How Can I Recover From Abusive Narcissistic Family Members?

Thanks for this opportunity to ask. My question is how can I get rid of the baggage in my subconscious of living in a narcissistic family abuse for 5 decades of my life ?

Let’s start with some clarification. In the field of psychology, a bunch of fancy words get invented which professionals use to diagnose people. The purpose of these labels is for one professional to say to another, “Hey, I have a client that is exhibiting these specific symptoms.” Diagnostic terms primarily benefit the professionals who hand them out. For the people being labeled, the fancy terminology often feels more distressing than helpful.

Now just as different clothing styles go in and out of fashion with the general public, fancy mental health terms do the same. Currently, narcissistic is one of those terms. It used to be you never heard this term being used in casual conversations. Now it’s being used all the time. The problem with these kinds of trends is that once people start getting hooked on using a certain fancy word, they tend to misapply it, and are soon using that same term to describe everyone in their lives who annoys them.

To give people quality advice, I find it best to avoid using a bunch of fancy jargon, and instead focus on the core issues. For example, the common understanding of a narcissist is someone who is very self-absorbed–so much so that they are impossible to relate to in a healthy way. The full definition of a narcissistic personality disorder gets more detailed than that, but to address your question, we don’t need to get into all of the specific ways that your family members are being pills. If you’re using this term the way I think you are, then the main issue you’ve noticed is that your family members are refusing to give you a fair share of power in your relationships with them.

Balancing power well is vital to maintaining healthy relationships. Humans exchange power with each other through a wide variety of symbolic behaviors. Those behaviors can be actions, words, and even body language. If you call your mother over an urgent issue and she refuses to call you back, she is taking power away from you. You will feel very frustrated by her behavior, because in this situation, she has something that you feel you urgently need. By refusing to give you whatever that is, your mother seizes more power in the relationship.

I find that metaphors are the best way to really understand how power gets shuffled back and forth in human relationships. Let’s imagine that in every human relationship, there are ten power tokens which are used to claim certain benefits that the relationship has to offer. The more tokens you hold, the more benefits you can claim. The tokens never get used up, and they never change in quantity. There are always ten tokens in existence. What changes is how many tokens each partner has in their possession at any given time.

Now one of the primary reasons humans enter into relationships is to get their needs met by pairing up with partners who possess certain resources. Some resources are very common, so it’s easy to find partners who can provide those things for you. Other resources seem very rare, so when you locate someone who possesses them, you’re very invested in keeping that connection.

The rules for appropriate power distribution with family members change from childhood to adult. By time you’ve been alive for five decades, all of your family relationships should be getting treated like peer dynamics, meaning that those power tokens should be evenly distributed between the two partners in each of your relationship. Suppose you have a sister. In that relationship, she should possess five tokens, and you should possess five. When both partners have equal power like this, both feel that their needs are being respected. If your sister feels upset by something you’ve done, she will be able to tell you and feel confident that you will genuinely care about the fact that she feels distressed. You will feel confident that she genuinely cares about you as well.

In functional relationships, well balanced power allows partners to take turns getting their needs met and doing things for each other. Functional partners actually want to do this kind of give-and-take with each other. They genuinely feel awkward and uncomfortable when that rotation stops and one person starts doing the majority of the giving or receiving. Functional people have an internal alarm that goes off when their relationships become imbalanced. They might not know how to describe exactly what is going wrong, but they will immediately feel that something is off.

In dysfunctional relationships, one partner intentionally keeps power imbalanced by sabotaging any efforts to distribute it properly. Some people keep things imbalanced by refusing to take as much power as they should. These people are often described as victims, doormats, or overly nice. They also tend to get a lot more sympathy than their partners, who are power hoarders. Power hoarders are often called abusers, but in truth, both of these styles are abusive, because both prevent relationships from functioning well. Abuse in any form always ends up harming both partners.

Narcissists fall into the category of power hoarders. Like all other types of power hoarders, narcissists feel very threatened by losing power, so they hog far more than their fair share and refuse to engage in give-and-take rotations. Using our token metaphor, power hoarders hold onto most of the tokens, while only letting you have 1 or 2. Because you have hardly any tokens, you are treated like you have no right to ask for things from your partner. Because your partner has so many tokens, they act like they have the right to demand the world from you, and that you are morally obligated to do what they want.

Power hoarders act the way that they do out of fear. They have formed some very strong mental associations between holding excessive power and feeling safe. Often the kind of harm they feel anxious to avoid is not physical, but psychological. Power hoarders typically have a very fragile self-image, despite the fact that many pretend to be extremely self-confident through their words and actions.

Being in any kind of distress–physical, psychological or spiritual–naturally causes humans to become more self-absorbed. This is because humans were designed to be diligent little problem solvers, and once they sense any kind of crisis within themselves, they automatically start devoting a lot of internal resources to trying to figure out a solution to that problem. While they are trying to figure out a cure, they put many defensive practices into place to try to protect themselves from further harm.

