While it sometimes can be difficult to pinpoint a narcissistic mother-in-law, there are some telltale signs that you can look for, such as a need for admiration, lack of empathy, and a high opinion of herself. It can be difficult to cope with this relationship, but you can protect yourself by setting healthy boundaries and strengthening your communication with your spouse.
Did you start out thinking your mother-in-law was a dream, only to find your relationship later began feeling toxic and demeaning? Shifting family dynamics to include a new person (aka: you) is always a transition. The following toxic traits can help identify a narcissistic mother-in-law, but the biggest indicators are a negative impact on your mood and within your relationships — particularly with your spouse and your spouse’s family.
Here are eight signs that your mother-in-law is a narcissist:
1. She Constantly Needs Everyone’s Attention
While on the surface, this can look like your mother-in-law basking in attention, what lies underneath for a narcissist is actually very fragile self-esteem. Narcissists seek out constant attention in order to reassure their ego. This basically boils down to the thought, “If I can hold your attention, I am interesting enough to not be discarded.”
This can look like your mother-in-law interrupting in order to begin telling a story about herself, taking over planning big events to ensure she gets attention, and consistently trying to outdo you. She disregards your opinions and anecdotes, and instead wants everyone to focus on her and what she’s saying.
2. She’s Often Angling for Admiration
Craving attention and fishing for compliments are another way that narcissistic individuals seek to soothe their low self-esteem. Getting praise and being admired reassures narcissists that others see them as special.
A mother-in-law might gain admiration by:
- Making negative comments about herself when she knows others will contradict her
- Making leading comments to gain compliments
- Asking you to divulge comments your partner has said about her when she wasn’t around
3. She Lacks Empathy & Responsibility for Her Words & Actions
Because narcissists are so focused on protecting their own ego, they often have trouble acknowledging others’ emotions and needs. This self-centered focus can be so intense that they assume that other people are equally focused on their wellbeing. This trait is all too common in toxic mother-in-laws. She likely puts in a lot of time and detail into explaining her own feelings and experiences, but then she does not give you an opportunity to do the same. If you do try to share, she then comes off as dismissive, impatient and uncaring. She might even tell you she has a favorite child, and has no idea why that statement can be so hurtful.
4. She Has an Overly-Inflated Opinion of Herself
This is called “grandiosity,” and when combined with a need for attention and admiration, it is one of the biggest indicators of a narcissist. According to the American Psychiatric Association, grandiosity is when a person “overestimates their abilities and inflates their accomplishments, often appearing boastful and pretentious.”1
Much more than a case of keeping up a good public image, this is when she actually believes that she is better than others by making statements that she truly believes—she might say she is more intelligent or more attractive than other people.2 She makes comments about being able to achieve any amount of success, despite realistic expectations and limitations. Perhaps she makes statements that she wishes people would recognize and highlight her uniqueness, such as at work or within the family.
5. She Takes Advantage of Others for Her Own Gain
A narcissist’s own needs and wants are always center stage for them, so they think people should help them without reciprocity. In fact, narcissists often don’t even form or maintain relationships unless they will gain something from it—whether it’s progress toward a goal or boosting self-esteem.
A narcissistic mother-in-law might take advantage of you by:
- Refusing to return favors,
- Taking advantage of your struggle to say “no”
- Guilt-tripping you
- Giving non-committal responses to events, in case something more advantageous comes up instead
- Outright lying to you
Maybe you felt charmed by your narcissistic mother-in-law initially, but once you officially became a part of the family she stopped making an effort in your relationship; this is because the initial attention of your new relationship has worn off.
6. If She Doesn’t Get What She Wants, She’s Aggressive & Hostile
Because her fragile self-esteem is seeking as much attention and admiration as possible, and also because she thinks she is more than deserving of all of these things, every time she is denied something, she takes it as a personal offense against her. This can show up as her “keeping score,” seeking revenge, or even avoiding you altogether when she feels that she has been wronged.3
She always believes that she is right, so she can become highly defensive and hostile when she is challenged or ignored (known as narcissistic collapse). This can include personal insults or threats to exclude you from her good graces.
