Guilt trips, playing the victim, and passive-aggression are common narcissistic behaviors.1, 2 When the narcissist is your grandmother, it can make holidays and family gatherings stressful and frustrating, rather than enjoyable. It is important to determine how to address a narcissistic grandmother’s behavior in order to maintain the well-being of you and your family.
What Is Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD)?
Narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) is a personality disorder characterized by arrogance, entitlement, hypersensitivity to criticism, and an excessive need for external validation or attention. People with NPD often struggle with deep insecurities that are triggered by criticism, envy, or any perceived threat to their egos. When upset, narcissists tend to become highly reactive, defensive, and even abusive towards others.2, 3
To be diagnosed with NPD, a person must exhibit at least five of the following symptoms:3
- Grandiosity or an excessive sense of self-importance
- Fantasies of power, success, beauty, or importance
- A belief in being special or exceptional
- An excessive need for validation, praise, and admiration from others
- A sense of entitlement or feeling like one deserves special treatment
- Exploiting others for personal gain or selfish reasons
- Lacking in empathy or unwilling to identify with the needs of others
- Being envious of others or believing others are envious of them
- Arrogant or haughty behavior, or acting better or superior to other people
NPD Subtypes More Common in Females
Unofficially, there are several subtypes of NPD that can change how the traits and tendencies of narcissism are exhibited. Covert narcissism and communal narcissism can be harder to detect, and are more common in females.4, 5 Covert narcissists may appear more passive, shy, and insecure than overt or ‘grandiose’ narcissists. Similarly, communal narcissists hide their narcissism by participating in seemingly ‘selfless acts’ like volunteering or helping others.2, 6
The communal and covert (aka vulnerable narcissism) subtypes may be more common in women because of traditional gender roles and cultural norms. Women are often believed to be more passive, emotional, and socially skilled in nature. Studies suggest that overall, female narcissists display less arrogance and grandiosity, as well as better social and emotional intelligence than male narcissists.4, 6, 7
A person’s age can also make NPD harder to detect. Research shows that, at least in some cases, NPD traits and tendencies become less severe as a person ages.7 Because of this, it can be even harder to spot the signs of a narcissistic grandmother.4, 5, 7
12 Signs of a Narcissistic Grandmother
In many families, grandmothers are loving and nurturing figures–but this isn’t true for everyone. A narcissist is similar to a toxic grandparent who can switch and become manipulative, mean, and passive aggressive when she doesn’t get what she wants. She may also have a tendency to be vain, envious, and self-centered. This can make family interactions more draining and frustrating.1, 4, 5, 7
Below are 12 common signs of a narcissistic grandmother:
1. She Makes Almost Everything About Herself
Narcissistic grandmothers may have a bad habit of making themselves the focus of every conversation, celebration, or family gathering. Even during an event celebrating someone else (i.e., a wedding, birthday, or graduation), they may find ways to make themselves the center of attention. This annoying habit is common in both male and female narcissists, and reflects the narcissist’s inherent self-centered worldview.2, 7
2. She’s Easily Offended
Narcissistic grandmothers also tend to take things too personally. For example, they may find it offensive when someone doesn’t answer their calls, send a thank you note for a gift, or think to consult with them before making a major life decision. These are all classic examples of the kinds of hypersensitivity more common in females with NPD.4, 5, 7
3. She Needs to Be Needed
A narcissistic grandmother may believe she is a matriarch in the family structure. She secures this position by making herself necessary in order to feel ‘needed’ by other members. For instance, others may rely on her for financial support, childcare, or another form of practical help. While these actions seem selfless on the surface, they’re often used to fulfill her need to feel powerful, important, and have leverage over others. They may also provide her with narcissistic supply that she uses to boost her ego and feel special.2, 6, 7
4. Nothing She Gives You Is Ever Really ‘Free’
Even when a narcissist is generous with their time, money, or assistance, there’s almost always strings or hidden ‘debts’ attached to these favors. What they expect in return varies depending on the person, but may include time, appreciation and gratitude, or just a general “IOU” that they can use later on. This reflects the narcissistic tendency to have ‘transactional’ relationships where favors and debts are meticulously accounted for.1, 2, 6
5. She Knows How to Push Your Buttons
Narcissists are often masters at finding out how to trigger people, and research suggests female narcissists may be especially skilled at this.4, 5, 7 A narcissistic grandmother knows exactly how to push the buttons of her family members. When she does, she’ll often claim innocence or ignorance to avoid being accountable for her narcissistic manipulative tactics.
