In the book, The Brothers Karamazov, we see the influence of a narcissistic dad, who is concerned mainly with power, lust, and money, and how it affects his children. Although his other brothers all have narcissistic tendencies, one of his children, Alyosha, seemed to have escaped the curse of narcissism. At a funeral for a young boy who had previously been bullied by other boys, Alyosha gives the boys this wise advice for battling the narcissism not just in our homes, but in our hearts:
“You must know that there is nothing higher, or stronger, or sounder, or more useful afterwards in life, than some good memory, especially a memory from childhood, from the parental home. You hear a lot said about your education, yet some such beautiful, sacred memory, preserved from childhood, is perhaps the best education.”
As Alyosha then goes on to point out, we all have the tendency to become narcissistic:
“Perhaps we will even become wicked later, will even be unable to resist a bad action, will laugh at people’s tears and at those who say, as Kolya exclaimed today: ‘I want to suffer for all people’ perhaps we will scoff wickedly at such people.
Narcissism can range anywhere from a deep-seated personality disorder, to having narcissistic tendencies that people use to cope with problems and avoid pain. When we encounter individuals with narcissism in society, we find ways to work around it, and change jobs, teachers, bosses, friends, etc. However, when our family members have narcissistic traits, we can’t always (or shouldn’t) simply ditch them. How can we be loving and honor family members with narcissistic traits while also taking care of ourselves?
Narcissists are extremely adept at making you feel guilty for just about anything. They can be demanding of your time and your attention, leaving you exhausted, emotionally fragile, and in a state of chaos. They often use other people to do their dirty work of harassing others. You can set limits on what they are allowed to do or say to you, what you are willing to do for them, and the amount of time you spend with them. You may not be able to control their behavior, but you can control what you put up with, and being used as a weapon to hurt or control other people.
Like a good Russian novel, narcissists love lots of drama and thrive off of it. The opposite of drama is problem-solving. You can’t have both problem-solving and drama at the same time. When you recognize that there is a moment of drama, remember that it is the responsibility of the person with the problem to solve their own problem, not yours. Stay calm, and don’t react too strongly. Take some deep breaths and remind yourself that the other person really can solve their own problems, even if they blame it on you or play the very convincing role of victim, worthy of an Oscar.
It’s not uncommon to find families with narcissistic members who have large amounts of secrets and shame. The narcissists are relying on other family members to carry this shame and guilty quietly, and other family members step in to make sure these secrets don’t get out. Get help from a priest, friend, therapist, or anyone else you can trust. As you learn to talk to others about the narcissistic behavior of your family member, the easier it is to cope, grieve, and sometimes even find the humor in the absurdity of selfish behavior.
Perfectionism runs rampant in families where there is narcissism. No one can truly be perfect, but if a narcissist demands perfectionism from a family member, that family member is destined to fail - exactly the goal of a narcissist who has to be number one. Let yourself make mistakes.
Like Alyosha recommended, focus on the good memories. Behind their shell of grandiosity, drama, and conflict narcissists have an unbearable pain, the pain of loneliness and feelings of inadequacy. They may not be able to treat you the way you deserve, the way God meant for humans to treat other humans - with love, honesty, respect, and charity.
Focus on the good memories that you have of that person, and remember that God has a plan for them too. Pray for their conversion of heart, that they may learn to love God and others as God intended. When you feel difficult feelings about that family member, find a way to do something positive to counteract their actions - say a prayer, donate to a charity, smile at someone, write up a letter to a friend. Your feelings will pass, and we should be able to say the words of Alyosha “Certainly we shall rise, certainly we shall see and gladly, joyfully tell one another all that has been.”