Clara braced herself for a long weekend with her in-laws. It was her husband’s birthday and his mother invited them by saying, “Only I know how to properly celebrate our special day.” Their relationship had always been strange but the physical distance helped minimize contact.
His mom treated her son like he walked on water; nothing was his fault, everything was Clara’s fault. When her husband got the flu, her mother-in-law said, “If Clara took better care of you this won’t happen, you never got the flu with me.”
Yet the most revealing statement happened just after the birth of their son. Her mother-in-law, upon holding the child for the first time, said, “Enjoy him now because one day he will leave you for another woman.” After that remark, Clara secretly vowed to stay away from her as much as possible.
Desperate to figure out a way to survive the pending doom of the weekend, Clara stumbled on the description of a narcissistic female. It was like a light bulb went off in her head while reading about narcissism. She decided to settle on these five strategies of survival.
- Charm is a trap. In the beginning of their relationship, Clara thought she connected with her mother-in-law-to-be. But just before the wedding, her husband revealed a telling conversation in which his mother encouraged him to walk away from the pending marriage. Ever since then, Clara felt displaced, uneasy, and confused. This time was going to be different. Clara vowed to not fall prey to her charm. Instead of seeing her pleasantries as an attempt to improve the relationship, Clara would view them a bait to draw her in so she can be attacked later.
- Conversation is an opportunity. Looking back on their relationship, Clara realized that her mother-in-law would draw her into a conversation that quickly turned into a competition of who showed more love to her husband. It was a sick cycle that Clara tried to avoid. But dodging discussions with her mother-in-law only resulted in comments like, “Your wife hates me, she won’t even talk to me.” Instead, Clara decided to intentionally converse with her mother-in-law about herself. That way, Clara would avoid talking about herself and her mother-in-law could retain the spotlight.
- Confession is vulnerability. Clara began taking an inventory of their past discussions and realized that she often apologized for things that were not her fault. Her mother-in-law used her confessions as further evidence of Clara’s ineptness as a wife, mother, and human being. Clara thought that by expressing regret her relationship would improve and she would keep the peace. Under normal circumstances this might be correct, but with a narcissist this is viewed as weakness and an opportunity for future attack. So Clara decided not say, “I’m sorry” for the whole weekend.
- Charades are a cover. In talking with her husband, Clara realized that her mother-in-law’s memory of grandiosity was greatly exaggerated. Her husband just dismissed the stories as fictional while Clara took them to heart believing them to be some standard that she needed to achieve. In reality, the false mask that her mother-in-law wore was a covering for a deep rooted insecurity. The greater the story, the larger the insecurity. Just grasping this truth eased Clara’s own insecurities and helped her to see her mother-in-law as a flawed, not perfect, person.
- Confidence is golden. The larger than life persona her mother-in-law displayed caused Clara to shrink in comparison. Without her shield of confidence, Clara was defenseless to the passive-aggressive personal attacks like, “Every good mother knows how to do this.” This immediately put Clara on the defense while her mother-in-law remained safely on offense. No game was ever won with a good defense only. So Clara rehearsed some comeback lines in retaliation, “Good mothers might not know that, but great mothers do this.” By anticipating her mother-in-law’s negativity with Clara’s new solid counterattacks, she was able to confidently survive the weekend.
These five strategies allowed Clara to walk away from the weekend feeling more secure, not less. Surprisingly, the more confidence Clara demonstrated, the less her mother-in-law attacked. The temptation after such success is to believe that things are permanently changed or fixed. However, this is not the case as narcissists will patiently wait for future opportunities to attack. So Clara decided to keep repeating these techniques over and over again.