The stereotypical narcissist is someone who thinks they are better than everyone else. They tend to exaggerate their own accomplishments and abilities. In short, they are always trumpeting themselves, and instinctively turn the attention onto themselves as much as possible. It is genuinely uncomfortable for them to focus on others for long stretches, and it often feels extremely upsetting for them to receive any form of criticism. It just so happens that we currently have a good example of this kind of problem on the world stage. The outgoing American president Donald Trump demonstrates clear symptoms of severe psychological trauma which cause him to feel a constant need to exaggerate his own abilities and importance, while lashing out in panic whenever he is challenged or criticized (see What’s Wrong With America? Understanding the Effects of Traumatized Leaders). Watching how Trump has responded to the idea of losing America’s recent presidential election is a very good illustration of how folks with this kind of issue respond to massive changes in their power levels. They can’t deal with it. For Trump, the idea of being rejected by the general public and having to return to the status of a regular citizen after being in a position of extreme power is causing such intense psychological panic that he simply can’t accept it. I bring up Trump as an example not to pick on the man, but to help people gain an appreciation for how real and intense the subconscious fear is that drives this kind of problem. Many people have been astounded by Trump’s efforts to somehow escape being involved in what is considered a very normal and inevitable practice in his culture: the changing of presidents. But while many view Trump’s obnoxious social behaviors as him acting absurdly childish, narcissists don’t need to just “grow up”. Instead, they need help resolving some severe internal woundedness. Until they get such help, the idea of not hoarding power will remain terrifying.

Whenever you’re dealing with jerks, an important step towards your own healing is to learn to see those jerks in a more compassionate light. Abusive relationship partners act abusive in an attempt to manage their own personal crises. In other words, their behavior isn’t as personal as it feels. If your mother is one of the narcissists that you’ve been wounded by, it’s helpful to understand that her refusal to treat you with the respect you deserve, her constant belittling of your needs, and her insistence that you treat her own desires as far more important than your own are all defensive strategies that her mind has latched onto in an effort to protect her from more pain.

For narcissists and all other abusers, relationships generally feel very uncomfortable, and relationship partners feel very threatening. Because narcissists already feel internally fragile, having to admit they need something from others is quite distressing. When they engage in relationships in an attempt to have their needs met, they instinctively try to hide what they are doing by treating their partners as if they are expendable. Yet to the narcissist, it feels vital to have a bunch of people constantly affirming the delusions of grandeur that they have come up with to help distract themselves from how weak and broken they feel deep down. So it’s a mess, and usually not one that can be corrected by anyone who the narcissist feels dominant over.

The person best suited to help a narcissist is someone who they personally view as powerful yet kind. That person will typically remain powerful in the narcissist’s eyes by remaining unknown on a personal level. A professional counselor who is behaving correctly in therapy sessions can meet these requirements. The folks who narcissists normally choose to associate with cannot, because narcissists instinctively choose partners who they feel they can easily predict and dominate, therefore they tend to have very little respect for them and won’t view them as valid advisors.

Once you understand how unrealistic it is to expect to be able to cure narcissism in your family members, you can focus on better goals. In such situations, usually the best you can do is focus on distancing yourself from your abusive family members and adjusting your behaviors to reduce your own sense of powerlessness. Because narcissists are power hoarders, you usually have to use some pretty extreme behaviors to reclaim power in your relationships with them. There are many practical ways to do this. Changing your communication habits is often an important place to start. First, identify the family members who you feel walk all over you. Then adjust your phone settings to make their calls automatically go to your voice mail. Choose a certain day of the week when you will listen to those voice mails. If they are texting you, don’t read those texts until a specific day of your choosing. If they are emailing you, fix your settings to punt any emails from them immediately out of your inbox and into a separate folder that you will read on your specific day. By choosing certain days in which you’ll deal with abusive people, and by spacing those days out, you start acting more powerful in your own eyes. You also frustrate your abusers, but that is not the important goal in a case like yours. Since you’re focused on healing, you need to start using symbolic behaviors to counter the negative beliefs you’ve formed over the last 50 years.

The Intensity of Family Dynamics

Since we all start off in life feeling like our immediate family members have immense power over us, their behavior towards us feels extra significant. Our experiences with our family members greatly influence the beliefs we form about ourselves as children, and we carry many of those beliefs with us into adulthood. A very important question for you to think about is “What specific negative beliefs about myself have I formed due to my experiences with my family members?” Often in cases like yours, there is a strong sense of inferiority–as if your own needs and feelings are automatically less important. To reduce the distress that such a belief causes, you need to be able to see yourself behaving as if your own needs are as important as everyone else’s. So what is the best way for you to do that? What kinds of behaviors do you personally associate with respecting your own feelings?

Often in these cases, a big cause of distress is feeling like it’s never okay for you to turn down a request that one of your abusive family members makes. When you behave like you don’t have permission to say “no”, you reinforce the belief that your feelings and needs don’t count. When you adjust your behaviors, that reinforcement stops happening. This is where coming up with a plan of intentionally delaying your response time to abusive family members can be a good first step. Since you don’t like these people and you find it stressful to deal with them, you are respecting your own needs by limiting your interactions with them.

