Dealing with Toxic Family Members: Narcissistic Abuse Recovery

The summer season can be a joyous time for family reunions and treasured memories of gatherings by the beach, fireworks, camping adventures, etc. For some, unfortunately, this scenario is not the case.

In families where an individual has narcissistic tendencies (or exhibits behaviors of full blown NPD or malignant narcissism), such reunions transform into a nightmare.

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Much literature has been written on the subject (see below for resources).

This article is merely an attempt to remind survivors of narcissistic abuse in family systems that there is hope to heal and that there are things you can do to protect yourself from further exposure to the force field of toxic emotional abuse by a narcissist (or other psychological abusers) in your family:

1) It is not your job to diagnose your family member or determine “where” on the spectrum of narcissism your family member lies. What you need to focus on is YOU. I cannot emphasize enough the importance of finding a skilled, strengths-focused clinician to assist with healing.

2) If the toxic individual (whether family member/friend/boss/lover/ex-lover/colleague) will be present at the family gathering, you are under no obligation to attend.

It is okay to bow out of any commitment where you feel you will be exposed to further emotional abuse. Remember that psychological abusers like to send FOG (Fear/Obligation/Guilt) — if you are feeling immersed in the FOG haze, likely a manipulative tactic has been deployed to cause you cognitive dissonance and emotional pain.

Again, protect yourself and place your emotional well-being as number one. That action is not selfish — it is an act of self-care.

3) You can go No Contact with toxic family members, just like you would with a toxic ex.

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It may feel guilt-inducing, and other family members may not understand why you have chosen to proceed with No Contact. However, remind yourself that you have every right to protect yourself from psychological harm.

The toxic family member may have done a very skilled acting job of convincing others that you are the crazy one (projection/blame-shifting) or that they are just perfect (false mask) and why would you treat them so unfairly (playing the victim)?

Stick to your fortitude and know you are setting a healthy boundary by protecting your emotional and physical health from further abuse by a toxic person. You don’t need to justify or explain it to anyone.

4) Such like an abusive ex, if a toxic family member is harassing, stalking, or generating unwanted contact, you have every right to pursue legal action and consult with an attorney or Legal Aid regarding filing a restraining order and other protections (like a Cease and Desist Order).

The added layer of legal protection is an additional barrier of accountability and potentially containment of an abuser. Narcissistic people do not want to be exposed for their transgressions.

5) Seek psychological counseling to receive support for separating and extricating from toxic family systems. There are licensed therapists who specialize in helping to empower their clients from a strengths-focused (versus victim-shaming/blaming) perspective.

Interview potential mental health professionals who are trauma-informed and know something about narcissistic abuse, to be sure you feel empowered, not shamed or blamed. Good psychotherapy can be invaluable in healing from any residual trauma, depression, anxiety that has stemmed from a family system perpetuating narcissistic (or other forms of) abuse.

6) If your tribe (by blood) has some toxic members, you can create your own tribe of unconditionally supportive, authentic and safe members — these individuals don’t have to be related to you by blood.

They can be friends, colleagues, neighbors. Look for authenticity, integrity, reciprocity, compassion, empathy, honesty, accountability and compromise as important features in healthy relationships.

7) If a toxic person wants to get better, you can’t do the work for them. They have to figure out their own pathway of healing and connect with the motivation to do so, and usually, that involves a ton of therapy over a long period of time. Just because someone begs and pleads for you to stay in the relationship (whether familial or romantic), doesn’t mean you are obligated to do so.

If a person is capable of change, you are going to see evidence of sustained, continuous behavioral change over a lengthy period of time, with evidence of accountability and empathy and remorse for harm caused. For individuals who are further on the spectrum of narcissism, change is very limited and so is insight.

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Andrea Schneider, MSW, LCSW
Andrea Schneider, MSW, LCSW is a licensed clinical social worker in private practice in San Dimas, CA. She received her MSW from the University of Michigan (the top-ranked social work program in the country) and her B.A. in Psychology from UCLA (#2 in the country).
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