How to Break Free from a Parent’s Narcissistic Personality Disorder (Part Three in a Four-Part Series)

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This is the third post in a four-part series by One Angry Daughter, who shares her experience and resources for Adult Children of Narcissists on her blog, One Angry Daughter

What's Next?

Due to all the strong emotions attached to the NPD-inflicted loved one, the first instinct is to try to save the relationship. 

A person involved with a narcissist must realize there is not a healthy relationship to save. There is a reason that narcissists are described as “emotional vampires” – they literally feed off of your empathy because they are devoid of any themselves.  Taking action to protect your emotional well being from their harsh attacks, means they can not victimize you any longer.

Making the decision to stop enduring the abuse can invoke many emotions.  Personally I was scared of the loss of the relationship and angry that I had to be the only one working towards change.  It was hard for me to let go of the fantasy of having one big happy extended family that could come together and share in the birth of my son and all the events that were to come. Beyond the painful emotions, there is a sense of renewal and peace once you realize it is acceptable and healthy for you to expect mutual respect in relationships, to have boundaries, and to institute your own moral compass. 

If you are involved with a narcissist – whether it is with a parent, spouse or friend – you have the power to stop the abusive relationship.  This change does not happen overnight.  It takes a series of small investment in changes that pay out over time with self confidence and healthier relationships.

The four areas of concentration that continue to help me move towards this goal are:

Education

Buildng a Support System

Setting Boundaries

Adjusting to a New Normal

#1 EDUCATION

Learning about Narcissistic Personality Disorder was a life-changing event for me.  The internal messages I had about myself, shaped by my childhood, were challenged.  I learned that I was not a person with poor intentions, overly selfish, too dramatic or always wrong. I learned that my family dynamic did not support healthy shows of emotion or independence since such shows threatened the fragile and unhealthy family system in which we lived.

Education took three forms in my experience.  

Education – Phase One

The first was learning the definition and symptoms of NPD.  In understanding the disorder, you get insight into how narcissistic people process thoughts and the tools they use to manipulate those around them.  This is useful reading for those of us who have a narcissistic parent. We typically only understand the dysfunctional relationship and are just discovering it is not OK. As such, we require help knowing what to look for so we can avoid similar relationships in the future.

Narcissism belongs to the Cluster B (dramatic, emotional or erratic) personality disorders as described by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV-TR) published by the American Psychiatric Association.  Many of these disorders share similar traits and it is possible for an individual’s behavior to closely relate to more than one in the group.  For that reason, it is also useful to educate yourself on the other disorders:

Antisocial

Borderline

Histrionic 

It is easy to get stuck in this phase of education because validation feels good.  However, the point of the journey is to make a positive change in you.  No amount of reading will help you to completely pinpoint what makes your narcissist tick.  NPD is likely to be one small piece of the equation as there could be other mental health or addiction issues in play. 

Read just enough to gain enough to gain confidence that you are making a healthy decision by changing the relationship with the narcissist.

Education – Phase Two

The second phase of education involves how to interact with the narcissistic person going forward.  Healthy people try to use reason and compromise. The narcissist only uses tactics that preserve their false self. In fact, your use of logic, explaining your feelings and an expression of your desire to change may only prove to do one thing:  make the narcissist a better narcissist. They play dirty and the last thing you want to do is give them ammunition for their drama gun which has you fixed in its sights. 

The tactics for dealing with someone who has NPD will include:

Limiting contact

Setting boundaries

Detaching emotionally 

Education – Phase Three

The third phase is a desire to cultivate your self confidence and develop your own set of standards.  In this phase, you disable the narcissist (or any person) from triggering you emotionally in a negative way.  When I was ready for this step, I felt it indicated a healthy transition.  I had become less concerned about NPD and more concerned about how I was going to obtain and maintain mental health and foster healthy relationships.  This is the knowledge that hands you the keys to your own life – taking the abusive control away from your narcissist.  If you are a parent, these are the changes that help ensure you prevent passing damaging behavior on to another generation.

#2 BUILDING A SUPPORT SYSTEM  

One of the ways an abusive dynamics keep you from changing is by making you feel damaged and isolated.  The truth is, no matter what your family history, there are many people who can relate to at least part of it.  Finding these connections will help fortify your resolve to change and demand healthy, respectful relationships.

