At a family gathering, Susie’s 2-year-old son was happily running around until her mother-in-law pulled out her cane and tripped him. Susie looked on in horror as the grandmother laughed while her son cried from the fall. Then the grandmother yelled at the boy for crying, calling him a crybaby. Susie swept up her son and took him away.
Later her husband asked what happened. Apparently, his mother reported that Susie was being overprotective of their son, she was coddling him, and even gave the mother an evil eye for no reason. Susie’s husband listened to a ten-minute rant from his mother about the multiple faults of Susie before he broke away. When Susie explained what really happened, her husband decided that it was time to act.
As a child, Susie’s husband endured emotional, mental, and sometimes physical abuse from his narcissistic mother. He spent many years in therapy and thought that due to her age and deteriorating physical condition, she would not be a threat to his son. But he was wrong. The tripping of his son followed by the laughter and belittlement was all too familiar. This was not a pattern that he wanted to pass down to another generation.
Susie and her husband decided on new boundaries to keep his mother from repeating her abusive patterns with their children. Here is what they decided.
- Think before speaking. Before visiting or speaking to a narcissist, remember that they are narcissistic. It might be helpful to review some of their glaring characteristics, so expectations can be more appropriately set. Once a person knows a lion is a lion, they should not expect a lamb. Susie and her husband prepared their son by telling him that it is not OK for anyone to try to hurt him (even a grandparent) and when he is hurt it is OK to cry. Boundary = I’m going to set reasonable expectations.
- Remember, it is all about them. It helps to have an expectation that the conversation will turn towards the narcissist. Because the grandmother felt like the 2-year-old was getting all the attention, she created an unnecessary drama designed to monopolize her son’s time. Expect that the narcissist will find a way to make things about them especially when they feel ignored. Boundary = I’m going to be judicious in giving attention.
- Refuse to be treated like a child. A typical tactic of narcissists is to overwhelm others into a state of heightened anxiety, so they are less able to think straight. Susie’s husband fell into this trap easily as his mother groomed him through intense interrogation as a child. This is about power and control for the narcissist. As soon as the narcissist begins, the adult should slow down their breathing. Then answer the question they wish the narcissist asked instead of the one that was asked and immediately follow it with a compliment. This disarms and distracts most narcissists. Boundary = I’m going to be treated like a peer.
- Reject verbal assaults. Another typical narcissistic tactic is to verbally assault anyone they believe is a threat. In this case, the grandmother felt the 2-year-old was a threat to getting more attention so she aggressive attacked him for crying. Then she saw Susie as a threat and verbally assaulted her to Susie’s husband. If Susie became defensive, the narcissist wins. Rather, Susie ignored the comments the grandmother made about her and refused to give it any weight. This unnerved the grandmother who was looking forward to an attack, so she could play the victim. By doing this, Susie did not act narcissistically. Boundary = I’m not going to act like a narcissist.
- Be free of victimization. Because Susie did not act inappropriately, the grandmother sought another target. Susie and her husband watched as the grandmother stirred up another drama, became the victim, and then guilt-tripped her target into submission. Their “woe is me” routine is customized to match the weakness and vulnerability of everyone. It is generally effective, or the narcissist would stop this behavior. It helps when the behavior is viewed as that of a two-year-old temper tantrum. The more positive or negative attention that the two-year-old receives, the more the performance is repeated. The key here is for negative behavior to be ignored. Just like a two-year-old, it will take several attempts before the new reality sets in and is not repeated. Boundary = I’m not going to cave to manipulation.
After a period, these new boundaries became habits for Susie’s family. They did not want to eliminate contact with the grandmother because the grandfather by default would be punished as well. Rather, they set firm boundaries and openly discussed the narcissism between them so the attacks had little to no effect.