I’ve written a very widely read blog on narcissistic siblings where I shared my experience with my narcissistic older sister, Lynn. After I left an abusive marriage and learned about narcissists (and later became a psychologist), I discovered many negative family patterns that result when there is a narcissist involved. Certainly, narcissists affect family dynamics in many unhealthy and obvious ways, such as through their emotional instability, control, dominance, abuse, and manipulation. Many people wonder: Why does a narcissist’s personality get worse later in life? There is actually a reason for this. 

I came to recognize in my family that Lynn’s problematic behaviors got much more obvious — less covert and more overt — after my mother died 25 years ago when my siblings and I were middle aged.

I have since heard from patients whose family dynamics changed in the same way. I came to realize that narcissists may exhibit more extreme behavior after a specific parent or grandparent dies. 

This makes sense when we consider that family systems or structures are fluid based on the composition of the family. Human are social animals and rely on hierarchies of power to maintain cohesiveness and order in groups of all sizes. If a family member dies, especially a more dominant or stabilizing member, the family hierarchy and relational patterns can change.

I believe this dynamic is overlooked and isn’t often mentioned in other blogs and podcasts about narcissists. However, it is important to recognize this as a possibility. The death or incapacitation of an important family matriarch or patriarch changes the family power structure. With the loss of a person the narcissist respects and obeys, the narc is now more likely to act out. First, a death creates a power vacuum that the narc is only too willing to fill, because they crave power and control. And even if a sibling or other relative attempts to rein in the narc, the narcissist does not feel the same level of respect. Another way to put it is that the narc craved the parent’s approval and when the parent is no longer available to provide it, the approval off a sibling is not even at the same level of importance. 

In some families a death may mean an enabling or passive parent remains. This weaker parent does not hold the narc accountable and permits the narcissist to misbehave and become the dominant force in the family. 

In other families with a single patriarch or matriarch, the loss of that leader means siblings may now engage in a power struggle among themselves. 

A “Perfect Family” Hid a Narcissistic Sibling

As an example, here’s a simplified and brief description of my family system and what happened in my lifetime: My parents were married and we had a very stable, conventional suburban home life in the 1960s. My sister was 16 months older and I have a brother who is 17 months younger than me. Because we were all very close in age we spent a lot of time together. Looking back, I can see some moderate traits of self-centeredness and entitlement in my sister. She would always be late to events and make us wait in the car for her to make a grand entrance. She loved dramatic things (purple pens! purple clothes!), dramatic entrances, dramatic gestures. She cared a lot about how others thought about her and if they approved of her — mostly focused on people outside the family. At home, she could be mean and spiteful without any concern, because we would tolerate it and we had to give her acceptance, because she was family. We were her guaranteed source of narc supply. My parents were not strong and let her get away with many inappropriate tantrums. 

She also played the victim a lot, felt that our parents didn’t love her enough or pay her enough attention, when the facts seemed the opposite of that. She was much more the favored child as I look back on it now. 

The family system didn’t change much throughout our 20s and 30s. We all went off to college and started our independent lives. It is interesting, though, that my sister never married or had any longterm relationships of any kind. She also maintained a much closer relationship with my parents. She depended on them financially and emotionally because she craved their attention and this false dependence was a way to get that emotional need met. Lynn is very smart and capable, yet constantly pulled at my parents for help to ensure they jumped when she said jump. 

I saw her less and less through the years because she lived on the other side of the country, but also because I experienced her regular dramatics and outbursts whenever we were together. In my 20s, during a visit to her apartment in New York City, she threw an all-night tantrum that my friend was appalled to witness. 

When Lynn flew home for visits, the tension in the home escalated. She was frequently late and missed her flights, leading to crises and stress. She over packed and brought her cat, which was just a way to get attention on the flight and at home. I remember one trip where we were going camping and she brought a new pair of teal-colored high heels on a five-hour flight with her — just to show me these shoes and try to get my approval. 

