Life, Interrupted: Dealing with a Narcissistic Family Member

dealing with a narcissist is like playing chess

Diet Narcissists have become the comic relief figures of pop culture.

No, not Narcissists obsessed with dieting. I mean the lightweights. The ones people call Narcissists when what they really mean is that they’re laughably vain.

For example, in Mean Girls, Regina George asks, “Why are you so obsessed with me?” and everyone laughs, but she’s become a better person by the end of the film. Blanche Devereaux’s vanity is often used as an amusing plot device on The Golden Girls, yet her devotion to her friends and family always shines through. And who can forget the Designing Women episode where former beauty queen Suzanne Sugarbaker receives an award for “most changed,” acknowledges that it was intended as a dig due to her weight gain, and then states she will cherish the award because she is a changed woman at heart?

But in the real world, dealing with a Narcissist — a real Narcissist — is hardly a barrel of laughs.

It’s exhausting and heartbreaking and isolating.

living with a narcissist makes you feel isolated

So how do we navigate the treacherous waters of dealing with a Narcissist? What is a Narcissist, anyway?

According to the Mayo Clinic, those with Narcissistic Personality Disorder:

  • Have an exaggerated sense of self-importance
  • Have a sense of entitlement and require constant, excessive admiration
  • Expect to be recognized as superior even without achievements that warrant it
  • Exaggerate achievements and talents
  • Be preoccupied with fantasies about success, power, brilliance, beauty or the perfect mate
  • Believe they are superior and can only associate with equally special people
  • Monopolize conversations and belittle or look down on people they perceive as inferior
  • Expect special favors and unquestioning compliance with their expectations
  • Take advantage of others to get what they want
  • Have an inability or unwillingness to recognize the needs and feelings of others
  • Be envious of others and believe others envy them
  • Behave in an arrogant or haughty manner, coming across as conceited, boastful and pretentious
  • Insist on having the best of everything — for instance, the best car or office

When the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (known as the DSM-5) eliminated Narcissistic Personality Disorder in 2013, it did so in the face of heavy criticism. World-renowned Harvard psychiatrist Dr. John Gunderson called the decision “unenlightened” and claimed, “They have little appreciation for the damage they could be doing.”

I’ll come right out and say it: if you’ve stumbled upon this blog desperately trying to find a way to deal with a volatile family member, I’m sorry for what you’re going through. And I will not apologize for being sorry. Sometimes I think we focus so much on wanting to help people who have mental illnesses — as well we should in many cases — that we discount the painful fact that not everyone who has a mental illness wants help.

Some people enjoy being able to inflict pain on others only to fall back on the feel-sorry-for-me-I’m-sick routine when it suits them. That’s the kind of person I’m talking about here. Not someone who may lash out and later feel horrified by it. Not someone who realizes they have a problem and seeks help.

I’m sorry to those of you who feel like you’ve been silenced by polite society’s overwhelming desire to coddle — or make excuses for — Narcissists instead of helping people who’ve been hurt by them.

what to do when you have a narcissistic family member

Now that we have the textbook definition of what we’re dealing with, we can delve into how to actually, you know, deal. The first step is understanding what makes them tick.

A vitally important thing to remember about dealing with Narcissists is that they are extremely predictable. When a certain set of behaviors earns them the drama and attention they crave with minimal (or zero) repercussions, they will repeat said behaviors over and over and over ad nauseum.

Why? In addition to never having to face the consequences of their actions, a Narcissist will repeat their behaviors because they have no emotional empathy, which is not the same as lacking intellectual empathy. Intellectual empathy allows them to be aware of the pain they cause others, but emotional empathy allows them to feel the pain they’ve inflicted. A Narcissist can’t do that, and because they tend to view others as inferior, the intellectual knowledge that they’ve hurt someone has no more emotional impact than knocking a pawn from a chessboard. If they feel anything at all, it is a smug sense of superiority.

Additionally, Narcissists are incapable of whole object relations (the ability to see others in a whole and realistic way, possessing both positive and negative qualities) and object constancy (the ability to maintain a positive emotional connection to someone during times of stress). Once you’ve done something to cross a Narcissist, they don’t think about the good times you’ve shared. They don’t think about the number of times you’ve been there for them. From that moment on, you are worthless to them and always have been. It’s a very Orwellian mindset, one from which the Narcissist never wavers: Oceania was at war with Eastasia: Oceania had always been at war with Eastasia.

