Nancy was determined after the last family gathering to find out what was so dysfunctional about their interaction. Within minutes of assembling, her mom oscillated between belittling her and her dad while making her brother look like he was a king and ignoring her younger sister. After seeing a therapist about the matter, Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) was introduced.
Finally, someone explained her life in a way that not only made sense but changed the way she viewed herself and her family. Her mother constantly blamed Nancy for all the dysfunction in their family which caused large amounts of self-doubt, insecurity, anxiety, and even severe depression. It took several months of therapy after the realization before Nancy was ready to reengage with her mother.
Having learned new strategies for coping, different ways to deflect the insults, and productive anger management skills, Nancy was ready for the next family gathering. Excited to share her revelations, she spoke individually and privately to her dad, brother, and sister. What she did not expect was an intense backlash from all of them who only perpetuated their mother’s concept that Nancy was to blame for all unrest in the family.
Feeling more isolated than ever, Nancy retreated. Having realized that the direct approach did not work, she decided to be more strategic. Here is what she did.
- Identify family roles. One of the mistakes Nancy made initially in speaking with her family was to forget the roles her narcissistic mother imposed on the family. Nancy was the scapegoat, her dad was the enabler, her brother was the golden child, and her sister was the forgotten. In each relationship, her mother gained a benefit. Nancy took the fall for her mother’s errors. Her dad supplied her mother with daily attention and affirmation. Her brother was the poster child her mom used to display what a great parent she was. And her sister was the consistent brunt of her mother’s jokes (which fed her superior ego) because she so withdrawn.
- See their benefit. One of the reasons these roles were so intact is because the family members also gained some benefit. By absorbing her mom’s mistakes, Nancy thought she was promoting peace in the family. Likewise, her dad, who saw himself as a protector/rescuer, sheltered his family from the narcissistic angry rant by giving her mom whatever attention she wanted. Her brother loved being viewed as perfect by his mother because it fed his own ego. Her sister managed to dodge her mother’s verbal assaults by hiding in the background and did not want to give up her safety by exposing her mother.
- Speak their language. Now that Nancy saw the positive and negative impact of narcissism for each family member, she was able to work within their perspective, not hers. Nancy had to put her own tendency for direct confrontation on the shelf and implement a more gentle approach. She began by thanking her dad for how he protected the family. Then she started dropping hints with her brother about how difficult it must to be to constantly have to look perfect. With her sister, she entered into her quite space and just sat with her until her sister initiated conversation.
- Plant seeds. After gaining some new trust and comfort with her family members, Nancy began planting the seeds of defining narcissism. When her mother insisted that everyone go to the restaurant that she wanted, even though no one else like that place, she would whisper words like selfish or “it’s all about mom”. She began verbalizing when her mother refused to show empathy for others to which her mom was surprisingly proud of her callousness. Nancy even sarcastically commented that her mother was always right to which her mom openly agreed. When her mom blamed Nancy for distracting her which caused food to be burned, Nancy’s response was “it must be nice to never need to apologize.”
- Use other narcissists. Once the seeds of the narcissistic dysfunction were planted, Nancy watered their growth by pointing out other famous narcissists. She began by targeting a not so popular political figure and identifying him as a narcissist. The very points of dislike that she revealed about the politician were the same ones her mother displayed. She then moved on to other people, some personal and some not, and explained narcissism through their egocentric behavior.
- Wait for them. Patience is definitely a chore and a virtue in this case. However, it didn’t take long before her sister came to Nancy privately and said that she now saw the narcissism in their mother. Surprisingly, her brother was really tired of being the golden child and he too eventually approached her. Even her dad made some veiled comments that he realized his wife was a narcissist but he didn’t know what to do about it.
- Refer to an expert. Rather than jump into the conversations about narcissism with her family members, she encouraged each one to seek out individual counseling. By redirecting them to an outsider, she did not take on the burden or responsibility of helping them to cope with the disorder. This also insulated her from the concept that she was the one controlling and manipulating the family against her mother.
- Unite strategies. Once her family members got the help they needed, new strategies for how to deal with their narcissistic mother needed to be implemented. Again, Nancy allowed her family members to be the ones to approach her and together they discussed how to handle the situation. By joining forces together and not allowing the narcissistic abuse to be tolerated, each person got healthier and stronger.
It took over a year for all of these steps to be implemented, but in the end, Nancy preserved her relationship with her family members without blowing everything up. Sadly, her mom chose not to get help for her narcissism. Nonetheless, the rest of the family grew in spite of her and strangely enough because of her.