6. She’s the Master of Guilt Trips
One of the go-to tactics of female narcissists is using guilt to manipulate and control others. Studies suggest that female narcissists are more often passive-aggressive, engaging in guilt trips rather than physical or verbal abuse.1, 4 A narcissistic grandmother has worked over the years to refine this skill and uses it to make people feel bad for not doing things her way.7
7. She Cares a Lot About What Other People Think
People with NPD tend to care a lot about status, reputation, and what other people think about them, even if they pretend not to.2,3 Female narcissists are no different, and will often put a lot of effort into maintaining a certain image.4, 5 If your grandmother is a narcissist, you might notice that she frequently gossips about others or that she focuses on how she is perceived by certain people–especially those of ‘high status.’2
8. She Focuses on Her Appearance
Narcissists are known to be arrogant and prideful, but this trait can manifest differently in women than in men. Female narcissists may have a tendency to be prideful about their physical appearance, and often struggle with the natural aging process.4 They may opt for cosmetic procedures or other measures to maintain their attractiveness as they age. An older female narcissist may even openly talk about their insecurities about their physical appearance.5
9. She Plays the Victim Card
Narcissists tend to be highly competitive and will pull out a variety of dirty tricks when they feel like they’re ‘losing’ a fight, debate, or competition. One of the go-to tricks of female narcissists is playing the victim card, especially when they’re cornered. For example, crying or self-deprecation may be a tactic used to get family members to soften and pity her during an argument.2, 3, 5
10. She Doesn’t Admit Her Mistakes
A narcissistic grandmother will often find ways to avoid being wrong or admitting fault. She might blame other family members or external circumstances for her mistakes, or she just glaze over them entirely. She may say something like, ‘It’s just water under the bridge’ instead of offering a sincere apology. For narcissists, mistakes often trigger personal insecurities and a ‘narcissistic injury,’ which is why it’s so hard for them to own up to their shortcomings.1, 2, 7
11. She’s Competitive & Jealous of Others
Narcissists tend to be highly jealous and competitive, and this is true for both males and females. A grandmother narcissist might have a hard time hearing about the achievements and successes of others, even people in her family. Because she constantly compares herself and her achievements to those around her to boost her low self-esteem, she may become envious and competitive in situations that have nothing to do with her.2, 3, 4
12. She Doesn’t Respect Personal Boundaries
While everyone is sometimes guilty of this, narcissists are typically repeat offenders when it comes to violating boundaries. For instance, a grandmother with NPD might show up unannounced to a family member’s home and try to take over without asking permission. She also may try to insert herself and her opinions into important decisions (i.e., choosing a career, naming a baby, etc.) even after a clear boundary regarding this has been established.
Signs of Narcissistic Abuse
Because there are many individual factors that can influence the way narcissism is displayed, there are also endless variations in the signs of a narcissist. The specifics may depend on the severity of NPD a person has, with extreme narcissists being more likely to become toxic and abusive to others.1, 2 Research indicates specific abusive and manipulative tactics used by narcissists that are often categorized under the umbrella term of ‘narcissistic abuse’.
Common signs of narcissistic abuse in families include:1
- Emotional abuse or neglect: Many children of narcissistic parents experienced emotional abuse and/or neglect at the hands of their narcissistic mother or grandmother.
- Gaslighting: Gaslighting is a form of psychological abuse that occurs when a narcissist intentionally distorts the truth in order to get someone to doubt and question their perception of reality
- Playing favorites: A narcissist grandmother may use someone (often a child or grandchild) as a scapegoat or ‘problem child’ who they can blame things on. Or, they may treat a member of the family like a ‘golden child’ who can do no wrong, making it clear that they have ‘favorites.’
- Pathological lying: More severe narcissistic grandmothers may be pathological liars who spin wild tales and stories about themselves, often to get attention, praise, or validation.
- Drama and conflict: Some narcissistic grandmothers may have a tendency to create drama and instigate conflict in the family, possibly as an attempt to create opportunities to play the ‘hero’ or destabilize family bonds.
- Narcissistic enablers: Pathological narcissists often rely on narcissistic enablers who cover for them; protect them; boost their egos; or do other things that help them function and meet their needs without doing the hard work themselves.
How to Deal With Narcissistic Grandmothers
If you have a narcissistic grandmother in your family, you have first hand knowledge of just how difficult and frustrating it can be to deal with a narcissist. Their manipulation tactics, self-centeredness, and refusal to be held accountable for their actions can result in pent up feelings of resentment.1 While there is no one ‘right way’ to approach this, there are some general tips and strategies that can help you cope and minimize the negative impacts on your mental health.
Below are some tips for dealing with a narcissistic grandmother:
- Educate yourself about NPD: Discovering your family member has NPD can be an ‘aha’ moment for many that helps to give a name and explanation for their experiences. Empower yourself by reading and learning more about narcissism, how narcissism affects relationships, tactics used by narcissists, and underlying causes of NPD.
- Set boundaries and distance yourself: Setting healthy boundaries and pulling back is necessary, especially with narcissists who are toxic, manipulative, or abusive. This might mean only seeing and talking to a grandmother occasionally, not staying with them when you visit, or learning how to say ‘no’ when they insert themselves into your life.
- Don’t fall for their tricks: A big component of boundary setting is an internal process of deciding what to worry about, feel guilty for, or pity someone for. Don’t give into feelings of self-doubt when you start to feel bad about something your grandmother has said or done.
- Find a balance between give and take: Narcissists often view relationships–even familial–as transactional. Give careful consideration to how much you give to your narcissistic grandmother (i.e., time, attention, etc.) to prevent giving too much. Be mindful to not accept their generosity every time it’s offered, as there is usually an expectation attached to their gifts.
- Keep visits short and sweet to avoid conflict: Maintaining a cordial and pleasant relationship with a narcissist can help a person stay focused on the positives. For example; plan to see your grandmother only on holidays; keep your conversations focused on neutral topics; or plan fun activities together to keep family time enjoyable and drama-free.
When to Seek Professional Help
Everyone’s experience with a narcissistic grandmother will be different depending on the person, the relationship dynamics, how severe the NPD is, and how much time they’ve spent together. People with closer ties or encounters with an extreme narcissist often require more support, especially when the relationship has negatively affected them or other family members.1
Sometimes, a person’s healing process includes seeking professional help from a counselor or therapist, especially if they are trying to recover from narcissistic abuse. A therapist who specializes in narcissistic personality disorder and uses a trauma-informed approach is a good match for someone affected by NPD. Using an online therapist directory allows people to filter their search to find a provider near them with these specialties.
If you have a narcissistic grandmother, you’ve probably personally witnessed her underlying self-centeredness, neediness, and manipulative tendencies. Depending on how much you interact with her, you might benefit from learning more about narcissism and skills to help you cope with her behaviors. If your past interactions with her have left scars, consider finding a therapist to help you work through your trauma