I was at my best friend’s baby shower, excitement flowing through us all. It seemed like just yesterday we were riding bikes to the pool and staying up all night at sleepovers. Our friends gathered around her growing belly as she described the freshly painted mural on her nursery wall. In the middle of this beautiful moment, a high pitched voice interrupted. “In my daughter’s nursery we decided to do…” All eyes turned to the middle aged woman who commanded attention. She went on and on about her future grandchild. My heart sank and my cheeks flushed as she stole the moment. Why did my mom have to be the center of every single conversation?
Families and the relationships within them can be complicated. While you may be labeled as the “sick” one because of an eating disorder, the truth is you are a part of a family and a family can be seen as a system in which all members affect each other. Someone with narcissistic traits can affect the family system significantly.
The Merriam Webster dictionary defines narcissistic personality disorder as: a personality disorder characterized especially by an exaggerated sense of self-importance, persistent need for admiration, lack of empathy for others, excessive pride in achievements, and snobbish, disdainful, or patronizing attitudes. Whether someone in your family is diagnosed with NPD (Narcissistic Personality Disorder), or they simply have some of the characteristics of a narcissist, their personalty traits likely have an impact on you.
How can you tell?
Wondering if your loved one is a narcissist? Consider if you relate to the following. When you try to talk about yourself, does the conversation inevitably veer back towards them? When you try to share your feelings about a personal situation, do they make it all about themselves? Do they take credit for your successes and feel shame if you make a mistake? And does it seem impossible for them to see any situation from a perspective other than their own? Are they super critical of everyone else around them, leaving you with the constant feeling that you can never, ever please them?
How it affects you…
Living with, being raised by, or a loving a narcissist can affect you in many ways. Feeling invisible, you may start to shrink with hopes of disappearing. Perhaps you try to be perfect in order to please them.
If you love a narcissist, you may start to censor what you say around them (without even realizing it) in an attempt to prevent more stress.
You may begin to think your feelings and thoughts do not matter. You might stop expressing yourself, swallowing your voice and your opinions.
When your mom is a narcissist
Having a narcissistic mother, I learned very early how to sink into the shadows while my mother demanded the spotlight in every situation. I saw the way my emotions were dismissed as she assumed she knew what I was feeling, what was best for me, and what I thought. She seemed to have a magical ability to see the world through her own eyes only. This led me to question my own feelings and beliefs. And left me confused, doubting my own feelings and experiences.
Years of therapy along with progressing in my own recovery helped me to realize that my mother’s personality has had a profound affect on the way I walk through this world. I have learned that while I cannot control how my mother may respond or act, I can control the ways I respond.
What You Can Do to Cope When You Have a Narcissistic Family Member
Focus on Yourself
Spend a little time around a narcissist, and chances are you start to feel invisible. A narcissist, by definition, wants to be the center of attention. It can be easy to get sucked into the dramatics of a narcissistic family member.
Whether you feel yourself starting to shrink, or you notice the desire to puff up and respond aggressively towards the other person, observing your feelings in a non-judgmental and curious way is a great place to start. Remind yourself that your experience is just as valid as everyone else’s experience.
If you have a parent or caregiver who is a narcissist, they likely see you as an extension of themselves. Setting boundaries with them may be extremely frustrating. I remember when I was in treatment for an eating disorder and a therapist suggested my mom respect my boundaries. I was a grown woman by that time, yet my mom responded, “Boundaries! That is ridiculous. She is my daughter. I don’t have to have boundaries with her.”
It took me a long time to realize that the goal of setting boundaries is NOT to control what the other person does in a situation. Instead, setting a boundary means stating what your limits are, and how you are going to respond if those boundaries are crossed. That may look like saying, “If you continue to talk about my weight or body size, I will leave this conversation.” Also, it can mean setting limits on when or how much you will be around certain people.
Setting boundaries can be extremely uncomfortable, especially initially. However, they are very important for protecting your own mental health.
It is crucial to remember you have every right to stand up for yourself and to set boundaries that are best for you.
Take up Space
Shrinking into the shadows may feel like a valuable solution if you grew up with a narcissistic family member. However, this solution does not work. The tighter you curl yourself up into a ball on the ground, the more easily you will be stepped on.
You have every right to own your feelings and experiences. Likewise, you deserve to express yourself and to be seen and heard.
Owning your experiences and feelings and voicing your truth may do nothing to change your narcissistic loved one’s view of you. Or their behavior. The reason I want you to take up space has nothing to do with them. And everything to do with you.
You deserve to take up space, to be seen, and to be heard.
And the more you practice doing this, the easier it will become. You need to understand that your experiences are real and are valid. You have insights to share, ideas to put out into this world, and experiences that matter. It is important for your healing to learn through experience that you can show up in this world and take up space fully.
Find Other Support
It may be an impossible quest to get the love and attention you desire and deserve from a parent or a loved one who is a narcissist. Rather than repeatedly setting yourself up for hurt and disappointment, it may be time to accept the reality of what you can (and can not) get from your relationship. Even if your narcissistic loved one is not able to show up for you in the ways you need, that does not mean someone else can’t. You deserve to be heard, seen, and supported by people who care about you. And, the most important person you can learn to receive love, support, and compassion from is yourself.
Mindful self compassion can be the anecdote to the pain you feel as the child of a narcissistic family member.
Finding other support can be a difficult task, but it is possible. If you have the resources, working with a therapist, nutritionist, or other professional can be very helpful. There are numerous other resources available online. Also, be mindful of how you spend your time, and who you spend it with. Choosing to spend tine with people that ask about you and listen to your responses are golden opportunities to nurture equal relationships.
Remember You Matter
If you grew up with a narcissistic family member, you may have some core wounds to heal related to relationships. As a result of growing up with a narcissistic mother, I developed the false narrative that I did not matter. Because I felt unseen and unheard, I shrunk within myself. I bit my tongue rather than assert myself. Often I molded myself into what I thought other’s expected me to be. It wasn’t until I started doing the core healing work that I was able to find my true value and worth.
Recognizing I do matter, my feelings, thoughts, and opinions are valid, and I can have view points separate from those of my mother has been instrumental in my healing.