A self-absorbed or narcissistic parent is one who puts his or her needs first, cannot recognize the feelings of others, and expects understanding and admiration but is unable to give them.
They cannot hear feedback or handle confrontation, and are often critical and controlling. They see other people as extensions of themselves and objects to meet their needs. They almost always have a grandiose sense of entitlement.
Loss is the central dynamic in growing up with a Self-Absorbed Parent (SAP). Loss of unconditional love and acceptance. And loss of being seen and supported as a separate individual, who is unique and special.
Hanging up the phone or walking away from a SAP may be the only way to preserve self-respect and dignity but guilt feelings will likely follow. Most adult children of a SAP take a break from the relationship at some point for varying lengths of time—either hours or years.
I’ve weathered several stretches of a few years when my only contact with my SAP was exchanging cards for birthdays and Christmas. My most recent leave of absence lasted about five years and ended primarily due to a family illness.
Parents with narcissistic behavior fall somewhere on a continuum, ranging from a few traits to full-blown Narcissistic Personality Disorder. Some are healthier, more functional and less destructive than others.
If you choose to have direct contact with a SAP, here are some strategies to protect yourself. Think of these as tools or weapons—specific ways to maintain healthy boundaries and prevent further injury.
1. Minimize confrontation
The first rule in communication is to ask: Can my audience hear what I want to say? A true narcissist cares about one thing—him or herself. In their eyes, they are never wrong. It’s tempting to think if we choose our words carefully, this time they’ll understand—and change their behavior.
Instead of confrontation or arguing, try agreeing: “You might be right.” It takes the wind out of their argumentative sail.
2. Avoid being emotionally open
Save your innermost thoughts, feelings and needs for other people. SAPs have an uncanny ability to pounce when we feel most exposed and vulnerable. They will also use our foibles and mistakes against us.
3. Slow down your reactions
Don’t fly off the handle or speak and act impulsively. Take a deep breath and try to stay calm. Develop the ability to delay responding. Practice saying, “Let me think about that” OR: “I’ll have to get back to you.”
4. Keep a safe distance
If you’re in the same room, notice your body language. Stay at least four feet away. Cross your arms. Turn your body away to avoid directly facing your SAP. Avoid eye contact. These are actions to maintain separation and clear boundaries. Monitor how you feel when you use them (or don’t)—and then later on after your encounter is over.
5. Use imagery
These are visualizations to create more safety by picturing something between you and your unhealthy parent. Imagine a brick wall, bullet-proof bubble, huge rose bush with thorns or a warrior’s shield between the two of you.
6. Learn how to set limits and say ‘no’
A SAP will never hesitate to ask or demand what s/he wants. They’re pros at manipulating by making others feel guilty, but it takes two parties for this to work.
Use an assertive technique called “broken record.” You say the same line as many times as necessary. “I’m sorry, but I can’t do that.” They go on and on. “I’m really sorry, but I can’t do that.” Since we are adults, we don’t have to explain our actions or defend our choices.
When all else fails and you need distance, take a walk and return later after you’ve calmed down—or simply leave or hang up the phone.
Everyone knows the feeling of becoming child-like as soon as you enter your parents’ home or start talking to them on the phone. When we regress, we get stuck in old ways of behaving; we shut down or defend and attack. Say to yourself: “I’m an adult now. I’m an adult now. I. Am. An. Adult.”
These are not rules, but merely suggestions with which to experiment. By trial and error, you will find the ones that work best for you. The goals of these steps are self-protection, ongoing separation and increased self-respect.