Managing Narcissistic Relationships
According to licensed clinical psychologist, Dr. Ramani Durvasula, narcissism and narcissistic behavior has created a public health crisis. Being consistently invalidated and manipulated can cause someone to become a shell of the person they once were and prevent them from living the life they want and deserve.
Dr. Ramani is committed to helping those who have overcome narcissistic abuse while providing strategies to properly manage the narcissist in our lives. The first step to managing narcissistic relationships is understanding what causes them, what the signs are, and the potential consequences of allowing a narcissist to control your life.
Our first relationship is with our parents. The tools and strategies for managing a relationship with a narcissist are invaluable when it comes to a narcissistic parent.
It is estimated that roughly 80% of people showing narcissistic traits are men. However, because of the large impact mothers can have on their children (especially during the formative years), it is often the narcissistic mother that will bring an adult child into therapy.
Signs of a Narcissistic Parent
Common signs of any narcissist include selfish behavior, entitlement, lack of emotion and empathy, manipulation, and gaslighting. This can lead the child to develop depression, anxiety, or other personality disorders.
However, there are some elements of narcissistic behavior that are you unique to the parent-child relationship.
A Hyper-Focus on Achievement
A narcissistic parent often places extreme value on achievement for their child. A child may only be receiving positive attention from their parent when they excel in school and activities.
When the child is struggling emotionally or fails to meet the parents’ needs, there is often no support from the narcissistic parent and thus the child learns that their parent’s love is conditional.
Favoring the Child That Most Resembles the Narcissistic Parent
For an extremely narcissistic parent, they may favor the child that most resembles themselves. If a narcissistic father excelled in high school football, they may favor the child that also excels in football. Similarly, they may distance themselves or scapegoat the child who is uninterested/does not excel at sports.
This favoring does not necessarily set the child up for success, and in fact, may have detrimental consequences for this so-called “golden child.” The child may experience an intense amount of pressure and feel that their worth is only based on their ability to please the narcissistic father through achievements the father deems worthy.
“I would say that over 90% of people who grew up in narcissistic family systems walk around with the mantra ‘I am not enough,’ [which] haunts them for the rest of their lives.”licensed clinical psychologist, Dr. Ramani
Managing a Narcissistic Parent
For adult children, here are strategies to better cope with a narcissistic parent.
Set Your Realistic Expectations
Narcissists can be very predictable. Therefore, you can expect that their past behavior of degrading comments, gaslighting, and grandiose speech will occur again and again. Before interacting with a narcissistic parent, take a mindful moment and prepare for what is likely to come.
Don’t over-engage. Don’t defend. Don’t explain.
It’s unlikely that a narcissist will change, so accepting that their behavior will continue is a huge step toward inner peace.
Siblings raised around a similar time, in the same environment, with the same parents, can still develop very different personality traits. Even if one sibling develops into a caring, empathic adult, another can still display traits associated with narcissistic personality disorder (NPD).
Birth order, gender bias in child-rearing, genetics, and temperament are all factors that can affect whether or not a child grows into a narcissistic adult.
Cutting Ties With a Narcissistic Sibling
Some may feel that the only way to maintain their mental wellbeing is to cut all ties with their narcissistic sibling.
There can be consequences to doing this, such as losing relationships with nieces and nephews, losing the trust of other family members, and receiving backlash from those who do not recognize the sibling is narcissistic.
For many, though, the narcissistic abuse is so severe that cutting ties is the only option for maintaining proper mental health.
How Parents Can Help
Although it is extremely unlikely that a narcissist will change their behavior, parents can come to the aid of the adult child who is struggling with their narcissistic sibling.
Parents should thoughtfully listen to their child and provide emotional support. This can be done by validating their experience and not placing the burden of finding a solution on the child. Instead of saying to the adult child, “You two should go figure it out,” listen to the child and empathize with what they are experiencing.
Narcissistic Adult Children
Many parents worry that their teenager is developing into an adult narcissist. It’s important to note that part of “normal” teenage behavior includes low-grade narcissistic behavior. Examples of this typical adolescent behavior include entitlement, emotional outbursts, and lack of empathy.
If narcissistic behavior continues into the mid-twenties, it could be a sign of a more permanent personality style.
Are Parents to Blame?
Parents certainly affect the development of their children, however, blaming a parent for the behavior of their adult child could be unwarranted.
Perhaps a single mother needed to work two jobs in order to provide for her child, and therefore, was unable to spend enough quality time with her daughter. Or perhaps a cultural custom incidentally encouraged narcissistic behavior at an early age.
There are many reasons a child may develop into a narcissistic adult and to place blame on the parents is not always fair or valid.
Sign of a Narcissistic Adult Child
While the common signs of narcissism discussed earlier would also apply here, there is a unique sign of which parents should be aware.
An adult narcissistic child may feel entitled to financial support from their parents. From clearing debt and purchasing houses, to the completion of small tasks like paying a phone bill – these adult children feel they are owed this level of financial assistance. This type of entitlement can also lead to a failure to launch.
This is not to say a parent who buys their son a home is creating a narcissistic son. Rather, a son who believes they are entitled to a paid-for home from their parents could be narcissistic.
“I think the parents thought, ‘if I keep giving them money, maybe they’ll start being nice to me.’ Well, that day never came.”licensed clinical psychologist, Dr. Ramani
For some parents, this incessant desire to please their narcissistic child could lead to financial ruin.
Cutting Ties With a Narcissistic Adult Child
Of all the possible combinations of narcissistic relationships, the parent-child relationship is likely the most difficult to cut off. Despite this difficulty, the abuse that parents all over the world endure from their adult child is so severe that cutting ties is the often healthiest option.
It’s an option that comes with major consequences – not only the heartbreak of severing ties with a child, but the backlash parents will likely receive from friends and family members.
