Information about how to spot a narcissistic parent or partner and how to manage them has exploded in the past five years. There is less information available on how a narcissistic sibling affects the personality of a brother or sister. This is likely because the role of the parent has primary importance in shaping a child’s emotional and social functioning. However, sibling relationships can be just as impactful, especially because many siblings spend more time together than they do with parents. Sibling interactions are often largely unsupervised and, as a result, very unhealthy power dynamics can develop without any adult being aware. A sibling relationship is also expected to be close and loving, so that when it is not, due to the narcissistic brother or sister’s behavior, it can be quite traumatic for the victim.
I would like to address in this blog the long-term psychological impact of a narcissistic sibling on their brothers or sisters. This topic is very personal to me, because as an adult, through therapy and my own personal growth work, I realized that my sister, Lynn, engaged in decades of selfish, greedy, abusive, manipulative, and attention-seeking narcissistic behavior. This behavior included some minor sexual abuse, but I believe the most long-lasting damage was done with more subtle, coercive and emotionally abusive tactics. Her behavior was a key reason my confidence and self-worth were so low for decades.
Just as with emotionally neglectful parents, the abusive behavior of a narcissistic sibling isn’t always obvious. It is important to recognize that what ISN’T said (“I love you and support you.”) may a powerful message. perhaps even more than what IS said. When one is in a relationship that is expected to be loving, warm and supportive, and is instead controlling, cold, coercive and non-reciprocal, that creates harm, even if that harm is difficult to pinpoint. This lack of love in an ostensibly close family bond is very confusing and destabilizing to the victim.
In my family, no one ever said “I love you” or “I care about you” or was warm or affectionate. We learned to compete based on intellectual debates or witty sarcasm and sardonic teasing usually involving thinly veiled personal attacks that could be played off as a joke, but was really hurtful, especially when done repeatedly. Looking back, I realize my sister was the lead actor in starting and continuing this form of emotional abuse. I was a fast-growing, gangly child and Lynn created numerous hurtful nicknames about my clumsiness and awkwardness. My parents did not put a stop to the nicknames, which was also a failure to protect. This type of communication makes it hard for a child to identify abuse, because no one actually SAID or DID anything overtly harmful. As in many narcissistic relationships, the narc often claims “I was just joking,” as a way to excuse emotional abuse.
In these non-warm family environments, victims learn to expect that they will get manipulation and an agenda, instead of consoling from a sibling. I think I learned to be constantly on guard in a low-grade way against being targeted for a mistake or failure, leading to many of the traits I list below. I came to understand how much Lynn’s behavior negatively impacted my personality throughout my childhood and adulthood.
To outsiders, Lynn appeared to be a decent human being. However, her superficial generosity, caring, and altruism were ploys to look good, garner approval, and disguise her true nature. If you challenge Lynn, you will regret it, as I learned the hard way over many decades. My mother frequently said that she was amazed that two children raised in the same household who were only 16 months apart could grow up to be so very different in morals and character.
What is most unfortunate is that my personality and life choices suffered as a result of her personality. I mourn all of the ways I would have had a very different life if I had not been negatively molded by my sister’s dominating personality.
I was shy and fearful for much of my life, when my real personality is now extraverted, confident and social. I was insecure and self-doubting because of Lynn’s gaslighting, which limited my career and social choices. If she had not stolen the spotlight so very often, would I have felt more deserving of praise, success, attention, and love? What would my life been like if I had been as self-confident as I am now? Would I have chosen abusive and emotionally cold husbands? Would I have made such self-sabatoging decisions about school or jobs or life ambitions?
Sadly, many of the people I see in therapy have been negatively impacted by their narc sibling or siblings and do not even realize it. It took me years to recognize the harms Lynn. Fortunately, she no longer directly harms me because I have not talked to her for about 17 years after she engaged in a final act of childishness one Christmas. My brother also independently made a choice to cut her out of his life within two days of me doing so.
How Parents Create Narcissistic Children
Development of a narcissist can, of course, be traced to certain parenting strategies and personalities. Narcissists come in many forms, so each person and family has its own dynamic. Complicating things is that narcissists are made, not born, so there is likely a narc parent in the family as well. I trace our family dynamic to the fact that my parents did not express emotions well and never said “I love you” to me (and probably never did to my siblings). They provided clothing, shelter, education, and a stable family home life, but they did not respond emotionally with warmth. Consequently, my sister learned to elicit care from them through coerciveness — by exaggerating her helplessness, by faking illnesses, and by demanding attention and money— and it generally worked.
