Is your parent a narcissist? Many parents are difficult or overbearing, but a few cross the line into the pathological type of narcissism that can turn your relationship into a nightmare. If your parent fits this description, here are five ways to cope.
1. Recognize that their behavior is abnormal, not merely “difficult.”
Most people ultimately want to work out a problem in a way that’s mutually agreeable, but a person with Narcissistic Personality Disorder thrives on the power play. For a parent with NPD– or who you suspect has NPD– it’s often “their way or the highway.” In my own family, my father has chosen not to see his grandchildren for years rather than make a reasonable concession about the terms of visits. If your parent values their ability to control you above having a functioning relationship, you can assure yourself that this is not normal or healthy human behavior.
2. Set firm boundaries.
A narcissistic parent will frequently overstep reasonable boundaries just to prove they can. They may invite themselves to events, make a point of giving gifts only to the family members they prefer, or disregard your wishes about how to interact with your children. You will often be in the position of having to enforce consequences for their inappropriate behavior– such as saying, “we’d be happy to visit you the day after Christmas, but not before, because we don’t want a repeat of what happened last year.” You may find yourself feeling as if you’re disciplining a child, but that is the reality of managing someone whose behavior is inherently selfish.
3. Don’t let yourself be gaslighted.
It’s very common for an NPD parent to try to convince you that you’re crazy or delusional. A friend’s mother constantly tells her she remembers situations incorrectly– even though a social worker’s documentation supports the friend’s version. My father would express concern for my mental health, claiming I was misremembering events from my life that he wasn’t even present for. I had thought this was a personal quirk of his until I learned it is a well-known manipulation tactic of people with NPD. While we don’t always remember things with perfect accuracy, you cannot let reality be dictated to you by someone with a personality disorder.
4. Realize that friends may not understand your situation.
Friends and acquaintances who have no experience with NPD often give the most unhelpful support and advice. They will say “she’s the only mother you’ll ever have, you need to do whatever it takes to work it out” or “He’ll come around eventually, you’ll see. My great-uncle was mad at the family for ten years and then made up with everyone.” But when your parent’s personality disorder is the problem, the normal routes to peace won’t work. It isn’t a matter of settling a disagreement– it’s a problem that will keep coming back unless the parent seeks treatment (which most people with NPD will not do). You may worry that others will judge you for creating distance between yourself and your parent. But don’t allow yourself to feel guilty for handling a narcissist differently from how you’d handle an emotionally healthy parent.
5. Accept that you may have to cut ties and move on.
For a long time, I believed it was my responsibility to try to “work it out” with my father. After a six-year estrangement, I met with him and then spent the next year trying to heal our relationship. But soon it became apparent that nothing was going to improve. He saw this not as a second chance or new beginning, but as an opportunity to make me pay for the things I’d done that he resented. Thanks to the extended break from his influence, though, I was able to clearly see how bizarre and unhealthy his behavior was, and knew my kids and I deserved better.
After a year of earnest effort, and another email telling me I needed to work harder to get back into his good graces, I realized we had reached the end of the road. I wanted a healthy father-daughter relationship, but he only wanted someone to manipulate, and I wasn’t interested in filling that role. I said goodbye and, more than a year later, have never had a moment of regret about it. I could not make peace with my father, but I could make peace with the absence of my father.
If you are dealing with a narcissistic parent, be aware that you’re not alone in your experiences. Online you will find many support groups, helpful articles, and people sharing their stories. And if you’re the friend of someone struggling with this situation, listen with sympathy and encourage your friend to trust and protect herself. In the end, no matter how good our intentions, life is too short to wait on another person to grant us peace of mind.