7. She Believes She Is Above People She Sees as Average
While narcissists have a fragile self-esteem, they don’t outright realize this. Actually, it’s the opposite: They think very highly of themselves, even to the point of feeling superior to everyone else. Because of this high opinion of themselves, they often feel like they should only be associated with people who are equally special.
Your mother-in-law might think the providers her children and grandchildren see are not good enough, and her children are superior to their acquaintances. This can apply to the institutions you and your partner are linked to—including your workplace or the schools that your children attend. If she initially praises something that turns out to be a disappointment, her narrative will shift to do everything she can to devalue that person or institution, and to then paint a picture of her being a victim of their false presentation.
8. She Struggles to Understand Boundaries
Unfortunately, all of these traits combine into a much bigger problem: Narcissists really struggle to respect boundaries set by others.
As one of the most toxic traits of an overbearing mother-in-law, the boundaries you and your spouse set will usually be ignored and breached at any possible opportunity. She does not understand why you don’t want her input on all decisions. Bypassing boundaries is a way to achieve revenge. Ultimately, she doesn’t understand that you are the most important person in your spouse’s life instead of her, and she will fight this at every chance she gets.
“Signs of a narcissist involve a grandiose sense of self, a preoccupation with money , power, and status, a belief that she is “special,” a need for excessive admiration, a sense of entitlement, interpersonal exploitation, and a lack of empathy,” says Dr. Lina Haji. “Since narcissists tend to be interpersonally exploitative and utilize manipulation to get their needs met, it is imperative that there are clear boundaries that you and partner uphold no matter what the circumstances.”
A Narcissistic Mother-in-Law Can Create Serious Problems
Having a narcissistic mother-in-law and not intentionally managing this relationship can wreak havoc in your life. Issues often will start between you and your spouse, including increased tension and fighting and a breakdown in trust. Sometimes this can lead to a change in how others in the family see and treat you, or even you or your spouse being alienated or estranged from your in-laws as a form of revenge against you.
Unfortunately, sometimes this can also lead to divorce. Outside of your relationships with others, a narcissistic mother-in-law can also have a negative emotional impact on you, including a drop in your self-esteem, or developing depression or anxiety symptoms.
How to Deal With a Narcissistic Mother-in-Law
Unfortunately, when dealing with a narcissist, their behaviors won’t change unless they want them to, which is rare. Although there isn’t much that you can do to change your narcissistic mother-in-law’s behaviors, there are some things that you can do in order to protect yourself, your spouse, and your marriage.
Here are 10 tips for dealing with a narcissistic mother-in-law:
1. Understanding & Acceptance
The more you understand about narcissistic personality disorder, the easier it will be to let go of the things you cannot change. Read books and articles, listen to podcasts, notice and identify ways that your mother-in-law’s narcissism most commonly shows up. Work to accept that the narcissist most likely will not change and must be managed instead, and learn helpful phrases that can help to disarm her when she tries to engage.
2. Boost Your Support for Your Spouse
Unfortunately, this process is going to be really hard on your partner. Your spouse doesn’t know anything other than having a narcissistic mother, so it will be hard for them to understand that her behavior is not normal. When you begin setting boundaries, your partner will be stuck in the middle. Trying to force your partner to understand and support your view of things will not happen immediately. Blaming your spouse for your mother-in-law’s behaviors will only create tension. The best thing you can do is to show your partner a more loving and safe relationship than the one they have with your mother-in-law.
3. Strengthen Communication With Your Spouse
Setting boundaries, talking about dysfunctional family dynamics, and working through plans to mitigate stress are not easy. By focusing on increasing communication with your partner, you will be able to manage interactions with your mother-in-law as a team.
Some specifics to practice might be:
- Become comfortable using clear and direct language
- Practice sharing feelings to build a sense of safety
- Work through “small” problems deliberately together to make bigger problems easier to navigate later
4. Set & Hold Clear Boundaries
Setting clear boundaries is the biggest thing you can do to manage your relationship with your mother-in-law. Holding boundaries is really difficult, and her backlash requires a lot of patience. Despite your mother-in-law being an adult, holding boundaries with her is going to feel more like she is an unruly child. Remember that she is an adult that you can use clear and direct communication with, and you are able to ask for space when you need it.
