How To Cope With a Narcissistic Family Member

Setting boundaries and knowing how and when to react are a few helpful coping strategies.

"Narcissist" is one of those labels that gets thrown around frequently. However, narcissism means more than having a high level of self-confidence.

narcissistic personality relates to a person's grand or over-the-top view of themselves. However, narcissism also includes the actions they take to maintain that view, which includes putting others down. That sense of self may be an instance of narcissistic personality disorder (NPD).

NPD is a diagnosable mental health condition that can devastate relationships on all levels. Here's what experts advised regarding handling interactions with family members who have NPD or traits of NPD.

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What Is Narcissistic Personality Disorder?

NPD is one of the 10 main types of personality disorders, according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition, Text Revision (DSM-5-TR). Generally, people with NPD feel that others should admire them. However, they show little to no empathy when it comes to others. 

For healthcare providers to diagnose NPD, the person must show a consistent pattern of grandiosity by early adulthood. Additionally, they must also have at least five of the following traits:

  • A grand self-importance
  • A strong focus on fantasies related to ideas such as success, power, and beauty
  • Beliefs that they are "special" or better than others and should only interact with other special people or groups
  • A need for a lot of admiration
  • A sense of entitlement, like feeling that they're deserving of special treatment
  • Unfair treatment of others to take advantage of them
  • A lack of empathy
  • Envy of others or thinking others envy them
  • Self-centered behaviors and attitudes

There are no standard treatments for treating NPD itself. However, talk therapy and medications for treating symptoms like anxiety or depression can be helpful. Also, the condition can occur with other mood disorders.

How Does Narcissism Run in Families?

There are different reasons why NPD may occur, including genetics. Still, some evidence suggests that relationships and experiences may influence narcissistic behavior. For example, like most other personality traits, narcissism can stem from negative experiences during childhood.

"Research has suggested a link between certain parenting styles and narcissism, which includes overly permissive or overprotective parenting," Rashmi P. Parmar, MD, a double board-certified adult and child psychiatrist, told Health.

For example, excessive praise and poor limit setting can fuel narcissism at an early age. In contrast, an overly strict or authoritarian parenting style can also result in trauma and low self-esteem. Those negative feelings may, in turn, lead to developing narcissism as a coping mechanism.

How To Cope With Family Members Who Have NPD

Combining narcissism with any already heightened drama and expectations of family gatherings, like holidays, can create disaster.

A person with NPD or its traits might be a parent, an adult child, or even an in-law. But whoever the person is, getting together with them in celebration may mean that others will encounter the person's criticisms, exaggerated self-worth, and demand for attention.

If you find that you'll be spending time with a family member who has NPD, here are tactics that may make get-togethers easy.

Seek Emotional Support from Additional Family Members

When people gather after not seeing one another for months, they tend to open up about events that have gone down since they last got together. And, if those events are emotional and upsetting—like a job loss or health problems—you may expect family members to express sympathy and support.

However, a person with NPD may not give that to you. Their attitude can catch you off guard and leave you hurt and discouraged.

"To them, they are the center of their world, and everyone is there for their benefit," Sheila Forman, PhD, a psychologist based in Santa Monica, Calif., told Health. "Knowing this will help you to recognize their emotional limitations."

You may end up hurting emotionally. But keep in mind that people with NPD do not see the world as you do. Instead, consider looking for comfort and support from others.

Try Not To Take Their Behaviors Personally

A person with NPD may take over the family dinner conversation and show no interest in the other people at the table. You might feel defensive if they criticize you or others and call out their behavior.

If that happens, know that any feelings you have are valid. Remember that the person's behavior is not personally directed at you can also be helpful.

Even though one of their defining characteristics is a preoccupation with themselves, a person with NPD is ultimately driven by low self-esteem. 

"Their NPD is a way to compensate for how they really feel," explained Forman. "Understanding this can help you feel empathy for them and not get so angry when they behave as they will."

Be Prepared If You Plan To Discuss Their Behavior

You may be met with resistance if you wish to talk with a family member about their behavior. In that case, insulate your feedback with a layer of positive comments and compliments to give it the best chance of being fully accepted, advised Dr. Parmar. 

"Narcissistic individuals have trouble reflecting on their own shortcomings or flaws," explained Dr. Parmar. "They often jump on the idea that it is the other person's fault and that they are being unjustly blamed for wrongdoing."

To get your point across effectively, use clear, precise, and concrete sentences, added Dr. Parmar. Try to validate their feelings about challenging situations before you give them your feedback on their behavior. However, avoid directly challenging the person's beliefs.

Set Firm Boundaries

Dealing successfully with someone with narcissistic traits means setting healthy boundaries as early as possible. Those boundaries are not only physical—the amount of time you spend in proximity to them—but psychological, as well.

"Narcissists often feel they are being mistreated or that others are the source of problems and not them. They tend to adopt a manipulative, persuasive, and dominant attitude to get their way with family members or friends," said Dr. Parmar. "This means people usually give in to their demands out of frustration or fear of confronting them. But enabling a narcissist will only feed into their pre-existing self-centered ideology."

To cope, limit your time at family events you can't get out of. You might also avoid exchanges with the person with NPD and disengage when you feel vulnerable or like you're being drawn in.

Overall, know that you can control how you respond. Though, you may not be able to control their behavior. 

"You have the choice to limit your presence and interaction with such individuals for your own sanity, whether they like it or not," said Dr. Parmar.

More About Coping With Family Members Who Have NPD

You can do other things that may help when you're around family members with narcissistic personality traits, including:

  • Catching up with family members you get along with
  • Taking time-outs to recharge your energy and mood
  • Sticking close to loved ones who support and nourish you

Education about NPD, as well as its behaviors and complications, can be helpful for families with a member diagnosed with the disorder. Also, families may be able to work with a healthcare provider to determine how they can be supportive.

Taking care of your own mental health is also important. You may end up blaming yourself for a dysfunctional relationship. As a result, you may develop symptoms of anxiety or depression.

In and beyond those situations, seeing a mental healthcare provider who can offer other coping strategies and tips may be helpful. Also, consider family support groups available led by peers who are loved ones or care for those with mental health conditions.

You can find mental health professionals and support groups through organizations such as, the American Psychiatric Association (APA), and the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH).

A Quick Review

There can be stressful encounters when interacting with family members with NPD. The person may be self-centered, critical of others, and expect all the attention outside and during family gatherings.

There are ways to cope during interactions with a family member diagnosed with NPD, like setting boundaries and remembering not to take the person's behaviors personally. If you need more coping strategies, it's also helpful to see a mental healthcare provider for guidance or seek other support.

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