Generally, however, my sister’s worst misbehaviors were kept in check, although I didn’t realize it at the time, because her behaviors were still fairly bad! I now recognize she was on “good behavior” because my mother was still in the picture. Sadly my mother’s health was not good and she died when I was 40. Little did I know this would make my sister’s immaturity even worse. 

My sister had the common reaction that many narcs do when a parent dies. Because they idealize parents in very extreme ways, the death of a parent can feel devastating to them. They will no longer have the chance for narcissistic supply or approval from that person.

In our case, my sister latched onto my mother’s amateur artworks and labeled them as world class. She wanted to print a book and sell it. We talked her out of that, but she had high-quality reproductions made and tried to sell them. 

Of course, during the grieving process my sister also gained attention by being dramatic about HER loss being so much worse than mine or my brother’s or my father’s. She wanted many of my mother’s possessions and created chaos throughout the grieving process. 

Fairly quickly, it became apparent that my father was not going to check my sister’s behaviors. He had always been very passive and conflict averse. (He had his own issues as a covert narcissist, but that’s a blog for another day.) It quickly became apparent that my mother had, unbeknownst to me, been the parent subtly keeping my sister in line. My father was more passive and enabled my sister, which allowed her antisocial behaviors to worsen. 

This dynamic changed the family hierarchy. Much like a stable democracy that suddenly elects a malignant sociopath (Trump!), our family system now had a very unstable person in my sister at the helm. My father (like the passive GOP members who do not stand up to Trump) offered no counterbalance. 

My sister knew that she had no opposition and (just like Trump) her behaviors got worse and worse, to the point where both my brother and I each independently made a decision to cut her off. Fortunately, by that point in my life I had learned to be more assertive and spot toxic individuals like my sister.  

Sadly my sister then had free rein to engage in a smear campaign against me with my father. She used his passivity to connive money from him and insert herself into many other extended family issues where she did not belong. 

I attempted to reconcile with my sister twice, offering to completely absolve her of any wrongdoing. I didn’t even ask for an apology, yet she refused to even capitulate to that. While I was the one who initially was estranged, it was Lynn who chose to remain estranged. 

And this was fine with me, because I knew that she was never going to change and that her behavior was very unhealthy for me. I couldn’t be pushed around by her any longer and still keep a sense of self-worth. 

Narcissists Use Hierarchies For Dominance and Approval

Narcs are very hierarchy aware. The more overt variety of narcissist likes to be dominant and controlling in relationships and in any organizational system where this behavior is allowed.

Covert narcissists are not as overtly dominant, but may use manipulation, freezing out, ignoring, or dismissing to gain power or gain your approval. Covert narcs train and ensnare victims by withdrawing their attention, love or affection.

In a family system, it is natural for younger children to idealize their parents and put them on a pedestal. Because the child literally needs the parent’s love and attention for survival, there is a natural dependency and desire for parental approval. Those who get healthy love and attention in their early years mature out of this unbalanced relationship and form their own sense of identity apart from the parents. 

In the narcissist, they may never grow out of this immature belief that if they idolize the parent they will be guaranteed narcissistic supply from that parent. This form of parent/child dyad is unhealthy, but it does give the parent control over the child, due to the child’s desire to please and gain parental approval. However, once the parent is dead, the child no longer has the ability to gain their approval and there is no one there to hold the child accountable. 

I believe Lynn’s need for my mother’s approval kept her somewhat in check and accountable. But without my mother, she came to believe she could get away with any behaviors she wanted and her worst narcissistic traits got even more egregious. 

Sadly, the result was a family breakup that has lasted 18 years. She has spread lies about me to extended family members and yet she refuses to speak to me directly, even when we were in the same room at a recent family funeral. 

I continue to be appalled at the sometimes insidious, yet far-reaching, impacts of narcissistic individuals on those around them. I often wonder how different my brother and I would have turned out if my sister’s rampant self-centeredness had been curtailed. I know for certain it destroyed our family relationships. All I can do now is recognize the impact and work hard to overcome it in my life at present. 

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How Narcissistic Siblings are Created and How they Harm Their Siblings

How Does a Narcissistic Sibling Affect the Personality of a Brother or Sister?

 

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