5 Tips for Dealing With Narcissistic Siblings
When you have to be involved in their lives.
Posted Aug 16, 2020
When we’re confronted with narcissists, often the best option is to remove ourselves—especially when you’re subjected to their bullying behaviour. What if you’re not in a position to do so?
With tears running down her face, my client, Sandra, recalled the recent situation she had found herself in with two of her siblings who displayed high narcissistic traits. Sandra had, almost 20 years earlier, distanced herself from most of her siblings (she was one of six) due to the extremely toxic nature of her family. In true narcissistic family nature, Sandra’s family was built on deception, where emotional abuse was written out of the family story and where siblings were played off against each other depending on which parental "clique" they were in at the time.
Sandra had worked hard to put into place very clear boundaries between herself and her siblings, which involved having no contact with three of them. Sandra’s mother had recently become ill and hospitalised and, for practical reasons, Sandra now had to be involved with her siblings. She needed to sign off any legal decisions and deal with aspects of her mother’s care.
“Things were going OK,” she told me, “until it came to an issue with my mother’s consultant. My brother and sister wanted me to send an email because I was power of attorney. I explained in detail why I wasn’t comfortable doing so to my brother. Next thing, he and my sister decided that she would draft an email and I should send it. Neither of them had any respect for my opinion and basically went behind my back and bullied me into doing something I didn’t agree with. I know what the two of them are like—I’ve had it a lifetime—so disagreeing would have led to a terrible, nasty situation. Which I just can’t handle just now."
Despite trying hard to avoid it, Sandra was immediately drawn back into toxic family dynamics, including bullying, game playing, and a complete lack of respect for her boundaries. Sandra felt she had two options given the situation. One was to fight her corner and unleash years of nastiness in her siblings, particularly her brother—which she knew would come her way given their past behaviour—and the other was to give into them, to avoid creating a situation. “I feel horrible about how I’ve acted,” she told me. “I know I was bullied and disrespected, but honestly, with Mum so ill, it’s easier to placate them."
What we would hope for, when we’re confronted by siblings who use narcissistic tactics of bullying, gaslighting, criticising and boundary violation is that we would be able to take whatever choice of action feels right—such as standing up to them or cutting them out of our life. But there are situations, like Sandra’s, which are far more complex. Through no fault of your own, you find yourself having little choice but to deal with your toxic family and sometimes the safer, easier route is to avoid confrontation.
How can you stay involved with a narcissistic sibling and keep yourself safe?
Think about what you’re trying to achieve
I asked Sandra if she regretted giving into her brother and sister.
“I don’t like that I did it, particularly, but I don’t regret it either. The alternatives were far worse. My brother becomes extremely aggressive and if I’d stood up to them I’d be having to deal with a host of abusive texts and the discomfort of coming into contact at some point in the future. I think I made the right decision for me."
In her response, Sandra kept her eye on the bigger picture which was finding a way to deal with the horrible situation she found herself in. She was focused on doing what was best for her mother and trying to minimise her stress levels.
If you have to deal with narcissistic family members and that involves keeping yourself safe by avoiding confrontation, bear in mind that doing so isn’t weak. If it represents a conscious decision which is going to protect you from toxic people, then realise you’re taking this decision from a point of empowerment. Compromising or avoiding confrontation might not feel great, but it might represent a better course of action than being embroiled in a highly explosive family dynamic.
Know that this is a temporary situation
When you’re caught up in a difficult situation, it can feel like it’s going to last forever. Be aware that things will change and that you can change your responses as this happens. When Sandra came to see me, her mother was critically ill and constant communication was required with her siblings in order to swap information from the hospital and keep up to date with emergency healthcare decisions. Although the situation with her mother would be ongoing, it wouldn’t be like this forever. I helped Sandra to see that she had responded in a way that was useful to her in the short term, and that when the situation changed, she could review her ways of dealing with her siblings.
Be creative with how you maintain healthy boundaries
When you’re a member of a toxic family, sometimes the best option is to completely distance yourself from your narcissistic family members. Having no contact is one way in which to maintain healthy boundaries. When you have no option but to deal with them, you need to find ways of protecting yourself. One of the biggest problems narcissists have is respecting other people’s boundaries, so staying safe can be difficult.
Simple tactics can make a difference. Sandra decided that she would not respond to any texts for an hour. “Just doing so made me feel like I had some control. Like I wasn’t being pushed constantly into responding to them." She also initiated phone calls rather than answering the phone and ensured that she put a time limit into place. “I would tell my brother—who would literally spend two hours on the phone ranting—that I had a customer at a specific time at the start of our call so that I could get off the phone after a maximum of 20 minutes."
If you have people-pleasing tendencies, saying no and creating healthy boundaries can be extremely difficult and having clear strategies in place—such as times of day when you are unavailable and timetabling enjoyable activities into your day—can help you manage this difficult time.
Don’t accept abusive behaviour
Compromising for the sake of an easier life is one thing but if your sibling becomes aggressive or emotionally abusive towards you, you need to make it clear that you won’t accept that behaviour. You don’t deserve to be abused and if relations have reached a point where your sibling is acting in this way towards you anyway, perhaps you need to cut ties with them.
Play a part
When you’re dealing with narcissistic siblings, you need to protect yourself at all times. Don’t allow yourself to be drawn in by their charm—they can turn on you at any time (and they may well be using you to get what they want—narcissists are master manipulators).
Sandra found it useful to think of the part of her that was so easily triggered and deeply upset by her siblings as the child part which had been subjected to their behaviour over the years. “I reminded myself that I’m no longer that child. I chose not to have any contact with these people for 10 years. When I have to deal with them, I have a quick chat with my inner child, tell her to stay safe and let the adult me—who doesn’t care about my siblings’ opinion—deal with them. I also remind her that, when I can, I’ll cut contact with them again!”
Perhaps you can think of your siblings as difficult colleagues who you have to work with for the time being and adopt a professional demeanour when you have to deal with them. Or imagine physically creating an emotional boundary around yourself—by imagining a protective light around your body—before communicating with them.
If you have found yourself in a situation where you have little choice but to deal with toxic family members, please ensure that you seek the help and support required at this difficult time.