One of the most traumatic aspects of dealing with a Narcissist is that someone who claims to love you will abuse you. To make matters worse, it can lend to more stress when family members disagree on how best to handle the situation. The increased tension and family in-fighting act as icing on the drama-cake for the Narcissist: “Look at them dance! I’m so smart! I’m like a puppet master, and they’re too stupid to realize this is exactly what I want!”

Granted, not all Narcissists take abuse to such extremes that it causes rifts between family members. Some will sing your praises to a group of mutual friends one minute only to talk about you behind your back the next. It’s annoying and possibly harmful to your social life, but the vast majority of people are quick to realize that when a certain individual has a slew of flash-in-the-pan friendships and always ends up wailing about how they’ve all “bled her dry,” she is the problem, not you. After all, Narcissists are consistent in giving off signs that they are Narcissists.

You’ll spot the signs even in the earliest stages of a Narcissist’s abuse pattern. It may begin as “constructive criticism” along the lines of, “I don’t mean this to sound hurtful, but your thighs look big in those jeans. I just don’t want you to be embarrassed!”

Telling a Narcissist you find their words hurtful sparks anger, not sympathy. When you disagree with their criticism, you’re disagreeing with them, and they can’t handle being wrong.

coping with a narcissist

This is often what starts massive blow-outs in which a Narcissist rehashes every time they feel you’ve wronged them. Every Narcissist has their own hot button topic (or topics). In monogamous couples, there may be a fixation on fictitious infidelity, “you cheated on me; I know you did!” Every single argument they have, no matter what triggers it, will involve the accusation of cheating.

If your Narcissist is a relative, it may be something like the ‘misuse’ of their possessions. One individual had a cleaning rag soaked in dog urine thrown directly at their face while a Narcissistic relative accused them of ruining their ‘good towels,’ screeching, “How could you do this to me?!” Over a cleaning rag. But that cleaning rag has more value than a human being in the Narcissist’s eyes. That rag is theirs and is therefore an extension of their perfection.

Another individual has been accused numerous times of stealing everything from a rosary to tens of thousands of dollars. As is so often the case — because Narcissists love to accuse those around them of committing infractions they, themselves, are guilty of committing — the Narcissist is the one guilty of stealing from their wrongfully accused relative on more than one occasion.

Yet another has been physically assaulted more than once while the Narcissist tells anyone and everyone who will listen that their partner is the one who is the abuser.

However it happens, whether it turns physical or remains emotional, the abuse is ugly and circular with no resolution in sight because the Narcissist will never admit to being wrong.

Gaslighting (a term that comes from the film Gaslight, in which a man seeks to convince his wife she’s gone crazy) often plays a major role in Narcissistic abuse. A Narcissist will repeatedly deny their own words and actions so vehemently, often insisting that a third party agrees with the Narcissist to further validate their claim to rightness, that you may find yourself asking, “Did I really make that up? Am I exaggerating what happened because I’m so upset? Am I going crazy?”

This is their aim. To elevate themselves, Narcissists have to devalue those around them.

So what do you do about it? And why is it so damn hard to just cut ties with someone who hurts you so badly?

Because, according to Dr. Elinor Greenberg, you’ve “trauma bonded” to your Narcissist. We, as humans, are genetically hardwired to form emotional attachments to those around us. In times of stress, we instinctively reach out to those closest to us in order to feel safe again. Problems arise when those around us abuse us. We’ve bonded to them, and each time they hurt us, our intrinsic need to reach out only serves to strengthen the bond.

As Dr. Greenberg says, “Unless you walk out immediately and never look back, you are well on your way to becoming this person’s psychic prisoner.” Once that happens, “…you refuse to see the obvious: This person never loved you, cannot love anyone, and they are too Narcissistic to care how you feel or how much damage they do to your life.”

Once you begin to withdraw, the Narcissist will try to reel you back in. Not because they truly love you, not because they miss you as a person, but because they hate to lose control of those around them. It may be subtle at first, such as liking your posts on Instagram or calling “just to see how you’re doing,” but if they don’t immediately get what they want, the “Love Bombing” begins.

how to deal with a narcissist

They’ll make promises they don’t intend to keep, such as, “I can’t live without my sister in my life. We fight sometimes, but doesn’t everyone? We’ll just leave it in the past.”

But a Narcissist can’t leave things in the past. No matter how much they make you feel loved and wanted, the criticisms will start again. Then the fighting and the gaslighting and the blaming. The cycle will continue because the constant push-pull is the closest approximation to a real relationship a Narcissist is capable of having.

