ask to have. Tolerating their dysfunction does no one any good.
For example, I have seen many adult children, parents, siblings, and romantic partners gain strength by discussing their situation with a therapist or friends and deciding on a step-by-step course of action to stop enabling their narcissistic family member. In some cases, they end up cutting their ties, but in many others they learn to get some distance emotionally so that they no longer feel obligated to engage with their narcissism while still staying connected as a family.
As they say in Alanon: “Let go with love.” This doesn’t have to mean having no contact. It can mean letting go of certain interactions, discussing certain topics, or having certain conversations at all. You can say: “I need to go now. Talk to you later.” And quickly move on. Over time it gets easier. Sometimes writing out what you are going to say in advance can give you confidence, including how you will respond to their predictable disparaging comments. Or you can have a practice conversation with a counselor or friend before you have a setting limits conversation in person.
In short, millions of people have a narcissist in their family. You’re not alone. These and many other tips may help you disengage from the hold they may have over you and many others. You may be surprised at the emotional energy, free time, and inner peace that you can gain.
BILL EDDY, LCSW, ESQ. is the co-founder and Chief Innovation Officer of the High Conflict Institute in San Diego, California. He pioneered the High Conflict Personality Theory (HCP) and is viewed globally as the leading expert on managing disputes involving people with high conflict personalities. He has written more than twenty books on the topic and has taught professionals in the U.S. and more than ten countries.