Up to 6 percent of adults in the United States may have a narcissistic personality disorder, according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of the American Psychiatric Association, Fifth Edition (DSM-5). Many more people have some traits, but not the full disorder. That’s over 20 million people with a more or less severe pattern of constant criticisms, arrogant statements, preoccupation with themselves, disparaging remarks, and demands for admiration.
Chances are good that you or someone you know may be married to such a narcissist, the child of a narcissist, the parent of a narcissist, a sibling, or a cousin. If so, you know that this not only gets very tiresome, it can also wear down your own self-esteem, be exhausting, and absorb a huge amount of your time without providing any benefit in return. This post offers some tips for coping.
1. Don’t call them a narcissist.
This is always tempting, but it typically backfires and makes things worse. Usually calling someone a narcissist is intended to make them stop and think about the damage they’re doing. But people with narcissistic personality disorder 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 forget about it! You’re not going to give them insight into themselves. And you may actually make your relationship worse.
I know of cases in which an adult child angrily confronted a parent by telling them they had narcissistic personality disorder. After that, the parent kept dropping by their house uninvited to say, “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, 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 the fault is all 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 partners get hooked into arguments over who is the more intelligent person in the relationship. Narcissists continually put 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 shaky feeling of superiority which they have to constantly shore up by putting others down—especially partners. In high-conflict divorces, narcissists fill the courts with their stories of how incompetent their partners were — as parents, financially, morally, and otherwise. Their courtship stories of how wonderful they are and how special they will treat you become the opposite: They put you down to protect their superior self-image as they get a divorce. They couldn’t have failed at marriage, they say, 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. Don't be surprised by this.
3. Do focus on choices, yours and theirs.
People with narcissistic personalities are frequent complainers about their everyday lives. They insist that people treat them unfairly and without the great respect that they are due. They also do not see how their own behavior influences how others avoid them or criticize them in return. If your family member is talking to you in this manner, simply let them know that they have some choices in the situation. For example, “That’s too bad. Sounds like you might want to put your energy somewhere else, or realize that so-and-so isn’t going to give you what you want. You always have a choice of what to do or who to be around. Good luck with that.”
At the same time, it helps to know that you have choices, too. Being around a narcissist can be emotionally draining and trigger unnecessary self-criticism. You can choose to avoid them, limit your time together, or have someone else with you when you are around the person. Just thinking that you have choices often helps it feel less stressful. Also, know that you can choose to set limits.
4. 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, look at how you can change. One of the first places to look is at ways you may tolerate or support their narcissism. In many families, a narcissistic sibling or child slowly takes over by demanding the most attention and loyalty, insulting everyone (even parents), violating the family’s rules, and manipulating its decision-making. You don’t have to cooperate.
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.”
I have seen adult narcissists in court bring parents and siblings to support them in their legal conflicts such as lawsuits against neighbors, exes, former colleagues or 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.
5. 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 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 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.
I have seen many adult children, parents, siblings, and partners gain strength by discussing their situation with a therapist or with friends and deciding on a step-by-step course of action to stop enabling the narcissistic family member. In some cases, they end up cutting 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 when you set limits. Or you can have a practice conversation with a counselor or friend before you have a limit-setting conversation in person.
Millions of people have a narcissist in their family; you’re not alone. These and other tips may help you disengage from the emotional hold they have over you and others. You may be surprised at the energy, free time, and inner peace you gain. It's not easy, but step by step, it may be possible.