Greenberg uses the example of an animal psychologist working on her dog, a German Shepherd who constantly bit people. The psychologist punched the dog in the head several times, praising her each time by saying ‘good doggy, good doggy.’ He explained, “The punch was to stop her from biting me and to make her think. The ‘good doggy, good doggy’ was to reward her for not biting me.”

The dog never bit anyone again.

This is how Narcissists condition those around them. They follow abuse with presents and promises. In return, we learn to stop standing up for ourselves.

We learn to stop biting.

Of Narcissists, Dr. Dan Neuharth writes: “They seek to be fed; nothing is more important. This drive is so powerful that Narcissists will betray those closest to them when it suits them. This is what you are up against.”

All of this sounds awful, so what should do when dealing with Narcissists? According to Dr. Neuharth, sometimes it’s more about what you shouldn’t do, so he created a list of eleven don’ts when it comes to dealing with a Narcissist, which I’ve summarized here:

1.) Don’t take them at face value. Image is everything to a Narcissist. What you see is not what you’ll get.

2.) Don’t over-share personal information. Talking to a Narcissist is like being interrogated by the police; the things you say can and will be used against you. No matter how trivial a detail may seem, they will use it to humiliate and manipulate you.

3.) Don’t feel a need to justify your thoughts, feelings, or actions. “No JADE,” Neuharth says. This stands for Justifying, Arguing, Defending, and Explaining. Narcissists love to gaslight and make you second-guess everything. Don’t fall for their trap.

4.) Don’t minimize their dysfunctional behavior. Narcissists tend to wear people down over time. Don’t become numb to their antics or convince yourself their manipulating and humiliating of you or other is normal or that it should be written off as “you know how she gets.”

5.) Don’t expect them to take responsibility. Narcissists truly believe they have a higher status and more rights than others. They “take credit and give blame.”

6.) Don’t assume they share your values and worldview. “Narcissists view others as sources of gratification, not as equals,” says Neuharth. Expecting to share in the spotlight or have your own accomplishments acknowledged is setting yourself up for disappointment.

7.) Don’t try to beat them at their own game. They’re better at it than we are because they’ve dedicated their entire lives to the pursuit of self-gratification. Trying to beat a Narcissist at their own game is like trying to squash the mosquito on your cheek. Maybe you’ll hit it, but you will certainly smack yourself silly trying.

8.) Don’t take their actions personally. A Narcissist will abuse anyone unfortunate enough to catch their attention. Being the target of their abuse can make you feel isolated. Sometimes you even wonder if you deserve to be treated this way. Maybe it’s something you did? No. It’s not personal at all. It’s just who they are.

9.) Don’t expect empathy or fairness. Because empathy and fairness require the inherent belief that we are all worthy, Narcissists are incapable of expressing either. Respect yourself; you’ll be waiting until the end of the world if you expect even a modicum of acknowledgement from a Narcissist.

10.) Don’t expect them to change. To quote Neuharth directly, “Narcissists view others as either threats or potential victims and are trapped in an endless quest for attention and approval. To hope that they will change is a setup.”

11.) Don’t underestimate the power of Narcissism. Narcissists are like addicts. Their lives are dedicated to an endless cycle of seeking attention and approval. How their behaviors affect others isn’t a factor. Other people aren’t a factor unless they’re currently serving as a source of praise or a target of hatred.

So what’s the best course of action? How do you deal with a Narcissist? If you can’t physically distance yourself from them for whatever reason, remember Dr. Neuharth’s guidelines and protect yourself at all costs.

But if you have the means to cut ties with them completely, do it. You can sympathize with a Narcissist for their inability to have love without sacrificing your mental health. Putting your own interests before those of a Narcissist isn’t Narcissism; it’s survival.

Disclaimer: Only a doctor or a mental health professional can officially diagnose a mental illness. However, there are observable symptoms that can be used as indicators of personality disorders. I am neither a doctor nor a mental health professional, but in addition to studying psychology at university, I have thoroughly researched the topic of personality disorders. I have also consulted with medical professionals prior to the publication of this post.

3 Comments

  1. It’s also important to remember that the families of people suffering with mental illness need support of their own. It’s not easy watching the people you love struggle with any sort of mental illness.

    1. Definitely! There are support groups for the families of alcoholics and addicts. There should be support groups for people with mentally ill family members, but this would have been a 100,000 word post if I’d launched into a diatribe on lacking mental health support.

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