Sometimes loving a narcissist means doing so at a safe distance ― even if the narcissist in question is your parent. Just ask writer Julie L. Hall.
On her blog, The Narcissist Family Files, Hall writes about severing ties with her parents and counsels others looking to do the same.
“Realizing and accepting that you have one or more narcissistic parents is a long and intensely painful road,” Hall told HuffPost. “That’s because children, even adult children, continue to desire love and approval, often against all reason.”
Ultimately, asserting low or no contact with a narcissist parent can be a healthy, liberating choice.
“Creating distance with your parent means giving up the delusion that they will someday change and releasing the feeling of responsibility for them they may have instilled in you,” Hall said.
What’s more important than initiating a break is learning how to be assertive and set limited boundaries when parents are inappropriate, controlling, invasive or abusive.
Darlene Lancer, marriage and family therapist
Narcissistic Personality Disorder is one of 10 personality disorders described in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Narcissism exists on a spectrum, but narcissists generally have an outsize sense of worth and base their identity on the praise and approval of others.
Having a relationship with a narcissist is incredibly difficult, because they have little to no empathy for others. A narcissistic parent will walk all over their family ― even their children ― to get their needs met.
Coming out from under the shadow of a narcissistic parent can be difficult but often incredibly necessary in adulthood, said Hall, who’s currently writing a book about her experience.
“For me, it was more of an internal, almost unconscious life-preserving shift that involved pulling way back from interaction with both of my parents,” she said. “Even now, I haven’t seen my father or stepmother in about four or five years, and we only exchange sporadic generic emails and rare brief phone calls.”
So how do you initiate a similar break or period of limited contact with a narcissistic parent? Below, Hall and other experts share what adult children can do to break destructive communication cycles with their mom or dad.
1. Recognize that your health and well-being must come first
Growing up, you may have been quick to try to please your parents ― so much so that your own needs and desires feel secondary to this day. As an adult, you may realize you’ve given your parents all the ego boosting and validation you can and need to put yourself first for once.
“When you have full-blown NPD parents, setting boundaries is essential,” Hall said. “With both my NPD father and mother with narcissistic traits, my own life-threatening illness finally drove me to extremely low contact.”
As an adult, Hall became bedridden with an adrenal condition and couldn’t handle the stress her mother brought into her life. Today, their relationship is in better shape.
“After a two-year no-contact hiatus, I ended up moving my mother near me and nursed her through cancer,” she said. “I did it because she needed it, and it felt right for me. I have established nonnegotiable boundaries with her, and she has learned to be a mostly positive influence in my daughter’s life.”
2. Learn to detach and create boundaries
To truly disengage and forge an identity outside your parent’s shadow, you’ll need to learn to detach, which essentially means not reacting to things said or done by the narcissist. To that end, create healthy boundaries, like limiting your communication to short phone calls or email, said Linda Martinez-Lewi, a psychotherapist and the author of Recovery and Healing After the Narcissist.
“Your email interactions should be limited to light topics that do not involve deep emotional topics or issues,” she said. “If this strategy does not work and the narcissistic parent continually harasses the adult child, it’s probably time to consider going no contact, but that’s a very difficult decision. The process can take some time.”
3. Try not to be confrontational, but do set clear boundaries
Confronting a narcissist with a laundry list of their parenting mistakes isn’t likely to go over well; narcissists are notoriously bad at taking criticism. It may even make the situation worse, said Karyl McBride, a family and marriage therapist and the author of Will I Ever Be Good Enough? Healing the Daughters of Narcissistic Mothers.
“Narcissists don’t hold themselves accountable and are usually not able to provide empathy, so a confrontation is a set-up for more pain, disappointment and angst,” she said.
Still, you need to communicate your need for some space. McBride recommends stating clearly in an email or phone call that you need to do this for your own well-being and personal growth.
“Own it as something you need, make your point without blame or accusation, and then just stick to it with solid boundaries,” she said. “But it’s important to work on yourself during this time, so you are making the best decision possible for yourself and your mental health moving forward.”
4. Accept that your parent may make it extremely difficult to initiate a break
Keep in mind that there’s a high chance your parent won’t respect your desire for some time apart. That’s because narcissists typically see their children as extensions of themselves rather than individuals with their own unique needs, said Darlene Lancer, a marriage and family therapist and the author of Conquering Shame and Codependency: 8 Steps to Freeing the True You.
“Cut-offs can lead to an insidious feeling of guilt for the child,” she said. “What’s more important than initiating a break is learning how to be assertive and set limited boundaries when parents are inappropriate, controlling, invasive or abusive.”
Once you’ve set your boundaries, don’t backtrack on them. Don’t succumb to nagging, self-pity, threats, guilt-tripping or any other forms of manipulation.
“Setting boundaries is the outgrowth of honoring oneself,” she said. “This process takes time and includes the ability to identify and believe you’re entitled to your feelings and needs, and learning to assert them.”
5. Don’t blame yourself for the state of the relationship
Children of narcissists usually have a long history of self-blame and finding fault within themselves, said psychologist Craig Malkin, author of Rethinking Narcissism: The Bad — And Surprising Good — About Feeling Special.
That’s because their parents manipulated them to get that reaction, he said.
“Narcissistic parents are very good at lashing out or collapsing in tears whenever their children express needs of their own, training their kids to point the finger at themselves whenever they felt hurt, lonely or angry over the abuse,” Malkin said. “In turn, their kids grow up thinking, ’I’m too needy, too sensitive, too selfish.’”
Now that you’re an adult, it’s critical that you lift the guilt off yourself and recognize it’s your parent’s behavior ― not anything you did ― that has forced you to take a step back from the relationship.
“If you don’t place responsibility for the hurt where it belongs — with those who hurt you — you’ll find reason to let a narcissistic parent back into your life every single time,” Malkin said.