Support can come in many forms:

Spouse

Other family members

Friends

Therapist

Virtually – through online support groups. 

Seek people who are empathic – so that even if they have not experienced a narcissistic relationship first hand, they are willing to try to understand and support you.  If anyone is making you feel guilty that you haven’t done enough to smooth things over with someone you believe to have NPD – do not discuss the situation with them again.   Your support system should make you feel safe and feed to express all of your emotions.

When finding support within your family, tread lightly.  Your narcissist likes to divide and conquer by bad mouthing and projecting.  It is essential it does not appear you are doing the same thing.  Until you know you can trust a family member to understand what you are going through, do not bring up the subject of NPD.  Concentrate on foster relationships with relatives independent of your narcissistic parent.  If a well meaning relative want to help, make it clear that you do not want them to get in the middle to try to smooth things over.  The damaged relationship can only be resolve by you and the NPD person if both parties are willing.

A relative who understands the narcissist is an asset.  Reaching out to them can re-enforce the fact that your experience with your self absorbed relation is not normal.  Family members have insight into the narcissist’s history and may be able to offer you clues as to the origin of the disorder.  This will help you realize that you are not to blame, but that the narcissistic person is too disordered to be an equal partner in your relationship.

When seeking out a therapist, approach it like starting a new relationship.  Therapists are human being just like the rest of us, with their own belief systems, moral codes and personality quirks.  If you feel like the therapist is pushing you down a path you do not agree with, seek out another.  Look for a professional who has knowledge of personality disorders and family therapy.  A good therapist will help you to feel empowered.

 #3 SETTING BOUNDARIES

I went to therapy with the hopes I could learn some magic language to get through to my mother that I was grown up and living my own life.  I wanted her to know that I did not expect her to be pleased with all my decisions, but that she would need to respect that they were mine to make.  I did not want to keep pushing her away, but something in our relationship needed to change so we could move forward in a healthier direction.  I wanted an adult relationship with my mother.

What I really was searching for was very obtainable – I needed to know how to set boundaries.  Growing up, we lived without healthy boundaries, so when it came time for me to define my own, it was difficult. A simple way to think of a boundary is like a force field around you physically and emotionally that protects your personal values.  Effective boundaries make you feel safe in relationships.  It keeps what is important to you close and what is damaging at a distance. 

Enforcing your boundaries will mean being able to say “no” effectively.  Saying no was really hard for me because it is my nature not to want to disappoint others – which is a feeling shared by many Adult Children of Narcissist (ACON).  Narcissistic parents react strongly when their children say no, feeling like they were wrongly denied. We may feel as if everyone will treat us the same way a narcissistic parent did and feel this need to please everyone by saying “yes”.  This destructive behavior will result in becoming emotionally drained and you will not have the energy to focus on the things that are important to you.  It is ok to say “no” to enforce your boundaries – keeping the good in and the bad out. 

People who have a healthy sense of self normally do not need to be reminded of boundaries.  People who have empathy are able to read people and more importantly, listen to people and adjust their behavior accordingly.  Narcissists do not have these capacities and will trample any personal boundaries you have to control the situation.  When dealing with someone who has NPD you need to be painfully explicit about your boundaries and stand your ground to enforce them.  Narcissists are bullies. Backing down after setting boundaries is one of the most damaging things you can do as it shows the narcissist your boundaries are easily broken.

Communicate your boundaries to the narcissist in a medium that makes you feel safe and gives you the best chance of being heard.  Some people choose to do this face to face, often with a spouse or other support person presents.  Others feel more comfortable over the phone.  Still others, me included, feel more comfortable expressing ourselves in writing. Anytime I had tried to voice disagreement with my mom in person or over the phone, it resulted in her yelling over me.  I react strongly to that behavior by backing down.  I needed to express my feelings in a medium that made me feel strong.  Everybody is different, but make sure you are stating your boundaries in a way that makes you feel confident.

#4 ADJUSTING TO THE CHANGE

The relationship will change after boundaries are set.  The narcissist may intrude more forcefully, or withdraw completely from your life.  You may choose to limit or terminate contact, either temporarily or permanently.  Or you may choose to keep the narcissist in their life, but are diligent about enforcing boundaries again and calling abusive behavior out as unacceptable.