5. Guard Your Own Emotional Sharing With Her
Narcissists struggle to see when someone else is sharing an emotionally important topic, which means that they will outright dismiss your feelings. Get in the habit of only sharing topics with your narcissistic mother-in-law that do not require a response from her. A good question to ask yourself is, “Am I going to be okay with this being ignored once I share it?” If the answer is no, it’s better to share it with someone else.
6. Stay Genuine With Her
Just because she thrives on admiration and attention doesn’t mean that it is your responsibility to provide as much of this as possible. There is rarely ever “enough” attention and admiration that you would be able to give. If you genuinely want to compliment her on something, go for it! But don’t try to give more compliments and attention to get into her good graces. Save your energy, and stay true to yourself.
7. Identify & Lean on Your Support Network
Unfortunately, narcissists are not people you can rely on when things are difficult. Identify other supportive people in your life that you trust to go to when you really need something. Get comfortable asking for their help and returning the favor when you can.
8. Figure Out How to Keep Yourself Calm in Stressful Situations
In all likelihood, you cannot avoid being around your mother-in-law for the rest of your life. It’s normal to feel stressed before and during the time you are around her. Identify and practice calming and relaxation activities you can do to get through interactions with her. Some examples of this could be deep breathing exercises, grounding activities, and distraction techniques.
9. Debrief With Yourself After Interactions With Her
Sometimes insults and slights from a narcissistic mother-in-law are obvious, but often they can be more subtle. Walking through conversations with your mother-in-law afterward can help you identify and challenge the negative comments that can erode your self-esteem. By catching these early, and highlighting why these negative comments are untrue, you can prevent them from impacting how you see yourself. You can do this with a friend, in a journal, or with a therapist.
10. Create an Escape Plan
Unfortunately, sometimes things will not go well when you are around a narcissistic person. Sometimes things become too stressful to stay in the situation. By reviewing your boundaries with your partner ahead of time and identifying a signal to leave or take a break, you can work together to get out of a toxic situation. Sometimes just knowing you have an escape option can reduce anxiety and make the situation feel more manageable.
When Dealing With a Narcissistic Mother-in-Law Is Especially Hard
While narcissism is reported at higher rates in individualistic societies,4 people living in more communal cultures or living situations face unique challenges when coping with a narcissistic mother-in-law. Sharing a space with a narcissist can make it harder to take a break and enforce boundaries. Living in a culture in which you cannot question the authority of a parental figure also makes setting and holding boundaries difficult. Feeling like you have no autonomy in a relationship with a narcissistic mother-in-law can impact your mood, irritability, sense of hope, and your relationship with your spouse and in-laws.
When to Get Professional Help
If you begin to notice that coping with your narcissistic mother-in-law is becoming overwhelming, it is a good idea to get help from a trained professional.
Some signs that a therapist would be helpful for dealing with your narcissistic mother-in-law include:
- Panicking when thinking about/nearing an upcoming interaction with her
- Trust issues developing between you and your spouse because of your mother-in-law
- Developing negative thoughts about yourself
- Feeling helpless within your relationship with your spouse because of your mother-in-law’s narcissistic behaviors
It can be helpful to explore this in therapy alone, or in couple’s therapy with your spouse. Family therapy will not be helpful unless the narcissistic person realizes their behaviors are unhealthy and wants to make a change.
When looking for a therapist to help navigate your relationship with a narcissistic mother-in-law, it’s important to work with a provider who has a strong understanding of narcissistic personality disorder and narcissistic abuse. Finding a therapist who specializes in narcissistic relationships can be difficult, but using an online therapist directory can help simplify the process.
Realizing that you have a narcissistic mother-in-law can be a difficult discovery, but there are ways that you can move forward without having to lose your spouse. A combination of taking care of yourself, supporting your spouse, and setting and sticking to clear boundaries can go a long way in managing a relationship with a narcissistic mother-in-law.
Narcissistic Mother-in-Law Infographics