People on the outside will likely judge a parent for cutting ties with their child. Parents could be met with harsh opinions and gossip from those around them. It’s important to remember that the people in the parents’ lives don’t know the full story.
Many parents are embarrassed by their child’s behavior, so do not share the reality of their situation with others.
The Role of Therapy
Whether it’s the parent cutting ties with their narcissistic child, or the child cutting ties with the narcissistic parent, the key to moving forward is taking ownership, engaging in self-reflection, and participating in some form of therapy. Therapy is a critical step in attempting to manage these relationships before taking the step of fully cutting ties.
While narcissists are unlikely to participate in therapy, therapy practices like cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), and acceptance & commitment therapy (ACT), can help people better understand themselves, others, and how to healthfully manage all types of relationships.
Dealing with narcissistic or difficult in-laws is an age-old joke. However, when it comes to dealing with true narcissistic in-laws, there are some key points people should know.
A Partner Who Does Not Warn Against Difficult Personalities Within Their Family
The true difficulties occur when the partner (a.k.a. the adult child of the parents in-law in question) does not recognize that their parent(s) are difficult or narcissistic.
This makes it hard to prepare for these difficult personalities, so when it comes to family events and interactions, the couple cannot utilize a united front.
Additionally, the partner (a.k.a. the adult child of the narcissistic parent-in-law) may be accustomed to harsh accusations and manipulative speech from this parent. As a result, the partner sees no harm in their parents’ behavior.
Assumptions Based on First Impressions
When first meeting parents-in-law, there may be red flags, but they may be more difficult to spot as all parties are usually on their best behavior.
Conversely, some in-laws may be in hyper-protective mode, so may not necessarily show their truer, more compassionate colors.
What to Do About Narcissistic In-Laws
The first step is for the couple to discuss concerns and strategies surrounding the parents-in-law.
If one partner does not admit to the toxic and obvious personality flaws in their parents, it shows a lack of sensitivity and awareness. It raises red flags that can cause ripples of negativity throughout the relationship. From giving input on finances to child-rearing, Parents-in-law can have a lasting effect on the relationship.
When a couple can unite on a game plan for interacting with the parents-in-law in question, managing these relationships becomes much easier. Each partner in the relationship should be on the same page regarding boundaries, time spent with in-laws, and what constitutes appropriate communication.
Friendships are a unique type of relationship. Friends are held to different standards; we can have more than one of them; we find new ones throughout our life; finally, friends can go long periods of time without speaking, and still pick up where they left off.
“To me, friendships are one of the most understudied, interesting, impactful, human relationships we have. They don’t ascribe to any of the usual rules.”licensed clinical psychologist, Dr. Ramani
Typically, friendships do not have the high stakes that a romantic or familial relationship has, and therefore, friends are usually more willing to tolerate a higher level of undesirable behavior.
How to Tell If a Friend Is a Narcissist
Friends who spend short periods of time with each other may not be able to experience their true nature. There are two instances where seeing narcissistic traits are more likely – becoming roommates and traveling together.
These long-term, intimate settings are more likely to reveal someones true personality traits.
A True Friendship
A true friendship can survive the ups and downs of life. For example, if one friend excels in their career while the other has a period of unemployment, that relationship will still be supportive, empathic, and healthy, if both parties have healthy personality styles and regard the other with respect.
In another example, people who marry and have children will still have strong, healthy bonds with their friends who remain single and childless.
A true test of friendship – one in which narcissistic traits are likely to arise – occurs in a situation where one friend is going through a traumatic experience, and needs support from the other. For example, if one friend loses a parent and a minimum level of support is not provided by the other, this could be a signal of the beginning stages of narcissistic tendencies.
Because a narcissistic friend may not show their true colors until the circumstances are dire, it is incredibly likely that the majority of people are friends with a narcissist – without even realizing it.
Of course, not all bosses are narcissistic, but obtaining the role of leader is the goal for many narcissists. As a result, narcissistic bosses, managers, and supervisors are incredibly common.
A narcissistic boss may exhibit the following traits:
- Screaming/yelling and making unreasonable demands of co-workers and staff
- A willingness to break the rules in order to achieve personal gain
- A tendency to call out others or “throw people under the bus” in order to make themselves appear superior
- Intense ambition and willingness to play the “political” games rampant in many company cultures
- A charming, gregarious appearance in front of the “right” people in order to move up the company ladder.
- A “win-at-all-cost” mindset
- The tendency to “love-bomb” their employees (similar to the love-bombing that takes place in romantic relationships)
- Overpaying employees in order to buy their loyalty – making it difficult for them to leave.
Managing a Narcissistic Boss
Many people are unable to leave their jobs due to financial needs or they may enjoy their work but have a boss that makes the lives of their employees difficult.
One way of managing a relationship with a narcissistic boss is through an acceptance of the idea that promotions and/or words of validation are unlikely to occur to the employees who are most worthy of such votes of confidence. Instead, the boss may reward employees who model his/her toxic behavior.
Documentation is Everything
In severe circumstances, individuals may need to notify the Human Resources department or take legal action.
Keep written documentation of meetings, conversations, phone calls, emails, and instances of abuse. This type of proof is needed in order to prove the claim.
“Workplace stress has been in repeated research studies – [and has] been the type of stress that’s most linked to physical illness.”licensed clinical psychologist, Dr. Ramani
Can a Narcissist Change?
For someone who has narcissistic traits, developing into someone who shows empathy and puts other people’s needs first, is unlikely. However, if the narcissist is willing to change, participate in therapy, and able to commit to long-term treatment, they can experience noticeable improvement.
There are many evidence-based therapies and treatments to choose from. Many mental health providers will utilize cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) and/or dialectical behavior therapy (DBT).