Our parents also enabled Lynn’s behaviors by being too permissive, which was in stark contrast to how they parented me and my brother. Their interactions with Lynn seemed to be motivated by guilt and she quickly learned to manipulate their guilt to get her way and garner money and attention. She has a long history of repeatedly asking my parents for financial support, such as three year-long trips abroad, down payments on Hollywood condos and houses, car loans, and large cash gifts. My memories of childhood and adulthood are my sister over-reacting when sick or faking illnesses to get attention from my parents. This continued in adulthood, as she had numerous vague illnesses, such as endometriosis, chronic fatigue, fibromyalgia, whiplash and numerous and changeable food sensitivities. She would regularly make statements about how she no longer ate a certain food, only to eat large quantities of that food at the next meal. A minor twisted ankle at age 12 was used throughout her life as an excuse for her inability to exercise, while I ran long distances and went skiing in spite of a history of a broken ankle, torn ACL in my knee, reconstructive knee surgery and a partially dislocated hip. Once when I flew in to visit her in California, she flamboyantly complained about menstrual cramps and was bedridden, until I calmly stated I would go out to dinner without her. (I had learned not to play into her attention seeking.) Her cramps mysteriously and suddenly disappeared!
My brother and I went in the other direction from our narcissistic sister. We subconsciously learned that Lynn was occupying the “helpless” niche and so we gave up looking for help and care from our parents. We recognized that Lynn had sucked up the attention through her excessive attempts to gain their approval. Subconsciously, we tried a different strategy to gain parental approval — by being competent, resilient and independent.
I now recognize the impact my sister’s behavior had on my own personality and were one of the reasons I developed the traits I discuss below, such as being unable to ask for help, being over-achieving, and being emotionally closed off. I worked on myself to correct these problems, but they are learned at such an early age and through millions of daily interactions within the family system that complete change can be difficult.
How Does a Narcissistic Sibling Affect the Personality of a Brother or Sister?
- Narcissists essentially train siblings and others to be more Self-blaming, leading to lifelong proneness to excessive guilt and shame in the victims. I prefer to use the term Other-blamer for narcissistic personality traits, as this highlights the impact they have on others. Because they never learned healthy shame tolerance, Other-blamers instead cope by avoiding the experience of shame or inadequacy and deflecting it onto others. Other-blamers do not like feeling inferior, so they will refuse to apologize, be accountable or admit fault. As a result, those in relationship with them have to absorb excess guilt, blame and accountability. Hence, the opposing term of Self-blamer — a person who internalizes shame and self-recrimination. With Other-blamers, they can never be wrong, so the victim is “always wrong”. This ingrained pattern of scapegoating others is a self-protective strategy: The Self-blamer learns to preemptively guilt-trip themself to avoid the narc’s anger and abuse.
- As the family scapegoat, I was forced by my parents to apologize when my sister behaved in outrageously inappropriate ways — even if there were witnesses. Victims of narc abuse learn to be the peacemaker to try to calm the abuser’s anger and accusations, leading to a lifetime of conflict avoidance, passivity, and lack of assertiveness.
- Many Self-blaming victims of narcs develop a fear of being selfish, narcissistic or controlling, even if that fear is subconscious. Unlike the antisocial narcissist, the pendulum swings far over into the prosocial traits, such as kindness and generosity. But these “givers” may lack the ability to say no to others, struggle to set boundaries and be excessively people pleasing.
- Victims often develop a fear of dependence on others, fear of vulnerability, and general distrust in relationships, known as avoidant attachment. This shows up in various ways, such as fear of asking for help, fear of being taken advantage of, excessive self-protection and independence, and fear of rejection. Because narcs behave in distrustful ways, victims learn to be emotionally guarded in self-protection. Narc siblings may also act helpless, dependent and childlike as a way to elicit care from caregivers. This leads their brothers or sisters to overcompensate by avoiding dependence or a need for care. The sibling may express fear of being a burden to others. Because narcs see vulnerability as a weakness to exploit, if you ask them for assistance they will hold this over your head for perhaps years as a way to exploit or abuse you. It is no wonder that victims become fearful of vulnerability or have difficulty being interdependent later in life, because they fear they will be taken advantage of for this. They are safest when independent and disconnected from others. This experience is often what makes me the saddest and most angry about narcissistic abuse — they train their victims to deny themselves the very thing that makes us human — a loving, connected, interdependent relationship. Many victims of narc siblings avoid long-term relationships and live very lonely lives.
