A One-Sided Rivalry: The Traumatic Effects of Narcissistic Personality Disorder on Siblings

Matthew was 10 years old the first time he got a perfect report card. He stood in the school bathroom clutching the thin carbon paper in his hands, staring at the line of neat As, his heart full and warm. “I tried to get all my smiles out then because I knew I couldn’t do it at home,” he tells me. He took one last look at the proof of his success, shoved it down to the bottom of his backpack, and began making a plan for how to share his secret with his parents while hiding it from his brother, David. “I was terrified of what would happen if David knew I had done so well. He couldn’t handle anyone beating him at anything. Even if you weren’t competing, he always was and I lived in fear of ever upstaging him.” But even though Matthew did his best to avoid damaging his brother’s fragile ego, David targeted him relentlessly for the most trivial reasons (or seemingly no reason at all), pointing out his perceived imperfections, making sure his parents knew Matthew’s every infraction, and becoming consumed with anger and jealousy if Matthew stepped ever-so-briefly into the spotlight. While his life became a painstakingly painful dance around the minefield of his brother, it wasn’t until a university psychology course that Matthew would have a name for the behavior that shaped his childhood. “I was sitting in a lecture hall looking at a slide that said ‘Narcissistic Personality Disorder,’ and suddenly the past 18 years made sense. They may as well have had a picture of David next to the list of symptoms.”

The Trauma of Narcissistic Personality Disorder

In contrast to many mental heath disorders, Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) can emerge in early childhood, and often manifests in the child’s social relationships with other children. As Dr. Karen Kernberg Bardenstein writes:

The narcissistic child’s constant need to fuel the brittle sense of self and protect it from external assaults results in extreme distrust of others and rage when challenged or criticized. These children exhibit intense envy of others, devaluation, lack of empathy, and the inability to express gratitude or concern for others. Peer relationships are compromised by the lack of empathy, the need to be exploitative, devaluing, and manipulative.[1. http://moodle.telhai.ac.il/pluginfile.php/44027/mod_resource/content/0/bardenstein2009.pdf]

As such, siblings—especially younger siblings—of children with NPD are particularly vulnerable to the damaging effects of the disorder, which disrupt the establishment of normal, nurturing relationships and create a profoundly painful and disorienting family dynamic. Exposure to a sibling with NPD can create extraordinary emotional distress and be uniquely traumatic, as you often become the victim of your sibling’s desperate attempts to maintain psychological equilibrium both directly and indirectly. Your sibling’s symptoms may mold the entire family around his or her needs, leaving your own emotional needs untended by both yourself and other family members. As a result, your ability to develop in an emotionally healthy way, express yourself freely, and create a safe, secure, and realistic sense of self can be deeply compromised, resulting in ongoing psychological and interpersonal struggle.

Siblings As Narcissistic Supply

Narcissistic Personality Disorder is characterized by an extreme need for attention, entitlement, and belief in one’s own innate superiority. In order to maintain this disordered self-understanding and feed the craving for attention, people with NPD seek out people who will provide the narcissistic supply necessary to sustain their self-delusion. As Sam Vaknin writes:

The narcissist actively solicits narcissistic supply—adulation, compliments, admiration, subservience, attention, and being feared—from others in order to sustain his fragile and dysfunctional ego. Being deprived of narcissistic supply is like being hollowed out, mentally disemboweled or watching oneself die. It is a cosmic evaporation, disintegrating into molecules of terrified anguish, helplessly and inexorably.[2. https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/stop-walking-eggshells/201110/what-borderlines-and-narcissists-fear-most-part]

For many narcissists, siblings are a vital component of narcissistic supply, often due to your position of vulnerability and powerlessness as a child, and you become the target of your brother or sister’s desperate and insatiable search for psychological cohesion and consolidation of their disordered beliefs. As such, your sibling may go to great lengths to assert their superiority over you and damage your sense of self to fortify their own; you may be subjected to verbal abuse, belittling, ridicule, and humiliation, both public and private. Many describe their childhood as one of being a “verbal punching bag” for their brother or sister, cruelty which often remains hidden to parents as the narcissistic child endeavours to maintain the appearance of perfection to authority figures. Your sibling may constantly demand your attention and admiration and react with outrage if you do not respond as they desire, instilling a deep belief that you are responsible for their emotional well-being. In some cases, the narcissist may even use physical or sexual violence against you.

Recognizing Your Need to Heal

The trauma of growing up with a sibling who has NPD can be complex and multilayered, involving a host of emotional and behavioral symptoms that interfere with your ability to function emotionally and live a fulfilling life. You may have been denied the positive attention, nurturing, and stability necessary to establish psychological tranquility, and it is common to internalize the verbal abuse you have experienced. Your interpersonal relationships may be marked by maladaptive behavioral patterns, such as codependency, developed to cope with the dysfunctional family dynamic of your upbringing. You may have sought to ease your inner turmoil through self-medication, resulting in destructive substance abuse. However, too often your turmoil is overshadowed by the extremity of your sibling’s symptomatology, and you may not even recognize your own psychological needs; in fact, you may have learned to actively deny those needs to appease your sibling. “When I learned about Narcissistic Personality Disorder, my first instinct was to get my brother help, both because he was the one who was ‘sick’ and because everything had always been about making sure he was okay,” Matthew says. “It took a long time to realize that I needed help, too.”

Healing from childhood trauma caused by a sibling with NPD can require intensive treatment by mental health professionals with extensive knowledge of both Narcissistic Personality Disorder and its effects on family members. At Bridges to Recovery, we offer a range of specialized therapies to address the emotional and behavioral impact of NPD and design a personalized treatment plan to address your unique needs in a way that is meaningful for you. Through individual psychotherapy, therapy groups, and holistic therapies, you can safely explore your childhood experiences and how the damage from NPD has shaped your understanding of yourself and the world around you. With the support of compassionate clinicians and peers, you can uncover the obstacles standing in the way of healing and develop the skills to establish healthy coping behaviors, psychological wellness, and improved interpersonal function. We also help you formulate a plan for how to navigate your relationship with your sibling to help you fortify yourself against ongoing trauma. While your sibling may have shaped your childhood, mental health treatment can empower you to build a brighter future in which your true potential can be realized.

Bridges to Recovery provides comprehensive mental health treatment for people who have experienced trauma as the result of a loved one’s Narcissistic Personality Disorder, in addition to those with NPD. Contact us to learn more about our innovative program and how we can help you or your loved one on the journey toward healing.