There will be times of enormous guilt, feeling like you were wrong to stand up for yourself.  You may find yourself thinking there was a better way to maintain the relationship.  Over time, I came to realize that yes, maybe I could have handled things differently, but I wasn’t holding my mom accountable to the same standard.  There were things she could have done better as well.  I had to forgive myself for not knowing what I didn’t know, and accept that my mother has a disorder that is blocking our path to a healthy relationship.

As you adjust to the change, be kind to yourself and respectful of the strong emotions that come your way.  Many mourn the loss of the idealized relationship we had with the narcissist as if that person had died. 

It is not unusual to find your self going through (sometimes multiple times) the five stages of grief:

Denial

Anger

Bargaining

Depression

Acceptance 

Never think that your emotions are silly or uncalled for.  If you feel like crying, cry.  If you are angry, be angry.  However, make sure you do not become consumed in the feeling.  Take time to understand the root cause of the emotion and look for ways to improve the situation so that you can move on to more positive and fulfilling experiences.  If you need help, reach out to your support system or therapist.

Seek out experiences that make you feel good about yourself.  They can be creative outlets like writing or painting.  Treat your body right by eating nutritiously and exercising.  Reconnect or redefine your spirituality.  Do things that make you feel in control, such as taking a self defense course (I highly recommend this).  Nurture relationships that are mutually respectful and distance your self from the ones that are not.  These healthy activities allow you to focus on the good in your life, while taking focus away from what was toxic.

Comments

  1. Paulstrobl says:

    Excellent site! There is very little out there on steps to break free from NPD parents. As an ACON, it’s been quite a long battle to get where I am today, and our work is never done.
    I wanted to mention that I didn’t see Nina Brown’s book, Children of the Self-Absorbed in your Amazon list. Highly recommended–was great for me when I needed it.
    It’s funny how we attract what we are. More and more of my coaching clients are ACON’s–I’ll definitely recommend your site for clients who would like to get their bearings on N parents. Here’s my site:
    http://www.confidecoaching.com/adult-children-narcissists-life-coach/

  2. amy eden says:

    Hi Paul – thanks!
    Just checked out your site and blog – really like your ‘Eating & Budgeting’ post. Really wise. Very cool how you come at that from such a unique and refreshing angle.
    It’s good to know about what you do (and where you do it!).
    Curious – what do you think about the upcoming changes to the DSM (2013 revision) with regard to NPD? Do you think it will alter how people understand or define their parents…? What does that change “mean” to us?

  3. susan smith says:

    I’ve been perusing your site again Amy and still finding gems like this one! Great advice! Thank you for sharing your wisdom! Susan:)

  4. marie says:

    Do you have any advice to help children who must have long visitations with a parent with NPD? They cannot say “no” without putting themselves in danger of his rage. He actually pinned my son to the floor for that one. I don’t have much chance of our courts here stepping in to change custody unless there has been physical injury, which almost happened but did not. My children recognize the abuse and control but don’t know how to deal with this parent. He can become dangerous if crossed or he does not have control. Two of my kids are afraid of him and the other “needs” to be more afraid of him for safety reasons. I don’t want them getting physically hurt or suffering any more emotional hurt. If I don’t give them up for visitations, I will be held in contempt of court. They are court ordered to go until 18 and the youngest is 9.

    • Amy Eden says:

      This is a hard one! There are a lot of resources online for ex-spouses of NPD people (and exes of psychopaths/borderline personality)…so I recommend checking those out. First thought I have is – document. Document everything. Dates, exceptions to scheduled dates, and that he pinned your son to the floor. Keep notes on it all.
      I also strongly suggest finding a counselor that can help you with your side of things (detachment) and also help you prepare your children for how to interact with their dad — it’s a minefield, clearly — but the important thing is for you to be as nurturing as possible and help reinforce your kids’ healthy self-esteem so that it’s clear to them that they are OK people, and that their dad’s issues aren’t a reflection on them. You can’t change a person, but you can help to ‘arm’ your kids with healthy perspectives and an emotional toolkit, and you have control over being the most healthy parent you can be. But definitely I recommend doing some work with a therapist around this issue because the worst thing would be for your ex to take up more space in your life than he deserves and he sounds like he extends his presence through drama…
      What do you think….?