- I recall many feelings throughout my earlier life where I would passively wait for someone to notice that I needed either emotional comfort or I was ill or perhaps needed a new pair of shoes. This selflessness is the opposite of the narcissist’s selfish entitlement — that they deserve more than others. Victims of narcissistic family systems learn that their family members will not dependably respond with warmth when asked for help. Consequently, although they still crave attention and love, as all children do, they’ve learned to give up hoping for it to arrive. The years of a narc sibling’s overt or covert emotional control leads to unhealthy patterns of learned helplessness, self-sacrificing attitudes, unhealthy submission and tolerance of abuse. Adult relationships often involve a coercive or controlling element.
- A narcissist’s opinions and needs are paramount in the family system. Victims learn that their values and needs and opinions are deprioritized in deference to the narc sibling’s. Victims develop a general lack of self-awareness and lack of understanding of personal interests. I personally experienced this when I was younger, having difficulty choosing partners because I never really assessed my own values and wants. As a psychologist, I’ve treated many victims of narcs who cannot make simple life decisions because they just don’t know what they like. As a result, they stumble through life not really making active choices, but merely passively accepting what is given them or what others tell them to do. Chronic emotional manipulation, gaslighting and emotional neglect cause the victim to be self-doubting. Narcs are skilled at flipping everything to blame the victim, leading to the victim having a deep and abiding sense of self-doubt. Even if a Self-blamer develops an opinion, they may question it endlessly. This is often also related to the fact that…
- Other-blamers are nearly always judgmental and opinionated about the choices of others — even choices that are inconsequential. Narcs will often spout off criticisms of your choices or purchases because they are experts at using shame to destroy others. If they can get you to be embarrassed about your decision to paint your kitchen bright yellow, then they will both feel superior to you and make you more desperate for their approval, which weakens you in the relationship power dynamic. This pattern makes victims hypersensitive to criticism and shame as children and adults, leading to Self-blaming as pre-emptive attempt to correct faults and avoid shame. They may engage in placating crying when criticized and have difficulty hearing feedback. Fear of failure and risk taking, which appears as perfectionism and drivenness on tasks or personal appearance, may result. Self-Blamers may also exhibit problems with obsessions, compulsions and anxiety that stem from fear of failure and criticism, as in: “If I don’t keep the house clean enough, someone will be upset.”
- The abusive use of shaming and blaming by narcs also leads to a paralyzing fear of the judgments of others. While all humans have a natural tendency to seek approval and avoid disapproval, Self-blamers are trained by their narc family members to be highly attuned to the opinions of others. In the therapy room, this often shows up as “social anxiety”.
- Narcs are so good at casting blame and shame, sowing doubt and withholding love, that the victim develops low self-worth — a global sense that she is flawed, unlovable and different than others. This deep sense of defectiveness leads to many, many psychological problems that are labeled as depression, anxiety, and even ADHD.
- The healthy sibling tends to became overly responsible in comparison to the narc sibling. I hear many stories from patients about their adult brother who never has held a job and never does a single chore while still living with the parents. In contrast, the healthier sibling will have a job, live independently and be very competent at “adulting” in life. This can begin in childhood because perhaps you were the eldest child and your parents forced you to provide childcare for younger siblings. You had to cook them dinner or even stay with them at night as your parents went out partying. One of your younger siblings likely followed in your parents’ footsteps as under-functioning and irresponsible. Perhaps the narc sibling colluded with narcissistic and permissive parents by also being lazy, forcing the sibling to over-function. My sister was and is always late for events, and in fact regularly misses cross-country plane flights, so I observed years ago that I compensated by being highly punctual and fearful of being late. I swore I would never be irresponsible like she was.
- However, the Self-Blaming siblings walks a tightrope. They cannot appear to be more accomplished than the narcissist. This leads the Self-Blamer to downplay their talents and accomplishments so that the Other-Blamer does not feel inferior. This protection of the Other-Blamer’s ego can even lead to self-sabatogue. I’ve had clients who stayed overweight their whole life to avoid being thinner or better looking than their narc sibling. Other Self-Blamers make decisions about careers or relationships that seem incomprehensible, but not when seen through the lens of the need to self-denigrate to spare the narcissist’s sense of self. I look back and realize I came to believe that Lynn was smarter than I was and I could not boast about my grades or academic success, despite the evidence that I was no slouch in intellect (I skipped a grade, played six musical instruments, was admitted to the honors college at university, scored high on the ACT, etc). This followed me through life as I picked a low-paying career, had a meandering career path, and generally set very low expectations for my success.
