One of the most frustrating and uniquely challenging aspects of dealing with family members that have personality disorders, especially narcissism, is that the family member themself can’t see the problem.
Yes, they can kind of see that people get upset at them a lot; that they get into disagreements and rows more than others; that they have no friends, or difficulties holding on to new friends; that their relationship with their children is plastic, at best, or strained and non-existent at worse, because the child can’t take them any more and has cut off ties.
Narcissists can't see that they are the problem
But try to tell someone with narcissistic personality disorder (for example) that they are the problem, or that they need to change, or that they have all the issues they’re actually accusing you of having – and you’ll enter a world of warped madness that defies belief, unless you’ve actually experienced it for yourself.
Say you’re dealing with someone who routinely belittles you, ignores your deepest needs and manipulates you into doing what they want, against your own best interests. If you were dealing with an emotionally-healthy person, you could at least try to have a discussion about what’s happening, and once you get through the defensiveness, they’ll admit and accept that you have some ‘right’ on your side, and that there is room for improvement.
This simply doesn’t happen with people who have cluster B personality disorders like narcissism or anti-social behavior disorder, for example. For the rest of the post, I’m going to concentrate on narcissism, because I think it’s far more prevalent than the mental health field accepts or recognizes (but that’s a post for another time…)
Super-successful but still have Narcissistic Personality Disorder
Narcissism is unique amongst serious personality disorders inasmuch as you can be an off-the-scale malignant narcissist, and still be externally ‘successful’. You probably have a job – even a good job, or high-flying career that’s earning you a lot of money. You probably have a spouse and children, who seem the epitome of perfection the outside world, despite the chaos and madness going on behind closed doors.
You often have friends (but either go through them fast, or hang out with people with their own, different, personality disorder that keeps them coming back for more of your manipulative, abusive, grandstanding, and uncaring behavior). In short, you can look like you’ve truly got life sussed, and managed to fool most of the people, most of the time, while still exhibiting a full-blown personality disorder.
The contrast between who the person with NPD actually is, and who they seem to be is one of the most head-wrecking things for people in close relationships with them, especially their children.
The children grow up in an atmosphere of emotional neglect, manipulation and verbal and psychological violence (narcissists are rarely physically violent, although it can happen, especially if they also have another co-personality disorder like Borderline Personality Disorder or Anti-Social PD).
The outside world has no idea what's really going on
Try to explain what’s going on to the outside world – they have no idea how bad it is, or how head-wrecking and emotionally-destructive the relationship with the narcissist is. The narcissist won’t change their behavior, or even accept that they’re doing anything wrong.
(As a side note, most people only discover how truly ‘crazy’ the narcissist is when they actually gather their courage to start having those frank conversations aimed at trying to change the status quo. Pushing a narcissist to a wall where they have no choice except to confront their own bad behavior and imperfections guarantees some hugely vitriolic and mind-bendingly awful responses.)
The narcissism Catch-22:
So this, in a nutshell, is the Catch 22 confronting close members of people with personality disorders like narcissism: the person causing the problems won’t change their behavior, seek help (in whatever context), or even accept that they have issues that need dealing with. They will continue to treat you badly when it suits them, to hurt you carelessly and deliberately, and to wreck your emotional and mental health and wellbeing by insisting you join them in their ‘perfect’ fantasy land where they can do no wrong. Period.
So now, what’s a close family member to do?
We'll discuss some of the options available in the next post.