Think of a food that you really dislike. If there was no reason why you had to eat that food, yet you forced yourself to eat it anyway, how would that make you feel? It would feel like you were punishing yourself, wouldn’t it? It would feel like you are turning against yourself and making yourself have a miserable experience just because. Often you can cause the same kind of psychological distress by forcing yourself to keep engaging with people who abuse you. This is where you need to sit down and seriously think about how necessary it is for you to keep engaging with people who treat you badly. What terrible thing would happen if you stopped being so available for your family members to harass anytime they wanted to? By this stage in your life, there is nothing you have that they can’t get from someone else, and once you are able to admit this to yourself, you can see why there isn’t a good argument for keeping these people in your life as much as they are.

The kind of psychological issues that result in strong narcissistic behavior typically cause the narcissist to feel a deep core need for partners that he or she can dominate. If you resist filling this role, narcissists can’t afford to wait around for you to cooperate again. Their need to step on others is so strong that they will often ditch you and start seeking out new people who will accept playing the role of their doormats. When it comes to getting some space between you and your abuser, narcissism is an easier issue to deal with than something like stalking, because narcissists tend to be less particular about who is fawning over them. They just need servants, and if you won’t fill that role, there are plenty of others who will.

Understanding how expendable narcissists tend view their relationship partners is important because when the abuser your dealing with is a family member, and they suddenly ditch you to latch on to someone else, it’s easy to feel jealous of that new person. For example, suppose your sister has always walked all over you, and you finally start using better boundaries so you stop giving her so many opportunities to treat you badly. To her, you become like a tomato plant in her garden that stops producing fruit. So she yanks up that plant and finds a new one to replace it. When she plants the new one, she naturally gives that new plant a lot of her attention to make sure it’s getting a good hold. When you observe this, it’s easy to feel jealous that your sister is dumping you for someone else. After all, she’s your sister, and you naturally wish the two of you could be friends, so it’s painful to see her so quickly move on as if she doesn’t miss you at all.

Once you realize that having severe narcissism makes it quite impossible for people to feel comfortable in functional relationships, you need to allow yourself time to mourn the loss of those relationships. When it comes to family members, this mourning process is often quite intense, because we all have strong desires for our family members to provide certain things for us. Accepting that your mom will never be the mom you wish you could have had is a lot more painful than accepting the fact that your new coworker is not interested in being friends with you. Mothers, fathers, siblings and grandparents are very symbolic people to our minds, and we often feel like we can’t be “complete” until they provide certain resources for us. Happily, this isn’t the case. It is quite possible to lose family members and still develop into healthy, functional people. But a critical step in breaking out of the constant cycle of frustration and pain is to finally accept that these people will never be who you wish they could be. When you stop viewing mom as someone who might one day morph into your ideal mom, and instead accept that ideal mom will never exist, then you can grieve the death of that dream and move on.

The Importance of Grieving

Hanging onto to unrealistic expectations is one of the main things that keeps us stalled in pain and prevents us from embracing healing. But to heal properly, we need to be honest about how much our unrealistic expectations meant to us, and allow ourselves a chance to grieve over the fact that they will never be met. If instead we try to skip the grieving process and start using mantras like “I’m so over her” long before they are true, we only end up suppressing all of our pain and making ourselves ill. The truth is that it can feel completely crushing to realize that your parent, sibling, or other relative will never be who you desperately wished they would be. The more important something is to us, the more painful it feels to lose it, even if that something was just a concept that we never got to experience in reality. Processing this kind of grief often involves a lot of crying and verbal venting, either out loud or in some kind of journal. It is very helpful to see your feelings clearly spelled out in front of you. It helps you appreciate the scope of your grief and understand the details of what you feel you are losing. Once you allow yourself to grief, you can begin the next stage, in which you start looking for new positives that you can add to your life in all of those spaces that you were reserving for certain people. Making a list of any current relationship partners that you have which you feel are functional is helpful, because then you can put more energy into maintaining and advancing those relationships. Seeking out new relationships is another helpful step.

In this world, there are many, many people who you could form happy, healthy relationships with. If you are open to meeting them, they will keep walking into your life. By being intentional about identifying, mourning, and letting go of abusive relationships, you make room for new, functional ones to flourish.


For more help on how to change the specific negative beliefs that you’ve formed while dealing with abusive family members, see Practical Steps for Correcting Traumatic Beliefs.

For help in adjusting your current relationships and preparing yourself to do well in future ones, I’d recommend that you read my book What’s Wrong With My Relationships?. When you’ve spent a lifetime receiving abuse in your primary relationships, you often haven’t had the chance to learn how a functional relationship works. Getting educated on some of those key principles can really help you with identifying and avoiding abusive relationships in the future.

This post was written in response to Haya.

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