- My sister and my father were both very attention-seeking and were conversational narcissists. Our family dinners were nightly competitions to see who could spout the most obscure trivia or tell the best joke. Narcs must be the center of attention at a party or gathering. They are often opinionated — usually forcefully so — even on topics about which they know little. My response was to move in the opposite direction. As a child, I was very shy, avoided the spotlight, had no few opinions, and was extremely humble. Was this a response to my desire to be unlike my sister and father or was there just no room in the spotlight for me? I often described living with my sister as “standing next to the sun.” In any case, I learned not to seek attention in any way, much to my detriment in my future corporate and consulting career, where some healthy self-promotion is essential to success. Dr. Jonice Webb writes about “unclaimed charisma” due to childhood emotional neglect by parents, but I believe narc siblings can impact this as well.
- In contrast to shyness, many victims of narc siblings can develop explosive anger, usually when they have been pushed to an extreme. They may have tolerated mistreatment and boundary violations for years, but then over-react in self-protective indignation because they don’t want to be stepped on any longer. (If you’re read about narc abuse you probably know that the narc then uses this anger as an excuse to label you as “out of control and emotional.”)
- Victims of emotional abuse often struggle to accept compliments, partly because they have low self-worth and disbelieve any positive messages, but also because they are guarded and distrustful having learned that other people (narcs) lie and deceive. “Is this compliment real or just a way to break down my barriers so that you can manipulate me again?”
- Narc siblings train their brothers and sisters to engage in enabling or codependent behaviors. By giving to others in these over-generous ways and tolerating misbehavior, victims attract future narcs and abusers into their lives.
- Because narcs are so competitive (they can’t lose or be wrong because it triggers shame), they teach their victims to be uncompetitive. I experienced this so very clearly — to the point that I felt guilty if I won a game or sporting event. I hate keeping score in games and often quit rather than win and “shame” someone else. Even in the business world I felt uncomfortable competing against other job applicants or fellow business owners. Healthy competition is beneficial in child development, but the sore-loser narcissist may make their siblings into children and adults who are fearful of winning, possibly jeopardizing careers.
- My sister was inexplicably jealous of me, despite the fact that she was considered the smarter, more athletic and prettier one when we were younger. Her insecurity caused her to smear me to my father, who was easily swayed after my mother died. Lynn was so desperate for my father’s attention and love (which she was never going to get because he was a narcissist), that she told outright lies and I’m sure small smears as well. This led my father to cut me out of his life for years, despite the fact that he could not tell me why he was so angry with me. (Actually, when pushed the reason my sister and father came up with was that at age 3 I allegedly wrote her name on the wall. Blaming someone for something they did as a toddler 50 years prior is beyond bizarre and an extreme example of blame shifting.) Other-blamers believe there is a limited amount of love to go around and they greedily go about getting more than their fair share. Narcs often smear their siblings to parents and others in an attempt to look good and garner desperately needed love, attention, and money. They will destroy family relationships and feel no guilt for doing so.
- I’ve saved the worst for last… Some siblings will be so exploitative and coercive, that they will abuse their siblings physically or sexually, just to feel a sense of dominance and control over someone else. As I mentioned, my sister engaged in mild sexual acting out when we were very young — I was perhaps 6 or 7. As adults, she once kissed me on the lips when I was going to sleep on her sofa while visiting — a very odd behavior especially since in our family we never even hugged or were physically affectionate at all.and our relationship was never one that could be described as close. Lynn’s behavior gave me the creeps, and that is exactly the impact she wanted; anything that causes the victim to feel unstable serves the narcissist.
It may be difficult to admit that your sibling is a toxic member of your family, but it can be healthy to do so, as it allows you to understand the many ways that they might have harmed your mental wellbeing. It is so very sad that the wounded and traumatized narcissistic child inadvertently harms and traumatizes his or her siblings. We can be understanding that they do this in an attempt to get their own emotional needs met, but, as all narcs do, they sow emotional destruction in the relationships around them. It is sad, too, that the victims are left without the close, loving, supportive relationship of a brother or sister — a deep, relational trauma and loss that can affect their sense of self and safety in relationships throughout their life.
Christine Louis de Canonville is an Irish psychotherapist who has written about all forms of narcissistic abuse, including by siblings, in her book and blogs.
Dr. Rahmani, an expert on narcissism, has good YouTubes on narc siblings.