  5. Meg says:

    Hi Amy, really great article. Just out of curiosity is Amy Eden a ‘ghost writer’ name? Reason I ask is that you are incredibly brave to put your honest blog out there public ally in view of your own family – has it caused further tension?
    Cheers, Meg

    • Amy Eden says:

      Hi Meg! Thanks so much for your bravery comment. Amy Eden is my first and middle names. Am I still brave? :-)
      My family hasn’t said anything. But I take care to be factual in my mentions them — but, not for them, for me. So while they’re welcome to say something, I’d like to think that my factual representation of them isn’t a point of dispute…and the rest is my feelings. Also not up for dispute.
      All that aside, they don’t read my blog. They are THAT interested! Heh.

  6. Middleagedmom says:

    I have recently discovered after many years of hearing my mother tell me that my FATHER had NPD that SHE is actually the one with the disorder. My Father passed several years ago and was a functional absent alcoholic. My mother spend all of my life making excuses…some plausible and some not so plausible why my Father wasn’t a good Father. Never mind that she was a terrible mother. LSS…through many years of frustration and much self realization we have struggled quite a bit lately due to conflicts among family members. I discovered through a website that my mother is very very sick. In the past month her behavior has been so deplorable but so sneaky and it is the epitome of NPD. I asked my husband to read the break down to which he handed me back the e-reader about half way through with tears in his eyes and said I cannot read any more and that it was scary how much that it described my life. I am the youngest of three and my struggle is this. I have a 10 year old daughter and she loves her “Gramma” very much. They spend some time together but my mother is certainly NOT a requirement for care or transportation or anything of that nature. After all she did tell me when my daughter was 3 that “She wasn’t that kind of Grandma”. I want to limit exposure because I do NOT want my daughter to be harmed by her lunacy. On the other hand I feel a bit of guilt for denying them to spend time together. What do I do here???

  7. Christian Santos says:

    Only if i knew about this guide 1-2 years ago, if i did the situation im in wouldnt be happening. My mom had molested me and has beeen denying and cops have found no evidence and she hired a lawyer while i was in a foster home to prove she didnt do it. She’s now planning to send me to a farm in Utah where I will work there until im 18 because she believes im a bad child and thus self-fulfilling my prophecy.

  8. AZ says:

    “The relationship will change after boundaries are set.”

    My experience has been that the person with NPD doesn’t care that you set boundaries and actually enjoys disrespecting them -over and over again- so that the only true boundary IS to escape this person altogether. If they are respecting boundaries, they don’t have NPD.

    • Amy Eden says:

      Thanks. It’s a lot like dealing with a skipping record (if one is old enough to have a memory of what a skipping LP record sounds like…it’s a difficult sound to withstand) or dealing with a toddler who repeats the question till you address it. Which is to say, it doesn’t stop; the other person doesn’t stop attempting to push past the boundaries we establish because that’s their groove. So if I don’t want to repeat, repeat, repeat that “Thanks but I can’t join you for dinner” response, then certainly getting distance is key.
      The “enjoys” it part…ooof! No fun. If the narcissistic person actually enjoys trying to push past the boundary, or treats it like a game and pushes back for sport — distance, like you say….escape, yes. Pull the rip cord.

  9. Robeaner says:

    I’ve been married for 19 years with three beautiful daughters and a great husband. I figured out my dad was a narcissist a few years back. I’ve been setting boundaries and him and his wife have been with drawing from their only three grandkids. I got a nasty letter from my dad two weeks ago for saying no to a visit and I responded that we could set up a time that works for both but that hasn’t happened. The more boundaries I set the angrier and more pathetic ge becomes. I’m in counseling to help with the

  10. Robeaner says:

    ……guilt. One example of my dad – he hung up on my husband for canceling a weekend hunting trip last minute because I had to be on bed rest for a possible miscarriage after under going fertility treatments and we had a three year old. I ended up having a miscarriage and they came to visit me the day of my D & C. My husband told my dad he needed to apologize for such bad treatment, especially during a stressful time. My dad didn’t apologize but mumbled “so your trying to blame this on me”. They walked in and let me serve them the small meal I made for my family – the day if my D and C- they weren’t invited but thought they were doing me a niceity by dropping by at supper time. I have tons more stories! I’m made out to be selfish and self centered for not bowing to his wishes.

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