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Family Dynamics

How Narcissism Can Lead to Sibling Estrangement

The roots are often in parent-driven childhood rivalry.

Key points

  • Narcissism often is rooted in the original family where children were pitted against each other.
  • Parents may enable narcissistic siblings by excusing bad behavior and insisting that the family stay together at all costs.
  • Ending the sibling relationship is sometimes the only way to stop the cruel and abusive behavior.

Many estranged siblings realize over time that a brother’s or sister’s narcissistic tendencies are the underlying cause of their toxic relationship.

That’s what happened to Karen Martin, 65, a Californian who is estranged from her older brothers. All three are narcissistic, she says; she has a limited relationship with one, none at all with the others. She describes her sibling complexities:

It’s difficult to sustain sibling relationships with three brothers who are narcissistic. They always get upset over trivial things. Underlying every conversation is envy and competition. No matter what subject comes up, they have to be right.

All of them are very bright, and each needs to be better than the other, and each needs extreme approbation. Sometimes it shows up in small ways. I’d ask one brother, “What’s the weather?” He would answer by telling me about meteorological isotopes. He had to show that he’s not inferior. All of them monopolize conversations so they are the center of attention. Life is a game they need to win.

They completely lack empathy. Around others, I feel loved and admired, but around them, I feel unacknowledged. There is no exchange of ideas or validating conversation. I don’t get anything out of these relationships.

They were envious of me because I was the only girl and the youngest, and they felt my parents favored me. But they don’t realize that, as an adult, I’ve really worked on maintaining a fulfilling relationship with my parents. They never did.

None of the brothers talk to each other now, and I don’t talk to two of them. All are toxic.

When I don’t hear from any of them, I’m relieved because I don’t worry about when the next earthquake will hit. Also, I really don’t like the person I become when I’m with the one brother I still talk to. I’m a strong, assertive woman, but around him, I become frightened and tentative, and I succumb to his demands. Sometimes, when he calls and I see his name on my cell phone, I begin to shake. Around him, I lose myself quickly.

Karen’s description identifies many characteristics of narcissistic people:

  • Changing the rules; “moving the goal posts” to benefit themselves.
  • Lacking empathy; never recognizing the needs of others.
  • Consistently being entitled and arrogant.
  • Altering reality to their benefit: defending or rationalizing self-serving behavior; deflecting blame; lying to exaggerate their own achievements.
  • Gaslighting to persuade others that they’re mistaken in their perceptions.
  • “Shape-shifting” to misrepresent personal traits or an entire identity at will.
  • Manipulating others to their advantage.
  • Engaging in cruel behaviors to obtain advantage or just to inflict misery.
  • Triangulating; pitting people against each other.
  • Belittling, invalidating, and ignoring those they consider inferior.
  • Monopolizing conversations; demanding constant attention.
  • Disrespecting boundaries; feeling entitled that they needn’t comply with others’ wishes.
  • Betraying confidence.
  • Launching “campaigns” against others: making themselves look perfect and their sibling look like the “crazy” one.
  • Competing so relentlessly that the jealousy and rivalry between adult siblings leads the non-narcissistic sibling to give up on spending time together.
  • Avoiding responsibility; blaming others; apologizing rarely (if ever).
  • Taking advantage of others with cunning style and charm.

Siblings Who Experience Narcissistic Abuse

Siblings like Karen Martin have had to study narcissism to understand their family dynamics. Many are fluent in the psychological language of narcissism. They speak of the following:

  • “Gray rocking"—a way to interact with a narcissistic person, by being boring and unemotional like a gray rock
  • “Hoovering”—when narcissistic persons suck their victims back into the relationship
  • "Flying monkeys”—other people who act on behalf of a narcissistic person, usually for abusive purposes

Many in narcissistic families complain that as children they were pitted against their siblings. Often, a sibling's narcissistic characteristics and injuries were evident when siblings were young. Typically, narcissistic siblings keep score and feel compelled to outplay a sibling. They often triangulate in the family, playing two against one. Children reared in narcissistic homes rarely feel connected to one another as adults.

As adults, narcissistic siblings believe they’re entitled to more of a parent’s attention or money, although they’re not interested in helping to care for parents. Adult siblings of narcissistic individuals often find themselves in a confusing, twisted reality when a toxic sibling abuses the victim, who, predictably, reacts with anger. The toxic person then responds by accusing the victim of being abusive. It is difficult to sustain any kind of relationship when these patterns are repeated. This places the relationship at great risk for estrangement.

Parents often enable narcissistic siblings by excusing bad behavior and requiring a sibling to be nice to his/her narcissistic brother or sister. The parents may insist that family comes first, even when the relationships are abusive. In some cases, siblings must break away from the entire family to protect themselves from a narcissistic sibling’s damaging behavior.

Those who have experienced narcissistic abuse often struggle with the following:

  • confusion
  • anxiety
  • self-blame
  • self-doubt
  • helplessness
  • rumination
  • grief

How to Handle a Narcissistic Sibling

Narcissistic people rarely make changes. Even in therapy, they may lack the ability to reflect on and recognize their role in a dysfunctional relationship.

Therefore, siblings who are abused by a narcissistic brother or sister should protect themselves by setting solid boundaries. Determine what behaviors you’ll tolerate, communicate your boundaries, and decide on a consequence. If your sibling violates that boundary, enforce the consequence.

If the relationship is violent or so toxic that you are chronically hurt, consider ending contact. Another possibility is a limited relationship in which you effectively manage your exposure and maintain a superficial relationship with the toxic sibling.

Sherrie Campbell, author of Your Pocket Therapist: Quick Hacks for Dealing With Toxic People While Empowering Yourself, advocates ending the abusive person’s ability to continue the behavior: “It’s unhealthy for us to keep taking the abuse. We need to take care of ourselves.”

Facebook image: Nyszczuk Emanuel/Shutterstock


Torgersen, S. Epidemiology. Oldham JM, Skodol AE, Bender DS. The American Psychiatric Publishing Textbook of Personality Disorders. Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Publishing; 2005. 129-141.

Behary, W. T. (2013). Disarming the narcissist: surviving and thriving with the Self-Absorbed. new harbinger publications.

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